“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.
“Never admit to a fact, never deny a rumor.” – Chief Gordon
He was a big fish in a small pond, a lover and a libertine, a charmer and a cheat. He became a living legend and then a convicted felon, and then he disappeared. There was a rumor that he was dead, and another rumor that he’d gone to Los Angeles to make porn. Either one could easily have been true.
The facade of Fellini’s hasn’t changed much since the ’80s, but everything else has.
Charlottesville needs new stories. We have praised our famous men for far too long; we are, after all, much more than Thomas Jefferson and David Matthews. So let us now praise the infamous men and women whose dirty deeds are in danger of being forgotten as we build our shiny future. And what better place to start than with Chief Gordon?
When I began this story he was little more than a memory of a night out with my parents when I was a small child; a ghost in a tuxedo, who bowed and said, “Hello. Welcome to Fellini’s.” By the time I ate there again as a teenager in ’93, the restaurant was already in its death throes, and for the next ten years the building sat empty, its reputation nothing more than a whiff of illicit pleasures that I was forced to discover in other places. When I moved back to town in ‘04 there was a new Fellini’s where the old one had been, and I was left with the feeling that I’d missed out on my town’s best days.
By the time I finally met Chief Gordon, driving over the Hollywood Hills on The 101 to North Hollywood, he had become a full-fledged character in a strange and twisted tale that led me from kitchens to clerks of court and then eventually to California. But after all that, still, much of what I know about Chief comes from rumors and stories, the best of which may not be true, and the worst of which I can’t print.
Who was Chief Gordon? He was an actor who became a lawyer and a lawyer who became a maitre d’. With his first wife he founded Vinegar Hill Theater because he loved movies, and Fellini’s restaurant because he wanted to be like Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick in Casablanca. While married to his second wife, he lost both.
Today, the restaurant known as Fellini’s #9 occupies, literally and figuratively, a tiny corner of Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. It’s a white stucco island lost in a sea of brick; one restaurant among many in what is inevitably described as our “lively” and “bustling” downtown. It’s a restaurant; better than some and worse than others. Not to belittle Fellini’s #9. It’s a fine restaurant in its own right, but this story is not about that Fellini’s. This story is about the Fellini’s that came before, a restaurant that has had more stories told about it, and its legendary proprietor, than any other in our not-so-sleepy town’s history. That Fellini’s got going just as the ‘70s were ending, ended as the ‘90s began, and existed for 15 wild years between. In doing so, that Fellini’s helped give birth to Downtown Charlottesville.
Before Fellini’s, there wasn’t much happening down there on the newly bricked-over Main Street. If you lived here in the ‘60s and you wanted to have a good time at night, then you were probably a UVA student and you probably went to The Corner. It was only in the late ‘70s that downtown started to became a place to go, an entertainment destination. Fellini’s made it happen. Of course there were (and still are) the C&O, Court Square Tavern and Miller’s. And there was Eastern Standard and Random Row and Muldowney’s, etcetera, etcetera, amen. But it was Fellini’s that breathed life into the scene, or tossed the lit torch on the pyre, or whatever mythic metaphor you want to use. Make no mistake, we are dealing here with the stuff of myth. The Birth of Charlottesville Cool perhaps, or maybe the loss of its innocence, because the town has never been the same since. And Chief Gordon was at the center of it all.
Chief Gordon (second from left) pals around with friends from ACT I, a local theater troupe.
The persona that Chief would become known for at Fellini’s was already there at the beginning. It was a conscious effort to be the consummate host, like Rick in Casablanca, and to create an atmosphere in which interesting things could happen at anytime. Most weeknights Chief arrived at the restaurant dressed for his day job in khakis, a sport coat and a tie, but on weekends he would wear a tuxedo. During the first year he wore a white dinner jacket in the summer and switched to black when it got cool, but after a while he thought, forget it. After all, it’s always summer in Morocco.
Chief’s life has been one long attempt to combine what seem like vastly conflicting aspects into one personality. Francis Guthrie Gordon III was born in Washington, D.C. in 1945 (he was called “Chief” after his father, a chief in the Navy), and studied Drama at UVA, which is where he met Ann Porotti, who would become his first wife and original business partner. In 1967, he was accepted to the graduate drama program at Indiana University, but at the last minute, due in part to parental pressure, he decided to go to law school at UVA instead.
Throughout the ‘70s Chief worked with well-known civil rights attorney John Lowe. Lowe & Gordon successfully argued a Supreme Court case and brought a series of lawsuits that helped integrate Virginia juries. Chief, however, began working more and more on the non-civil rights cases that came their way, eventually becoming solely a personal injury attorney.
But practicing law didn’t rid Chief of his desire to be an actor. In 1981 he got a call from Mark Johnson, an old friend from UVA, offering him a small part in a movie. Mark went on to become an incredibly successful film producer working most of Barry Levinson’s big films, including the Oscar winning Rain Man and in ’81 he was up in Baltimore on location for what would become Levinson’s first major film, the Oscar-nominated Diner.
Chief played “Man in Jail” and worked for one day. In the movie he’s very thin, hair not yet all gray. He stares at Tim Daly’s character and delivers the line, “You gonna do somethin about it? Huh?”
The idea of moving to Hollywood to be in the movies was something Chief had toyed with as far back as 1969, when he worked a summer law job in LA. At the time, he and Ann already had one child and would have their second the following year, and so ultimately returning to Charlottesville was the practical choice.
But Mark Johnson’s success brought the Hollywood idea back, and after Diner it never really went away. Although Chief turned his entire life into a performance, it would be 14 years before he was back on the big screen.
Chief and Ann often vacationed in her home state of Massachusetts and would drive into Cambridge to visit the town’s independent theaters. Inspired, they decided to start a similar type of theater in Charlottesville. They looked at buying the then derelict Paramount before settling on an old motorcycle dealership at 220 West Market St.
On Valentines Day, 1976, Vinegar Hill Movie Theater opened. Charlottesville’s first and only art house theater wasn’t an immediate success. Chief and Ann made some classic mistakes, like scheduling Federico Fellini’s 8½ on the same night as the NCAA tournament, but in the fall of that initial year they had their first sold out show, a double feature of Ken Russel’s Women in Love and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris.
As people in Charlottesville got comfortable with the idea of going downtown to see movies that explored the sexual mores of butter, the west end of the newly built pedestrian mall began to show signs of life.
The building on the corner of 2nd St. and East Market St., one block up from Vinegar Hill, was home at the time to a Mexican restaurant called Tortilla Flat. One day fellow lawyer George Coles came into Chief’s office and told him that Tortilla Flat was for sale at a cheap price.
“Want to go into the Restaurant business?” Coles asked.
Plunket Beirne, bartender from 1986 to 1990: "I think all the male members of his family had to be dragged dead out of their law offices at the age of like 56. So I think Chief was definitely looking at his own mortality, saying, ‘I gotta find an out.’"
The scene at Fellini’s during a Halloween party in 1984.
Everybody Comes to Chief’s
Chief hadn’t planned on owning a restaurant, but he ran the idea by Ann and she liked it. Since she was Italian, it seemed natural to make it an Italian restaurant, and wanting to associate it with the theater, Fellini’s seemed like the perfect name. To make sure things were done properly, Chief wrote Federico Fellini a letter.
“Dear Signor Fellini, Would you mind if we used your name for a restaurant?”
There was no answer, but the letter was never sent back, so Chief assumed that the Maestro received it, and since he never responded it must be ok. To quote the movie A Man For All Seasons, “Qui tacet consentiret”: the maxim of the law is “Silence gives consent”.
The restaurant opened in October of 1979. Carter was still president; The Corner was still the social center of Charlottesville; and the only nice place to eat Downtown was the C&O.
Fellini’s didn’t hire the usual bored undergraduates. The staff there was over-educated, creative and often a little weird. The pastry chef had a masters in French, the waitress had a doctorate in English, and everyone seemed to have a nickname. A list of Fellini’s staff reads like the notes for an Elmore Leonard novel. There was “Fluffy” and “Jeanie Martini” and “Nanny Whip.” There was “Trendy” Wendy Hilton, who used her name to scam free rooms at Hilton Hotels; Owen McKevitt, a bartender and former Jesuit seminarian who once won the Bad Hemingway contest; and Julie Chambers, who would flash you if you said, “Coors Light.”
And then there was Chief.
Chief was never happy unless everyone around him was happy. Zipper Lippman, who was bartender from 1985 to about 1987, said that Fellini’s was the only job where, if he heard the boss wasn’t coming in that day, he’d be disappointed. Chief made even the slowest night fun.
He was always at his post at the end of the bar by the front door, and his only job was to greet you as you came in. But he took the job seriously, dressed in his white dinner jacket, a tall, thin man with grey hair and a mustache.
Zipper Lippman, Fellini’s bartender from 1985-1987: "These women would walk in and he’d make them feel like a million dollars. ‘My dear! My lovely! Please, come in, you have made my night! A vision of beauty has entered my restaurant!’"
Kerry Moynihan, dishwasher, waiter, bartender and manager 1980 to 1984: “’Fire of my loins, inspiration of my very being!’ he would say."
Chief greeted every woman like this, whether they were attractive or not, and won them over. He always made people feel welcome and he always made them smile.
By the end of 1980, Chief and Ann had gone their separate ways. Although they continued to share ownership for many years, she took the theater while he kept the restaurant.
So now Fellini’s was all Chief’s, and Chief, in many ways, became Fellini’s. He was working as a lawyer by day, maitre d’ by night, only he clearly didn’t consider being at the restaurant work. Chief was happiest when he was on stage, and what was a restaurant but a nightly performance? He continued to appear occasionally with a local theater troupe, but the restaurant became the main outlet for Chief the actor.
In the early ‘80s, Charlottesville was just starting to get excited about food and just starting to develop the cosmopolitan crowd we now take for granted.
Plunket: "Sitting at the bar is Sam Shepard, Carlos Casteneda, the guy who had won the National Poetry award, the undersecretary of labor under Elizabeth Dole, a couple of class C contractors with PhDs in literature, and you’d look down the bar and they all had snifters in front of them."
Fellini’s was a regular stop after the poetry readings at Williams Corner Bookstore, and of course a hang out for professors and grad students. The PEN/Faulkner Awards banquets brought famous authors and critics, and The Virginia Film Festival lured in the movie stars.
(In 1984 David Lynch owned a home outside Charlottesville, and it’s my fervent hope that Chief was the unconscious inspiration for Twin Peak’s gray-haired, sexually deviant, but nattily dressed, lawyer, Leland Palmer.)
But there were also a lot of locals who quickly became regulars, and they made Fellini’s a gathering place for an eclectic crowd that was a perfect slice of Charlottesville’s DNA: post-UVA grads wondering what to do with themselves, ex-hippy carpenters, lawyers, frat boys, artists and eccentrics.
Plunket: "If you were a regular it was always good for a drink. You’d go, ‘What do I owe ya?’ ‘Oh, ten bucks.’ ‘But I’ve been here three hours!’ ‘Ok, eleven bucks.’”
Fellini’s was not expensive. It could be, if you so desired, but you could also get a good meal and a decent bottle of wine for a price that a working man could afford. It was a neighborhood pub crossed with a literary salon, a place where you could go to eat your dinner and be guaranteed to find yourself in the midst of an interesting conversation.
Plunket: "I had to do a ton of reading. Your usual undergraduate course in literature doesn’t spend a lot of time on H.L. Menken. Well, these people were spending a lot of time on H.L. Menken. Auden, Yeats. They’d just sit around, ‘Hey, we’re reading this obscure piece by Anthony Trollope’ and so you’re talking about that. You had to really keep up with these people."
It was elegant and sophisticated, but in an approachable way. The waitresses wore cocktail dresses and high heels and red lipstick, not because they were required to, but because that’s just how the place was. The world of Fellini’s was a stage, and everyone who spent time there was a player.
Zipper: "There was a very small area to wash the glasses, it was called The Well, and we had this running [joke] where if I dropped a glass, and the place could be full, he’d take his coffee cup and he’d walk down to the end of the bar and look at me with his cup and [yell], ‘Stupid fool!’"
Then Zippy would pretend to cower and the whole restaurant would wonder just what kind of cruel Nazi boss was this man in the tuxedo?
Fellini’s was the kind of place where everybody seemed to be smart and funny and all of them, even the barflies, tried to compete for the best bon mot. But nobody could beat Chief at the one-liners and comic routines.
Zipper: "Another classic line he’d always say, and he did it every night … There was a bowl of mints, and these people would always reach and take a mint. He’d wait for them to head for the door, imagine this man with a tux, and he’d go, ‘Excuse me!’ And they would turn around to him like that and he’d go, ‘You know, we lose a mint on those!’”
One night sitting at the bar at Random Row, Zipper tried the same line on a woman leaving. “You know,” he said, “every time you take one of those they lose a mint!” The woman turned around and looked at him. “Shut up!” she said. Amazing, Zipper thought, Chief did the same thing every night and no one ever yelled at him. It only worked at Fellini’s.
Trisha Gordon, Chief’s second wife: "It was mostly who he was. He just played that role. He didn’t play it up so much in some situations, but he’d put on his tuxedo and say, ‘It’s showtime!’ and go off to the restaurant and be Rick. And at home, you know, he was not always trying to be totally entertaining, but he was still an entertaining kind of guy."
The restaurant had a distinctive look, with its white exterior, brown awnings, copper roof and the name painted proudly on the side. Heated exclusively by wood stove, the dark wood beams and exposed brick made the interior a cozy, intimate place. Throughout the restaurant there were framed Fellini posters from which many of the tables got their names. You could be seated at Cabiria, or City of Women. One table in the corner near 2nd and Market was called “The Jean” after the first waitress to wait on it, Jean Gonzales AKA “Little Jean.”
Chief likes to brag that, just after they opened, a food critic for The New York Times found himself in Charlottesville with nothing to do, and so decided to visit a few restaurants. He went to The C&O and wasn’t happy, finding that “the service was as stiff as their hardbacked chairs.” Then he went to Fellini’s and fell in love. “The food,” he said, “is delightful and there’s always a Puccini aria on the tape deck.”
Sandy McAdams (co-founder of the C&O): "He made that up. He dreamed it at 2:30 in the morning."
“[T]he dishes we dined on were few but excellent” – Craig Claiborne in his 1976 New York Tiimes review of The C&O, three years before Fellini’s opened.
But the food at Fellini’s was much loved, and rightly so. The menu changed every month, but they always had the basics: veal, steak, seafood specials, pasta with red sauce, and Fettuccini Fellini’s, aka “Fet Fell.” The bread and pastries were baked there, and for a long time they made their own pasta. The fresh pasta would picturesquely hang to dry on wooden racks under the stairs as diners ate nearby.
That end of town had a bad rat problem, and sometimes diners would look over to see a rat nibbling on the drying pasta. “Chief often had to deal with enraged people,” said Jean Dunbar, who waited tables from 1980 to 1982. “He treated rage as a bargaining scenario.” Free meals or champagne would usually smooth things over.
One rat in particular the staff named Herman. Herman once bit a waitress and also latched onto the chef’s sandal, only releasing his grip after a violent shake.
A cat named Gorgonzola was brought in as an anti-Herman measure. Gorgonzola was much loved, but had to be hidden from the health inspector. Herman was eventually poisoned and ended his days feet up in a wooden wine box. Gorgonzola never caught any rats, the story goes, but he got fat instead on excellent Italian food.
Plunket: "It [was] fresh pasta in a sauce that somebody cared about making. … I don’t think Fellini’s was ever the place where you were going to get goat cheese foam."
Fellini’s had something special, some kind of magic. There was a conscious romanticism, a willed attempt to transport people to another place or time, or at least into an old black and white movie.
It was the little things; the bottle of grappa kept under the bar before it was legally available in Virgina, the house scotch (Pete Dawson) chosen simply because it was the favorite drink of Simon Templar in The Saint novels, or the attempt to identify the champagnes featured in famous movies (they drink Mumm’s in Casablanca and it’s a Pomeroy ’26 that Katherine Hepburn has too much of in The Philadelphia Story).
And then there was the night Plunket and Chief and a few others hung around trying to duplicate the famous scene in the 1934 film The Thin Man, where William Powell’s suavely boozy detective, Nick Charles, describes the proper way to make his favorite drink:
“The important thing is the rhythm,” Nick says. “Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.”
It was after 2:00 am and the restaurant was closed and they were making Manhattans, singing “We’ll have Manhattan/The Bronx and Staten Island too…” but nobody knew what the hell a Bronx was. A recipe was located and it was discovered that they were missing a key ingredient.
“Let’s call over to Miller’s!”
“Dave, we need orange juice.”
“Plunket, no, we’re closing…”
“No. You don’t get it. We’re making Bronxes!”
Love me tonight and the devil take tomorrow
There is always a lot of drinking at restaurants and often a lot of drug use as well, because restaurant workers inhabit a different time zone than the rest of the world. Work starts at 5:00 pm and goes full speed until anywhere from 11:00 to 2:00 am, and then there you are, full of adrenaline, natural or otherwise, ready to unwind while the rest of the world sleeps. Nighttime is your happy hour. So it’s natural that restaurant workers are prone to late night partying when they get off work. Fellini’s didn’t invent after hours parties, but somehow it became famous for them.
Plunket: "The after hours parties were legend. My third time working there, we had the windows open, the music blaring out in the street, it was like three in the morning, all the lights were on and the place was total mayhem, and I was like, ‘Chief, we gotta shut this down!’”
The habit of people staying after Fellini’s closed developed fairly early on, but at first it was mostly the staff and their friends, intimate gatherings that were kept in the family. The restaurant would close and there would be one or two people still at the bar, who would soon be joined by a few people from other restaurants, and they would drink, talk, and maybe play Trivial Pursuit. But the fact that the bar was in plain view of the street meant that to people walking by it looked like interesting things were happening, even if they couldn’t be sure what. And that reputation, which Fellini’s earned very quickly, was not discouraged; it helped fill seats.
Plunket: "There were times you’d be up until four in the morning, Saturday morning at 4:00 am, five people sitting over brandy snifters, not a wild night, no, we’re arguing about Yeats, Keats, Was Auden on the right track? Was PG Wodehouse really a stylist of the English language? The next night it might be giving free champagne to a bunch of lesbians."
Steve Ashby, Fellini’s regular from 1979 until it closed: "During one of these [after hours] parties, Chief started ranting about the new fashion of glass-free margaritas. He talked the bartender and a waitress into helping and promptly bent backward over the bar and opened his mouth. Kerry poured in the tequila, lime juice and the waitress spread a pinch of salt around his lips. Chief sat up, swallowed, released a thunderous ‘ahhhh!’ and said, ‘That was great, Kerry. Make me another!’ I remember counting the ‘ahhhs,’ which added up to a half dozen margaritas."
In 1984, Patricia Smith, or Trisha, was working at UVA hospital and one night she went to Fellini’s on a date. It was late and there was nobody there but Chief and Kerry. “The poor medical student I was on a date with. There was just no hope after that because both Kerry and Chief were like wolves pouncing.”
She already knew who Chief was. She’d seen him around and she knew that he had a reputation for being a “very bad boy.” So naturally she gave him her number that first night and told him to call her, which he did, and they started dating.
Trisha and her sisters used to hang out a lot together, so much so that they were referred to as “The Smith Clinic.”
Jean Dunbar: "The Smith sisters were very much part of the scene there. They were great, really wonderful women. Beautiful and bright and just very, very nice people."
Six months later, Trisha and Chief got married in a simple ceremony at the Justice of the Peace. Of course they had a party at Fellini’s afterwards.
To many observers it didn’t make much sense for Chief to get married again. He seemed to be very happy living as a bachelor, and Fellini’s, where there were always a lot of women hanging out, was the perfect place to do it. Chief and Kerry had a routine they would run through most nights:,they would put Kiss of Fire by Billy Ekstine on the tape deck and serenade a woman at the bar:
Rick Bible, who worked in the kitchen for a stint in 1985 and again in 1989, said that there was such an intimacy between everyone who worked there, and so much free flowing alcohol, that “the place reeked of sex.” Rick was in his late 30’s then, and was something of a loner. His whole life he’d never felt comfortable in workspaces or with other people, but Fellini’s was a noticeable exception. The staff was like one big family where everybody looked out for each other. There was a strong feeling of warmth and comfort, and a sense that, whatever happened late at night, no one would feel uncomfortable the next day.
One summer night in ‘84, Chief strolled into the restaurant at around 9:00 pm after having seen a movie with Trisha, and spotted a very attractive, older woman at the bar. She was maybe in her 50’s, sitting alone in a flowing white dress and drinking bourbon. Chief had never seen her before, so he sat down and introduced himself. She was Norwegian, and her name, she said, was Ness. First name Siri, middle name S.
Siri S. Ness.
The story she told of how she wound up there didn’t make a lot of sense, but she was throwing down the bourbons and so no one really cared. Around 2:00 am the bar closed and it was just Kerry, Chief, Trisha and Siri. Chief put on some Sinatra and asked Siri to dance.
All of a sudden Siri said, “In Norway we’re not ashamed of our bodies,” and proceeded to pull down the top of her dress, exposing some seriously nice breasts.
Who’s on the Slab
The after hours parties started getting crazier as Chief started bringing in more and more people for free drinks and dancing. One friend of mine remembers showing up one night and somehow ending up dancing pant-less on the bar until the wee hours. The next day he was sitting at brunch with his father when he saw the Fellini’s bartender beckoning to him from the door. He went over and was presented with a paper bag containing his underwear; they’d been found in the dirty dish bin.
But if there’s one thing that exemplifies the legend of Fellini’s, it’s the idea of sex on the Slab.
Jean: “Sex on the Slab is mostly a myth, fueled by Chief’s image of being involved in a lot of sexual activity. But how late you stayed mattered as well. Maybe if I’d stayed until six instead of four things would have been different.”
The Slab was a nine-foot long, thick, wooden table that seated eight and was located right in the middle of the first room. One day someone said, “Look at that ugly thing. It’s just a slab,” and the name stuck. The woodstove was close to the Slab, and so it was a cozy and popular place for large groups to eat. The idea that there was something kinky about the Slab was helped by the fact that there was an old antique mirror on the ceiling above it.
Plunket: “There was a lot more sex going on upstairs. I wonder how many people telling the story actually had sex on the slab.”
Kerry Moynihan: “I cannot honestly say that there was ever a time when I saw or took part in carnal acts on the slab… now the back stairs, I cannot make that claim.”
Plunket: “I know for a fact it did happen, I don’t know that it happened as much as everybody thought … The slab was a hard wooden table. The floor actually had a lot more give.”
Chief didn’t always stay all night. Often he would leave after dinner service was over to go to another bar. He spent a lot of time at Muldowney’s Pub and at The Silver Fox, the precursor to Club 216. After having drinks and seeing what interesting people he could meet, he would head back to Fellini’s with an entourage of six to eight people to continue drinking into the night.
Plunket: "There’s me, Chief, and about, I don’t know, 12, 18, 20, a lot of girls dancing in the dark, taking their clothes off, drinking tons of champagne. … All of a sudden, [there’s a] flashlight in the back hallway … and I hear, ‘Plunky! Plunky!’ ‘What? What chief, what’s going on?’ You know, we’ve got girls and are doing our thing. ‘There’s a flashlight!’ And I see the flashlight and I’m like, My god! And I look up and I see [police officer] O’Malley’s silhouette from the lights in the back hallway. So I immediately wrap a shirt around my waist and jump up, and I realized had he gone 18 inches over it would have looked like the snake pit in Indiana Jones. I say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ ‘The back door was unlocked.’ ‘Oh! Wow! Thanks for catching that.’ He’s like, ‘I guess you have a girl back there.’ ‘Yeah, that’s why the music’s low.’ ‘All right.’ And he walked off."
While all this was going on, Chief was still a married man, and for a while, he and Trisha would go out on a Tuesday date night. By 1985 the couple had given birth to their first child, a daughter, and they hired Rick Bible’s sister Donna to baby sit for them.
Donna had moved to Charlottesville with next to nothing and managed to work her way from community college to UVA, but she didn’t know how she was going to pay tuition. In July of 1987 she walked into Fellini’s and asked for an application. As the manager was giving her one, she remembers a man in a suit walking in, taking one look at her and saying, “I don’t care what you have to do, hire her!”
Donna worked in the kitchen at first for $7.50/hour, but soon moved to waitressing. Chief made sure she always worked weekends to ensure she made enough to pay for school. “Donna,” he would say when she made a mistake, “a beautiful woman can do no wrong.”
The Tuesday night dates went well at first. Trisha and Chief would go out to eat at other restaurants and see a movie, although they usually wound up back at Fellini’s. At first, Donna says, they would come home laughing and happy.
But as time went on, Donna watched the marriage fall apart. They started coming home later and later, from midnight, to 1am, to five in the morning. After a while only one of them would come home.
It was whispered at the restaurant that Trisha had seen Chief as a rich lawyer and tricked him into marrying her to get the kind of lifestyle she wanted, but to Donna it was clear that they loved each other. Chief was a handful, to say the least, but Trisha took part in the fun times at the restaurant as well. They both had two sides, Donna says, one wild and one domestic, and the domestic side always seemed to be mad at the wild.
Humphry Bogart’s last words: "I never should have switched from Scotch to martinis."
Plunket: "In our world back then, everybody had a drinking problem."
Chief drank all night even in the early days. His drink of choice was so ubiquitous that it even had it’s own name, the DVR, a Dry Vermouth on the Rocks. Chief drank his DVRs out of a coffee cup, and he usually didn’t start until after ten when dinner service was over. At one point very early on, when Ann was still involved, there was a problem with drinking in the kitchen, and although Chief kind of winked at the practice, Ann put a stop to it. But once she left, the alcohol began to flow pretty freely, so that by the time Rick Bible worked in the kitchen, all he had to do was ask and a waitress would bring him his drink of choice, a Wild Turkey with a Bass Ale, all night long.
“You tried not to start drinking immediately,” Rick says, but usually the kitchen staff would be drunk by the end of the night. One evening he fell against a large rack of clean dishes, knocking it over and breaking maybe $1,000 worth. Chief didn’t seem to care. To Rick, Fellini’s “just seemed like a playground for Chief Gordon.” It seemed to exist entirely for pleasure.
Zipper: "I remember we got busted by the ABC at one point, I was tending bar and Chief was sitting there having a cocktail. The bar was full, it was like ten after two. … And [the cops] were wonderful. They came in and went, ‘Look guys, everybody relax, Chief, finish your drink. Everybody calm down, we got to bust you.’”
They got off with only a minor fine, but a week later, Trisha set up a meeting to talk to Chief with the idea of keeping things from getting worse. It was decided that Zipper would take Chief’s keys so he wouldn’t be able to come and go as he pleased.
Zipper: "I’m sitting [in the office] counting the money and I see these women go by, and I’m like, ‘How the hell did he get them in here?’ I came out to look and there was Chief, he had that front window opened up, and Chief was like, ‘My dear! My lovely!’ and they were just climbing in."
Tom Morgan, who tended bar and was a manager from about 1984 until 1990, says Chief would show up drunk at the door with a group of people and Tom would just refuse to let him in, because he knew that if he didn’t, he’d have to kick the entourage out at the end of the night once Chief had passed out.
Zipper: "He would go, go, go, go, and then he would reach a point and then clunk. … He could drink all night until he got to that one point, and how we knew [he’d reached that point] was his mustache. His mustache would go back and forth. And we’d always go, ‘Oh, there’s the mustache moving!’ … I can remember stepping over him, actually. [People would ask], ‘Who’s that guy?’ ‘He’s the owner. Just step over him.’ And we’d just leave him there a lot of nights. He’d sleep in a booth."
To everybody’s amazement, he always made it to the law office the next day.
Free champagne for lesbians
The one thing absolutely everybody says about Chief is that he was extremely generous. Plunket remembers a waiter named Brent, who had just graduated from UVA, sheepishly asking Plunket if the restaurant could loan him $500 to help him move. Plunket asked Chief, to which Chief replied, “Brent? Brent has to ask to borrow 500 bucks? Why don’t we give him $1,000 and say happy graduation.”
Free drinks had always been a big part of Fellini’s; free to regulars, disgruntled patrons, and pretty women. One night two women were sitting at a table called Little Deuce Coup, and Chief called Brent over.
“Brent!’ Chief said. “Brent, a bottle of Champagne for Little Deuce Coupe!”
“Chief, I don’t think you want to do that.”
“Brent, why?” Chief said. “You question me. Why do you question me?”
“I think they might be lesbians.”
“Plunky, Plunky, Plunky. Has Brent learned nothing? Of course they’re lesbians Brent. Or at least we hope!”
Zipper: "I don’t think it made the money it should’ve, that’s for sure. [We] had a strong dinner business, so I think that kept him afloat. I think he could have made a lot more money off the bar, definitely. He bought a lot of drinks, especially for women."
Jean: “Chief’s approach to bookkeeping was confused and confusing.”
Plunket: "There was the business side, which was actually really, really run well, then there was the Chief side, which Chief would just keep giving stuff away to people. We would always look at the numbers and if you took Chief out of the equation we were a pretty efficient shop."
Chief was kept as far away from the business side of things as possible. Fellini’s always had a manger whose job it was to keep the finances straight and to try and rein in Chief.
But Chief used the restaurant as an ATM, even going so far as paying his alimony and car payments straight out of the business. Nor did he really want it to make money, since he could just use it as a tax write off.
One day Zipper sat Chief down and tried to reason with him. After a tense talk, Chief stood up.
“I hear what you’re saying, but I’ll tell you right now I won’t be intimidated,” he said, and walked off.
Chief’s generosity included many field trips for friends and staff. He regularly took his waiters and bartenders out to eat at other local restaurants, wanting them to have the experience of being waited on for a change. There were also regular trips to New York City for the New York Film Festival. If you wanted to go, you had to get there on your own, but once you were there, everything was on Chief; nice hotels, nice meals, and later Chief always seemed to know somebody who was having a party in the Village.
Plunket: "We took a big trip up to The Inn at Little Washington that had to have cost a fortune. You know, in a limo. I didn’t know who the girls were … Chief showed up, he’d been drinking with these girls all afternoon, so I went along, me and five women I didn’t know. We had reservations at The Inn at Little Washington to eat and spend the night. … That’s the only way he was materialistic: Am-Ex card, pretty girls, Champagne."
Trisha: "He didn’t want money to be an object for having fun, and he wanted everyone within visual distance to be having fun with him. … I’m sure he thought he was being a good guy in some way, helping people. But it was absurd. It was absurd behavior. It was just destined for a crash and burn."
Chief was prone to buying far more extravagant gifts for people than just free drinks and trips to New York. At some point Chief bought a house near Lake Albemarle and an Isuzu Trooper for Trudy Anderson, an old acting friend of his. He also seemed to be giving his credit card out rather freely to “the bimbo du jour” as Trisha puts it, and it’s rumored that he once paid for someone’s sex change.
Then there was a woman named Charlene Zappa who claimed to be a model/fashion designer. She talked Chief into helping her set up a fashion company called Studio Z in a condo that he bought for her in the 500 Court Square building. Charlene was supposed to be paying him rent, but she never did, nor did she ever design any clothes. What she did do was trash the condo and force Chief into taking her to court to dissolve the limited partnership they’d set up for Studio Z.
Trisha: "Even though he was making a lot of money, we never seemed to have enough to pay our bills. That wasn’t fun. And when I found out it was because he was giving money to all these other people, to impress them, or just to take them out and have fun, or whatever, then I really was unhappy."
Meanwhile, the IRS was after Chief for unpaid taxes on the restaurant, and he was involved in a lawsuit over a restaurant on the Corner that he had had been going to buy until his funding fell through. Chief was taken to court over it by one of the sellers in 1982 and the lawsuit dragged on for eight years. Chief’s lifestyle of free champagne for lesbians and condos for fashion models was being played out against a backdrop of debt that swallowed up a very large portion of the money his various businesses made.
Or to paraphrase Errol Flynn, Chief Gordon had a problem reconciling his gross habits with his net income.
Stay tune for Part II of J. Tobias Beard’s retrospective on the old Fellini’s in next week’s C-VILLE, and get ready to hear Chief Gordon’s side of the story.