Interview: Rick Klein of FuzzyMemories.TV

By Karl Klockars in News on Dec 2, 2008 6:23PM

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We first stumbled across Rick Klein's site, FuzzyMemories.TV, while we were researching a post about Christmas advertising in Chicago. After we lost a full 2 hours browsing through a ton of local video content, we knew that Klein had something amazing there. Between decades-old newscasts, ancient local commercials, and the short produced pieces called "bumpers" that ran around all of our local programming, it's possible to get a real sensation of time travel. It's as though we were sent back to when we were kids, getting out of school and camping out in front of the TV with some potato chips and cartoons.

Rick spent some time with us to talk about the site and the process of getting the whole thing put together. It's kind of our way of saying "thanks for providing all this content for us for so long." And of course, we've included the videos when we can in the interview, but don't forget to browse around the site itself as well as the YouTube side of Fuzzy Memories. Just be prepared for your boss to hate us - it's almost impossible not to get lost in these videos when you start digging into them.

We talk about facing off with the Museum of Broadcast Communications, the most popular videos on the site, Rick's own personal favorites, what he'd like to add - and what station hasn't exactly been helpful with that process.

Chicagoist: How and why did you start the site? Did you have all this material just lying around?

Rick Klein: It started with my collecting this material before I even thought of having the site. When I was in high school, I actually worked at the Museum of Broadcast Communications on the weekends over a couple years time. They had a little mock TV studio set up. People could go there, they could film themselves having a fake newscast, and I used to operate the switcher and VTR and stuff. That’s when they were in the River City complex.

I was always nostalgic about certain things because I had my own tapes that we personally recorded when my brother and I were on the Bozo show. I got to play a hot-potato game; my brother got to play the buckets, actually – his number got picked by the “Bozoputer”.

C: Wow - That’s like being royalty to a kid.

RK: I know! And also to have the tape – we feel honored, because as I found out years later, WGN doesn’t have many episodes, much less every episode. This show was on 5 days a week for 40 years, or so. They really only have a handful of different episodes from the 60’s through the early 80’s! That got me thinking about, “Well, if WGN doesn’t have a copy of this, it’s only because we taped it and saved the tape that it still exists. Otherwise it might not be here.” So that thought was in my mind.

I met a guy at the MBC that had some old recordings of stuff – one of the things that I was looking for was the old cartoon bumpers from Channel 32. They used to do something called Super Cartoon Sunrise, and it was just a wraparound package thing for Woody Woodpecker, Tom & Jerry, and all those cartoons. Just made you hyped up for watching the cartoons.

He said he had recorded some of these himself, because he was a little bit older than me, and he used to collect the old Popeye cartoons, I guess. He had some of them recorded from about 1979 or 1980. He also had some old WSNS Channel 44 material – Magical Mystery Tour recorded from the All Night Movie. And he made me a copy of it, and I said, “Wow.” I couldn’t believe how much I remembered this stuff, but only once I saw it again.

It’s the craziest thing. Some things you remember, but then over time it gets fuzzier and fuzzier. But there are other things, where it’s waiting for a key to unlock part of your memory. And I got enamored with that. Once you have that experience, it can get addictive, because then you want to see, “What else can I unlock up there that I didn’t remember?”, or “How did I remember this differently as a kid than I am seeing it now?”

kleintapes120208.jpgSo that fuels a lot of the collecting part of it. For years I would go to flea markets and look for old tapes, or ask different people that I knew. And over time, it built up quite a bit – but it was only with the advent of YouTube in 2005, that I started thinking, “Hmm…maybe I can do something else with this to show it to other people and share this passion of mine.”

Because one of the things that I noticed in this collecting field – and it’s not an extremely big collecting niche – there’s a lot of hoarding and often people don’t want to always share what they have with other people. I was always against that. These are everyone’s memories and they shouldn’t be treated like that – they should be available for everyone to enjoy. No one should be trying to make a profit off of this, or hoarding something just for yourself and relishing the fact that you’re the only one that has a copy of this one thing. Which a lot of them are like that.

So when it came to YouTube, I just started posting a couple things. An old Three Stooges bumper from Channel 32 was the first. And the response I got right away was pretty cool. A lot of people were sending positive feedback, saying things like “Wow, this is great; I never thought I’d see this again.”, or “I totally forgot about this!!”. All kinds of comments like that. People were really digging it.

So I started posting more and more. I have had a couple different YouTube accounts…My original one got deleted because of copyright complaints, which mostly came from WGN. They apparently have a big issue with having innocuous, 25-year-old material of theirs posted on YouTube. You’d think they would have more important things to focus on. They’re the only station that I’ve had any problems with whatsoever. It’s kind of ironic that this started with them; with our Bozo tape. I don’t know – they have their own long history and maybe part of it is that they kind of stubbornly want to be the sole keepers of the torch…

C: …and keep everything in-house?

RK: Yeah, or even if they show things themselves, they want to be the ones to present it somehow. I don’t know, I’m just speculating. I don’t know why they would want to stop someone from celebrating their history in a non-profit setting, though. It’s not like I made an “I hate WGN” site, or that I was selling DVD’s of material on Ebay. I can’t think of any other explanation for it, other than its a little bit like, “This is our stuff, and we’re gonna show it how and when we want – so too bad!” But the thing is – they don’t have everything that I have, even.

Or if they do have certain things, they’re certainly not showing it anywhere. I have stuff that can’t be seen on their website, and you wouldn’t see it on any of the specials they did, any of the anniversary specials, or the “Bozo, Gar and Ray” special, none of that. My website was the only place that the average person could see some of this material.

And it’s not just like, “Oh, it’s another Bozo episode. We have these Bozo episodes, you have these, big deal. People can see our episodes.” No, these are other things that people fondly remember. Things like bumpers for the Sunday Matinee and other movie shows – the promos, the news editorials, cartoon bumpers, PSA’s and all kinds of other material. All of which I’d be happy to share copies of with WGN if they asked; all I’m asking is to allow me to continue doing what I enjoy most – hunting it down, preserving it digitally, tracking the history, and sharing this material with others.

I honestly don’t understand their reasoning. It’s free publicity for the station, good public relations by fostering warm memories of watching their channel in the past. By wanting to control this material with an iron-fist, it’s almost like they’re more stuck in the past than I am. You’re not going to put the online-video genie back in the bottle now.

C: Have you heard from any local networks that’ve been supportive of what you’re doing with the site?

RK: Only WCIU Channel 26 made an official contact with me, and I was working with them for a little bit. They want to put together their own historical website, and they wanted to use the clips that I had, and I was very happy to help them in any way I could. They were gracious enough to want to cross-promote my Museum on their site even. But unfortunately the producer that was working on that got laid off or left or something like that. So the project is on the back burner for the time being.

But other than that, no. I don’t know for sure if there are any issues. They might not be aware of it, or care even. This is what I really suspect in a lot of cases, especially with an entity like Channel 32. They’ve changed hands so many times – they were Kaiser, then Field, then Metromedia, then Fox. So to go back two owners to the days when they were Field Communications, they probably don’t even care about that.

C: Either that, or they want to pretend it didn’t happen. Like making the old companies “un-management.”

RK: Right, yeah. Because the only way that it’s recognizable is by the call letters and by the station number. Everything else is a different world. But I suspect from talking with some people that work at certain TV stations – they’ve said that “we’ve passed this website around our employees as an underground thing, and we’ve really gotten a kick out of seeing this old footage.” But in terms of official sanctioning, I don’t know why it hasn’t occurred, or if it’s able to.

I am certainly more than willing to provide material to any of the stations, or to help them out in any way I can – this is my passion. They could be missing out on some great opportunities to utilize the rich history of their station in a way that they may not have done yet – sort of from a “regular viewer” type of standpoint. I think the only local station that’s done any sort of formal, retrospective special on the history of their station, other than perhaps a short piece airing on a newscast, is WGN. And that’s kind of a shame.

C: So no news anchors have even contacted you? Because some of the people that have been in the market for years, maybe they haven’t seen any of these clips in 20 years. I mean, it’s not like they’re not Googling themselves.

RK: Oh, I’m sure they are. Well, it’d be cool if one of them does, because we’ve been trying to find out what happened to her. Do you remember Kathy McFarland from Channel 32? She did the news updates on WFLD from about 1980 to 1983. She was an attractive redhead and I’ve been told a lot of people had a juvenile crush on her…I’ve tried to post as many clips as I could find. Because for a while, I couldn’t find hardly any. And nobody knows where she’s working now, or if she even is still.

I’ve contacted some people myself directly, and they were happy to know the material is out there. Once in a while I get emails from all sorts of different people from unexpected sources. Recently, somebody that was a kid in a Kraft Macaroni & Cheese commercial from 1980 contacted me and said, “Hey, I’m that kid on the left!”

C: “And now I’m 37 years old!”

RK:
Right! And he’s like, “This is amazing!” And the thing that maybe is kind of sad in some ways, but I’m glad that I’m providing it at least, is that they don’t have a copy of it themselves, and they were in the commercial. So any time that I can help people out, I’m happy to do so. My mission is just about preserving the stuff, and sharing it with others. And that’s what I hope to be able to continue to do.

I’ve moved forward with making the Museum an official non-profit organization, and I’m just waiting for the final paperwork on that to be completed. Because I really think it serves a useful purpose. And it should be able to stand on its own as an official entity rather than just some “underground” thing. I have a lot of opinions on the copyright issues, but the bottom line is that I don’t think I’m preventing anyone from making any money on this material, even if that potential was there – which itself is debatable for most of these things. There is a provision in copyright law called “Fair Use” which addresses these issues.

C: And it’s not like you’re posting anyone’s full program. You’re providing material that was around the content. If anyone wants to sell the shows, that’s up to them.

RK: And I wish they would! Because that would help me out, and save some of the work that I’m doing. You’re right though, for the most part I only show clips. If something really rare is absolutely unavailable anywhere else, like the Science Fiction Film Awards from 1978 – then I will post that in its entirety. But if it ever became available for sale on DVD though, I would remove the clips from our site or shorten them if asked to do so.

But yeah, it seems likely that they’re not going to do that for whatever reason. Some things are tied up legally or are so ambiguous in terms of who owns them that they will never be released.

So, I think I’m serving a useful purpose – even a purpose that the Museum of Broadcast Communications hasn’t filled. I initially tried to outline this on the website on the “About” page, but I had to change it slightly, because I’ve had some issues with them. They see me as competition, I guess…

You didn't think we'd ignore Svengoolie in this piece, did you? C'mon.

C: Like you’re moving in on their turf?

RK: Yeah, I suppose so. But I honestly feel like I am providing something more, which the MBC has either been unable to, or is unwilling to provide. I’m not trying to compete with them any more than the Chicago Historical Society, or any other museum is. I wish we could cooperate together. We’re all supposedly working toward the same goal – the preservation of historical artifacts and memories. They bring up issues like, well, if all this stuff is from off-air recordings then…you’re not even supposed to reproduce an off-air recording based on the law as it’s currently written. So even making a copy of the tape, or putting a clip of it on YouTube or another site could be considered reproducing it for some other purpose.

But there should be some sort of exception, I mean – if somehow, someone had magically recorded the first episode of Bozo’s Circus off-air, would you throw it out because it was recorded by an average Joe in his home? Would you have to deny people the chance to see it lest it be considered reproducing it? That would be a tragedy in some sense – a missed opportunity for preservation. The bottom line is: so much of this material is essentially lost – the TV stations don’t have it, and even other museums don’t have it. So what do we do? Turn our backs on a cache of historical recordings just because they were captured in someone’s home? I don’t accept that…

And that’s why I’m trying to regroup and do things more officially – I wanted to become a non-profit organization, so they can’t wrongly question my motives. So I can say, “Here – I told you I’m not trying to make any money off this, here’s the proof of it.”

C: So exactly where are you at with the non-profit status?

RK: Well, we’re officially a not-for-profit corporation in good standing in Illinois, listed under The Museum of Classic Chicago Television. We’re waiting on the Federal Tax ID, and once we get that, we can reapply with the Attorney General’s office in order to take donations of videotapes, or funds to offset the cost of running the museum.

C: What are the most popular videos on your site?

RK: One of the most popular is definitely the Max Headroom pirating video. This was the incident that happened on Channel 11 that took place back in November of 1987. That has been immensely popular, even for people who aren’t from Chicago; they can see how weird and bizarre it is. That gets the most hits on YouTube. We still don’t know who that guy was, either – maybe someday if the statute of limitations runs out, maybe then he’ll identify himself and tell us what drugs he was on at the time, and what the heck his point was. [laughs]

Another one that has gotten over 100,000 views is a funny “infomercial”-type ad that aired on WPWR Channel 60 at one time for something called the Power Jet – a car washing sprayer that you hooked up to your garden hose, I think. That one features some particularly bad overacting in it as well as a “questionable” close-up of a woman’s tight T-shirt. Let’s just say it was probably cold out that day.

Then there is the improbably marketed kid’s toy based on the alien from the movie “Alien” – an R-rated movie with a nightmare-inducing kid’s toy…I could go on…

C: Is there any one genre or section that gets more attention?

RK: Probably the bumpers for different movies…again, just because people haven’t seen them in their original form anywhere else, so there’s the novelty of seeing it again. The WGN material was popular, when I did have it on my site – because I don’t know if you noticed, but it’s not available on there any more. You can still see the thumbnails of the clips, but if you click on any of the WGN ones, they won’t play. WGN told me to take them off. We’re not able to provide those right now, and that’s a shame, because it gets requested a lot.

C: I’m on the website right now. There are 26 pages of WGN content that you can’t access.

RK: Well, you can read the description of the videos and see the thumbnail pics. I wanted to at least leave the outline of them, of what used to be there and what is unable to be seen anymore. I didn’t put any telling notice on there, like “Videos unavailable because WGN is being a bully,” because I didn’t want to inflame any more tension. My real hope is that by taking time and being prudent in this matter, and waiting until I get the official non-profit status – then I hope I can go back to them and reintroduce my site and tell them that, okay, this isn’t just some random guy screwing around. I’m not making money off of this – I’m a non-profit organization; Will you allow me to display these clips for people, which everyone wants to see? Why should the MBC be allowed to show this stuff, but not my Museum? That’s kind of an unfair monopoly on memories, don’t you think?

And I’m hoping that they’ll come around again. I love WGN – always have, and I still do obviously. I hope that they don’t just ignore it, because that’s basically the response that I’ve had so far, which is sad.

C: What are your favorites?

RK: I like the cartoon bumpers. The hardest stuff to find, especially from the late 70’s and from the very early 80’s, is kids material, or cartoon material. Because, think about it – the tapes were so expensive, and the machines were so expensive, they weren’t going to let Junior record his program usually. It was reserved for an ABC Sunday Night Movie or something similar most of the time. So it’s really hard to find this stuff. And when you find an episode of a cartoon and you can see the bumpers and the commercials that you remember, it’s just really cool.

I also have clips of something that’s really rare – it’s called Nite-Owl. It was a program on WFLD Channel 32 with computer generated pages of news that would cycle through; along with other things like trivia contests…it was fairly popular with a certain segment of people – like insomniacs, and late-night workers. It wasn’t around for that long – it started in the fall of ’81 and was gone by the next year. But people that did see it, it provided a very powerful memory for them. And that was one thing that I personally remembered strongly – going over to my aunt’s house when I was about 8 years old; the excitement of getting to stay up late at night – because it only aired from midnight until around 6am. So you mix that excitement with getting to stay up extra late, and then seeing this – “What is this weird thing on TV?” Everything seems more mysterious when you’re a kid. Especially the primitive computer generated stuff – you didn’t see that on your TV every day back then.

C: It looks like Atari.

RK: Which added to the coolness back then. That’s one of my favorites, just in terms of an unbelievable find. Because every time I uncover something like that, for all intents and purposes, it shouldn’t exist any more. Who would have taped that?? I feel fortunate to find it and be able to preserve it, even if it’s something relatively obscure. You just get caught up in that attitude.

Last summer, I found another episode of Bozo’s Circus. It’s from July 4th, 1978. Great time capsule. They do this whole uber-patriotic salute to America, with marchers and dancers, and a baton twirling kid who drops his baton about 10 times. Toward the end, Frazier Thomas gives a slightly rambling speech on what it means to be an American, and you might have a tear in your eye. It’s great. And like I said, I’m pretty sure that WGN doesn’t have this episode. I found it on this real obscure format – these giant Quasar tapes, it wasn’t Beta, it wasn’t VHS – it was this old home format. I had to get the machine repaired, and get it transferred, and the guy didn’t even know at the time if the tapes were blank or not! He was shocked when I told him. I mean, it was 30 years ago – he had no clue what was on there!

When I put those tapes in for the first time, and I hear the music from the Bozo show, I’m like, “Holy cow.” And again, there are kids on there that hopefully are still living and who knows if they have seen the show since it aired. If I didn’t find this, this obscure tape that could have easily been thrown out by this guy, it would have been lost forever.

C: And the thing about the Bozo Show, is that it’s something that a kid will remember for their whole lives. Like, they’ll always have a memory of being on the show, even if they don’t have a video. So to actually find that footage again would be really meaningful.

RK: Everybody has a story related to it, either they went themselves or they had a friend that did, and they can tell you a lot of details. Because it was an event that didn’t happen in your ordinary life back then, when you’re a kid. When I find something like that, I’m taken by the importance of it in a sense – I mean, sure, it’s only a silly kids program, whatever. But this is a moment in time, exactly what was on the air, on this date at this time – at 12 noon on this channel. This was captured and survived for 30 years…it deserves to be preserved.

It’s a time capsule. And it’s actually more like time-travelling when you look at these old tapes. Because it’s more than just a photograph or simple memento – it’s a real-time slice of exactly what you would have seen on your TV. Not just the program but the original ads too – the real-time experience of the entire thing, if you were back then at that date watching TV. There’s not much else like it.