Zines of the Airwaves Atomic TV By Terry Gilmer. Like a 50-megaton bomb, Atomic TV blows away boring network television and the mediocrity for which it stands...
Like a 50-megaton bomb, Atomic TV blows away boring network television and the mediocrity for which it stands. Atomic TV showcases obscure, bizarre, and often risqué video that primetime TV will never be quite ready for. This cavalcade of cable access weirdness was created by Tom “Man About Town” Warner and Scott “Unpainted” Huffines of Atomic Books in Baltimore, Maryland.
Atomic TV specializes in video footage that would never turn up on local TV channels. The show has featured campy ’50s educational films, Japanese music videos, Mexican wrestling movies, racy French Scopitones and scores of other hidden video treasures from around the globe. Tom and Scott also take their cameras on remotes to concerts, film festivals, and video expos.
Atomic Books closed its doors at its old location last December but reopened under new management in the hip Baltimore suburb of Hampden this April. Despite rough times for Atomic Books, Tom Warner continues to produce new episodes of Atomic TV. The show recently won its fourth consecutive Cameo Arts & Entertainment Award from Baltimore City Cable and continues to amaze cable access viewers. Take a good look, folks: Atomic TV is a Chernobyl-sized meltdown of twisted video in the world of cable access television.
Terry Gilmer:How did you and Scott Huffines come to make Atomic TV?
Tom Warner: It seemed like the right idea at the right time for us. It came at a time in our lives when we were free from the time constraints of having girlfriends and we wanted to air our opinions about what we liked and what we didn’t like in Baltimore. Plus, between us I think we probably have two football stadium’s worth of videotapes.
From my end, Atomic TV was a new medium in which to express myself. I had done the musician thing, playing in punk bands in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I had done the DJ thing in the ’80s, and I had done the writing thing, penning features for the local weekly alternative paper, the Baltimore City Paper, up until the new management at the paper gave me the cold shoulder around 1997. It was a new outlet; a new door opening where others had been slammed shut. And it offered autonomy. When you do your own TV show, no one edits you but yourself.
I knew of public access TV being available in Baltimore and convinced Scott that television is a more immediate way to get our views “out there.” Plus, it was free! All we had to do was take a class or two at Coppin State University and we could use the cable facilities there. We ended up opting to avoid the station facilities because we hated going down there. It was in one of the worst neighborhoods in Baltimore, on the crackhouse and drive-by-shootings West side of town. Every time I went down there to drop off a tape it would take forever because I was always stuck behind some hearse for the latest drive-by funeral procession. So I bought a couple of editing decks and a camera, started editing in my basement, and doing some post-production titles and stuff at Atomic Books.
I think the real inspiration was, we can do a show like the old Howard Stern show on WOR or “Night Flight”or even Videodrome. Those were, and are, our inspirations as far as broadcasting goes.
TG:Where do you get all the footage for Atomic TV?
TW: Scott and I have video collections that, if laid end to end, would probably outreach the Great Wall of China. We are total vidiots; video junkies who tape and archive just about everything, kind of like Gerry Todd (Rick Moranis) on the old Second City TV show (I live by Gerry’s sage credo: “Tape everything and if you must leave the house, set the recorder!”).
TG:My favorite Atomic TV episodes are your annual holiday specials. What’s the attraction with Underdog Lady (Suzanne Muldowney)?
TW: Like moths drawn to the flame, we keep coming back to Underdog Lady. I dunno, I just find her fascinating. I’m actually starting to like her now. Sure, she’s a freak, but she has spunk! And she’s actually very intelligent. Perhaps an idiot savant. Definitely obsessive-compulsive; just watch her scooping up tootsie rolls on our latest holiday special. I think her medication is Roy Rogers roast beef sandwiches mixed with tootsie rolls and cheesecake.
This year’s episode is my favorite one yet. It’s ALL Underdog, all thriller with no filler. And Todd Stachowski is brilliant as her nemesis, Satan Claus. At one point, the authorities tried to kick him out of the parade and kids were silly-stringing him. Then Underdog herself ripped his devil’s mask off and he ran around screaming “Ouch! She is so powerful! Please don’t hurt me anymore!” If you look closely, you’ll see Underdog Lady smiling. She liked being a hero who saved the day. It was classic Good versus the forces of Evil and Darkness. I tell you, I’m starting to like that nutcase!
TG:I assume Mychelle is a friend of Scott’s. Who made the decision that Atomic TV needed an official disclaimer girl?
TW: Actually, Mychelle was a friend of mine and we almost started dating before a comedy of errors nipped that in the bud on New Year’s Eve, 1997. We met her at a go-go club near Scott’s storein fact, it was right after the first time we taped Underdog Lady in the Mayor’s Christmas Parade. We were so stressed out after the Underdog Experience that we had to have alcohol and titillation immediately, it was a matter of life and death. So we went to this gentleman’s club and there was Mychelle hanging out with the guys like a regular pal. Obviously she had a great body for that line of work, but what struck me was her intelligence and sense of humor. Unlike the other strippers, she had a clue. Plus, she gave me her shrimp salad platter for dinner. How many go-go dancers would do that? I was in love!
Mychelle is someone with a body for stripping, but the mind of an artist. In fact, she’s a very talented photographer who’s on partial scholarship now at the Maryland Institute of Art. She offered to be on the show and do whatever we asked, for no pay! Just for the fun of it. That’s why we love Mychelle. The disclaimer girl bit was just a shameless attempt to keep people watching while we announced the cable station’s disclaimer, which we were required to show. I mean, what better goof on that than to show Mychelle in a thong bending over to show off her breasts while cooing, “The following show contains sexual situations”?
TG:Have you had any problems with Baltimore cable over content and what you could or could not air?
TW: Many times. That’s why we do tape versions of the show (for sale or rent) and cleaned-up but still Not Ready For Prime Time broadcast versions. The first one that got us into trouble was one involving our friend Todd Stachowski, the “Viewer Discretion Is Strongly Advised” episode. The whole episode consisted of Todd making out with his girlfriend in the men’s room of a heavy metal bar.
When I went to edit it at the cable station, I asked one of our teachers for assistance with some fancy online effects using the station’s equipment. He loved the show, but when he saw Gina’s ass in that thong with Todd’s head buried up her butt, he blanched. “I’ll help you,” he said, “But I can’t put my name on this episodethis is pornography! They’ll never let you air this!” Believe me, he watched the footage over and over with great enthusiasm, he loved it, but he insisted that we mosaic the more risqué scenes. After the episode aired it was immediately pulled after viewer complaints.
Then there was our infamous porn convention episode. We went to the ’97 Atlantic City East Coast Video Show and put out a two-hour uncensored tape of porn star interviews and clips. I also made a one-hour hard R version of it for broadcast, but it aired once and then I got a call from the station manager. See, there are a lot of religious shows on our public access station here and plus they were scheduling us in Prime Time, like at 8 at night, right after, I dunno, “Gospel Aerobics.” So I think some ministers called in and got that one pulled. I’m pretty sure I edited out all the boobs and genitalia, but I think they didn’t like the opening scene where this starlet Ravyness is demonstrating her artificial vagina, called “My Pussy.” I think I may have left a second or two of a banana lodged in it like a stick shift. Funny thing is, people all over town asked me when it was gonna air again because they couldn’t believe what they saw. It was like when JFK was assassinatedeverybody knew where they were and what they were doing when the Atomic TV Porn Convention episode aired. It was the Zapruder film of local sleaze broadcasting!
TG:How did your correspondents “Chastity Darling” and “Stella Gambino” come to be on the show?
TW: I knew Stella from her days as a waitress at The Cafe Hon. Being the small pond that Baltimore is (actually, it’s more like a small petrie dish), I told her my ex-girfriend was Polish and she said, “Oh yeah, I know a Polish girl,” and in a city with about 120,000 Pollacks, bingo, she knew my ex, Sharon. They were best buds from way back. Stella had been on TV before, too, doing a thing for the local news station called “Soapdish.” She would dress up in her B-52 double-decker wig and chew gum and do the whole working class waitress’s take on reviewing that week’s soap opera plotlines on ABC. They dropped the show after 9 months because no one in this town appreciates God-given talent. Thank God John Waters finally discovered her. She’s had bit parts in Pecker, and Cecil B. Demented. She’s the kindest, sweetest, most loyal friend I can imagine and she’s got what The A-Team’s Howling Mad Murdock used to call “the jazz”: instant charm, “it-ness,” an aura. Just turn on the camera and let her talk and the rest is magic.
Chastity Darling is a local actor who continually begs us to be on the show, so we throw her the occasional bone just so we don’t have to weed through all those voicemail messages. But unlike Stella, she sets limits. She doesn’t like her air-time to be associated with anything sexual, so of course, I try to edit in as many offensive video inserts as I can, you know, clips from VD films, shots of condoms, etc. She’s also made some cameos in some Waters films like Hairspray, Crybaby, Serial Mom and her greatest moment in Peckera whole 10-second shot! I knew her because she used to go out with my friend Big Dave Cawley (King of Men)’s old roommate. Scott and I briefly had crushes on her, but she had that “My biological clock is ticking” thing going on, so we quickly ran screaming.
TG:I have to ask about the East Coast Adult Video Show. Besides Rebecca Lord who was your favorite person you met there? And is Ron Jeremy just as hairy in person?
TW: Ron Jeremy is one hairy son of a gun, but he can be kind of moody. I guess I would be, too, given the circumstances. I like Buttman, John Stagliano, and actually got to talk to him this last convention. He’s surprisingly serious (Okay, maybe it’s because he’s HIV-positive now!); if you want to talk shop with him, he’ll talk shop about directing like he’s on an A&E Bio or some Kennedy Institute workshop panel. Stagliano is a pioneer and a legend, the man who invented gonzo-style cinematography, which unfortunately has been beaten into the ground. He applied a punk rock D.I.Y aesthetic to the genre, yet all he gets is frat boys coming up to him to autograph his posters. Sure, he’s a sex freak, but he’s also a closet auteur. And with all the fame, he still likes to just work the camera like a techie grunt.
But my favorite is Suzi Suzuki. She’s one of the nicest people I have ever met and she invited us to an exclusive industry party and treated us like friends. Believe it or not, I enjoyed talking to her about Japanese music (she used to strip to Puffy!) and directors (Kurosawa, Itami, Takeshi Kitaro) than talking the usual shop about sex and her videos. She’s known as the Asian Anal Queen, but I don’t like to think about that aspect of her. I just remember someone with a lot of charm and personality. There aren’t many in the adult film industry like that. Mostly, the guys are all like New Jersey Andrew Dice Clay-looking guidos with chains and jewelry who are either pimping their girlfriend out to make some dinero or are old perv businessmen looking for an easy cash register ka-ching. Meanwhile, the gals have that looking-right-through-you gaze, the attention span of a three-year-old, the fashion sense WalMart meets Frederick’s of Hollywood, and they just talk that bullshit line of “I love anal and I love cum, blah blah blah.” Of course, I’m part and parcel of the press machinery that promotes and contributes to that lie. But sometimes you meet someone like Rebecca Lord or Suzi Suzuki or Celine Devoreaux or Shayla LaVeaux or Jeana Fine—people who can actually talk in complete sentences and are graceful and have personality and are just fun to be around. I’ll tell you what, you’ll never see Rebecca Lord flashing her groceries or doing the crass stuff at the porn convention. She may suck dick on camera, but, in my book she’s all class, the Audrey Hepburn of Porn.
TG:What’s been the most rewarding part of doing Atomic TV?
TW: Meeting people you wouldn’t otherwise meet and hearing them say they shared a interest with you or that you turned them on to something they never would have thought of before. That goes for meeting fans as well as celebrities. Like, I aired a video by my all-time favorite pop musician, Tommy Keene. For me, that alone made it worthwhile because he’s a local legend who never hit the big time, even though he’s toured as a hired gun for Paul Westerberg and Velvet Crush and people like that. But then out of the blue, some guy comes up and said how great it was to see Tommy Keene on TV. Wow, I thought, I finally met the other Keene fan. It was great.
Other people saw my Turning Japanese episodes (two hours of music videos and interviews with Japanese rock bands) and said, “I never knew about that world. Thanks for showing that,” and then they went out and bought a Pizzicato Five or Puffy CD. Plus, you get into shows and events and get to profile your idols. I’ve met Shonen Knife, Kahimi Karie, Jim Rose, Los Straitjackets, Suzi Suzuki, Man or Astro-Man. I mean, we make no money on the show, so just meeting people and hearing back from them is great. And, having the outlet to showcase talented people, like our friends in the band Garage Sale or highlighting Skizz, a local filmmaker/musician who puts on an indie film festival every yearusing the power of the medium to get their names out there. That’s very rewarding.
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