Archive for the ‘Watching television’ category

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.