Andrew Kingston – “This Weird Cable Program”: Queer Atlanta and the Archives of The American Music Show at Emory’s Rose Library

“This Weird Cable Program”: Queer Atlanta and the Archives of The American Music Show at Emory’s Rose Library

Andrew Kingston, Emory University

RuPaul – now an Emmy award winner and cultural force of nature – moved to Atlanta in the summer of 1976, fifteen years old and completely unknown. Five years later, after dropping out of high school and beginning his “dragucation” he began to actively seek out his future stardom.1 He describes this moment in his autobiography, Lettin’ It All Hang Out:

It was the summer of ‘81. I was wondering how my life was going to unfold, and how I was going to become a star. The answer came when I stumbled upon this weird cable program called The American Music Show. It was basically a variety show consisting of skits with a sick sense of humor performed by a kooky cast.2
American Music Show collection. Courtesy of Rose Library, Emory University.

In 1981, “this weird cable program” had just started to air on Atlanta public access television, and it would remain on the air until 2005, making it one of the longest-running cable access shows of its time. Colorful and fun, yet just as dark and ironic, The American Music Show (TAMS) was a queer show in all but name; it featured music and drag performances, comedy sketches, and reports from around the city of Atlanta, always performed with a campy and surreal aesthetic. Produced by a collective that included Dick Richards, David Goldman, Potsy Duncan, Bud “Beebo” Lowry, and James Bond (the brother of civil rights leader Julian Bond) most of its episodes were filmed in Dick Richards’ Inman Park living room on the extremely low budget of just five dollars per episode.

As RuPaul recounts: “When I saw those guys on public access, I thought, ‘That’s where I belong.’”3 So he decided to send them a letter, in response to which the show’s producers asked RuPaul to join them on air. He went on to make regular appearances on the program over the years that followed, and the rest is history: performing on The American Music Show led to performing in low-budget films and in musical acts (like RuPaul and the U-hauls and Wee Wee Pole). He made a number of solo albums around this time as well (like 1985’s Sex Freak), the first few of which were released through Funtone Records, an independent record label co-founded by Dick Richards and Ted Rubenstein and so associated with TAMS. It was also through this scene that RuPaul first met Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato – at the time performing together as “The Fabulous Pop Tarts” – with whom, years later, he would create and produce RuPaul’s Drag Race. Notably, after finally winning an Emmy for Drag Race last year, the first person whom RuPaul thanked in his acceptance speech was Dick Richards (who, sadly, had passed away just days before).

A Queerer Atlanta

Although RuPaul’s success is perhaps the most direct and far-reaching way in which The American Music Show – and by proxy the 1980s and 1990s queer Atlanta arts scene – has impacted the world at large, it is certainly not the only way. Other well-known personalities who passed through this show at one point or another include Lady Bunny (another famous drag queen and founder of Wigstock), Jayne County (the first openly transgender rock star and influence on David Bowie4), and Larry Tee (DJ and music producer). The “kooky cast” of TAMS also produced a wealth of their own recurring characters, who were never completely acknowledged as fictional and who blurred the lines between reality and performance, especially in terms of gender. Watching The American Music Show, one encounters countless exaggerated personalities in all forms of drag, and twisted, uncanny plays on stereotypes of the American South (southern belles, country music, preachers, trailer parks). There are The Singing Peek Sisters, Duffy Odum (Paul Burke), Nana Odum and Nurse MacWorld (Rosser Shymanski), Conjurewoman and Betty Jack Devine (David Goldman), Reverend Bubba Goldd and Dixie Richardson (Dick Richards), and many more. Music from the Now Explosion and folk tunes by The Dale-Roys rang out alongside the “music” of The Singing Peek Sisters – who, as RuPaul described them, “all scream, holler, and screech at once, out of time and out of tune.”5 But, then again, DeAundra Peek’s strident “yaaaaaaaayyyyy!” is hard to get out of your head. 

Photo of David Goldman as Conjurewoman. American Music Show collection. Courtesy of Rose Library, Emory University.

In short, The American Music Show was a noisy, wild, and sarcastic time that exemplified the artistic extremes of what public access television could be in Atlanta. Media studies scholar Charlotte E. Howell more generally describes how “The American Music Show illustrates a locally specific articulation of the utopic hopes attached to early cable access.”6 Though their motto might have been “always low standards,” as Howell argues the chaotic nature of The American Music Show also reflects the time of shifting social, political, and economic boundaries in which it was made. As she notes:

Atlanta was divided along racial, geographic, technological, and cultural lines, but those lines were also more permeable in the early 1980s because of the plasticity of emergent subcultures, which formed around rapid change in many cultural spheres at once. … New patterns were taking shape but had not fully stabilized. And in that fluidity, The American Music Show arose and exemplified that liminality. A vision of a not-yet-stabilized Atlanta appears in its various sketches.7

In this way, even the more outlandish acts appearing on this variety show can be understood as capturing the tumult of a city and a time deeply beset by sociopolitical struggle. And they did so in a particularly queer idiom, making video art for an LGBTQ+ Atlanta at the same time as the gay communities in Midtown and Virginia Highlands were establishing themselves.8

But aside from this relationship to an Atlanta with shifting queer geographies, the show also more literally captured much of the city’s history on film. For example, some of the clips from the show incidentally document the construction of Freedom Parkway or involve remote segments from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Other clips directly chronicle a queerer history of the city, from Wigstock and Atlanta Pride to bars and clubs, or from RuPaul’s apartment to comical tours of the once-thriving gay cruising trails weaving through Piedmont Park. The show captured so many of these ephemeral moments over its twenty-four years. For this reason, the Atlanta-based publication Wussy Mag recently called The American Music Show “one of the most thorough archives of queer Atlanta history.”9

Futures for the Show

Thanks to a gift by Dick Richards, Potsy Duncan, and David Goldman, “this weird cable program” and its video archive of queer history are now being preserved at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Library, along with many letters, documents, art, and other memorabilia related to the show. Recordings of the show itself – 745 VHS tapes, to be exact – contain hundreds of hours of footage, and they are all being digitized at this very moment: the full collection should be available to researchers (or to anyone who’d like to watch the show) by the end of March. The American Music Show therefore significantly adds to the Rose Library’s bourgeoning focus on LGBTQ+ materials in its Modern Political and Historical Collections. There, alongside TAMS, one can find related materials like the personal archives of Dick Richards, as well as work by Jon Arge, a photographer who captured so much of the history of Atlanta’s queer scene on his Polaroid camera. Each of these collections contain multitudes of incredible stories, just waiting to be rediscovered.

The Rose Library will be hosting an event to celebrate this new collection on Wednesday, March 20, called “Recording Queer ATL: Archives of The American Music Show.” The evening will include a screening of selections from the show introduced by Andy Ditzler and Randy Gue, followed by a Q&A with six of its original cast members (David Goldman, Potsy Duncan, Rosser Shymanski, Clare Butler, Tom Zarrilli, and Jon Arge). There will be food and drinks. So, come join us then for a gay old time!

RSVP: http://emorylib.info/ams

Citation

Kingston, Andrew. “This Weird Cable Program”: Queer Atlanta and the Archives of The American Music Show at Emory’s Rose Library.” Atlanta Studies. March 12, 2019. https://doi.org/10.18737/atls20190312

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Notes   [ + ]

1. RuPaul, Lettin’ It All Hang Out (New York: Hyperion, 1995), 54.
2. RuPaul, 56.
3. RuPaul, 58.
4. See Philip Auslander, Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 122.
5. RuPaul, 58.
6. Charlotte E. Howell, “Symbolic Capital and the Production Discourse of The American Music Show: A Microhistory of Atlanta Cable Access” Cinema Journal 57, no. 1 (2017), 2.
7. Howell, 12.
8. Howell, 10.
9. “Three Decades of Queer Atlanta: The American Music Show,” Wussy Mag, September 28, 2017, https://www.wussymag.com/all/2017/9/27/three-decades-of-queer-atlanta-the-american-music-show.