A paean to public access

13 October 2006

Once upon a time, circa 1990, back when I was in college and living in the student ghetto, there was one television show we watched with unerring regularity. Oddly enough, it was on the public access channel of the East Lansing, Michigan, cable system—WELM—which was your ordinary public access station. During the week it carried the usual community-service stuff: religious programming, homebrew sports talk, and the like. But one show stood out.

As an aside, there was one other point of interest on WELM in those days: Eat at Joe’s, hosted by local impresario Joseph Szilvagyi and featuring, among other things, local musical talent. East Lansing’s own Verve Pipe and Wally Pleasant appeared, and, believe it or not, Smashing Pumpkins. I never watched this show enough before Joey pulled up stakes and left E.L.

The real subject of this tale was our television bread and butter: Sloucho’s Cartoon Control Room.

sloucho.jpgSloucho Barx was a guy (though I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out he was Tim Arnold, co-owner of Pinball Pete’s) wearing an ill-fitting, damaged and distorted whole-head rubber mask. I always remembered it as a Groucho Marx mask, but this screen capture makes me think of Frank Zappa. Each week Sloucho would point a couple of cameras at himself sitting in the control room of the cable company’s headend studio. Piled around him would be a portion of his massive library of videos—all cartoons. For six hours he would play cartoon after cartoon, classics from the Warner Bros., MGM, and Disney studios, old chestnuts rarely seen in years, interspersed with his introductions and commentaries—often to fill time while he tracked down and cued up the next tape. He’d record the whole show to a single VHS tape.

Then WELM played it, all weekend long. I figure the last person out the door on Friday night would fire up the playback on an auto-rewind loop, and for the next two days, while no one was working at the headend, WELM would broadcast six hours of Sloucho, followed by a few minutes of blue screen as the tape rewound.

It was perfect for the college-age demographic. Any hour of the day or night, drunk sober or otherwise, it was always a safe haven: no commercials, no (realistic) violence, just funny stuff. He usually didn’t play the “big guns”—What’s Opera, Doc? or Duck Dodgers in the 24th-and-a-half Century—perhaps due to copyright issues. Instead he delved into much more obscure fare.

Sloucho’s trademark, aside from the mask and the repartee, was that every week he would show one cartoon in particular: Warner’s 1932 epic Freddy the Freshman. freddy.jpgOkay, “epic” is a joke… it was an early Merrie Melodies two-parter, starting with a musical interlude at a college party, where Freddy arrives in his jalopy to sing his theme song, followed by a football game featuring all sorts of silly sight gags. It was goofy, and more than a little rudimentary. A few weeks ago on an Adult Swim rerun of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, they showed the first half of the cartoon, and although I had my nose in a book I immediately recognised the lead-in instrumental and was shocked to realise that I remembered all the lyrics:

Who’s got all the girlies chasing him around?
Freddy the Freshman, the freshest kid in town!
Who wrecks all the parties, turns them upside-down?
Freddy the Freshman, the freshest kid in town!
He plays the ukulele, he plays the saxophone,
And the pretty babies just won’t leave him alone!
Who got bounced at Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Brown?
Freddy the Freshman, the freshest kid in town!

Sloucho also clued me in on some very interesting, but little-known cartoons. To this day, one of my all-time favourites is The Dover Boys, from 1940. This was a Chuck Jones experiment in animation “shorthand,” using blurred streaks of colour to denote rapid movement without drawing detailed parts in every cel. Surely it’s familiar to us now, having seen it used so many times for the Road Runner’s legs, but this was where Jones first gave it a try on a large scale. In The Dover Boys the effect is surreal, almost trippy. Plus this cartoon has a great line that I often find myself quoting for no real reason, when the villain Dan Backslide announces in an over-the-top stage whisper surely audible to all around, “A runabout! I’ll steal it—no one will ever know!”

Like all good things, Sloucho’s Cartoon Control Room had to come to an end. And what a strange and ignominious end it was.

One week, Sloucho put together a show with a single theme: culturally insensitive cartoons. Among his collection he had scads of cartoons from the 1930s and ’40s—mainstream Warner and MGM stuff, not backalley indies—containing jokes that were considered acceptable then, but not now; in those days, blackface gags, ethnic slurs, and the like were commonplace. Nowadays, if shown on television at all, the questionable parts are trimmed out, sometimes right in the middle of a setup, or just in time to skip over the punchline. But Sloucho had the originals, uncut, warts and ugly sentiments intact.

He presented the show as something like a sociological documentary. Between every cartoon he’d come on and explain what the show was about: that in the golden era of studio animation, not all was purity and light and a “left turn at Albuquerque,” that prejudices and racism existed even on the screens of the Saturday matinee. He’d disclaim what was about to air and warn that kids and impressionable minds probably shouldn’t be watching, and after the cartoon was over he’d register his disapproval at what we’d seen.

rooster.jpgEven Freddy the Freshman made it onto this show, thanks to a scene you won’t see on the Cartoon Network: a brief cutaway during the football game to three magpies sitting on a fence chanting “Oy! Oy! Oy!” while waving Hebrew-lettered pennants, who are then interrupted by an extremely effeminate and flamboyant rooster giving his own limp-wristed cheer.

I found this show fascinating, a real eye-opener. It was amazing to see how much cultural values had changed in the brief half-century since these shorts were created. And I felt that Sloucho did an exemplary job of putting them into the proper context, to come right out and repeatedly say, “These views are not acceptable. Period.”

But of course, it caused a furor, and parents wrote in to WELM to complain. (I had two thoughts on that, first that they weren’t doing an adequate job of supervising their kids’ television viewing, and second that they missed an opportunity to open a dialogue with their kids about this subject.) The next weekend, and those following, saw nothing but automated schedule pages. Sloucho was permanently off the air. Tim Arnold hung up the mask, and shortly afterward sold his share of Pinball Pete’s and moved to Las Vegas, where he now runs the non-profit Pinball Hall of Fame.

  1. Michael Fraley
    November 17th, 2006 at 07:26 | #1

    Believe it or not, “Sloucho” re-runs are alive and well in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, public access market, and run every Friday night – Saturday morning. I’ve been watching these old shows for about three years now, and am a real fan of this classic. Thanks for the info!

  2. Scott
    February 4th, 2007 at 16:58 | #2

    I too watched that show most weekends, and eventually wrote in a fan letter. Sloucho sent back a photocopy of a book listing each and every WB cartoon… plus an invitation to drop by during the tapings. I even appeared on a few later episodes, and also got involved in some of the other local access shows. WELM was not just “another local access cable channel”, it was the first in the USA, and had a lot of interesting local programming including many political shows.

    It’s interesting to see some of those old racial-stereotype cartoons on YouTube now. Especially the wartime ones… it puts me in mind of the current war in Iraq and the push to paint middle-eastern folks as crazy and violent extremists.

  3. July 8th, 2007 at 05:19 | #3

    I loved watching Sloucho from when I was 3 years old. I still have some old recorded vhs tapes and the coloring book… and I still love cartoons as much as ever at 21 now! I miss him a lot and wish I had all of his shows on dvd!

  4. December 14th, 2007 at 19:33 | #4

    I worked the cameras at his other WELM show, a live call-in show called “Tee Vee Trivia.” Callers matched their wits with the local movie review journalist in a rip-off of “Jeopardy.” Every week one of the questions was “has there ever, in this or any parallel universe, been a funny episode of ‘My Three Sons’?”

    He also published a few hand-drawn cartoons about his adolescence in 1970s East Lansing, with lots of pinball references.

  5. March 21st, 2008 at 01:51 | #5

    Amazing!! Thank you so much for this writeup. I watched his show quite often as a newly-immigrated, impressionable, and television-tied 6 or 7-year-old (about 1986-88), living in MSU’s family housing complex. I was much too young to understand his commentary between cartoons, but the quality of his muffled voice behind that hideous mask definitely struck me. Actually, it *scared* me to the point where I had nightmares about his show. The old cartoons he aired also seemed out of place with what I watched during “normal” programming hours, and overall it just seemed like The Show That Should Not Be, something beamed in from an alternate dimension. Cripes, he creeped me out, but I was HOOKED. I also requested a coloring book, and was so confused by what I considered to be the most UNcolorable sketches I had ever been given. *I* could draw better than him as an elementary school kid, and that made him even more of an enigma to me — he was not like any other adult I knew.

    I would love to see his show again. No doubt it would resonate quite differently with me now, but I wonder if, somehow, his presence during my formative childhood years somehow influenced my appreciation for the weird and the obscure.

  6. February 17th, 2009 at 17:35 | #6

    Oh, yeah, “Tee Vee Trivia” — what a great show! It wasn’t on any local stations in FL so I had to order VHS tapes of it, and those great cartoon collections, directly from Sloucho. Those tapes made for great drinking fun with friends! (Can’t remember how I found out about him.) Thanks for post and thanks Sloucho!

  7. MC Evil E
    March 10th, 2009 at 19:13 | #7

    I’m a close friend of AceNoFace who posted a comment above. As teenagers we watched Cartoon Control Room and TeeVee Trivia relentlessly. One time, when we were about 17, Ace got to work the camera for TeeVee Trivia and I got to don the Incredible Hulk mask and be Sloucho’s very own Vanna, the Weenie Hulk. In fact, it may have been the very last show — pretty soon he was gone and I don’t off the top of my head remember any others.

    I still have a bunch of his hand-drawn, xeroxed “Comix,” which were outstanding.

    Thanks for this blog entry — a real nostalgia trip.

  8. brad grad 88
    May 15th, 2011 at 19:58 | #8

    In 1986 I took the public access class at WELM, when Sloucho was the fav show. I believe it was on his show that they played a hilarious fake promotional video for Haslett: The town that taste forgot. For our,”grad” project our class did a live-on-tape takeoff of Peoples Court, called E.L. Law (LA Law was popular at the time) and due to a timing error we were forced to extend our show using props hastily grabbed from the Sloucho box. We stuffed a pig puppet over a Garfield plushy and made up a fake petfood commercial. Thanks for saving us Sloucho!

  9. Yeti Chick
    December 9th, 2011 at 23:51 | #9

    Holy crap, what a blast from the past! I also worked on TeeVee Trivia (usually in the control room) and Media Meanderings, the movie & tv review show. I was one of the other people occasionally in the control room during Cartoon Control Room – usually the only part of me on camera was my furry boots propped up on the switcher, hence the name “Yeti Chick”. I’ve seen some bits of the show up on youtube now and then. Ahhh, nostalgia…

  10. Joe
    November 5th, 2014 at 06:25 | #10

    I love modern search engines and the stuff you can find.

    Sloucho was entirely the reason that Eat at Joe’s happened. I had been hanging out with Tim at Pinball Pete’s and managed to get invited into the world of Sloucho with all the wonderful people that lived there (I’ll even take the credit for introducing the Yeti Chick to her future husband).

    I was a film student at the time and kept having all of these great ideas for what to do with the studio equipment. Sloucho told me to keep my hands off the equipment and that if I wanted to play around with it then I should make my own show.

    My only real talent turned out to be getting other people to pitch in to make a fun show. I’ve posted an overview of the first year (which includes a guest host spot by Sloucho) on YouTube if anyone is up for a blast from the past.

    http://youtu.be/WJ4gMq7wCrk?list=UUH2kryg149p_iqSPWxT7fOQ

    Then the finale is up starting with this video – http://youtu.be/5Vj3pk_rAvk?list=UUH2kryg149p_iqSPWxT7fOQ

    Sadly, that’s all I have to share.

    Thanks for bringing back these memories (even though you wrote the words 8 years ago).

  11. Jay
    December 6th, 2017 at 22:42 | #11

    I wish someone would post the full shows. Sloucho was way ahead of his time and totally unknown.

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