For those who are curious about Atlanta’s cultural past and want to learn about the evolution of the city’s art scene from the 1960s to the present, Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library is one of the best resources. Among the collection highlights are materials relating to Civil Rights, Southern literature, arts organizations, the LGBT community and Atlanta’s punk rock culture, which is a relatively new and still-growing archive under the watch of Randy Gue, Curator of Modern Political and Historical Collections.
Another recent acquisition that offers a fascinating window into Atlanta culture in the 1980s is The American Music Show, a long-running public cable access series co-produced by Dick Richards, James Bond, Potsy Duncan and Bud “Beebo” Lowry. Consisting of more than 700 videotapes donated by Richards to the library, this treasure trove documents an alternative arts community that was emerging in the pre-MTV years. It remained under the radar despite the fact that it was hiding in plain view.
If you had cable TV, you could easily tune in to The American Music Show on Atlanta’s public access channel and be transported to an Off-Off-Broadway-like performance space populated by characters with names like DeAundra Peek, Conjurewoman, Col. Lonnie Fain, Boompah Bailey, The Lady Bunny and the Rev. & Mrs. J.T. Stovall. The programming was an unclassifiable mashup of underground music, absurdist game shows like “Guess My Injury,” eccentric Southern characters, drag acts, camcorder news stories from the streets and nightclubs and faux talk shows.
Andy Ditzler, who curates the Film Love series, has been researching The American Music Show for over a year and will feature highlights from the collection with an introductory talk and screening at Whitespace Gallery on Aug. 25 at 8pm. It will be the first of an ongoing series of American Music Show events that will continue through the spring at different venues around the city.
I spoke to Andy about the series.
[All photos courtesy Dick Richards]
Jeff Stafford: Can you give me a little background on the origins of The American Music Show?
Andy Ditzler: The show was created by Dick Richards and James Bond [brother of Georgia Senator Julian Bond] who had been friends since the early ’70s. They had worked on George McGovern’s presidential campaign when they were both really young. The American Music Show first existed as a radio show that James Bond hosted on WRFG and he would play music and there would be skits. It was a precursor to the cable TV show.
James was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1973 and that’s the same year Maynard Jackson was elected Atlanta’s first black mayor. In the late ’70s Julian Bond [James’s brother] was president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, which at the time had taken action against the monopolization of media access in the city — they were suing a company they felt owned too much of the radio-TV business. Between that and James being on the City Council they were able to get public access television for Atlanta. There was a company, Cable Atlanta, that provided resources for people to have access to equipment, get trained and make their own television shows and broadcast them. James was instrumental in pushing that through. One of the first things he did was start taping his own show, and James is very present in the earliest episodes.
What is the official timeline of The American Music Show?
I haven’t found it written anywhere but I’m constructing a provisional timeline. The show was first broadcast in 1981, probably January, and they finally closed it down in 2005 so it ran for almost a quarter century. Emory doesn’t have all the tapes, by the way, so a lot of the earliest tapes are elsewhere, but they have lots of stuff that’s definitive of the show. The show really starts to heat up in 1986 in terms of Dick Richards and Potsy Duncan defining the later style of the show, the set design, the guests, and their content on gay culture.
Since it was called The American Music Show, was the focus mainly on music in the beginning?
It doesn’t ever appear to have been primarily a music show. But James, who loves music, came up with the title and he wanted music on the show. The early shows had music playing constantly in the background as they are bantering on the couch, talk show-style, and then they will cut to videotape of someone performing in a club in Atlanta. Or have someone come in and do a performance in the studio to music. But the title of the show is one of those things that I love because it doesn’t match up to what you are seeing. All of a sudden you are watching something different than what you expected. MTV stood for Music Television when it started, but after ten years or so it was mostly reality TV shows like The Real World. But I find The American Music Show a more interesting example of a title that is not what it seems to be.
What do you find particularly relevant about the show that would be of interest to the Atlanta art community?
I was talking to someone recently who was describing the kind of parties they used to have in the ’70s prior to The American Music Show, where they would dress up in costumes and go into character, and they would just do this in their living rooms for each other’s enjoyment. That speaks to a kind of life as performance, or how to live creatively. The American Music Show is right in line with that. These folks were subcultural in a city in a state that didn’t necessarily celebrate that kind of existence. That kind of existence is hard everywhere, but in the South it has a peculiar relationship to its surroundings.
So some people in Atlanta decided to create a television show unlike any other. It’s down in their basement and they’re constructing their own entertainment. Their whole lives revolved around this act of creativity. And then they documented it on videotape so they made sure it was preserved. It goes way beyond sketch comedy on television. I think that example of a creative life would be inspiring to artists working in any medium. And there’s an aspect of their collective creativity within television that harks back to Warhol but also looks ahead to lots of later performative video art – I think of Ryan Trecartin, for instance.
One of the things that’s interesting about the show is that they are not presenting themselves as some paragon of inclusiveness and affirmative diversity. They never talk about what they’re doing on the show in those terms. They just splash things out on the screen and let you deal with it. And sometimes the humor is pretty dark. It takes a while to realize that and try to articulate what it is that’s so complex about the black and queer presence on the show.
Who are some of the standout performers associated with the show?
You get RuPaul very early on. He moved to Atlanta from San Diego. He saw The American Music Show and wrote them a fan letter, so Dick Richards invited him on the show. There are any number of RuPaul performances that are interesting. RuPaul as Dionne Warwick. There’s a game of Twister with RuPaul and the U-Hauls and somebody from the audience. The Peek Sisters are awesome. Wanda Peek is played by Molli Worthington and she’s created a lot of characters on the show, as did Paul Burke and Rosser Shymanski who created DeAundra Peek.
What is your approach to organizing the material since there is so much of it?
I’m using the term retrospective to describe what I’m doing and it could never be complete. But my series of screenings is trying to get across an overview of the ways the show was innovative or valuable and worth watching. Right now I have two organizing ideas. One is about creative living and the act of putting that on videotape. The other one is preservation.
You run into a very interesting thing here with The American Music Show collection. First, it is a collection of tapes, so the tapes are preserved but the tapes themselves preserve certain things. One of the things it preserves is Atlanta spaces because they’re taking the camera out into the streets and taping the clubs, the bars, etc. Some of these places no longer exist, so it is also an archive of the city. The other thing is they are constantly holding up Polaroid photos to the camera. So, there will be a close-up on a photo of the Peek Sisters with Andy Warhol … and you realize you’re looking at a still photo preserved on video.
Why did you choose Whitespace as the premiere for the series?
One of the interesting things about having it at Whitespace is that the show was taped in Inman Park for many years at Dick Richards’ place. So, we’ll be in the neighborhood where the show was often produced. It’s also a more intimate space. I want to give a sense of what an episode might have been like to watch on your home TV.
Jeff Stafford writes about art, film, music, gardening and other favorite topics for various digital publications.