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The Underground Atlanta Story

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Underground Atlanta Caricatures Circa 2000

I’m back from Atlanta where I just closed up my long time caricature stand at Underground Atlanta, a downtown retail/tourist complex. As I had mentioned, it was really sad because it was my very first business endeavor and it had been through a lot over the last 18 plus years.

Back in 1989 The Lovely Anna and I, freshly married and she just pregnant, moved to Atlanta from St. Paul, Minnesota because I took a job with Fasen Arts Inc, as manager of their new caricature operation at Six Flags Atlanta. I was 23, just graduated from art school and we were moving 1400 miles away from our nearest relatives, friends and the part of the world we grew up in on this exciting but scary adventure. Having worked as an artist for Fasen Arts at the busy Six Flags Great America in Chicago for the last four summers, I was sure we would do similar business in Atlanta and I would be making good money for what amounted to a summer only job, with lots of time after to develop my freelance clientèle.

It didn’t exactly turn out that way.

I discovered the customers that frequented Six Flags in Atlanta were very different from those in Chicago… caricatures weren’t nearly as popular with that group as they were in the Midwest. We did terrible sales and as the summer progressed it became obvious to me that my share of profits was going to be next to nothing considering the investment capital that needed to be recouped. I was looking at needing to get some kind of off-season job to support my wife and our impending child. Anna even got a job at Six Flags to help out. Things were not working out.

Then Anna mentioned to me about a new entertainment and retail complex that was opening downtown called Underground Atlanta. Underground had been a big nightlife complex in the 70′s that had fallen off and was boarded up for years, but had been refurbished and was reopening sporting shopping, nightclubs, restaurants and other entertainment. It was expected to be a big deal. I thought it would be a good place to set up a caricature operation of my own that would continue to operate year around.

I put together a sample book of my caricatures and a design for a simple, portable booth and went downtown to meet with management. I do not remember the name of the person I met with, but they did not consider my product to be a lease-worthy business. However they thought it would be a good thing to have for their grand opening, so they signed me to a two-week lease and gave me a small space at one end of the property. On June 15th, 1989 I personally opened up my little stand using a fabric covered plywood backdrop, a steamer trunk for my compressor and supplies, a drawing table and chair with homemade signage and did my first caricature at Underground….

… we made it for 18 years, 5 and one half months longer than the initial 2 week deal.

A lot happened over that long period of time. During the first off-season we built a much more permanent booth that would be redesigned and changed three more times over the years. We had no telephone for the first year or so, being in a spot that was not wired for it. In the late winter, pre-cell phone days of ’89 Anna had the phone number of a neighboring booth that sold cat related art for emergencies. She was expecting our first baby any day, and I would literally jump in my chair every time that phone across the hallway rang. The “cat lady” would answer and then shake her head to let me know it wasn’t Anna calling (until it was, that is). That baby, Elizabeth, will be 18 tomorrow.

After the 1990 season at Six Flags Anna and I had had enough of Atlanta, so we packed up baby and moved back to Minnesota. I kept Underground open and had some reliable artists working it for me. Over the years artists that worked with us at Underground have gone on to do artwork for Disney Animation, comic books, other major animation studios, world class commercial illustration, open their own design firms and caricature operations. I’ve always been lucky to find artists that were honest and reliable, and who looked after the business there. This worked for so long mostly because I paid the artists a very high percentage and business remained very strong there so they made good money and thought of themselves as partners… which in a sense they were. An artist named Keith Middleton has been the primary manager there for over 10 years, and he was instrumental in making things work. Thanks, Keith.

In 1996 the Summer Olympics came to Atlanta, and we expanded our operation to four artists for the two weeks of the actual games. I drove down from Minnesota to work it along with an all-star crew including Stephen Silver, Eddie Pittman, Richard Carper and my regulars. We couldn’t draw fast enough most of the time, at least once the insane policy of charging people just to get in to Underground was abandoned about two days into the games. I was drawing when the bomb went off in Centennial Park about 8 blocks away, and walked by the site on my way back to where I was staying that night.

It was not all fun and games. Underground was situated right in the center of downtown Atlanta, where there is plenty of tough street element around. We had innumerable fights near our booth, several stabbings and twice guns were pulled near us… once inducing my artist to take cover behind the booth. Not all my artists were trustworthy, and I had to fire several over the years including some pretty good friends for stealing or abandoning the booth for great portions of the day. In 1992 the Rodney King verdict induced a riot in Atlanta, and a horde of violent idiots swarmed through Underground smashing the place up and sending my cash register though a plate glass window. If the artist I had working that day not been black, it probably would have been much worse. We didn’t reopen for almost a week.

Mostly, though, it was a good place to draw caricatures. There was a constant traffic flow of tourists through Underground, and caricatures were a popular souvenir. The summers and any other time tourism was high in Atlanta was always very busy, and even when business dropped off a lot in the early 2000′s during the off-season those prime tourist traffic periods were enough to keep us afloat. Locals seldom went to Underground, so the customers there were exactly our demographic. There were many months we were the top specialty vendor in sales in the entire center. It is virtually unheard of for a specialty lease business to remain for so long on one property.

Nothing last forever, though. Ownership changed hands many times, as did management. The latest owners have apparently little interest in reinvesting into the property, and it is looking its age. Slowly over the years good customers and tourists were replaced by vagrants, beggars and other unsavory characters which created a less than inviting atmosphere and further drove away the good customers. A new tourist area in Atlanta opened up this past year in the Centennial Park area with a giant aquarium and other attractions, pulling a lot of even the casual tourist traffic away. The killer blow to Underground was when the World of Coca Cola museum adjacent to it closed to reopen in a new facility near the aquarium. With no major tourist attraction to draw people to Underground, it became just another run down collection of knick-knack shops and empty storefronts. Business dropped off so dramatically that the artists I had working there could no longer make enough to justify the time they spent. No artists, no operation. On December 31st we drew our last caricature at Underground.

The end of an era. It was a good run.

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7 Responses to “The Underground Atlanta Story”

  1. TerryElliott says:

    Congrats, Tom, on a wonderful run. I’ve been living in metro Atlanta for 11 years and I’ve visited UnderGround Atlanta once. Nuff said. Lucky for us Atlantans, we can still enjoy your artwork online!

  2. kmcnutt says:

    Sorry to hear about your Underground operation. Can’t be easy when it’s something that’s connected with so many old memories, to be sure. Congratulations, however, on its long run (funny enough, 18 years can seem like a really short time, eh?), and I can imagine how cool it must feel to have been a part of the development of so many successful artists. So, on consideration, I think I’ll stick with the latter sentiment: congratulations, Tom.

  3. mengblom says:

    Sorry to hear about your Underground location closing, Tom. I still remember visiting it with Dar in its early months of operation. Has it REALLY been eighteen years? Good Lord.

    Congratulations for keeping a good thing going for so long. As an experienced businessman, you well know that businesses come and go…but I know that with it being “your first”, it holds a special place for you.

    Thanks for the interesting history of your time there. It’s obvious you poured alot of yourself into it. The good news is you’ve still got the same fighting spirit and determination to run your remaining locations. Which reminds me…how many are you up to now? I think that would make an interesting blog post.

  4. cedricstudio says:

    Great post, Tom! Sorry to hear the sad news.

    I was working with you at ValleyFair! in ’96, I remember you going to Atlanta and the bomb going off. WIld stuff.

  5. yondaime_kazekage says:

    wow..
    that was really tough for you
    but at the end of the day,
    you done well.
    i really enjoy reading this

  6. TomNguyen says:

    I’m with Cedric, great post. I don’t know if you recall, but nearing the end of my senior year in high school (’95), you had asked me (since at the time I didn’t know what I was going to do after high school) if I was interested in training as a possible manager for Underground after I graduated. I said I’d think about it, but never really gave you an answer if memory serves right. I think at the time I was overwhelmed and scared at the idea because I was so young and the thought of leaving my home state (with all my family and friends) was too intimidating. Nonetheless, I was very flattered at the offer. Here’s to an end of an era…..

  7. loftonscari says:

    To Tom Richmond, just want to say that it paid off big time for the most part, other than
    recalling what it was like learning from pro’s like Gary, Steve T., Steve Fasen and yourself,
    I never would have gotten the chance to grow artistically. Thank you Tom for everything.

    Underground at the time when I met you was just starting to show everyone what it was made of. I’m just glad that I was there to take part of what was destined to be a very strong location for many years to come and it was, but like you mentioned, the party came to a close. Take care Tom, take care! Mike Lofton

 

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