02/15/2011

“The internet might be a fad, but cable access will be forever.”

by Matthew Hawkins

NOTE: The following originally appeared over at I Fucking Love New York City Cable Access late last night, but since Tumblr is kinda crappy when it comes to keeping track of posts, figured that it couldn’t hurt to rebroadcast. Besides, this blog has a ton more visibility, plus it also affords me the chance to add some context to the pics I took (I have a strict “let the pictures do all the talking” policy on that other end, which I’m beginning to reevaluate)…
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This past Friday night was Public Access Reunion 2011, aka the first installment of TV Party, The Museum of Moving Image’s celebration of local cable access. Needless to say, when I first got wind of such a thing (from an inside source, mind you), I became immediately excited, and thusly had some fairly lofty expectations. And were they met? Eh… I’m afraid not.

For starters, I first made mention of the evening via the usual channels, Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr, which can often be hit or miss. So many folks who would have been seriously interested as well didn’t know about it till I posted “am here at Museum of Moving Image for an evening with cable access superstars, so excited!” With the resounding reaction being “oh man, I TOTALLY would have gone if I knew; Christ that place absolutely sucks when it comes to advertising anything.”

Ironically enough, the head honcho made a big speech right beforehand, saying how the show was a pet project for himself and everyone involved. Two young folk were soon introduced as the primary curators, and whose qualifications as it pertains to overseeing and executing such exhibition I would ultimately call into question. Though the aforementioned inside source (a person whose quite a part of the cable access scene that I?ve had the privilege to become acquainted with recently, FYI) also indicated that it might be disappointing, so in the end I was not entirely shocked by how everything would play out… just by how much of a train wreck it would be in spots.

As for attendance, the crowd was mostly comprised of old white dudes, clearly fans of the glory days of New York City cable access. Without a doubt, at least some much have had shows of their own, and a few I’m betting are still actively involved; I sat next to this lanky, a bit past middle aged white dude that was somewhat balding and with a long pony tail, who ended up recording much of the proceedings (and who would become quite animated in spots). There were also some young folk, hipster types from Queens and Brooklyn, or so I got the feeling. Obviously, they had heard much about this mystical thing as the New York cable access universe that their Manhattan buddies were lucky enough to have easy access to, and wanted to learn more (hence my main reason why, if I ever move off the island, I’ll be kicking and screaming).

There were two parts of TV Party; first a 45 minute long clip reel that highlighted some of the finest that cable access had to offer, circa the late 70s/early 80s, followed by a roundtable discussion/Q&A with a number of luminaries/innovators from that period. The video portion of the program was my first primary point of contention; things were promising in the beginning, thanks to the random assortment of absurdist entertainment, including a man on the street interview on the very topic of cable access (which at this point was a little known and understood beast), with a person that happened to have just one leg…

… Yes, in staying true to the format of the Tumblr, I decided to take screencaps with my iPhone! Anyway, a few key shows were ultimately concentrated on, specifically the work of those that would be on stage later. Which was fine and all, but it would the evening would have been ten times more enlightening and entertaining if it had a more all-encompassing look at NYC cable access, including stuff from the late 80s/anything from the 90s. True, I had loads of fun watching bits from The Vole Show, Glenn O’ Brien’s TV Party, The Live! Show, The Scott & Gary Show, The Coco Crystal Show, Rapid T. Rabbit & Friends, plus the still very much popular Wild Record Collection. BTW, here we have Snuffles, the stuffed bear that hosts Wild Record Collection, as a guest on Rapid T. Rabbit’s program; it should come as no surprise that, given what an insular world that scene was, many folks from one show often showed up on others…

… But I would have also loved to see at least a modest acknowledgement of Checkerboard Kids, Zenbock, Turn Of The Century, Subway Girl, Mad Dog, and Madame Chao’s to name just a few. Though it’s the absence of The Grube Tube that I found most baffling, cuz it was most certainly around during the heyday (and is still going strong, as evidenced by the link).

Then you had Midnight Blue and the Robin Bryd Show, which were mostly only featured in a Channel 2 news feature on cable access, circa 1982 (I believe). Coco Crystal, the host of the free-thinking, anarchist variety show was featured in the story, and wasn’t too happy with how she, along with her platform, came off, hence the decision to play the segment to get reaction from callers. Her main beef was how the news story appeared to have a condensing tone, along with the concentration on nudity and sex…

…. She also was annoyed how they dwelled how her and the entire crew all do drugs, live on the air. How is that not something worth pointing out? Not to defend the local news, but the truth of the matter is, Midnight Blue and Robin Byrd was what gave cable access most of its immediate attention, period, plus all that hardcore adult content on unregulated basic cable was especially nuts back then. Besides, all local news is mindless dribble, ESPECIALLY the stuff that airs in these parts (which is essentially on par with the fake news you see in Paul Verhoeven movies, and I’m being deadly serious). Though the truly ironic thing was how that 30 year old and so called misguided fluff piece still did a far better job of explaining flat-out the ecosystem and the personalities than curators for the evening. Easily the most intriguing personality was the host of The Ugly George Show….

… So get this: dude walks around with all this camera equipment, essentially as a one-person television studio. But that’s not even close to being the punch line; the show was entirely comprised of him asking women on the street if he could not only check out their breasts, but if they wouldn’t mind going back to his place and fondle them, and on camera no less. The fact that he was actually successful is truly mind-blowing.

Anyhow, that news segment was what partially drove the following “reunion” afterwards; on stage you had the individuals behind Vole Show, The Live! Show, Glenn O’ Brien’s TV Party, The Scott & Gary Show, Wild Record Collection, and the man behind Rapid T. Rabbit himself, which is normally a hand puppet, but dressed in a full-on rabbit outfit. Best part was sitting right next to him was an extremely old gentleman, who was one of the original driving forces behind cable access at the time…

… The discussion was moderated by the two curators, who asked a few unremarkable and generic questions. One seriously got the sense that the only reason why they knew anything about the people on stage or NYC cable access in general was via chance encounters with clips on YouTube, it was that bad. Hence why the guests of honor drove most of the conversation.

Things became super awkward real quick like when the aforementioned elder statesmen began, out of the blue and unprompted, ripping into everyone on stage, lambasting them for producing what he felt was garbage, and which he felt was not a true representation of cable access. It’s up for debate if this was a recently realization, or an opinion he has long held. The two gay gentlemen behind Wild Record Collection (whom I was most interested in hearing from, and they absolutely did not disappoint, by being totally awesome folks that I would KILL to hang out with) tried their best to defend themselves, despite the situation being so supremely awkward, by stating how they first became aware of cable access as a whole when it was the only outlet for any sort of meaningful television content aimed at homosexuals (and when one considers that this was during the 80s, at a time when Reaganomics and the AIDS scare was in full effect, such a resource was especially vital). They soon wanted to become involved by creating programming themselves, and granted it was a purely entertainment oriented outlet, but the good that cable access does is undeniable.

There was actually another gentleman in the room who was pivotal for making cable access in Manhattan happened, one who was in the audience and a few seats away from myself. This person from what I gathered is still working at Manhattan Neighborhood Network to this very day, and it’s a shame he wasn’t in front of the audience as well, especially during the Q&A. Only three questions were allowed (which totally bit the big one, btw), and the second was some blowhard from NYU all the way in the back, who somewhat chastised everyone on stage for not paying much heed or respect to the aforementioned outburst (which was totally not the case, btw). He rambled on about what cable access is supposed to be, with the gentlemen nearby going “Oh Jesus Christ”, due to all the academia douchebaggary.

Lucky for me, I was the third (and final) person to be allowed to ask a question. So I decided to sieze the moment and presented two: first I asked the duo behind Wild Record Collection about the host, Snuffles, the aforementioned stuff bear for a host. I’ve long wondered if there was more than one Snuffles, and if not, has it been difficult keeping his coat nice and clean, as well if there were any scares, like red wine almost getting spilled on him. And I was quite thrilled with the thoroughness of the answer! The bear had been acquired during a retreat, to Iceland I believe was the location? It was spotted in a gift shop and they immediately fell in love… and of course, shortly after their return, it was everywhere in the United States. I believe FAO Schwartz was where they acquired the second Snuffes, which they have yet to ever utilize, and which rests right next to the one that has been host for about twenty-five years now. It was noted that it’s been hard keeping his firm nice and white over the years, and they once tried some now water-based cleaning solution that ended up causing the firm to be all funky, and therefore requiring a good deal of brushing afterward. It was Rapid T. Rabbit (who himself is covered in white fur) that brought up the solution that works the best; white powder!

The second question was directed to everyone on stage, in which I asked what their opinion was of cable access today, especially in the age of YouTube. Is it still a thriving medium? Has YouTube somewhat reduced cable access’s relevancy? One of the consistent messages among everyone was how back in the day, they were democratizing television, and putting it in the hands of the masses. Literally anyone could produce a show, though that statement has never been more true, due to accessibility of the internet and over abundance of digital cameras. Unfortunately, my second question was actually asked first, and the second answered first, so a few I guess forgot every point I was trying to hit, and at least one though I was just trying to say “well, cable access is kinda pointless due to YouTube, isn’t it?” And that was clearly not my point. Ultimately, the consensus was that the internet and cable access are two totally separate things, one has almost nothing to do with another. Which, IMHO and as much as I clearly love the medium of cable access, that’s highly debatable, and it’s impossible to deny that the internet has seriously stolen the thunder of cable access.

Oddly enough, it was the man in the big rabbit outfit, who had mostly spent the evening making rather cheesy rabbit related jokes, who brought forth the most intriguing morsels to light. After making the joke that is the title of this post, he become serious and noted that he can see both sides of the fence, that things are changing. Though more importantly, what we all saw and have been talking about was indeed the golden age of cable access, sadly; due to changes that went into effect around the early 90s, every single facet of how cable access in NYC changed. Rapid noted how it?s now considerably more difficult to get a time slot and even get on the air, there’s a ton of paperwork to be processed, among other factors. Whereas back in the day, all you needed to do was just come up to the two gentlemen that ran the show (and who again were in attendance) and casually ask what was up, plus pay the amount you needed to (or even not in some cases). The circumstances that led to the change in business, along with how affairs were conducted during the heyday (I had zero idea that one had to pay money to be on the air, till that Channel 2 news piece first mentioned it) was never once touched upon by the curators. Yet was another massive and annoying oversight.

And funny enough, the cranky old man then asked the evening’s most intriguing question, to the audience: was there anyone who has gone through any of the troubles dealing with the current regime as indicated by the huge talking rabbit that was sitting next to him? Unfortunately, that’s when the meek hosts said “okay, we’re out of time, sorry!” Which made absolutely zero sense since the talk was finally getting good and nothing else was schedule for the space afterward. It was insisted that we take the conversation outside, into the expensive cafeteria.

After exiting the theater, I hung out in the cafeteria as instructed, hoping to exchange a few words with the Wild Record Collection dudes or William Hohauser, the man behind Vole Show, but they were nowhere to be seen. No doubt they were all swamped by admirers and the such. Like I said, lots of old white dudes; did I mention the guy filming next to be was giggling like a little school girl the entire time, and clapped along to each theme played, right on cue? Along with how pretty much all these folks were wearing wacky, colorful pants? But before calling it a night, at least I got the chance to run into Rapid and say what a big fan I was, plus ask for a picture…

… Anyway, at this point, I’m on the fence about checking out the rest of TV Party. Public Access Reunion 2011 did not impress me the least bit. To be completely honest, it has been suggested that I try to run some kind of retrospective or event myself, since I clearly have a knack for it, at least when it comes to video games. Time will only tell.

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