News > Article on Frank Kelly Freas and Queen: As the Symphony gets ready to rock, we remember a local artist

Added on 24-May-2010

Coming to you directly from Chrysler Hall, here they are - Queen - the hard-rocking foursome whose music will get "symphonized" Saturday by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

It might seem like culture clash, but Queen has rocked genres before. "The Music of Queen" show takes place just a few blocks from the Chrysler Museum of Art, where the band once visited a new, and lasting, Virginia Beach mentor. It happened more than three decades ago, but the tale remains an oddity of local rock lore.

First, the show: Brent Havens conducts the orchestra and a rock band fronted by Las Vegas personality Brody Dolyniuk, who recreates Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury's original vocals.

Havens did a similar turnaround with his show-concert "Music of Led Zeppelin" last season. The Queen show features rock-concert-style lighting and visual effects and includes hits like "We Will Rock You," "We Are the Champions" and "Somebody to Love."

Queen's music has long merged disparate elements. Three decades ago, they sought the artwork of a middle-aged Virginia Beach resident who, up until then, had claimed no kinship to rock. He was Frank Kelly Freas, the legendary science fiction artist who was famous for everything from his work in MAD Magazine to NASA uniforms. Freas won an unprecedented 11 Hugo Awards - the science-fiction world's equivalent to the Oscar.

His collaboration with Queen began in 1977 when Roger Taylor, the band's drummer, saw Freas' work on the cover of a 1953 science fiction magazine. Taylor went wild over a drawing of a robot holding battered people in the palm of its hand.

Queen searched the world for the artist and found Freas at his secluded, cluttered ranch house just south of the Pocaty Creek bridge in Virginia Beach, where he lived for 25 years. It had long been the center of the science-fiction art universe.

He was surely not unknown. He started at MAD Magazine in the mid-1950s and was a cover artist until 1962. There, he refined the features of Alfred E. Neuman, the magazine's grinning, gap-toothed mascot. (He told The Virginian-Pilot: "I didn't create Alfred E. Neuman, Alfie. I developed him. I gave him an attitude and a personality. I gave him that kind of idiotic expression.") His signature phrase "What? Me worry?" became a national slogan.

Freas bridged the worlds of science fiction and science, cartoons and art. He designed astronauts' crew patches and posters for NASA. His works have been exhibited in the Smithsonian Institution and New York's American Museum of Natural History.

But he was a long way from a rocker.

At the time his work was discovered by Queen, he said: "I'm as square as they come. When I got this telephone call from London, it came as a surprise. They asked me if I could redo a painting of a robot to be used on a cover for their new album. When they sent me their four earlier albums, I decided to do the drawing before listening to them, because I thought I might just hate them, and it would ruin my ideas."

Freas kept music playing about 18 hours a day in his Virginia Beach studio, but it was all classical. "When I listened to Queen's music, I was surprised," he told me at the time. "They are firmly grounded in classical music, but they are inventive. It's like these guys have absorbed all the quality music they can and then put it all in a bucket and stirred it up."

The four London rockers and the Virginia Beach artist became more than just associates. When the Chrysler Museum staged a showing of Freas' work, the quartet interrupted their rock tour to see it. Two long, chauffeured limousines pulled up to the museum, where the rockers were greeted by Walter P. Chrysler himself, backed by an odd mixture of art and rock fans.

The drawing that started the liaison was that of a benign, puzzled robot holding a bloody, dead man in his palm. The work was called "The Gulf Between," which the artist said depicted "the gulf between the mechanical man and human people."

Brian May, the guitarist for Queen, said "what attracted us to this drawing was that the robot was not a monster. He's a likable machine who is baffled. He holds these bloody, injured people in his palm, and he doesn't know what to do with them."

May said the group wanted to depart from the "regal" covers of the band's first five albums. The album was called "News of the World."

Freas and Chrysler found the members of the group "particularly well-mannered boys" during their visit to the museum. They acted as if Freas was the star. Their devotion to science fiction and its fantasy-inspired art was total.

Freas died five years ago, at age 82. He was survived by his wife of 16 years, Laura Brodian Freas; a daughter, Jacqueline; a son, Jeremy: and six grandsons.

It was his daughter for whom Freas was most thrilled when the international phone calls came from Queen. As a gesture of friendship and gratitude for the robot, the group sent a chauffeured limousine to Virginia Beach to transport the Freas family to Norfolk's Scope when the band appeared there in 1977. Freas recalled at the time, "My teen daughter met the group backstage and said, 'At last, Daddy's made good.' "

The music returns Saturday minus heavy metal but with a heavy violin section. Again, it attempts to rock you.

Mal Vincent, (757) 446-2347,

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Submitted by: Daniel Nester

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