Nelson Sullivan, Funtone USA and The American Music Show
Dick Richards interviewed by Carolyn Rivera
Nelson's videos were a regular feature on The American Music Show
Nelson was comfortable both in front of the camera and behind it.
Nelson filmed this Super 8 movie in 1976, during the summer he operated his own beauty shop on Fire Island.
Nelson took this trip 4 times a week - from his home in the Meatmarket to his job at Patelson's, the classical sheet music mecca of New York City. Patelson's was located directly behind Carnegie Hall.
Nelson explained his camcorder technique to Lahoma one night in the living/dining room of their home at 5 Ninth Avenue.
The American Music Show first started broadcasting from the home of Mrs. Julia Bond, mother of civil rights legend Julian Bond and also mother of James Bond, one of the creators of The American Music Show.
Many interesting personalities appeared on The American Music Show during its 23 year run on Atlanta public access tv.
The American Music Show's New Anchor Wanda Peek covered RuPaul's participation in a massive civil rights protest in Cumming, Ga.
Here the Heidi-Mobile-Insta-Cam went to Athens, Ga. and captured this intimate moment between RuPaul and Hope Nicholls of the band Fetchin' Bones.
The American Music Show gave many out-of-the-mainstream artists a chance to be on television.
This music video best describes the synergy which made the DeAundra Peek series such a success.
DeAundra Peek joined The Singing Peek Sisters when she was only 16. This is the her formal introduction by her sister Wanda on The American Music Show.
DeAundra Peek's career took off when she starred in "DeAundra Peek's Hi Class Hall 'o Fame Theater". This is a complete show from that series.
DeAundra Peek added her own special touch to the popular songs of that time, like in this homage to REM's "Losin' My Religion" - "Losin' My Vienners".
This music video starring DeAundra Peek was exhibited at the Whitney Museum in New York City.
The music video for Now Explosion's first single "Bad Bad Bad"
Nelson's townhouse at 5 Ninth Avenue was truly a sight to behold.
Nelson Sullivan met Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey the night he accompanied Lady Bunny to Danceteria where their act The Fabulous Pop Tarts were performing.
RuPaul had a good time collaborating with The Pop Tarts for his groundbreaking album "Starbooty - The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack" on Funtone USA Records. Video by Nelson Sullivan.
The interviews for this report about Nelson Sullivan were recorded by Stephane Gael of Lausanne Switzerland's Climage artists' group at a memorial tribute party to Nelson held at Limelight and organized by Nelson's many New York friends.
John Sex was one of the superstars of the New York underground scene that AIDS prevented from crossing over into the mainstream.
Nelson's visit to Sylvia Miles' Getaway Home in Woodstock was included in the documentary "Nelson Sullivan's World of Wonder" - one of the first major television productions of Randy Baretto and Fenton Bailey's World of Wonder Corporation.
After his residency in Atlanta, Robert Coddington moved to Los Angeles and became the manager for Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn.
Susanne Bartsch's Love Ball to raise money for AIDS was the last major event Nelson videotaped.
This video by Nelson Sullivan has been exhibited at film festivals both in Europe and the USA.
My name is Carolyn Rivera and I stumbled across the American Music Show on YouTube once upon a time some months ago and fell in love with it’s hilarity. My boyfriend, Josh Schafer, is the Editor-in-Chief for Lunchmeat VHS Fanzine, a VHS-centric print and online publication curated by himself and contributed to by a slew of other talented individuals.
I noticed through the uploads on YouTube that Nelson Sullivan documented the 80’s drag scene in such a fun & interesting way and I wanted to share this subject with Josh’s audience. I must pose a very important question prior to conducting this interview, if you do accept: Was the American Music Show shot on video tape? If so, please accept my offer to feature Nelson on the Lunchmeat blog so we can showcase his work on the American Music Show to a whole new VHS lovin’ audience!
- Who are you? What’s your relation to the filmmaker?
Nelson and I were, what is called today, BFFs. We grew up together in a small town in South Carolina, went to the same college, saw each other occasionally in the 1970s, and resumed our close friendship in the 80s. Since 1970, I had been living in Atlanta; and he, in New York.
- When did Nelson first show an interest in filmmaking? Were you involved in his productions?
Nelson was an artist with a variety of talents. He was a painter, studied classical piano in college, and later developed an interest in film after he had moved to New York in 1970. This was the height of the Viet Nam War; and Nelson had the luxury of post-graduate studies as he had a deferment from the military draft because of an accident he had falling into a pit at an abandoned gold mine in our home town. That left him with a metal screw in his ankle and got him classified 4-F. I'm not sure exactly when, but sometime in the 70s Nelson attended film school around about the same time he had his own beauty parlor with a summer location on Fire Island. He said he was an alcoholic then too, he told me. By the time we reconnected in the 80s, Nelson had stopped drinking entirely and was a part-time music consultant at Patelson's classical music store behind Carnegie Hall. Working part-time gave Nelson the flexibility to go out late at night, which gave him the impetus to acquire a video set to record it all. He knew he lived an interesting life, and, through video, he could easily share it with others.
- Why do you think he went for shot-on-video? Was it the accessibility and ease or were there some aesthetic preferences?
In the early 1980s, affordable video cameras and recorders became available to the general public for the first time. I had bought a Panasonic VHS camera and recorder to make The American Music Show, and Nelson became inspired to get the same because he realized, if I could do it, he could do it too. Basically, there was a camera, about the size of a shoe box, that rested on the shoulder and a portable recorder on a strap that hung from the shoulder, powered a heavy battery that would last about 45 minutes with a good charge. After a few years, Nelson switched to a smaller 8mm Kyocero camcorder because it was easier to use (However, after 20 years in storage, I encountered more problems with his 8mm tapes than his VHS ones).
Nelson had made many fabulous friends during the 1970s, many of them with aspirations in show business. Hardly anybody had their own video camera then, so they would invite Nelson to video their shows. He would make copies for the artists and send me copies of his favorite performances for broadcast on The American Music. I think he liked to tell people his tapes were being shown on TV in Atlanta, and that helped us both out.
Nelson had only one camera to work with, so, at first, he shot everything from the perspective a person would have if he or he had been at the event. Towards the end of his video career, Nelson developed a style where he would come in and out of the picture himself, to talk to the viewer about what was happening around them. The perspective then became what a person would see going along with Nelson somewhere.
- Tell us about The American Music Show.
I had always wanted to be on television but was too weird for regular TV. One night at a political party in 1980, a little toasted and tipsy, I ran into James Bond and his girlfriend Potsy Duncan. James was a member the Atlanta City Council, which had just negotiated a new cable contract for the City of Atlanta with Cable America. That contract included a generous public access component which James had worked hard to get for Atlanta. James had just purchased a Panasonic VHS video camera and recorder and suggested we revive our old radio show and do it on the new public access channel that was coming soon. In the 1970s, James and I had a program called The American Music Show (James thought up the name) on the listener-sponsored station WRFG; we had been thrown off the station for being too silly and technically inept. I liked James' suggestion, and Potsy said she would work the camera. We decided it would be televised live-on-tape from James's mother's basement (so we could have proper refreshments and not be bothered by grown-ups) with no editing, and it would be a talk/variety show, and the only guests we would invite would be people we knew. We would attempt to have one good thing on each program that we could show over and over again later, and the rest would be filler. Sometimes we surprised ourselves and had several good things on one show.
That was pretty much our concept for the entire 23 year run of The American Music Show, except when James left the show because he got depressed because doing The American Music Show had ruined his political career. Potsy and I then moved the show over to my house and shrank it from one hour to thirty minutes and got Bud "Beebo" Lowry to join us as cameraman and talking head. In James's basement we had used his Panasonic VHS equipment, 2 Shure microphones and the sound mixer I had gotten from Radio Shack. Once the show moved, my housemate Ted Rubenstein started working at CNN where the employees were offered a 75% discount on a Curtis Mathis camera and VHS recorder. I was skeptical about the Curtis Mathis brand but got Ted to get me a set anyway, and we ended up using the same Curtis Mathis equipment for the next 20 years. The public access channel accepted VHS tapes, so I would put a label on the tape after we had finished, take that to the public access channel, and it would be cablecast during the week we recorded it, usually. Sometimes we had squabbles with the public access management - a couple of its directors tried to get us off the channel because they thought it was too ragtag and controversial and demeaned the channel - but that never stopped us because we always followed the rules. We did the program for the people who liked our type of program - especially the drunk and the stoned - so criticism from those who didn't like the program didn't bother us at all.
Through the years, we had many fabulous guests both real and made-up. RuPaul remains our most famous write-in guest. We didn't know him at all until he wrote a fan letter. That letter was so nice, we invited him to the show, and Potsy made him her special pet. RuPaul became a semi-regular, and we would do remote broadcasts from RuPaul's nightclub shows, publicity stunts, and movie sets. His first movie "Trilogy of Terror" had its world premiere on our show, and several of his later films we presented as "special events." We followed his career devotedly until he became an established star.
For our remote broadcasts, we used a Panasonic VHS camcorder. We called it the Heidi-Mobile-Insta-Cam. (For a short time our show was named "The Heidi Show" after that cute little Alpine girl. James wanted The American Music Show name for himself and made us change our name. Mercifully, he relented. I had not realized that Heidi has so many enemies. We got many complaints about that name.) I was the "technical director" for our show - which accounts for our slogan, "always low standards." The original VHS tapes we recorded on the camcorder, I'd take directly to the public access station too. I had found that a dubbed VHS tape didn't cablecast well: the original recording did fine.
Every person associated with our show has a rich, imaginary life, so fantasy friends were frequent guests on our show. The Singing Peek Sisters were 3 sisters from a trailer park who couldn't sing that well, and Wanda Peek was our first news anchor. DeAundra Peek was Wanda's 16-year-old sister who eventually got her own TV show and became a local Atlanta celebrity. Conjurewoman would exorcise demons. Paul Burke created Duffy Odum (a learning-challenged little boy), Ralph Bailey (veteran announcer and host of "The Obituary Column of the Air" who became the announcer for Fred Willard on Comedy Central's "Access America") and many more characters including the pervy singer Froggy Boy. That's just a few of the variety of talents that passed through our studio along with gallores of drag queens, rockers, artists, entertainers, and anybody who wanted to do something goofy on TV.
I think our main concept was to hold open a tiny window for unconventional talent to sneak into peoples' homes and to do it in a way that would avoid burnout. The idea of making it a weekly party remained the constant the whole time we were on and made doing the program a pleasure rather than a chore. Thinking of all the fun clubs and wild places we went and all the nice people we met because we did a TV show - I'm always impressed.
- We love DeAundra Peek. Where did the character come from and who played her?
DeAundra Peek began her trek to cultish stardom when Wanda Peek (portrayed by Molli Worthington) decided to resurrect her act The Singing Peek Sisters after her sorry sisters Starla and LaShonda had run off. The Fabulous Rosser (Rosser Shymanski) was available, and together Molli and Rosser created DeAundra Peek - Wanda's 16-year-old sister and background singer. Rosser was another of our write-in guests. He wrote an effusive letter and, when he came over to be on the program, brought us all lovely presents. Potsy adores getting presents, and Rosser became an instant semi-regular on the show. The new Singing Peek Sisters the played a few clubs and recorded some songs with RuTop Raq that made their disharmony actually sound good.
Before that happened I had started producing a 30-minute program on public access to promote Funtone's acts. Called "The Space Seed Video Countdown) it was hosted by members of Funtone's rock band Cocktail Girlz, which had broken up to become the heavy metal band Space Seed. When those handsome guys decided they didn't want to do my show anymore, I had an inspiration to have DeAundra hostess the program, because Rosser was very cooperative and would do anything. We named it "DeAundra Peek's Teenage Music Club", set it in the Community Room at Odum's All-Doublewide Mobile Homes Court in Palmetto, Ga. where DeAundra lived, and got Duffy Odum to be DeAundra's sidekick.
We shot the show in my living room in front of a backdrop painted by Rosser. The music videos I shot onto each program from a TV set in a corner of the room. That gave the music videos a psychedelic look enhanced by the many green lines on the music videos themselves because the VHS VCR I was using for edits could not make a clean insert edit. Later on, I upgraded to a Sony VHS recorder that did excellent insert editing.
The basic format for every DeAundra show was always the same: Duffy would introduce the show followed by 2 videos; DeAundra would sing a song live in the studio; DeAundra and Duffy would do something funny; some more videos; DeAundra and Duffy would say something funny again; then some more videos and a brief goodbye, should there were any time left. That was the format for all DeAundra's Shows - DeAundra Peeks Video Funhouse, DeAundra Peek's Hi Class Hall 'o Fame Theater, DeAundra Peek's Ultra Style Bin, DeAundra Peek's Salon de Odum's, DeAundra Peek's Most Fun Summer Playhouse, and DeAundra Peek's Shop 'n Show. In shows after the Teenage Music Club, video moments from The American Music Show and Nelson Sullivan's video collection were added to the mix, and DeAundra was joined by a second sidekick Candi Suntop (portrayed by Potsy). Those three did longer funny segments that included Vienner sausage recipes, ridiculous arts and crafts projects, product offerings like Direct Order Vienners and a beauty pageant - the Little Miss Odum's Contest. DeAundra made professional music videos ,and her "Supermodel" music video was exhibited at the Whitney Museum in New York. My other favorites of her music videos are "Losin' My Vienners" and "Disco Paradise 2000 (Everybody March)".
Through her run on public access TV, DeAundra gained a loyal following. She did many personal appearances and charity events, became a darling in the gay punk zine culture, appeared on commercial television on "The Best of the Worst Show" on Fox, became a regular on "TV Pizza" on Channel 4 in London and performed many times at Lady Bunny's Wigstock Festival in New York.
I am very glad Wanda Peek needed a new sister, because DeAundra Peek opened up many fun doors for me.
- What drew you two to New York? How did you two get involved with one of thecraziest party scenes in NYC? What was it like documenting it? Any wild stories you want to share?
After Ted Rubenstein and I started our small record label Funtone USA, we decided to go to New York to promote our first single, "Bad Bad Bad" by Now Explosion. Ted was a good friend of Marc Josephson, publisher of the indie-rock zine "Rockpool." It sponsored an annual summer event called The New Music Seminar at the Hilton Hotel in New York. It was an expo for indie bands and labels, and Marc gave us free admission to everything. Teddy and I needed a place to crash for free too, so I arranged accommodations at Nelson's because he bragged about how much space he had. When we got to Nelson's apartment in the Meat Market, I was overwhelmed. He lived in a three-story townhouse with lots of rooms and a huge backyard garden. Out front was a cobblestone square, loud with meat trucks during the day and quiet and empty at night. It was a very old building, approaching dilapidated, but oozing so much charm and cool, I started planning ways to come back. Soon there were many reasons to return to New York (including cheap airfares on People Express), and Nelson began taking me along when he went with Michael Musto to see all the fabulous performers appearing at the Pyramid Club and the other hotspots happening Downtown. There was creative energy everywhere, and Nelson absorbed it and managed to capture much of it on his videos. As for wild stories, I'm terrible at telling those, so I let Nelson's videos do that for me.
- You said in an interview with John Sanchez that Nelson is responsible for RuPaul’s success today. How so?
It was through Nelson that RuPaul got hooked up with Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, creators of the World of Wonder Corporation and the most important part of RuPaul's success. Nelson first encountered them when he accompanied Lady Bunny to Danceteria to videotape her special guest appearance with their disco band The Fabulous Pop Tarts . Nelson was so impressed with the Pop Tarts sound, he sent me a video of the Pop Tarts' show, and I flipped for them too. Somehow, I talked them into producing an album for RuPaul, which they did for free (Funtone paid for the studio time). That record - "Starbooty - The Original Movie Soundtrack" - set the tone for RuPaul's future success. Randy and Fenton arranged RuPaul's deal with Tommy Boy Records and produced RuPaul's breakthrough music video "Supermodel."
- When did you gain access to Nelson’s collection? What's the weirdest thing he’s produced? What’s your favorite?
Once I had recovered from the shock of Nelson's sudden departure, I made plans to go to New York and bring Nelson's tapes back to Atlanta. We had a video partnership, and all our videos belonged to one another. Larry Tee and Jon Witherspoon, aka Lahoma van Zandt, were Nelson's roommates at 5 Ninth Avenue. They recognized the importance of Nelson's tapes and looked after the tapes until I arrived. It took a while to box them up, but, with the help of UPS, all 600 of them arrived safely in Atlanta. Today, Nelson's tapes have returned in New York and are being preserved in the Fayles Archives at NYC, located in the heart of Downtown Manhattan where many of Nelson's videos were made. They are available for anyone to see and use, and I'm sure the people of the future will be amazed seeing the colorful period in New York's history Nelson caught for us on tape.
The weirdest of Nelson's videos is, without a doubt, the movie "Mama Said". Nelson described it to me as "the most horrifying movie ever made." Nelson was its videographer and he shot it all on VHS tape. It is the story of a mother who raises her 3 sons to be women. It's a musical that begins with her sons, now grown women, operating a beauty parlor in Times Square. Gradually, their story unfolds to a tragic end. Watching it always leaves me petrified.
I have so many favorites in Nelson's archives. I love anything with John Sex (AIDS took him from us too soon), Susanne Bartch's parties with Kenny Kenny at the door, the Pop Tarts shows, Lahoma's singing "Big Daddy" and especially RuPaul's life at the Jane West Hotel, which proved that squalid can be beautiful in its own way.
- Has his work ever been exhibited or distributed before?
A year after Nelson's death, Fenton Bailey along with Laurie Weltz, produced a TV documentary entirely from Nelson's videos ("Nelson Sullivan's World of Wonder") for Channel 4 in London. That program is a bonus on the DVD "The Party Monster Shockumentary." The Climage Group included Nelson in an ARTE documentary about guerrilla video for European TV. Nelson's videos have been shown at film festivals around the world. I am most pleased, however, that now Nelson's videos are available 24/7 on the YouTube for anyone, anywhere to look at anytime and enjoy.
- When and why did you decide to share TAMS and some of his other work on YouTube?
Robert Coddington came to be the artist-in-residence with us in Atlanta in 2006. Today, he is the official archivist for the Nelson Sullivan Collection. Originally, we met in Chicago on a free excursion Steve Lafrienier arranged for the stars of The American Music Show. We did 2 shows at a Chicago gay bar called "Foxy's" where the patrons preferred the entertainment be bizarre. Robert was introduced to me there and we became colleagues. Robert helped me organize the Nelson tape collection and edited several Nelson videos exhibited on the gay film festival circuit. Robert also set up the first Nelson channel on YouTube, which was popular but was taken down by YouTube for some reason I've never found out. Later, my courage renewed, I started another Nelson channel and a Funtone channel, too. I got several scolding messages and penalties from YouTube at first which made me be careful. We made The American Music Show for anybody to see and Nelson made his videos for the same reason. YouTube has made that easy and possible for now, and I appreciate that a lot. I just wonder how long it will last.
- What are you up to now? Any filmmaking? Anything else you’d like to shout out?
Right now my partner David Goldman and I are being beach bums in Daytona Beach, enjoying paradise. In my spare time, I'm finding short videos from the Nelson and TAMS archives for YouTube. I get a charge from reading comments from the viewers like you.
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Nelson Sullivan's first cable tv show might have looked like this.
For questions about the Nelson Sulllivan Video Collection, e-mail email@example.com