Ladies and gentlemen: Frank Higgins—bank teller, public muse, clean slate. Or just Frank.
Subject: Artist Friends of Frank Higgins – show update
Artist Friends of Frank Higgins
If you don’t know Frank don’t bother to ask — for those who do, the show, “PERFECTLY FRANK” opens in April! We honor our very much alive friend Frank Higgins; local scenster, ‘Frank at the bank’, disaster film doyen and AOL addict with this exhibit, “PERFECTLY FRANK.”
So began an e-mail that landed in area artists’ in-boxes late last month. Sent by art impresario and photographer Annie Adjchavanich, the announcement urged artists to create two- or three-dimensional works for an impending show about Shirlington resident Frank Higgins. Whoever he is.
By way of explanation, Adjchavanich responded in a subsequent e-mail, “Frank is a piece of living art. He is known in many circles just for existing! He’s not the least bit artistic, can’t sing a tune or is musically inclined to say the least, but he’s so very uh…FRANK.”
All right, already! Who is this guy?
Frank—once you meet him, you can’t refer to him by his last name—sounds normal enough on the phone. With a springy voice motoring at high speed, he suggests that we meet at the Clarendon Metro stop. When we convene under the towering white M, I know I’ve seen him before—at shows, at art openings, around. He’s a spry guy, fairly tall, with a manicured and subtle goatee, a swirl of dark brown hair cropped millimeters from his scalp, and a pointy nose. He’s wearing black jeans that have faded to gray and a checked shirt, meticulously pressed. He’s 37 but could pass for 30—his face is unlined, and his movements are quick. Not a nose hair out of place.
“I love Clarendon,” Frank declares with a sigh, surveying the wide stretch of boulevard lined with little shops and restaurants such as ASAP Screen Printing and Red Hot & Blue.
Frank, turns out, practically owns this stretch of Clarendon. He’s worked in the neighborhood for more than five years, and in that time he has managed to insinuate himself among the folks living and working here. We walk to Mexicali Blues, just across the street from his current job as a virtual teller for Telebank—and about 50 yards from his old job as a real teller at the Virginia Commerce Bank. Inside the restaurant, choruses of “Hi, Frank!” reverberate against fuchsia walls. A waiter named Steve extends a tattooed arm. And, as if the Red Sea were parting, Steve and his co-workers step back as Frank and I take lime-green seats dead center.
Save a stint studying theater at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., Frank has lived and worked his entire life within a 20-something-mile radius of his Falls Church home. “I’m too lazy to move,” he says.
According to Frank, life in the Higgins household was “boring.” He attended Falls Church High School, class of ’81. He has a sister who lives in Florida. “She’s boring,” he says. “She doesn’t go to movies or anything.” His cheeks draw in, as if he were sucking on a lemon.
How was college? Frank smirks, looking half the sheep and half the devil. “Boring,” he concludes. It seems that his theater major arrived by default. “I had to study something,” he says. His favorite role was Mr. Sparkish, the fop in William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy The Country Wife, which he’s just seen the night before at the Shakespeare Theatre. “[Mr. Sparkish] is always on….and totally outrageous,” Frank says. “[He’s] the object of ridicule…but he’s so vain he doesn’t see it.” Does Frank identify with the character? “Oh no, I don’t like him at all!” he says. “It was just cool to see the part I played.”
Frank’s preferred role is spectator. He never pursued acting, because it didn’t move him. “If you want to be an actor, you have to have ambition,” he says. “You have to totally want it.” Between bites of a mammoth pork burrito, he shrugs, adding, “I’d rather sleep.”
Frank currently rests his head in a Shirlington condo he shares with his roommate and ex, Jim Shortall. Like many things that happen in his life, the arrangement simply fell together. His real estate agent showed him the place, which he deemed clean and convenient. So he took it. “I was lazy,” he concludes. Frank and Shortall host regular Showgirls parties, stuffing 30-odd people into their apartment for screenings of the 1995 Paul Verhoeven-Joe Eszterhas skinflick, while squawking and bleating, Rocky Horror-style, at the camp goings-on.
Unlike spotlight-hungry Nomi Malone, who moves to Vegas to become a showgirl, Frank has a day job. It was Frank’s gig at Virginia Commerce, which he started in the fall of 1994, that proved his ticket to neighborhood notoriety. The staffers of Go! Records banked there, and they turned him on to D.C. indie and punk shows. Thus did a former two-nights-a-week Tracks regular and New Wave listener get into the Make*Up. “I feel like a Johnny-come-lately,” Frank admits. At the bank, he also met then-customer Rebecca Tax, who owns Mexicali Blues and Lazy Sundae next door.
After lunch, we stop into the ice cream shop to meet Tax, who’s bouncing around behind the canisters of Bottle Caps and Sugar Daddies lining the marble-topped counter. “He’s a kook,” she says of Frank between dips into the cooler. Tax hopes to finish her contribution to “Perfectly Frank” soon. “I’m working in Shrinky Dinks,” she reports. Frank requests a scoop of Pooh’s Honey ice cream before returning to work.
I press Tax to describe what makes Frank special. “He’s involved in our scene. He goes out. He listens to a lot of bands,” Tax offers. “He’s a man about town.” So are a lot of people. Why have a show about him? “I have no clue,” she responds.
At Telebank, Frank works mostly over the Internet, from his cavernous basement office. Right now, we’re in the company’s second-floor meeting room eating pastries left over from a morning teleconference. Some co-workers float in. One describes Frank as an “urban legend.” Frank describes himself as shy. “I can’t go up to strangers,” he says. “Good God, no. I would never!” How about depression? Sadness? He cradles his angular face in his hand, vogue-style, as he contemplates the question. “When I’m depressed, I wallow in it,” Frank admits. Cheering suddenly, he says, “Then I go out!”
Back down in the basement, he leads me around his office, which is done up in e-industrial chic—exposed ductwork and metal stairs. “Isn’t this pretty?” he asks. He’s on Day 2 at his new desk in the midst of a room packed with cubicles, where folks talk into telemarketer headsets. Frank’s Dell monitor and snazzy Aeron sit beneath a giant sign headed “Sales Protocol.” The top line reads: “Develop Rapport.” When I mention the sign, Frank’s not sure what I’m talking about. I point, and he says, “Oh, I’ve probably ignored it!” with an impish grin.
Does Frank have any idea why people make art about him? “Part of a show is to sell art,” Frank muses. “Why people want to buy art about me, I don’t know.”
“It’s pretty insane,” he adds, his eyes widening.
The idea of mounting a Frankfest was fermenting in Adjchavanich’s head for well over three years. But only when she and fiance Keith Palen opened the bar/restaurant/artspace Ningaloo last year did she have a space to exhibit it. Adjchavanich figures Frank’s influenced so many people that he deserves his own show. “He’s like a muse, I guess,” she says, adding that he has an uncanny way of getting under your skin, especially with his penchant for catch phrases. “He does a little laugh, like, ‘Heh heh heh…glamour!’” Adjchavanich says. Plus he’s a font of undeveloped energy. “People realize he has so much untapped potential,” the photographer adds.
Below his shiftless surface, Frank is a man of few—but significant—passions, mostly film-related. One is the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure, the campy proto-Titanic in which a band of passengers struggle to survive after their ocean liner capsizes. Frank has loved it since it was released; he was 10. His favorite scene is when the ship overturns: “All that cool stuff smashed and destroyed and broken!” His head bobs up and down as he speaks. When the movie was broadcast on TV, he put a tape recorder next to the TV so he could capture the sounds. Later, “I’d re-enact the movie in the front yard,” Frank says.
Frank communicates with other Poseidon cultists via Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards, where he hears about special screenings. One was held at San Francisco’s Castro Theater back in 1995. “There were hundreds of gay men in their 30s,” Frank recalls. “Is this me or what?” He has just returned from a trip to Los Angeles in March for a Poseidon screening benefiting the Queen Mary, the boat used in the film, which is now permanently docked and has been turned into a hotel. Assorted Poseidon veterans, including Shelley Winters and Pamela Sue Martin, were there. Frank can’t stop talking about it.
“He literally worships the Poseidon Adventure,” says roommate Shortall. “It’s his life.” That and Showgirls, of course.
Who celebrates a man whose biggest ambition is getting a movie starring Elizabeth Berkley on DVD? On a cool Monday night near the Courthouse Metro, I aim to find out.
Artists have been asked to drop off their Frank art between 5 and 9 p.m. at Ningaloo. Enter photographer Cynthia Connolly and musician-cartoonist Ryan Nelson, who deposit their works on the red felt top of a pool table.
Shortall is already there. He’s dropped off two pieces—a black-and-white photo of Frank, blurred and hazy, and a giant board with the word “GLAMMER” in all caps cut out of a menu from one of Frank’s favorite restaurants, Pho 75. Shortall met Frank almost 10 years ago when Frank answered his personal ad. Frank “left the same message three times because he was unsure if he pushed the right buttons.” Shortall sees the hand of fate at work: “If he hadn’t left that message more than once, I might not have called him back.” Apparently, Frank has made quite a difference in Shortall’s life. “I can’t imagine what my life would be like [if I hadn’t met him],” Shortall muses.
“He’s an inspiring and fascinating person,” Shortall continues. “Do you know the word ‘anhedonic’? It’s someone who can’t experience pleasure. Frank is the opposite of that….He gets pleasure out of everything.”
Connolly’s piece is a black cardboard holder stuffed with black-and-white photographs of Frank, mouth open and eyes wide with excitement, holding a VHS tape to his head. Running up the right edge of the photograph, delicate script reads: “Otherwise known as ‘Frank from the Bank.’” Connolly describes Frank as hilarious and enthusiastic. “Not everyone would be into the idea of a show about themselves,” Connolly says. “But Frank would be into that.”
Artist Richard Chartier disagrees. “He’s so nervous [because] he’s the center of attention…and he’s uncomfortable with that.” Frank has made his name as a cheerleader, not a participant. As Shortall puts it, “He’s made an art out of living vicariously.”
“It’s cool to have a show about someone who’s supporting [the scene],” says painter Jose Ruiz. Ruiz says he didn’t contribute because he didn’t have the time. But he likens the “Perfectly Frank” show to exhibitions of works made for restaurateur Michael Chow, who bartered art for food back in the ’60s. (Andy Warhol and Keith Haring painted Chow’s likeness in portraits that now line the walls of Mr. Chow’s in New York, Los Angeles, and London.)
From the looks of them, the portraits being offered at Ningaloo don’t rival Warhol’s or Haring’s. Nelson painted a sketchy portrait in oil and acrylic on a wood panel; his Frank looks earnest and serious—very un-Frank. “I primarily do cartoon art, and, this time, I wanted to do something serious,” Nelson explains. He calls the piece “Tombstone” in reference to Frank’s hi-jinks during the Showgirls parties, best not repeated here. Will anyone buy this piece? Says Nelson: “I have no fucking idea.”
In all, Adjchavanich expects 10 to 15 participants for “Perfectly Frank.” She offers a 29-by-41-inch black-and-white portrait she took back in 1995. At the time, she was assigned to photograph ‘someone devillike,’ and Frank stepped forward. Attaching Bugles corn snacks to his head with eyelash glue, he cocked an eyebrow and made like Lucifer.
At 9 p.m., Laurie Canivan walks in. She’s a law student who met Frank about a year and a half ago through friends at Dischord Records. She has made two works for the show, one a collage incorporating as many Frank references as she could muster—”Showgirls,” written in lipstick and sealed with a red paraffin kiss, a couple of feet of film, an AOL CD, a 7-inch single, and a handful of pennies. “May I make a deposit please” is written in brightly colored alphabet beads.
“Whenever someone asks me to do something, they say ‘Frank’s coming,’” Canivan explains. “That’s the enticement.”
Adjchavanich logs Canivan’s piece into her worksheet, where she writes up titles and prices. “I guess it’s mixed media,” Canivan offers. As for a price, “How about $11.99?”
Adjchavanich looks disappointed at the low number.
“I’m a populist,” Canivan explains.
“[This] is about so much more than just money,” Shortall says. “Frank has no ambition, so we’re making his ambition for him.” CP
“Perfectly Frank” opens with a reception on April 22, from 8 to 11 p.m. at Ningaloo, 2001 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington. The show closes May 7.