Minister to his Needs

The Rev. Dickson Beall became a local champion of the First Amendment after he opened the St. Marcus Church basement to progressive theater groups in the 1990s. Few people knew what Beall was up to offstage.

It's so easy to think of sex as sin," the Rev. Dickson Beall informed the Riverfront Times back in the fall of 1999. "That isn't sin. Sin is rebelliousness, pride and self-interest."

Beall was responding to yet another controversy at the St. Marcus Theatre, the performance space he founded in 1990 in the basement of St. Marcus Church, where he served as minister for 13 years. The theater was known for taking on subjects that raised local passions -- sexuality, religion, politics (the usual topics to be avoided in polite society) -- with occasional nudity and graphic language that elicited knee-jerk conservative attacks. Beall persevered through these furors, often portrayed in the press (especially in this paper) as a champion of the First Amendment and a friend to the disenfranchised.

In the summer of 1999, however, Beall was called before the United Church of Christ Church and Ministry Committee to discuss some of the recent goings-on in the basement. The UCC can in no way be regarded as a fundamentalist organization, but the governing body for the St. Marcus Church, concerned with the relationship between the theater and the congregation, asked who was screening the scripts.

Roy Tompkins

Beall certainly wasn't. With Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi slated for Christmas at the theater, Beall first heard a synopsis of the plot during an interview with the RFT. When he was told that the play is the story of a gay Christ figure and his 12 gay disciples, Beall responded, "Who cares?"

His congregation did. Corpus Christi was the last production at the St. Marcus Theatre. In February 2000, the congregation voted to close the church basement to the groups that had been performing there for 10 years, including such popular companies as Joan Lipkin and That Uppity Theatre Company, New Line Theatre and the AC/DC Series, which featured gay and lesbian performance artists.

In addition, the late Al Ura, longtime church president, called for Beall's resignation. Ura told the RFT that the issue was more about Beall's commitment to the congregation than the programming of the theater. "He didn't have no time for the church," Ura explained. "I asked him to come down to the church two or three days a week, and he said, 'I can do more work at my apartment.' So that was it." Attendance at Sunday service had decreased during Beall's tenure, according to Ura: "We only have 16 or 18 people on a Sunday morning. We used to have 180 people in the congregation; now we're down to about 26. [The theater] hasn't done us any good."

Beall subsequently resigned. Although he remained in town, he disappeared from the public eye, his reputation as a progressive liberal minister diminished by the schism that had opened between him and the South City congregation he had been called to serve.

Beall didn't fade into obscurity, however. He had prospects.

Few people were aware that Beall was also pursuing a business venture during his tenure as St. Marcus' pastor. Beall is co-founder and president of HTV -- originally known as Humanities Instructional Television Educational Center (HITEC) when it incorporated as a nonprofit organization in Missouri in 1986.

If those call letters don't sound familiar, it's not because you're a TV illiterate. HTV can't be found during a late-night channel surf. Beall's company is an ITFS, which stands for Instructional Television Fixed Services. In the cryptic lingo of the FCC and invisible airwaves, HTV maintains "four 6 frequency ITFS B channels." HTV delivers -- or, more accurately, is supposed to be delivering -- educational programs to local schools (in this case, the Discovery and Learning channels) free of charge over its bandwidth. In HTV's own literature, 12 receiver sites are named, including such private institutions as Eden Theological Seminary and John Burroughs School and public schools in the city, such as Blow and Williams middle schools.

HTV's low visibility is about to change: A lawsuit brought against HTV has made Beall and his unambitious enterprise appear more scandalous than anything that appeared on the St. Marcus stage. Paul Guzzardo, who was recruited to the HTV board in 1999, has brought suit in St. Louis County Circuit Court against his fellow board members, alleging that they have been profiting from a nonprofit corporation. With the lawsuit, Guzzardo hopes to force out Beall and his associates and replace them with a more responsible group of board members. In this way, HTV's valuable assets and its potential for education would not be lost to the public. His suit states, in part, that Beall and the board have been "engaged in a pattern of breaching their fiduciary duty" and have been involved in "a pattern of fraudulent and dishonest conduct."

Guzzardo may be best known as the owner of the short-lived club Cabool, but he also founded MediaARTS, a nonprofit group formed to develop awareness of the implications of the current technological revolution and to provide artists with a place to join in that revolution. He's St. Louis' most knowledgeable technological gadfly. If Guzzardo at times is given to hyperbole, that's partly because he's an insistent voice living in a city bent on denying the cultural changes taking place at hyperlink speed. So even his attorney, Ira Berkowitz, at first considered Guzzardo's charges outlandish. HTV has no staff and has rarely consisted of more than a four-member board. When he first looked at his client's complaint, Berkowitz admits, "I was still scratching my head a little bit, saying, 'What's here? What are we doing?'"

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