A barrel-chested man with a white beard and a casual manner, James “Ike” Eichling strikes up a conversation on anything, anywhere. He is most often found in his Downtown Mall shop, Ike’s Underground, an emporium for vintage clothes, furnishings, magazines, and other artifacts. Located below street level, that is where he sits most days, and where he sat still, almost, while I quizzed him about his life.
Ike spent four years as a medic in the AirForce from 1965-1969. While on active duty, he opposed the war in Vietnam, a stand that did nothing to endear him to Air Force brass.Now 64, James Eichling was born in Evanston, Illinois, to a family that had been in botany for generations, in Germany and the United States. His father was a florist until Ike was 12, at which point Phil Eichling became a Methodist minister and moved the family to a farm in the country. Ike grew up doing farm work for neighbors, things like baling hay and tasseling corn. He attended a small rural school and graduated from the county high school in Yorkville, west of Chicago. He played football and wrestled there, which helps explain his physique.
Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Eichling went to Western Carolina University, where he earned a degree in sociology and published an ethnographic study of Pumpkintown, a little known hollow in the Cowee Mountains. Eichling refers to this as his “mountain man period.” It was also when he met his first wife, Mary, who originally hailed from Madison, Virginia.
College was not a straight shot for Ike. He alternated classes with work in the woods,“splitting rails alongside toothless alcoholics.” He also started doing theater for academic credit. As a boy, he sang in church choirs—inevitable given his father’s occupation—but he says he was never a “preacher’s kid.”
The Eichlings moved to Madison, Virginia, in 1974, and Ike got his first job in social work in Culpeper. He investigated child abuse and handled adoptions and foster placement. The Eichlings also ran a therapeutic group home for foster children. They had one son of their own, Beau. In 1977, Ike did social work for Albemarle County, where he was an early director of JAUNT. Also in the 1970s, he performed with the Four County Players, Act One, and the Culbreth Theater at the University of Virginia. He is proud of his roles as Tartuffe in the Moliere play and as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
In order to pursue acting in a serious way, Ike moved to Chicago in 1981. While Mary directed a girls’ residential home, Ike landed roles in stage plays, television and films. He became a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Like others in show business, he also worked a “survival job” in a restaurant. In 1984 he started his own coffeehouse called Third Coast, which was so successful that it spawned imitators. Within three years, the Chicago Sun-Times called him “the resident philosopher-guru of the coffeehouse revival.”
Among his stage work in Chicago, Eichling singles out the premiere of American Dreams: Lost and Found by Studs Terkel, in which he played a Ku Klux Klansman turned civil rights activist. He appeared in films such as Only the Lonely, Hoffa, Mo’ Money and Rookie of the Year, and in television series such as “Chicago Story,” “Early Edition,” and “ER.” He was a day player, doing small parts—a cop, a cab driver, and an auto mechanic. Along the way, he worked with stars like Liza Minelli, Jim Belushi, John Candy and Jack Nicholson, but he stresses that it was work. “A day player does not hang out with stars.”
In the late 1990s, he sold his coffeehouse to the staff and moved to Clinton, Iowa. He divorced and remarried around this time, to Candace. He bought an abandoned church, tried to start another coffeehouse, sold antiques, and ended up bankrupt. By 2000, Eichling was back in Chicago, where he drove a double-decker tour bus and narrated tours.
In 2006, divorced again, Eichling moved back to Virginia. In fact, he moved in with his son Beau, who was unmarried. (Beau Eichling owns and runs Atlas Comics in the Rio Hill Shopping Center.) Although he claims that his fire in the belly for theater was extinguished, Ike appeared in the 2006 Live Arts production of Amadeus in Charlottesville, and he has participated three times in the VCU film program in Richmond. He describes his role at VCU as a “mentor-coach,” and says what he teaches is “set etiquette,” the nuts and bolts of working on a film set, not acting technique.
Recently, Eichling was tapped to perform in local independent films, including 2 Guns, a Grenade, and a Pizza Guy, in which he plays the character Tango; Danger. Zombies. Run., where he plays a zombie; and Plan 9 from Outer Space, where he plays a sheriff. The monster-horror films are great fun and just the right amount of commitment, he says. “When it comes to acting, I am all passion and no ambition.”
Meanwhile, Ike’s Underground, whose website bears the legend “Vintage Clothing and Strange Cargo,” is paying the bills. It also gives Ike an excuse to go “picking” for retro treasures. “I’m still a socialist, trying to make a buck in a basement. I have enough money to go to a movie, but not to buy popcorn in the lobby, and that’s the way it should be.”