Having strayed into the creepy crevices of the internet a bit too often, for my eighth column I decided to go commercial, and pretended that the editors were forcing me to use the press releases they were shoveling my way.
Star Dreck 10/2/1997
by H.B. Koplowitz
I try to avoid reviewing “official” Web sites. But how can I expect trade-outs, comps and other perks unless I suck up to promoters? So here’s some Web sites I have been “encouraged” to review. Warning: Some of the following may have been taken verbatim from press releases.
Star Trek: The Ad: “Star Trek: The Experience™” is a 65,000-square-foot attraction at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel. The completely interactive entertainment concept is based on the voyages of the most enduring and extraordinary television series of all time — “Star Trek®”. There’s only one problem: It ain’t open yet.
No matter. You can still visit “Star Trek: The Ad” <www.startrekexp.com>. The Web site has news, tour information and even a so-called “virtual tour,” which gives a sneak preview (mostly descriptions and drawings) of the $70 million attraction.
Once the experience opens later this fall or winter, visitors will be transported to the 24th century and immersed in a futuristic adventure that starts with a museum-like exhibit featuring authentic “Star Trek” stuff from the four TV series and eight movies. Next they get beamed aboard the Starship Enterprise for a deep space adventure that includes an exciting shuttlecraft voyage through space and time. Afterwards, awestruck visitors can hang at the Deep Space Nine™ Promenade and enjoy the galaxy’s finest dining, entertainment and shopping for officially licensed and custom Star Dreck.
“Star Trek: The Experience” won’t have gambling. However, a 22,000-square-foot space-themed casino will serve as the gateway to the attraction. You can’t purchase tickets by phone, mail or Web site, but must get them in person at the Las Vegas Hilton. With 3,174 rooms and suites, the Las Vegas Hilton <www.lv-hilton.com> is one of Las Vegas’ most luxurious and exciting casino-resorts. [Star Trek: The Experience closed in 2008.]
Scroll along the halls of Applegate Manor to access hauntingly fun activities including an interactive concentration game; a timeline to learn about the history of Casper; and behind-the-scenes production information with cool ghostly images. However, the site uses Java and other plug-ins, which means it is slow to load, tends to crash your computer, and unless you have the right plug-ins you can’t fully enjoy all the bells and whistles.
The made-for-video prequel answers the question: How did Casper become the friendly ghost? The video, which debuted Sept. 9 for $19.98, is an all-new adventure starring the same characters as the 1995 dud, “Casper.” Joining the spooktacular fun are two new ghostly characters, Snivel and Kibosh, voiced by Pauly Shore and James Earl Jones. The “fleshie” cast features Steve Guttenberg, Lori Loughlin, Rodney Dangerfield, Michael McKean, Brian Doyle-Murry and newcomer Brendon Ryan Barrett.
Inexplicably, the Web site won’t sell you the video, and doesn’t say where else you might buy it. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment is the worldwide marketing, sales and distribution company for all FoxVideo and Fox Interactive products.
Haggle-Free Car Buying: Car buyers can avoid the haggling process — and save an average of 8 percent on the sticker price of a new car — by buying a car by computer. So says AutoVantage, which sells cars by computer.
At the Houston, Texas, company’s Web site, consumers can browse through car reviews for free and look up new car prices. They also can submit a price request through the Web site or by calling a toll-free number. AutoVantage then does the haggling for them and tries to respond within two hours with a “preferred price” to be honored by a nearby car dealer.
AutoVantage says it has been rated the best interactive car-buying service by Motor Trend magazine, and that 30,000 people a month submit price requests. It is also the featured new-car buying service for netMarket, which claims to be the leading interactive consumer commerce Web site.
AutoVantage offers financing and leasing options, and a national used car database containing more than 50,000 used cars. But before accessing many services you have to join netMarket, which turns out to be a buyers’ club. I never could figure out how much it costs to be a member. But you can join for three months for a mere $1 plus your credit card number.
If you want Blue Book values and used car prices without giving out your credit card number, try the online version of Kelly Blue Book <www.kbb.com> or any of the other services listed under the Auto Channel on the search engine Webcrawler <webcrawler.com>.
My friend produced live events for Women In Film, and she turned me on to a WIF volunteer, Ken Tipton, who had what was then a novel idea for financing his independent film. Websites like GoFundMe are common today, but Tipton was one of the first to tap into the internet’s fundraising potential. Tipton never made it big in Hollywood, but another of his cyber publicity schemes would later earn him notoriety, although not in a good way.
Guerrilla Filmmaking Online 9/25/97
by H.B. Koplowitz
Ken Tipton wants to make it in Hollywood. With persistence, and creative marketing on the World Wide Web, the 44-year-old entrepreneur turned actor, writer, producer and director, just might.
Taking guerrilla filmmaking onto the Internet, Tipton may be the first to use a personal Web page to finance an independent film, Perfect Mate, which debuts at the International Feature Film Market Sept. 21 in New York City. He also used his Web site to recruit the 17,000 members of the Ken and Paul Tipton Fan Club, which wants the Drew Carey TV show to cast the stout Tipton as Mimi’s boyfriend in upcoming episodes.
“Everyone wants to feel like they are a part of Hollywood,” says Tipton, who lives in Toluca Lake. Through his Web page, he wants to help what he calls “movie geeks,” — including himself and his son — to live out their dreams.
Tipton grew up near St. Louis, where he was active in community theater and comedy clubs. He also was a small businessman, starting one of the first video stores in 1980, and in 1991 a paint-ball war game business.
In 1993 he decided to give “the acting thing” one more try. With the proceeds from selling the paint-ball business, and the blessing of his ex-wife, who continues to manage their video stores in St. Louis, he moved to L.A. with Paul, their 12-year-old son, who also wants to act.
He didn’t feel like he was getting anywhere until November 1995, when he attended a screening of Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays sponsored by the Independent Feature Project. As Foster talked about having to be “monumentally creative” to raise capital to make movies, Tipton thought back to his childhood in Missouri, staging plays using comic books as scripts. To pay for the productions, they would sell lemonade or toys. It occurred to him to use the same strategy to finance movies, only selling to the world, via the Internet.
Together with writer Carrie Armstrong and director Karl Armstrong, he founded Makers Of Visual Independent Entertainment (M.O.V.I.E.). “The M.O.V.I.E. Web site” <www.moviefund.com> went online in December 1995 selling mouse pads, hats, key chains and T-shirts with the M.O.V.I.E. logo. Profits were to help pay for Perfect Mate, a 20-minute short by the Armstrongs, in which Tipton had a starring role.
“My goal is to open up new areas of funding for Independent Film Makers,” Tipton wrote in a mission statement. “As the organization grows, hopefully we will develop into a place where talented and underfunded individuals can get a start. . .By buying a hat, or a mouse pad, or even a key chain, you help fulfill the dream that lies in every movie lover.”
No one knew the Web site existed for several months, until a Web reviewer described it as “strange, interesting and unique.” Suddenly, thousands of people a day started visiting M.O.V.I.E., and some — Tipton won’t say how many — bought merchandise.
Even more important than the sales, however, were the contacts. After seeing the Web page, a steadycam operator donated his services. Someone else offered to do animated credits, while others contributed free film. The Web page even helped persuade Disney to donate the use of an AVID digital film editor in exchange for a first look at the completed movie.
Perfect Mate grew from a short into a feature-length romantic comedy about a young woman who holds her party guests hostage while searching for her perfect mate. Tipton said the Web page helped finance much of the film, estimated to have cost $350,000, including the cost of donated goods and services. It will be debuted to foreign film distributors this weekend in New York.
The Web site is also used to recruit members of The Ken & Paul Tipton’s Fan Club, which is operated by a clerk at his St. Louis video store. One incentive to join is that fan club members are eligible to win a speaking part in an upcoming M.O.V.I.E. project.
The online fan club has grown to 17,000 members, which is to say, 17,000 e-mail addresses of supporters. Tipton realized what a powerful tool that was when he asked his fan club to e-mail the Sundance Film Festival with requests to show Perfect Mate. So many did that Sundance’s computer e-mail crashed.
Now Tipton is urging his fans to let the Drew Carey Show know that he would make the perfect mate for the bodacious Mimi character’s boyfriend.
“In this business you have to make your own breaks,” Tipton said. “The only thing worse than failure is never knowing what could have been if only you had tried.”
For my sixth column, I returned to the subject of sex and cyberspace, reviewing kinky newsgroups in an outpost on the internet called Usenet. For some reason I neglected to mention alt.sex.binaries, which was a place to trade dirty pictures, and a precursor to file-sharing networks.
Once upon a time there was a place on the Internet where people with unusual and sometimes unspeakable fetishes could find each other. Where personal ads were placed for sex with animals, or stuffed animals, and others indulged their secret obsessions with spanking, chloroform, even robots.
The pictures, messages, personal ads and stories were sometimes erotic and sometimes idiotic, offensive or even illegal, but nonetheless reflected the startling diversity of human sexual appetites. That place was “alt.sex,” an unmoderated cluster of Internet bulletin boards or “newsgroups” devoted to all manner of sexual fetishism.
Even more than other Usenet newsgroups, alt.sex has been obliterated by “spam,” junk email ads, mostly for adult Web sites. Today, little remains except the names of the discussion groups. Below are some examples of what alt.sex used to be like, and where content that used to be in alt.sex newsgroups can now be found on the Web:
Furry Friends (alt.sex.plushies): A plushie is a stuffed animal or toy, like a teddy bear. Alt.sex.plushies was for people desiring a more than Platonic relationship with a plushie. Some plushophiles have a thing for “fursuits,” which are full-body costumes such as those worn by sports team mascots or amusement park employees, and for “furries,” which are characters with aspects of both animals and humans, like Bugs Bunny. Today, “PeterCat’s Furry InfoPage” <www.tigerden.com/~infopage/furry> is the keeper of the alt.sex.furry FAQ [Frequently Asked Questions], with links to other plushie pages, from stuffed toy lovers to stuffed toy makers like FAO Schwarz.
Animal Lovers (alt.sex.bestiality and alt.sex.zoophilia): A bestialist wants sex with an animal, while a zoophile seeks a relationship, too, according to the FAQ in alt.sex.bestiality. However, personal ads for canines and other critters appeared in both newsgroups, as did practical advice on how to get physical with the species of your choice. Did some of the people in these newsgroups actually have sexual relations with animals? “You bet’cha!” says the FAQ. Today, links to Web sites, newsgroups, chat rooms and other bestial resources can be found at “Zoophile Server” <http://www.zoophile.org>, the original zoophile Web server.
Techno-Sexual (alt.sex.fetish.robots): A.S.F.R. was for people sexually attracted to robots and robot-like beings. “Techno-sexuals” are aroused by depictions of people behaving like or turning into robots, androids, mannequins, dolls, wind-up toys or hypnotized mechanical sex zombies, according to the newsgroup’s FAQ. The ASFR home page, which was created by “Robotdoll,” is not presently online. But Robotdoll’s FAQ has been preserved on “Robo-Lover’s Homepage” <members.aol.com/robolvr/index.htm>, along with pictures, stories, and links “dealing with the mechanical maidens and delectable dolls that is ASFR.”
Overlapping newsgroups included alt.sex.fetish.sleepy, which had stories and pictures about people overcome by hypnosis, chloroform and other mind control methods, and alt.sex.fetish.wet-and-messy, which was about erotic encounters with drenching rain, mud, quicksand, cream pies and other gooey stuff. On the Web today, “The Erotic Mind-Control Story Archive” <www.mcstories.com> has salacious tales broken into such categories as hypnosis, sudden growth of body parts, lactation, even Star Trek and X-Files characters. Wet and Messy Web sites include the “WAMSAT Project,” with links to sites with names like “Shokolada’s Mess,” “Muddy Melodrama” and “World Wide Wet Page.”
Spanking Good Time (alt.sex.spanking): Today’s fetish websites are far more stylish and better organized than alt.sex ever was. Still, they cannot replace the intimacy of a discussion group. Even if you aren’t into erotic spanking between consenting adults, to see what some alt.sex newsgroups used to be like, take a peek at soc.sexuality.spanking.
When alt.sex.spanking got overrun by spam, newsgroup regulars debated picking a “moderator” to screen messages for spams, pictures and other off-topic posts. They eventually agreed on a “robo-moderated” newsgroup, in which posts are electronically filtered by computer, with human moderators only seeing posts rejected by the ‘Bot. As a result, most of the messages in the soc.sexuality.spanking newsgroup are actually about spanking, at least most of the time.
What newsgroups have that Web pages don’t is a sense of community. And as stated in the new soc.sexuality.spanking charter, “Regaining the feelings of community and support was the reason for the formation of s.s.s, and in s.s.s., the tradition of welcoming newcomers with open arms continues.”
As this story about the tragic death of Princess Diana illustrates, online trolling did not begin with Facebook and Twitter. It also hints at some of the ways a wired global community was changing journalism.
Princess Di Online 9/11/1997
by H.B. Koplowitz
The mainstream media consensus is that the whole world is mourning the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But on the unfiltered Internet, emotions amongst the cyber commoners are decidedly mixed. Equal venom is being spewed at the “stalkarazzi” and the “people’s princess,” and, as always, at each other.
Princess Di and her beau, Dodi Fayed, died early Sunday morning [Aug. 31, 1997] in Paris (Saturday night in Los Angeles). Fleeing from biker paparazzi, their Mercedes crashed while traveling in excess of 100 miles an hour through a Paris tunnel beneath the Seine. Dodi, 41, and the driver, who was legally drunk, were killed instantly. Diana, 36, was pronounced dead about 4 a.m. Sunday, Paris time.
Some, especially in Europe, first heard about the tragedy on the Internet, from American computer users monitoring TV news reports. An Internet friend visiting Paris said her first awareness that Princess Di was dead was at 6 a.m. local time Sunday morning, when she logged onto her computer and entered a chat room on America Online.
“They asked me what they were saying in France and I did not know what they were talking about,” she recounted. “So they told me what happened. And when I checked the French news, the titles on AOL, there was still nothing about it.”
When big news breaks, chat rooms become like talk radio, only without the radio and without the talk show host. Potshots fly in all directions, with special attention given to sexual innuendo. Typical comments from the AOL chat room “Papparatzi Killed Di” Monday evening included:
MastrBaitz: she knew what the price was when she married prince bozo
BADBOY6552: IWILL PRAY FOR DIANA AND KEEP IN MY HEART ALL SHE HAS DONE FOR SO MANY
EL P0RK: he was spanking himself in the front seat as Di was spanking her man’s meat in the back
MastrBaitz: i think the british intelligence servces probably killed her
SueKewpie: holy smokes, I canot believe the drivel that is filtering thru here. I just can’t…
Jkren: god bles the ignore button
Usenet newsgroups also lit up with messages, not unlike these posted in alt.talk.royalty:
“We want to know
We create an industry To pry and expose We build them up We take them down.
Today I cry. And tommorow I will buy The newsprint that killed her. God help me. And you… — mrblonde”
“Diana and Dodi’s tragic death was caused by the poor judgement of a drunk driver. They were being followed with cameras, not guns. It is a horrible, horrible accident that should never have happened. If you want to blame something, blame foolish decisions and drunken driving. Beverly”
“Call her Lady, call her Princess, call her whatever you like. Diana was Queen in our hearts!”
“Such pious nonsense. She represented nothing and nobody. She was a loose cannon addicted to high living and media attention.”
Trying to start an urban legend, one message writer claimed Buckingham Palace had given permission to sell bone china gilded plates engraved with photos of the crash.
Charlene Vickers of Yellowknife, NWT, announced a memorial Web page , along with a petition to create a permanent memorial for Diana: “It occurred to me that many late members of the Family have had monuments built to their memories in London and at Windsor. I feel that Diana, Princess of Wales, deserves a similar monument, and I am asking you to sign a petition to that effect.”
The official British Monarchy home page has set up an area for people to leave their written condolences, but it is hard to access now because so many people are trying to get in.
However, the Unofficial British Royal Family Pages has current information on the accident and aftermath, along with excellent links to other royal Web sites, and a Diana Memorial Page where people can leave condolences. Most of these comments have been more respectful, such as this one from Shannon Tod of Australia:
“Princess Diana, a true legend in my eyes. U are an inspiration to me and a best friend to the world. I will always remember your courage, patience, and mostly love to other people that u showed. Nothing could ever replace the true and wonderful you that I have known. U will live in me forever, and the light that you shone upon this world will always remain. I luv you, Sweet Princess. @}—>—‘— “
Nowadays we take for granted the instant messaging software on our smartphones that enables us to avoid talking to each other. The technology has been around since the creation of the internet, but it wasn’t until America Online introduced AOL Instant Messenger in 1997 that it caught on. A press release from a company called Excite prompted me to do my fourth column on the emerging technology, which I subjected to Freudian analysis. (AIM bit the dust on Dec. 15, 2017.)
As I write this column, I am having a private online conversation with a friend. Only I’m not signed on to America Online or in some Web-based chat room. Rather, I am using a simple, free, stand-alone instant messaging software application, the latest conspiracy by the computer industrial complex to turn us all into cybersluts.
Instant messaging (IM) is like a cross between a phone call and a letter. Internet users can communicate with each other instantly and privately, like a phone call, but in written messages on a computer screen, similar to a letter, and with no long-distance charges. The software also lets you know when your friends are online and able to cyberchat.
Denizens of America Online’s chat rooms are already familiar with both features, which AOL calls Instant Messages and Buddy Lists. What is new is that AOL and other companies are making IM technology available to everyone on the Internet. What is amazing is that the preferred mode of communication for cybersex is now being touted as The Next Big Thing in business communications.
Instant messaging is going to revolutionize computer communications. By enabling computer users to communicate with each other in real time, it adds a human dimension to the online experience. If you are not a subscriber to America Online, but are on the Internet, you must get IM software and make sure all your Internet friends have it as well.
About a half dozen companies have come out with instant messaging software. In a recent review by PC Magazine, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) came in dead last. Although it has been released to the public, AIM is still in the testing phase. But AIM has one thing its competitors lack, i.e., 8 million America Online subscribers to communicate with.
Thus, even though I installed a competing software program, the Personal Access List (PAL) by Excite, I couldn’t use it because I didn’t know anyone else registered with PAL. After installing AIM, however, I had a gas contacting my friends on America Online while I was using my Earthlink account and not logged onto AOL.
Easy to install and easy to use, AIM doesn’t take up a lot of memory, so at the same time I was sending instant messages I could surf the Web or run off-line applications like word processing and spreadsheets. I could also message Web site addresses that my friends could click on and their Web browser would take them to those sites.
In addition to cyberchat and cybersex, instant messaging has many practical and business applications. “AOL Instant Messenger improves productivity, helping colleagues get in touch quickly as they exchange important information,” noted David Gang, AOL senior vice president of Product Marketing.
Eric Jorgensen, product manager with Excite, expressed similar sentiments. “There is a huge market with affiliated groups, and one obvious group is businesses.”
One advantage to PAL is you can register under your existing e-mail name, making it easier for friends to find you, while AIM requires you to create a new screen name. Excite also hopes using e-mail addresses frees instant messaging from its sordid association with chat rooms and cybersex.
Jorgensen said Excite plans to keep PAL free to consumers, with advertisers paying for the service. Excite also owns Webcrawler, the popular Internet search engine, which displays ads depending on which keywords you type in. To register for PAL, consumers must provide demographic information including zip code, gender and age, which advertisers can use to place demographically targeted ads onto the PAL screens.
The final version of AOL’s Instant Messenger also will have ads. As for whether America Online plans to ever charge for the service, Gang said rather cryptically that there are no plans “at this time.”
The bottom line is that if you subscribe to America Online you already have instant messaging. If you don’t use AOL, but are on the Internet and have other friends on the Internet, you – and they – should get IM software. For now, America Online’s AIM is the only game in town. It is available at the AOL Web site <aol.com>. If you can’t bring yourself to use an AOL product, you can get Excite’s PAL from its Web site <excite.com>. Just remember you have to get your Internet friends to use the same software.
I was never much of an Elvis Presley fan, which may explain my lackluster review of Elvis websites in 1997, on the 20th anniversary of his death (Aug. 15, 1977). Or maybe the websites were lackluster (two years later, a similar review in the Los Angeles Times came to a similar conclusion). I did manage to mention an early legal dispute over fair use of copyrighted content, like music and photos, on the internet, and “Web rings,” an early way to navigate the World Wide Web before Google brought a semblance of order to the chaos.
He may have sold a billion records and starred in 33 movies. His musical blending of blues, gospel and hillbilly may have popularized, if not created, rock and roll. And his swiveling hips may have done as much to usher in a social and sexual revolution as pot and the pill. But on the 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, cyberspace commemorated the King of Rock and Roll mostly with Elvis sightings, Elvis impersonators, and, of course, Elvis merchandising.
Exhibit A is “Elvis Lives @AOL,” America Online’s Elvis Web site (keyword: Elvis). By virtue of its 8.5 million subscribers, AOL is the default zeitgeist of the Internet. For its 20th anniversary “memorial” to Elvis, AOL offered some vintage pictures and thumb-sucking essays, but mostly impersonators and sightings, courtesy of Hecklers Online, along with a slide show “in which President Clinton talks candidly about what the legend Elvis Presley left behind means to him.” Oh boy. Not to mention “The Shop,” where you could purchase Elvis sunglasses, CDs and other items.
Elvis gets much the same treatment on the rest of the Web. Consider “Disgraceland,” which is billed as a “humorous tribute to Elvis, his fans, zucchini, Reno and a variety of related and unrelated subjects.” It also boasts of having more Elvis links than the Vienna Sausage Factory.
Some “Disgraceland” links have serious content, but most are kitsch, such as Elvis wedding chapels, Elvis velvet paintings, a zucchini made up like Elvis, and images of the King superimposed on Mount Rushmore and the Sistine Chapel. Especially notable is Friz-Elvis, the world’s first (and hopefully only) budgie Elvis impersonator, i.e., a [Photoshopped] parakeet dressed up like Elvis. There is also a cow tipping page, which doesn’t seem to have much to do with Elvis, but what the hey. And for the 20th anniversary of Presley’s death, The Disgraceland Gift Shop was offering a limited number of original Memphis newspapers from August 16, 1977.
“Disgraceland” is a stop on the “Won’t You Wear My TCB Ring,” or Elvis “Webring,” a sort of guided Web tour where Web surfers can click from site to related site until they return to the first site. The creator of the Elvis Webring is Lex Raaphorst, a Dutch Elvis fan. Other sites in the Webring include one for signing a petition to clone Elvis, “Americans for Cloning Elvis,” and “The Uselessness of Elvis,” which has a link to “The Flying Elvi,” the skydiving Elvis impersonators who appeared in Honeymoon in Las Vegas.
Raaphorst also hosts “Elvex Pages” which is one of the most complete and easy to access repositories of Presley song lyrics, along with a tasteful filmography of the King’s 33 mostly forgettable movies, replete with movie posters, cast and plot summaries.
At the bottom of many Elvis Web sites is the disclaimer that they are unaffiliated with Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., which owns the trademarks to Graceland, Elvis, and Elvis Presley. The disclaimers are the result of an early skirmish over copyright infringement and the Internet involving “The (unofficial) Elvis Home Page.”
While touring Graceland with her mother in 1994, space industry technician Andrea Berman came up with the idea for a Web page that included a virtual tour of the mansion using picture post cards and sound clips of Presley’s music. Her Elvis home page soon became a popular site. Then the folks who own the real Graceland, Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., claimed copyright infringement and threatened to sue unless she remove her virtual tour and sound clips. Rather than go through the legal hassles, Berman pulled the items from her site. [Or did she?]
The “Official Worldwide Website for Elvis Presley’s Graceland” <elvis-presley.com> has no virtual tour and no Elvis sound clips. Except for a sanitized biography of the King, along with Graceland tour and gift shop information, it doesn’t have much else either.
There is, however, at least one Elvis site that focuses on the primal Presley, the one before the Beatles, before the jumpsuit, and before the Colonel. The “Elvis Lives In Evil Levis” Web site contains some great photos and interactive content focusing on the ’50s Elvis. The creator of the site, Anne C. Stinehart, is a graduate student working toward a PhD in medieval history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Go figure.
The death of William S. Burroughs, whose book, Naked Lunch, influenced my writing, inspired me to make my second column about dead beatniks and beatnik websites.
The Beat Goes Online 8/21/1997
by H.B. Koplowitz
Poet Allen Ginsberg and writer William S. Burroughs were seminal figures of the Beat Generation. Both died of heart attacks earlier this year. But their legacy lives online in the Web pages of beatnik aficionados.
Ginsberg, 70, died April 5 in New York City. Considered the poet laureate of the Beat Generation, his raw lifestyle and poems, including “Howl” (1956), embodied the beatniks of the 1950s. In the ’60s, he helped Timothy Leary popularize LSD, attended Ken Kesey’s Acid Test parties, and coined the term “flower power.” A Buddhist and pacifist, he was a calming influence at antiwar protests.
Burroughs, 83, died Aug. 2 at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. The stone-faced author is best known for his experimental stream-of-consciousness novel Naked Lunch (1959). Like “Howl,” it became the subject of a precedent-setting obscenity trial for its explicit sex, drug use and violence. He influenced artists such as David Bowie, Lou Reed and Patti Smith, and in later years became a visual artist, wrote screenplays and appeared in the films Drugstore Cowboy and Twister, as well as a Nike TV ad.
One of the most cited Beat Generation Web sites is Levi Asher’s “Literary Kicks.” Dedicated to Ginsberg and On the Road author Jack Kerouac, “Literary Kicks” has tribute pages to both Ginsberg and Burroughs, with links to other online memorial pages created after their deaths.
The site also has pages on Neal Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and other beat luminaries, along with beat news, films about the beats, Buddhism, the origin of the term “beat,” and beat connections to such rock groups as the Grateful Dead, Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and, of course, The Beatles. There’s also a link to “The Germ,” a Web site on the Pre-Raphaelites, a rebellious group of post-Romantic/pre-Bohemian painters and poets that lived over a century ago in England.
Asher is a 35-year-old computer programmer, Deadhead and fiction writer who lives in New York City. He is part of a loosely knit community of creative writers who have used the Internet as an alternative outlet for their works. His “Queensboro Ballads” website consists of stories and short prose packaged in the form of an early ’60s folk-rock record album.
He also has arranged live fiction/poetry readings featuring other Web writers, and recently co-edited an anthology of Web writings, Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web, that was just published in book form.
“The William S. Burroughs Files” is the oldest Burroughs website, having begun in 1991 as a newsgroup list of Burroughs recordings. Creator Malcolm Humes has turned it into a multi-media Web page cataloging Burroughs’ diverse works, with links to other Burroughs information, audio and video.
The site has a memorial page with a comments/guestbook area for Web surfers to share their thoughts, memories and anecdotes about Burroughs. Humes, 35, dabbles in computers and alternative music. According to his Web page, he lives “in a storefront in Berkeley which makes a nice huge space for playing music and working on other creative pursuits.”
“Like if it’s got anything to do with wild bohemian cats and chicks, you’ll probably find it here,” says Colin Pringle, webmeister of “The Wild Bohemian Home Page.” The site includes a beat generation archive, with articles about or by the beats and beat generation related sites. There’s also a “Hip Dictionary” and Who’s Who of hipdom.
But the site is more focused on the ’60s, with links to pages about hippies, Ken Kesey, the Grateful Dead, Hells Angels, Rainbow Gatherings and Woodstock. Pringle, 44, was born in Glendale, Calif. His family moved to Dallas, Texas, where he gravitated to the hippie scene and altered states of consciousness. He moved back to the West Coast in 1987.
A new cop on the cyber beat is Christopher Ritter, creator of “Bohemian Ink,” which bills itself as “an on-line review of the history and future of experimental literature & poetry.” The site has extensive information on Burroughs and Ginsberg, along with links to other beat artists.
“Bohemian Ink” also keeps up on “Modern Boheme” with news and links to “Indies” and “Current Experimentalists” including Nicole Blackman, Eric Bogosian, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, David Mamet and Henry Rollins. It has links to other literary online publications like “Pen & Sword” and “Alt-X,” and publishers of alternative literature like PsychoTex Books & Music and ZERO Press. There’s also links to sites on neo-futurists, performance art, spoken word reviews and slam poetry (“the bully brother of spoken word”).
According to a bio found in “Pen & Sword,” Ritter is 23 years old and lives in Dayton, Ohio, where he is a full-time student and part-time coffee bar tender who enjoys experimental writing.
“Lost in Cyberspace” is the name I gave my first website, where I posted columns I wrote for a Los Angeles weekly between 1997 and 2001. The newspaper wanted me to review advertisers’ websites, but I turned the essays into ruminations on cyberspace, pop culture and current events. Today, many of the websites I reviewed don’t exist, along with the people, companies, technologies, hardware, software, and jargon I wrote about. Outdated as many of my observations are, the columns chronicle a moment in time, before Google, Amazon and Facebook, and before smartphones, broadband and flat screens, when the internet was new and a Wild West ethos prevailed.
Mea culpa: In my mid 40s and welcoming a midlife crisis, in 1996 I left my stultifying state job in Springfield, Illinois, and moved to Los Angeles, the city of second chances. I tried to become a freelance writer, and one of my first gigs was writing CD-ROM reviews for a free weekly in Burbank called Entertainment Today. This was a cheeky thing to do because I’d never played a computer game, and the only thing I knew about CD-ROMs was that my computer didn’t have a CD-ROM drive, so to write the reviews, for which I was paid $15 apiece, I would need to buy a $2,000 computer.
Multimedia reviews evolved into “Cyber Nation,” a column on another subject I was just as ignorant of — the Internet. But truth be told, one corner of cyberspace I did have some familiarity with — and coincidentally chose for my first column — was the primordial chat rooms of America Online, which was the Facebook of its time. Called the “People Connection,” users could join so-called chat rooms of a dozen or so people who would congregate based on age, hobbies, occupations, and, significantly, romantic interests.
Unlike a modern video conference or Zoom meeting, with audio and video, AOL chat rooms were text only, affording the privacy to pretend to be someone else — or to be one’s true self — and to find others who shared similar proclivities. Suddenly, people with deviant desires had a way to anonymously find each other and exchange text messages exploring mutual interests in, e.g., BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism), “gay and lesbian,” daddy-daughter roleplay, and other taboo inclinations. After hooking up in a chat room, AOL subscribers could “go private,” which meant one-on-one texting, and sometimes sexting, except without photos (which required e-mail).
While it seems downright prim, compared to the kinds of sexual interactions that take place online today, people texting erotic fantasies to each other, sometimes while mutually masturbating, was called cybersex. And people who spent too much time online having cybersex (or just surfing the web) were known as cybersluts. Just as Facebook has been accused of poisoning society by allowing “fake news” and hate speech to proliferate, AOL had unwittingly spawned a virtual sexual revolution that threatened to disrupt the social order.
Except for imagination, cybersex did not engage any of the five senses, so it was unclear if it constituted cheating. The problem was that cybersex sometimes led to phone sex, which sometimes led to real sex, which sometimes led to new relationships, but also to broken relationships and broken marriages, not to mention sexual assaults, pedophilia, prostitution and financial exploitation.
The reason I knew about AOL chat rooms was because, for a brief period of my life, I was a certified cyberslut. In fact, it was in the chat rooms of America Online that I met and fell in love with the Los Angeles woman I had left Springfield for and was living with when I wrote my first Cyber Nation column. (We remain best friends.) During our cyber courtship, our AOL bills shot up from twenty bucks to hundreds of dollars a month. Then AOL decided to allow unlimited usage for a set price, and the popularity of AOL soared, nearly crashing the internet.
The premise of my column was that sex had not merely found its way onto the internet, but was playing a pioneering role in commercializing and popularizing new technologies, from VCRs to streaming video and e-commerce. But the folks at family friendly AOL weren’t about to agree that sex had played a role in the company’s success, and by extension, the internet itself.
Cybersex and America Online 8/14/1997
by H.B. Koplowitz
When America Online began offering a flat fee for unlimited use a year ago, it seemed like a win-win-win situation. Subscribers would pay less for unlimited service, advertisers would gain millions more online customers, and AOL would reap the profits. But there was one factor the company overlooked: Cybersex.
Cybersex is nerdspeak for something that goes on in AOL’s People Connection, or “chat rooms,” where users flirt in real time by typing sometimes explicit messages to each other. While AOL provides some 200 services, from stock quotes to computer games, the People Connection may be the company’s killer app. Chat is the one service AOL does better than anyone else, and for those who are into cybersex, it is highly addictive.
AOL spokesperson Wendy Goldberg dismisses cybersex as a non-factor in AOL’s popularity, or in the massive system overload that occurred when the company switched to a flat rate. AOL expected usage to increase by 50 percent as a result of the flat rate. Instead, it doubled, in all areas, Goldberg said. She said AOL is the world’s largest on-line service provider not because of cybersex, but because it is the easiest way to get on the Internet.
Then again, she said AOL users are on the Web only 20 percent of the time, compared to 80 percent spent in AOL proprietary areas, including 25 percent in the 14,000 chat rooms of the People Connection.
PCMeter, an independent measurer of Internet use, found in April that the most-used area of the entire Internet was AOL e-mail, which transmits 15 million messages a day. However, the next highest rated AOL services were Buddy Lists (5th) and Instant Messages (6th), both chat features. The People Connection ranked 12th, compared to Computing (8th), Entertainment (13th), Marketplace (16th), Games (21st) and Today’s News (22nd).
It is easy to understand why AOL would downplay chat. In the culture of the Internet, chat is at the bottom of the hierarchy of services such as e-mail, the Web and newsgroups. Also, AOL’s chat rooms have generated a lot of controversy over obscenity, censorship, pedophiles, infidelity, even homicide.
But in going to a flat rate, AOL turned a cash cow into a loss leader, while creating a virtual modem gridlock, resulting in busy signals and pissed-off subscribers. Membership skyrocketed from 6 million before the flat rate to more than 8.5 million today. At one point 8 million AOL members were trying to dial in on only 200,000 modems, a ratio of 40 subscribers per modem, when a 12:1 ratio is considered optimal.
For cybersluts, many of whom who had a monthly AOL Jones in the hundreds of dollars, it was like telling addicts they could have all the heroin they wanted for $20 a month, then cutting the supply. Talk about panic in Needle Park!
In response, AOL invested $350 million in system upgrades. It invested millions more in reimbursing customers who sued for loss of service. Goldberg said AOL considers 20 subscribers per modem sufficient, and that “we’re getting there.”
According to Inverse Network Technology, a Santa Clara, Calif., company that rates service providers, customers trying to log on to AOL in July during peak evening hours were unsuccessful about a third of the time. Although better than the dismal 80 percent call failure rate INT found earlier this year, AOL is still a long way from the industry average of a 9.5 percent failure rate.
Ironically, if AOL was trying to put competing Internet service providers out of business by charging the same price while providing more services, the impact has been just the opposite. Because AOL’s direct lines are so often busy, more members are using the smaller ISPs to get on AOL. However, these smaller ISPs now face the same problem as AOL. The more their customers lurk in AOL’s chat rooms, the more their resources are strained.
To recoup revenue lost by going to a flat rate, AOL began selling ads that appear in the chat rooms. It also has marketing agreements with a buyers club and a long-distance phone company. But following angry protests, the company shelved a plan to sell members’ phone numbers to telemarketers. Another way AOL can generate revenue is to go to a tiered service, similar to cable TV, charging one price for basic services and an additional fee for “premium” channels. AOL recently began doing that by offering “Premium Games” for $1.99 an hour.
But rather than targeting children who play games, AOL ought to be going after the true bandwidth hogs: cybersluts who play in the adult chat rooms of the People Connection. Charging for cybersex might be harsh medicine for cybersluts. But it is in their own interest, as well as that of AOL and the entire Internet community, for them to slack off instead of jack off.
From fall 1998 – spring 2002, I taught journalism and advised the student newspaper at a mainly Black and Hispanic community college in South-Central LA. I later turned my experiences into a book called Blackspanic College. This excerpt recalls where I was on 9/11:
Fall semester, 2001
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I awoke to my clock radio, which was tuned to National Public Radio. Still in a dreamlike state, I heard somber voices saying something about an airplane crashing into the World Trade Center, a second plane smashing into the other tower, the Pentagon being struck by a third, and that every airplane over the entire country was being grounded. At first I thought it was an updated version of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio hoax. I rolled over and turned on the TV, where every channel was showing the Twin Towers crumbling, on a loop. My heart sank. This was real.
I checked my emotions and was relieved I wasn’t feeling a flicker of guilty glee that Wall Street yuppies and the military industrial complex had just taken a hit. We may not like to admit it, but sometimes we secretly root for the bad guys — Bonnie and Clyde, the Unibomber, O.J. — so toppling the dual symbols of capitalist America and poking a hole in the Pentagon could easily have stirred up some anti-American sentiments left over from Vietnam that were recently inflamed by the bizarro election in Florida, U.S. Supreme Court putsch and ascendancy of the right-lurching Bush II junta.
9/11 was one bodacious move. But as I lay there gaping at the TV, all I was feeling was dread. And it was with a sense of shame that I realized, at that moment at least, I was glad that Bush and the ruthless rattlesnakes around him, rather than wishy-washy Al Gore — whom I’d voted for — was in the White House. Suddenly, I didn’t want my mommy, I wanted my daddy.
I wondered what the students at Southwest College were feeling, and tore myself away from the TV to rush out to the campus for my afternoon classes and to rev up my students for the biggest story they would ever cover. I should have known better. By the time I got to the campus, it was nearly deserted.
Finally, one of my new students arrived. I’d assigned Lakita to cover a Black Student Union meeting previously scheduled for that morning. At the time it seemed like a fairly simple meeting story,although I didn’t understand why a school that was 80 percent black needed a BSU (except as a place for former student body presidents to go, as June had become the head of the BSU after losing the rescheduled ASO election to Willie). But Lakita had tears in her eyes and said she couldn’t write the story.
“Why not?” I asked, thinking she was probably upset by the terrorist attacks.
“Because the meeting was all about you.”
“Me?” I said, incredulously. “What are you talking about?”
Before entering journalism grad school in 1987, I took a summer job writing press releases for the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, and by extension, the administration of Gov. James R. Thompson. It gave me pause, because in a few months I would become a news intern, reporting on the administration I was accepting a paycheck from. Worrying about a potential conflict of interest or appearance of impropriety may seem quaint today, when a Republican political consultant like Roger Ailes could claim the cable news channel he ran, Fox News, was “fair and balanced,” or a civil rights activist like the Rev. Al Sharpton could organize a protest rally for the family of Florida “stand your ground” shooting victim Trayvon Martin, and then “report” on the rally on his MSNBC show. In my case, I wasn’t overly concerned that a temporary state government job would compromise my objectivity. But maybe I should have been, because it did change my perspective on the difference between being objective and, well, fair. (As luck would have it, the Springfield State Journal-Registernewspaper posted some photos of the 1987 fair, which I have reproduced, along with the fireworks photo, which is from the 1993 fair.)Dedicated to Jim Skilbeck, 1949-2002.
There must have been 500 people packed around the railing of the stinky smelly Swine Barn show arena at the Illinois State Fair. Waving my press pass, I pushed through the crowd and entered the media area, joining about 30 reporters lugging notebooks, microphones and cameras. Everyone was focused on a swarthy suburban Chicago man, who was down on all fours in the straw and dirt, snorting like a pig. The Hog Calling Contest was but one of the many “stories” I covered during my brief tenure as a press officer for the fair. In addition to the hog callers, I got to see the Biggest Boar, Pork King Cook-off and Sale of Champions. Not to mention the harness racing and Grandstand shows. Or backstage hot tub.
Not that everything was bucolic. The hours were long, the pay minimal, and there were also the ethical considerations. Two terms generally at odds with the journalistic profession are “patronage” and “public relations,” and my job was both. Having been a reporter and freelancer, I figured I was well qualified to write for the fair. But I never would have gotten the job if it weren’t for my friend Jim Skilbeck, whose title was special assistant to Gov. James R. Thompson. Jim and I met in 1976, when Thompson was first running for governor, as a moderate Republican. I was a student reporter at the Daily Egyptian, and Jim was an assistant press secretary for the former Chicago federal prosecutor who had shined his star by putting away some big names, including a former governor, and early in his career, “sick” comedian Lenny Bruce.
Jim had orchestrated a campaign swing through southern Illinois, and had invited the DE to send a student reporter to ride in the candidate’s RV from a cafe in Herrin to an American Legion hall in Anna, about 40 miles. I drew the assignment, and during the ride, I asked the candidate whether he favored decriminalizing marijuana. I thought I had him in a bind — if Thompson said he was against easing pot laws, it could turn off SIU students, but if he said he was for it, he might piss off the law-and-order folks in Herrin and Anna. But he casually batted my question aside, saying sometimes leaders should lead and other times they should follow the will of the people, which at the time was anti-pot.
When I got my first journalism job, at the Illinois Times, I saw
Jim at a Springfield pub and started to introduce myself, but he
remembered my name and what I’d asked his boss on the bus. Some
years after that we ran into each other on the strip in Carbondale,
tipped a few beers and took a shining to each other. He became my
token conservative friend and I was his token liberal friend, though
truth be told, our political views weren’t that far apart.
At age 38, Skilbeck had become Thompson’s “senior aide,” the staffer who had been with him the longest, and one of the perks that came with being the governor’s senior aide was the clout to use the patronage system to give friends jobs. In most cases, “friends” meant political friends, card-carrying members of the party in power, people who had donated money or worked for candidates. Having never donated a dime nor lifted a finger to help any politician, and having voted against Thompson in 1982, I didn’t fit into the category of political friend. But there is a subcategory of patronage, also frowned on by journalists, called nepotism, in which non-political
relatives and friends of people in power get jobs, and it was my honor
to be Jim’s friend.
Over the years we occasionally joked about him getting me
a patronage job — I would be abandoning my journalistic ethics,
and he would be using his clout to hire someone with absolutely no
Republican credentials. But it wasn’t until I returned to Springfield
to enter the Public Affairs Reporting graduate program at Sangamon
State University (now University of Illinois Springfield) that either
of us took the idea seriously. It was expediency, impulse and a bit of
perversity that prompted me to ask Jim if there might be a temporary
state job in Springfield over the summer to ease my transition to grad
His face lit up. “You could write press releases for the State Fair,”
he said. Jim’s face always lit up when he talked about the fair. It was
the part of his job that he loved the most, and he literally lived on the
fairgrounds during the event. I had never shared his enthusiasm for
the exposition, but I’d never been through the experience, either.
“I guess I’d be writing a lot of stories about livestock contests,”
I said skeptically.
“That’s about it,” he said. “But you’d be at the fair.”
It was a tough call. Since in six months I’d be interning with a
news bureau that covered the governor, I didn’t want to compromise
my objectivity or credibility by taking a job in his administration.
But I really needed the money, and besides, there was something
irresistibly naughty about slipping over to the other side for a couple
of months and having a fling as a patronage flack.
The State Fair Press Office was a creature that came to life just
two months out of the year. When I was there, it consisted of three
other writers and an editor, who happened to be a former PAR grad
student. In addition, there were two photographers and a photo editor,
two messengers and two coordinators in charge of press credentials.
The supervisor was Mia Jazo, a bright and energetic woman in her
late 20s who had just taken over the job. Her boss was Mark Randal,
the press secretary for the Ag Department.
As I became acquainted with my co-workers and those in other
departments, I couldn’t resist asking them, “who got you your job?”
Judging from the vague and guarded responses, I wasn’t the only one
sensitive about being a patronage worker. But after some winking
and prodding, it usually came out that if they didn’t know someone
who was someone, their parents or someone else knew someone who
was someone. Some I didn’t have to ask, like one young fellow with
the same last name as a senior official in the Ag Department, who
was briefly with our office until his nocturnal golf cart escapades got
him transferred to another division.
Shortly after meeting the other writers — three intelligent and attractive females half my age — Mia asked us to write down which venues we wanted to cover and left us together in a room. Here it comes, I thought to myself. Livestock City. But I was in for a surprise. “I want to cover beef,” piped up one of the women. “No, I want beef,” said another.
“OK, then I get to cover pork,” said the first. “I wanted pork,”
complained the third. “But that’s OK. I’ll take sheep and goats.”
My mouth dropped open. “You … like … livestock?” I blurted in bewilderment. “Sure,” they responded in unison
“Bless you my children,” I said.
Next came an icy pause. Finally, the one who got beef spoke: “So what’s the matter with livestock?” she demanded.
I bit down hard on my tongue. “Not a thing,” I said lightly. “It’s just that all you’ve left for me is the harness racing, so I guess I’ll have to take that.”
Covering the harness races mostly meant reporting the results at the end of the day, so when I wasn’t hanging out at the track, I helped cover events on the other “beats.” We reported on many of the same things as real reporters, but our jobs were mostly exercises in absurdity. Our press releases were sent to hundreds of print and broadcast media across the state and nation, but most got one cursory glance from a low echelon copy editor before getting tossed in the trash. Still, it was important that we got them right, because those that did get used sometimes were printed verbatim and unedited.
It hadn’t really sunk in for me before that the State Fair was under the Agriculture Department for a reason, and that most of the other patronage jobs went to people with an ag background who were far more qualified than I was to be working at the fair. Thanks to Jim, the Psychedelic Furs might perform for one night, but the meat and potatoes of the fair was the livestock show, one of the largest such expositions in the country. I might have known something about journalism, but my coworkers knew farm animals. They’d shown livestock in 4-H competitions and one wanted to become a farm reporter. They also knew about ag etiquette, and I soon learned to never call a hog a pig. I also learned that there are queens and there are queens. One of the writers had been a county Beef Queen, which was not a beauty contest, she emphasized, but a competition for a representative to promote the beef industry. She said she had also been an Angus Ebonette, whose job it was to go around to county fairs and hand out ribbons.
“Does the Angus Ebonette have to compete against other cattle princesses, like the Heifer Princess, before she can become the Beef
Queen?” I asked.
By the way she glared at me, I knew I’d stepped in something
again. “A heifer is a cow,” she corrected me.
There are two stages in the life cycle of a State Fair press officer. The first six weeks are slow and easy, with plenty of time to goof off, followed by a bacchanalian fortnight of nonstop workdays and all-night partying. The one major pre-fair event, or pseudo-event, that the Press Office was responsible for was a press tour, during which a couple hundred media representatives were given a ride-through of the fairgrounds on open air buses, with commentary from the fair superintendent, followed by a free lunch. Its purpose was to get reporters who usually cover crime and politics up to speed on what was new at the fairgrounds. The tour was also an attempt to stir up enthusiasm and good will among congenitally blasé reporters who thought that covering the fair was beneath their dignity.
The year I was there, the arrangements were more elaborate than usual. To promote the first year of parimutuel betting at the fair, a harness race was staged. The simulation included having the reporters place fake bets at a parimutuel window, and those who won got paid with oversized two-dollar bills with Gov. Thompson’s face in the center, which the media dubbed “Jim Bucks.”
The “Press Stakes” was Mia’s idea, and from a PR standpoint, it was a gem. The harness race gave the TV stations plenty of visuals, and subliminally, having the reporters place bets revved up their interest. The race turned out to be competitive, and as the six horses rounded the final turn in a pack and raced down the stretch, some of the normally laid-back reporters began to root their horses home. Even if most of the reporters didn’t bother to collect their Jim Bucks, they had not merely observed but experienced the emotional thrill of betting on a horse race, and that excitement came through in their stories.
Following the tour, the reporters retired to the Press Office patio
for their free lunch, and I was accosted by reporter Tom Atkins of
the alternative weekly Illinois Times, where I had once worked. He
wanted to know if there wasn’t something improper about providing
free food to people who were supposed to report objectively on the
Airily, I told him that if the reporters were willing to go through the drudgery of the annual press tour, the least we could do was provide them with something to eat afterwards. But Atkins’ question had rattled me, because I still had qualms about being a patronage flack, and I was getting some bitter satisfaction from watching other journalists lining up at the public trough, albeit to a far lesser degree than I.
The Press Office office was located on the third floor of the
dilapidated Illinois Building, behind a giant statue of Abe Lincoln
just inside the Main Gate. The third floor also provided workspaces
for about a half-dozen real news organizations covering the fair, including the State Journal-Register, Chicago Tribune and Tribune Radio Network. It was also the scene of daily press conferences with venerable Fair Superintendent Merle Miller, where the first order of business was to announce the previous day’s attendance and speculate on whether total attendance would break the magic number of one million again.
Press Office employees were issued the same press passes as the
real reporters, which gave us free access anywhere on the fairgrounds
until 6:30 p.m., and free admission for ourselves and a guest to stand
on the track during the Grandstand shows at night. Best of all, the
passes granted us golf cart privileges, and golf carts were the most
regal mode of transportation on the fairgrounds.
Flacks also have the pleasant but sometimes frustrating task of only reporting the good news and putting the best face on what few negatives pop up. For instance, as he had in previous years, Gov. Thompson showed up to eat the winning meal at the Pork King Cook-off. As he was stuffing his face with the winning butterfly pork chops and mugging for the photographers, Ben Kinningham of Tribune Radio poked his microphone through the throng and asked an unappetizing question: “Governor, what’s your reaction to the group in Chicago who want to chain themselves to the gate of your home to protest your stand on pending AIDS legislation?”
Between bites, Thompson said he would let them protest at his
house or talk with them at his office, but not both. “I believe the
private residence of public officials should remain private,” he said.
Next it was my turn. “I got another tough question for you, Governor,” I began. “How’s your lunch?”
The biggest hard news to come out of the fair was a Sunday
night storm that blew down tents, stranded riders on the aerial lift and
injured several people. The Press Office didn’t issue a press release
on that incident. Nor did we touch the porta potty scandal. Seems
a disgruntled bidder on the fair porta potty contract leaked a story,
appropriately to a newspaper nicknamed the “Urinal-Register,” that
the winning bidder’s potties were substandard and poorly maintained.
The newspaper’s ag reporter, Charlyn Fargo, “investigated” 30
of the potties and found some were without toilet paper, light bulbs
or proper drainage. Her story resulted in a state hearing on the potties
and a reprimand to the owner. But further investigation also revealed
that more than 100 of the toilets had been vandalized, or sabotaged,
casting suspicion on the bidder/leaker who stood to gain if the other
portable toilet company lost its state contract.
About a million people a year visit the Illinois State Fair. So
do thousands of horses, steers, cows, sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits,
pigeons, barrows and gilts. Their owners cart them around to fairs
all over the country, trying to earn premiums, stud fees and auction
proceeds. It’s also a time for the owners to get off the farm, socialize
with their peers and show off their products.
Livestock expositions may leave some city folk cold, or with
allergies, but for the thousands of farmers who attend the shows it
is a time to take pride in their industry. It’s also not a bad life for the
animals, considering the alternative. Take Dallas, the winner of the
fair’s Biggest Boar Contest. Dallas was destined to become sausage
until his gross obesity caught the eye of Marvin Caldwell of Littleton,
Illinois, whose hobby happened to be exhibiting heftiest hogs. The
half-ton Yorkshire got a reprieve from the slaughterhouse and instead
toured the county fair circuit, where adoring fans showered him with
affection just for mugging in his pen like the world’s biggest ham.
The climax of the livestock show was the Sale of Champions, a choreographed auction of the junior champion steer, barrow, wether, market pen and pen of rabbits, i.e., champion castrated bull, similarly altered hog and goat, three chickens and three rabbits, whose registered owners are 4-H members under 20 years old.
The “auction” was another of those pseudo-events for politicians, and especially the governor. The year before, Thompson’s daughter Samantha had purchased the champion rabbits (with Thompson campaign funds), to the feigned chagrin of her parents. This time Samantha was supposed to buy the champion hog, but something went wrong. As the bidding began, Skilbeck whispered to me that Samantha would buy the swine for about $9,000 — with the money coming from Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka — and the hog would be used for a promotion at Ditka’s Restaurant in Chicago, which featured pork chops.
But things got out of control. Mother Jayne was sitting next to Samantha, cuing her to bid, but as the price neared and then cleared $9,000, Big Jim took over the coaching. And when the bidding reached $10,200, he physically restrained his precocious adolescent from raising her hand again. The victorious bidder was farm reporter Stu Ellis of radio station WSOY in Decatur, on behalf of the Friends of Macon County 4-H. “I thought Ditka was supposed to buy the barrow,” Ellis said, savoring the moment.
Typically, Skilbeck put a positive spin on the debacle. “It’s more
money for the seller,” he noted.
Golf Cart Derby
Like a political convention, everybody who’s anybody at the fair has at least one laminated pass, and those who are really somebody accumulate handfuls of cards, pins and decals, which they dangle from neck lanyards, or in some cases shoelaces. The passes grant their bearers various perks, including free parking, golf cart privileges and access to press areas. With the exception of the yellow security pass, the most coveted pass on the fairgrounds was the orange “All Access” pass, which in addition to all the other privileges, provided free admittance to the reviewing stand at Grandstand shows, and most importantly, nighttime access to the backstage compound on the infield, where the entertainers hung out and the real partying took place.
Access to the infield was through a tunnel beneath the racetrack, which had a security guard at both ends. The tunnel came out beneath the stage, where there were dressing rooms, a modest dining area with picnic tables and catered food, and offices for the stage crew. Behind the stage and inside a rickety picket fence was the compound itself, where my friend Jim and some of the other fair organizers lived in three recreation vehicles and a travel bus. Each night a bevy of friends, sycophants and potential conquests trekked backstage to make merry.
There was a large and inviting Jacuzzi that created a minor flap. The official objection was that image-wise the hot tub appeared decadent, and would reflect negatively on the governor if it found its way into the newspapers. On a more visceral level, there was concern that the hot tub filters might become clogged with illicit ejaculates.
But backstage turned out to be pretty tame. The major diversions were free booze, watching groupies trying to board that night’s band’s bus, and intermittent displays of pyrotechnics. In earlier times backstage may have been more risqué, but as one backstage vet noted, “nothing goes on anymore because backstage has become a very public place.” But it was also an oasis from the franticness of the fair, both a command post and getaway, where fair officials, spouses and friends, including a few media people, could go off the record, blow off steam and talk out of school.
Without an orange pass, the only way to get backstage at night
was to be escorted by someone who had one. My efforts to procure
an orange pass were stymied because before being laminated, they
had the names of the people they were issued to written on the backs.
Toward the end of the fair, I told Jim it was getting to be a hassle for
me to find an escort every night, and asked if there wasn’t a simpler
We were standing in an RV in the compound that served as his
home during the fair, and he picked up an orange pass that happened
to by lying on a table. “Take this,” he said and tossed it to me.
When I turned it over, it read, “Governor Jim Thompson 1-A.” I
held the pass gingerly. “You sure about this?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” Skilbeck said. “He doesn’t need it.”
On the last night of the fair, the annual Golf Cart Derby took
place on “the world’s fastest dirt oval mile.” The event had become
quite competitive. The previous year, members of President Reagan’s
Secret Service detail and staff participated, and someone broke an
arm. About midnight, entertainment manager Mike DuBois appeared
with a bullhorn and hummed the call to post. “Drivers, start your golf
carts,” he crackled over the bullhorn.
About a dozen carts with drivers and riders lined up in front of
the Grandstand and took off to the accompaniment of bottle rockets.
In the minutes it took the carts to circle the track, a length of toilet
paper was unrolled across the finish line, and spectators shook up
beers to spray on the winner. That year’s race had a ringer in it, as a
cart that had been a dog all week was surreptitiously souped up by
the fair’s press secretary. Ridden by two female photographers, the
fillies finished 100 yards ahead of the rest of the field.
The fair was over, and so was my job. I began taking journalism and government classes at SSU, where the subject of patronage came up periodically, causing me to cringe. But I didn’t feel like my interlude as a patronage flack had turned me into a partisan. Rather, it gave me a deeper insight into how state government works, and in many cases doesn’t work.
Besides, long before I accepted a favor from Skilbeck, my objectivity had been compromised by our friendship. I could no longer view him as a faceless news source, but as a flesh and blood human being, with feelings and a personal life that could be affected by what I wrote. And it occurred to me that maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. That when reporting on criminals, celebrities and politicians, instead of viewing them as grist for the daily news grind, they should be treated like human beings. That doesn’t mean pulling punches or fudging facts, but reporting on them fairly, without cheap shots. It means objectivity with a heart, and I make no apologies for that.