It was the summer of 1988, and I had only been out of college a mere three months when I was given the opportunity to pen monthly video reviews for a 15-month-old Charlotte publication called Creative Loafing. "Hey, this is cool," I thought. "I'll be able to earn a couple of extra bucks before this paper folds within the year."
- CA CHOW!: The very first issue of Creative Loafing
Oh, me of little faith. Instead of fading away, CL began to emulate Jack's beanstalk: Its roots took hold, and it began to grow at a dizzying rate. But no matter how hard we squinted, we couldn't possibly see how far it would eventually reach.
And now here we are, 20 years later, and it's obvious that CL isn't going anywhere. But it's equally clear that it's been places. It has managed to cover a lot of terrain in its 1,040-issue history (give or take an issue or two), offering Charlotteans alternative voices on any number of subjects: news, politics, music, theater, visual arts, you name it.
On my own beat of film, I'm proud to have been with the newspaper almost from the start. The Charlotte publication's first movie critic, the late Jim Whaley, was actually syndicated from Atlanta's Creative Loafing. But Editor in Chief John Grooms liked the samples I sent him from the UNC-Charlotte newspaper enough to give me a chance to review the latest video releases -- an opportunity for which I will always be grateful.
But my stint as CL's video reviewer lasted only a few months. Having just been hired as a proofreader (and, later, a clerk-reporter) at the Charlotte Observer, I was told working for CL would represent a conflict of interest, so I painfully made the decision to drop this fledgling weekly. But it quickly became clear (and continued to be made clear) that real writing opportunities at the O would never come my way. So when John asked me to become this publication's sole movie critic in January 1990, suggesting that I could write under a pseudonym, I jumped at the chance. For the next several years, "Greg Ford" was CL's movie critic, while Matt Brunson found employment as a film reviewer for CL's competitor, the now-defunct Break (which was owned by the Observer). It was one of the biggest open secrets in Charlotte journalism at the time (everyone at CL and Break knew the score), and to this day, I still can't believe I spent more than six years basically writing two sets of differently worded reviews (albeit with the same star ratings) for each picture I saw. Today, I get exhausted just thinking about it.
I became a full-time staff member at CL in August 1996, retaining my film beat but also overseeing (at various points) just about every section in the paper, from Happenings to Food to See&Do to Vibes (sadly, my desire for an all-Blondie music section never gained traction).
But cinema, of course, has been my true love, and most of my favorite CL moments draw from that. I still fondly recall a screening we sponsored for the 1990 Dana Carvey dud Opportunity Knocks, during which we handed out Frisbees with Creative Loafing blazoned across them. The movie turned out to be such a turkey that, as the end credits began to scrawl, scores of CL Frisbees went sailing toward the screen. Definitely not one of our finer moments.
- WILL BRAKE FOR CL: An anonymous distribution dude hops aboard the CL bandwagon (in front of the Observer building, no less) back in the paper's early days
And then there was all the hoopla surrounding 1990's Days of Thunder, the Tom Cruise racing flick largely filmed at the Charlotte (now Lowe's) Motor Speedway. The media frenzy that centered on this cinematic lemon was downright embarrassing: The Observer ran a non-story begging Cruise for an interview; a local TV critic lavished the film with praise, awarding it an 8 out of 10 and somehow working the words "Oscar nomination" into his babble; and the local premiere featured the presence of a Tom Cruise look-alike who, truth be told, looked more like Paulie from the Rocky pictures. And the punchline to all of this? The film didn't even bother to let the rest of the world see that Charlotte was an advanced civilization; instead, the opening scene stapled the word "Charlotte" over a shot of a good ole boy drinking out of a mason jar while standing in front of a dilapidated barn. Thankfully, that Greg Ford fellow was on hand to cut through all the nonsense with a 1-1/2 star review.
I could go on -- the continued presence of the Charlotte Film Society, the sorely missed Charlotte Film & Video Festival (though it's exciting that new fests have popped up over the past year), the Ballantyne Village Theatre joining the Manor as a haven for art-house flicks -- but you get the picture. Besides, it's time to trumpet the other components in this special 20th Anniversary Issue.
In this section, you'll find an informative piece on CL's history by former Editor in Chief and current Boomer With Attitude columnist John Grooms; CL's 50 Best Cover Stories, as selected by Grooms and longtime news-features writer Sam Boykin; and a reprint of a story I adore: Fred Mills' take on the Charlotte music scene back during the newspaper's infancy. Elsewhere in the issue, readers can enjoy Perry Tannenbaum's look at 20 years of Charlotte performing arts, Tricia Childress' essay on Queen City cuisine over the years, Lynn Farris, Timothy C. Davis and John Schacht discussing the past and present music scene, and comments about Creative Loafing from prominent members of the Charlotte community. And check out every page from the very first issue of Creative Loafing back in April 1987.
Enjoy. We'll see you back here in 10 years.
– Matt Brunson
Associate editor, A&E/film editor
More from CL's past