Ron Shapiro, one-of-a-kind ‘cultural ambassador’ for Oxford, Mississippi, has died
Oxford is more than a town, much more. It's a way of life, a place built with words that holds the heart, mind and spirit of those who call it home whether for four years or a lifetime. Oxford is at the crossroads of Southern culture, class and cuisine. The storied buildings around the picture perfect town square seem to hold the key to Southern culture, equally embracing learning and leisure. In many ways Oxford is a dichotomy, simultaneously offering stimulation and serenity, creativity and calm. Oxford is a state of mind, a gateway to some and a lifelong home to others. It's a place where all four seasons take a firm hold, accentuated by football games, festivals and friendships.
Oxford is full of stories that resonate with a tenor that can only be found in a town that reverberates Southern charisma and charm. Enjoy the slices of life that follow as they are but snapshots of the town and university we so deeply love and admire.
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John Beifuss, Memphis Commercial AppealPublished 5:13 p.m. CT Aug. 20, 2019 | Updated 3:34 p.m. CT Aug. 21, 2019
A ubiquitous bohemian presence and c champion of the arts in Oxford, Mississippi, and Memphis: Ron Shapiro. (Photo: Adam Hohenberg)
A portmanteau that conflated his first name with the gonzo aspects of his countercultural sympathies, "Ronzo" was arguably Mr. Shapiro's alter ego as well as his nickname: a moniker fit for an underground comic-book superhero who rode a bicycle rather than a Batmobile and battled narrow minds rather than criminal masterminds.
Reinforcing this notion, a "Ronzo" action figure has long been on display in Oxford's famous bookstore, Square Books, as part of a humorous "Local Legends" line of fanciful toys created by priest/artist Father Joe Tonos of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford,
Ron Shapiro, the man who introduced bagels and "Pink Flamingos" to Oxford, Mississippi, has died.
A beloved unofficial "cultural ambassador" for Oxford and a familiar bohemian presence on the Memphis arts scene, Mr. Shapiro — or "Ronzo," as he was universally known — succumbed to cancer Monday, about a week shy of his 76th birthday on Aug. 27.
He had no family in Oxford, "except everyone, really," said Melanie Addington, executive director of the Oxford Film Festival, which in 2020 will rename its award for Best Documentary Feature the "Ronzo."
"How many generations of alumni all over the country are now reaching out to each other about Ron?" asked Addington, referring to the fact that Mr. Shapiro had been a recognizable "local legend" for decades to students at the Oxford-based University of Mississippi.
"He was his own kind of weird," said longtime friend Jim Dees, host of Oxford's Thacker Mountain Radio program. "He was poetry in motion, but it didn't rhyme. It's free verse in motion."
The film-festival "Ronzo Award" honor is logical: An ardent movie aficionado and a fan of documentaries in particular, Mr. Shapiro first made his mark on Oxford with the Hoka theater, a cotton warehouse-turned-art cinema that showed important independent films that even Memphis wouldn't book. (In fact, the Oxford filmfest has indirectly honored Mr. Shapiro since its founding in 2003: Just as an Academy Award is an "Oscar," an Oxford Film Festival award is a "Hoka.")
Wednesday, the action figure wasn't the only reminder in Oxford Square of Mr. Shapiro's impact. The doors of Square Books were decorated with black ribbon in acknowledgment of Mr. Shapiro's death, and a "We Love Ronzo" declaration was posted on the sign outside The End of All Music, a record store.
Many friends expressed their thoughts on social media. "I will miss you most of all..." tweeted "Chasing Amy" actress and one-time Oxford resident Joey Lauren Adams, borrowing Dorothy's farewell to the Scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz."
Even the Oxford Police Department took time off from notices about accident reports and active shooter training to tweet: "RIP to local legend, Ron Shapiro."
Speaking in metaphorical superlatives, Square Books owner Richard Howorth, a former mayor of Oxford, said Mr. Shapiro was "definitely larger than life. He was our mascot, our mayor, our cultural ambassador... our conscience and our guide for many, many purposes, but mostly for how to be."
He said Mr. Shapiro lived "a spartan lifestyle" and "didn't care about luxury," but was "generous and kind, and always connected with people."
With a sartorial flair that combined hippie and Hobbit, a passion for original art and organic food, and an inexpungible if not necessarily illegal smile, Mr. Shapiro relocated to Oxford in the 1970s, lured by a girlfriend. The romantic relationship ended, but the romance with the city never did.
Born in St. Louis, Mr. Shapiro was a Vietnam-era veteran (he spent the war behind a desk in Korea) who pursued his love of cinema after he left the service, operating art-house movie theaters in such seemingly unlikely locations as Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
In Oxford, Mr. Shapiro "took over a small cotton warehouse and started showing W.C. Fields and Fellini," Dees said. That warehouse became the Hoka, which Mr. Shapiro operated until 1997, along with a connected eatery, the Moonlite Cafe, which enabled Mr. Shapiro to introduce bagels to a town that at the time was lacking in non-Southern cuisine.
Located just outside the town square, the Hoka was a place where "movie patrons sometimes have to jump from their seats and run to the adjacent cafe to ask the projectionist to put the film back in frame," according to a 1996 story in The Commercial Appeal. Nevertheless, Bluff City movie enthusiasts sometimes were motivated to make the drive to Mississippi to see movies that were not yet in Memphis, including Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man" and the Talking Heads concert film, "Stop Making Sense."
Dees said Mr. Shapiro screened "The Last Temptation of Christ," the controversial 1988 Martin Scorsese film, "in the hopes there would be protesters, but there weren't." Mr. Shapiro also booked John Waters' gross-out coprophagic comedy "Pink Flamingos," which provided him with a nice anecdote when, years later, he gave the writer-director known as the "Prince of Puke" a ride to New Orleans following Waters' appearance on the Ole Miss campus.
A rebel with a cause in a literary town with a large population of not always progressive Rebels with a capital R (i.e., Ole Miss students), Mr. Shapiro found time even while running the Hoka to fight for the arts, the environment, animal welfare and human rights.
Despite his activism, he didn't seriously covet political office, although he did run for alderman and a few other posts, almost as a lark. Remembered Howorth: "His slogan was, 'Throw the rascals in.'"
In recent years, Mr. Shapiro operated the Main Squeeze, a juice bar, and The Shelter, a coffee house/performance space. He also was a regular "literary escort," providing a sort of volunteer taxi service from the Memphis airport to Oxford for the many notable authors, filmmakers and others making appearances at Square Books and elsewhere. Driving a beat-up Volvo station wagon with Muddy Waters on the tape deck, "he charmed the hell out of them," Dees said. "He always made a point to read their book before he drove them."
Mr. Shapiro needed no official excuse to drive to Memphis, however. He frequently visited the city to attend concerts and movies, or to eat at local restaurants, including those run by his longtime friend, Karen Carrier.
Dees said Mr. Shapiro was "a champion of the arts, but it was his personal touch that has everybody going (crying) today."
"He celebrated our whole region," Addington said. "The whole city I think is mourning."
A funeral service for Mr. Shapiro will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at Berger Memorial Chapel in St. Louis. A memorial "celebration" in Oxford is set for Nov. 1, and probably will be held at the Powerhouse Community Arts Center.