Slab rehab: Meet the new maestro at Fellini's
It took several weeks to get face-to-face with Ben May. From chats with friends and relatives and snippets of cell phone conversations, an image emerges of a guy who manages to be everywhere and nowhere.
"Bennie? Oh, you just missed him," is what I'd hear when I'd knock on the door of Fellini's, the legendary restaurant that May has been meticulously, devotedly restoring.
"I can't meet this morning," May says one morning on breaking an appointment, "because I have to fly my airplane over Hot Springs."
He's been soaring the skies since he was 16 and even earned a degree in aerospace engineering, among other subjects (math, economics). A few hours later, I get an unexpected call. "I'm just finishing lunch at Timberlake's Drugstore, would you like to meet in an hour at Fellini's?" If we're talkin' -ini, May is definitely more of a Houdini than a Fellini.
Outside the bright white building, I finally catch up with the man, who looks like a cross between Einstein and Elmer Fudd. During a tour, he proudly points out each detail of the place, distinguishing between original-restored (stained glass, doors, bricks) and upgraded (heart-pine floors, fireplace, an illuminated crawl-space).
May, who lives a block away, became a Fellini's regular in the early '90s. "I used to come here for a beer every night, and I always thought it was fun, very quaint, and full of charm," he says. What about the not-so-quaint (i.e. sexual) activities that supposedly went on in there? "I liked everything about it," he replies with a smile.
The original owner went to jail, and when May found out the beloved establishment might get torn down in 1994, he bought it.
So why did it take 10 years to restore? Because, for one, he wanted to do it right. "Fellini's is classic Benny," says his long-time friend Keith Rosenfeld, who installed the new stereo and cable systems. "He pays attention to every detail and does things right, no matter how long it takes. It was the ultimate win-win project– Charlottesville kept an important part of its history, and Benny had a fun project."
May, now 66, who describes himself as a "personal investor," also had other things to do– like fly and try to figure out the foundations of knowledge. Un-tethered by academic demands, this college-town eccentric and fervent epistemologist spends three hours every morning studying mathematical logic at his new hangout, Greenberry's.
"When I get too much in my head, I come in here and sand some wood, work with my hands," he says standing amid the construction debris at Fellini's. A stage allegedly used for many sexual encounters, the infamous "slab"– actually an old farm table– is now smooth as can be.
Fellini's– or whatever the future owner wants to call it– is currently for lease. But the building is not for sale. "I have too much invested in it," he explains. "I'll keep it for the rest of my life."
After all, who else could justly admire Fellini's shiny new copper roof from thousands of feet up in the sky?
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO