Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Spectrum Files

Growing up in Southern Wisconsin, "out in the county" as it was referred to by family and friends, caused limitations.  As gorgeous as the surroundings were, the limitations could be irritating in the entertainment department for a kid my age.

It's not like there was never anything to watch, though.

This was the early 80's, well before most had cable television.  Mind you, we picked up Chicago's 5 & 7, NBC and ABC affiliates respectively, with Milwaukee's 4 and 12 doing the same.  CBS was channel 6 out of Milwaukee and remained that way until it converted to Fox in the 90's. (VHF upstart 58 took CBS reins at that point.)  With the benefit of a rotary antenna towering some 12,000 feet above our house, excellent reception of these channels was almost never an issue.

Speaking of VHF, Chicago's 32 and 44, coupled with Milwaukee's 24 and 18 brought some other options, which is where a lot of my early movie watching  and cartoon connosieuring were derived from.  Black Belt Theatre, Svengoolie, and Creature Feature were awesomeness personified. (a certain joy was brought to me this last Christmas season when I found that Svengoolie is still alive and kicking and carried on ME TV, in all it's syndicated glory, down here in my current home in Texas.)   Mind you, I was about 10 or 11 at the time in Wisconsin, and had no clue what I was looking for to expand my viewing horizons.

One day in the fall of 1981 my parents decided to get Spectrum TV.  Spectrum was, along with ONTV, and SelecTV, also available at the time, a one channel movie subscription option.  Spectrum was broadcast from UHF Channel 66 located on the John Hancock center in Chicago.  You had to buy a descrambler box and pay a monthly subscription fee to receive the signal unfettered.

Spectrum was a mixture of first-run movies, uncut older films, and an "after midnight" viewing window that featured "adult" material.  (It wasn't all what you're thinking, however).  After the late night adult/cutting edge material ended, the channel shut down until the next morning.  Some woman doing calisthenics for 20 minutes opened the following broadcast day, before the channel itself took the air.

Initially I was disappointed in that first month. The featured movie was "The Four Seasons", and Alan Alda/Carol Burnett opus, that did not really fit my demographic.  Nothing else that month must have been very watchable either, for I don't remember anything beyond that.  I complained to my brother who told me that I "never appreciate anything".

"I don't appreciate the smell of marijuana in my pajamas either, Einstein, but we can discuss that later",  I replied.

 I'm sure he smacked me or put me in an arm bar or something at that point.  Whatever.

What I didn't know at that age as I watched Spectrum, often by myself, was that the programmer must have been some kind of cinephile genius.  Yes, I'm sure they had to satisfy a sales department, which explained a lot of the first-run claptrap that aired on there. But hidden in-between the cracks, between the "attraction" showings were a lot of what current movie afficianados call gems. (Remember, this was 1981.  Dude (or dudette) was way ahead of their time.

Spectrum was where I first saw Bruce Lee's The Big Boss, the seminal horror works of Wes Craven, long before Nightmare on Elm Street, and the current cult diamond Vice Squad, among tons of others which I will wax nostalgic about here on my blog.  But it wasn't just low budget action/horror fare that filled it's time slots. Here I saw Fantastic Planet in its bizarre animated glory, as well as the German nightmare fuel drama, The Tin Drum, which still has me disturbed to this day.  Was I ready for some of this stuff?  Probably not, but a whole world was opening to me.  I was watching foreign gems like the Jean-Paul Belmondo flick, High Heels, Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man!, and the almost-forgotten but still cult Australian flick The Long Weekend. 

Sometimes windows of time will be filled by short films, like Sam Raimi's student film Cleveland Smith (Indiana Jones parody), a bizarre short film with Don King in it, among many others.

Did I have any clue what I was watching half the time?

Probably not.

However, I think my love of cinema was deeply refined by the (possibly too intense) cinematic primer I was getting from that programming genius down at Spectrum.

Anyway, I will be writing reviews and rememberances of the films I viewed on Spectrum here on the blog, and an inkling of how the film affected my young psyche.  Yes, you will wonder how responsible my parents were for letting a 10 year old kid watch Last House on the Left or Shogun Assassin by himself, but I'm grateful I had the opportunity.