The following interview was originally supposed to be printed in Head in a Milk Bottle Vol. 2, #3 in the spring of 2002, but the issue never materialized. I recently unearthed an archive disc containing a lot of the articles and interviews that were to be featured in that issue, and will be posting them here on my blog periodically. Keep in mind that this stuff was written in late 2001.
Cleveland, Ohio native Michael Weldon started Psychotronic magazine some 22 years ago as a hand-written underground TV Guide for B-movie freaks living in New York City’s East Village neighborhood. A few years later it evolved into a book, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, then gave birth to a popular yearly calendar, and later the highly regarded Psychotronic Video magazine and The Psychotronic Video Guide. For awhile, Michael also ran the Psychotronic Boutique, a groovy little underground video store, in New York City. His Psychotronic Video magazine has been in print as a quarterly fanzine since 1989 for fans of Z-grade biker, sci-fi, horror, sexploitation and beach movies, with each issue jam-packed with great interviews with cult-movie stars and directors, columns, DVD, music, book and fanzine reviews, and a plethora of short, well-researched and entertaining film reviews from the silent period all the way up through the new millennium.
Michael J. Weldon was born on January 17, 1952 in Cleveland, Ohio, the 7th largest city in America at the time, and raised mostly in the west-side suburb of Lakewood, which had been the birthplace of Wired Radio (Muzak). In the ’20s, Cleveland was the 5th largest city in America and was well known for the many millionaires who lived there. “When I was a kid it was promoted as ‘The Best Location in the Nation,’ but soon became a prime target of jokes on national TV shows. When I left (in ’79) it was bankrupt. I still think it’s a great and unique place.”
Michael enjoyed a fairly typical suburban American baby-boomer upbringing. “I got along with—and still get along with—my parents and my brothers. Nothing uniquely bad happened to my family, but over the years we were affected by the same things that affected everybody: the Cold War (complete with bomb drills at school), assassinations, riots, the mass arrival of drugs, shopping malls and McDonald’s taking over. Our neighborhood was also pretty much ruined by I-90 cutting right through it. We grew up playing in the ruins of our former neighbors’ homes. For years it looked like a (safe) war zone. Our WWII vet dad was a semi-professional magician from Oklahoma who had also worked as a ventriloquist and a hypnotist. That alone made our family different, I guess.”
While he never had any big ambitions of being an actor or a rock’n’roll star, he did become fascinated with movies at an early age, and later had modest ambitions of playing in a local band, and in fact was in two. “I became fascinated with old movies as soon as my parents bought our first black and white TV set in the late ’50s (most neighbors already had them). I was around kindergarten age. Old (’30s and ’40s) movies of all types were shown on TV every morning and afternoon on the local stations. My first favorites were haunted house and murder mystery movies, then I discovered the classic monsters.”
The movies that really stick out in Michael’s mind as being his favorites growing up were The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Captain Sinbad (1963), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) in theaters. Some of his favorites from TV included the classic H.G. Wells horror/sci-fi film Island of Lost Souls (1933) starring, among others, Bela Lugosi; International House (1933) with W.C. Fields; and Peeping Tom (1960).
When it came to TV shows, “My favorites were, at various times: Captain Kangaroo (when I was really young), local kids shows that featured depression-era comedy shorts (Our Gang, The Three Stooges) and cartoons, A Queen for a Day, Ernie Kovacs, midget wrestling, sci-fi/horror anthology shows (Alfred Hitchcock, Thriller, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits), music shows (Shindig!, Hullabaloo, Ed Sullivan Show, Where the Action Is and the Cleveland-based Upbeat!), and spy shows ending with The Prisoner. I watched countless sitcoms but my all-time favorite was The Addams Family.”
It didn’t take long for Michael’s fanaticism in movies to really festoon itself and become more than just a casual diversion. “I became serious about the movies I liked after the local Ghoulardi (Ernie Anderson) late night horror host show debuted in Cleveland (in ’63), and I discovered Famous Monsters, Castle of Frankenstein and all the other monster movie magazines that were around then. I started wanting to know as much as possible about Boris, Bela and Peter Lorre (and later, directors) and started scrapbooks of pictures and advertisements.
“Ghoulardi’s original late Friday-night show was Shock Theater. His Saturday afternoon movie show was Masterpiece Theater. His half-hour weekday afternoon show was Laurel, Ghoulardi and Hardy. We just called all of them “Ghoulardi.” They were on Channel 8, WJW, the local CBS affiliate (it’s Fox now). I’ve written many articles about Ghoulardi, the movies he showed, and the amazing music (rock, R&B, and jazz) heard on his shows in various issues of PV (Psychotronic Video magazine) and interviewed him for Fangoria. I don’t know of any other local TV personality that had the intense and lasting cult appeal of Ghoulardi. His three main descendants (The Ghoul, Son of Ghoul, and Big Chuck) are all STILL on Cleveland-area TV! Ghoulardi’s influence was so great in northeastern Ohio that kids blew up plastic models (and other things) with M-80s and said “Stay Sick” and “Turn Blue” to each other for years because of him. The Cramps were heavily influenced by Ghoulardi and Iggy and The Stooges were big fans of The Ghoul. I could write a book about him but somebody already did (Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride by Tom Feran & R.D. Heldenfels, paperback, 1997). Ernie was also the comedy partner of actor Tim Conway (on local Cleveland TV and on comedy LPs), was the official announcer voice of the ABC network, and was the father of director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia).”
Michael’s love of obscure film wasn’t shared by many of his friends growing up, which is interesting considering a lot of kids will get into what their friends are into. “I was pretty much on my own with my childhood movie obsessions but my mom also liked old monster movies and my dad had rare, old magic show posters on the wall of devils and decapitated heads. I didn’t really know how many other Cleveland-area people were into the same movies I was, though, until I attended a sci-fi convention in 1966. It was fun, but by then I was more excited about music and bands than the Star Trek pilot that was premiered there.”
Later on, there were a few things that influenced Michael to start reviewing movies, and to later publish Psychotronic, but for the most part it was his own love of the genre, as well as punk rock, that caused him to want to start writing. “My capsule movie reviews were influenced by the ones in Castle of Frankenstein magazine from New York City, and probably by Leonard Maltin, who started writing his movie review books when he was still a teenager. When my first reviews were published (in Cleveland) we were all heavily influenced by the growing D.I.Y. punk ’zine scene. We sold Sniffin’ Glue, Search and Destroy, NY Rocker and many others in The Drome, the record store where I worked.
Regarding music, and being a musician in the great early ’70s Cleveland rock’n’roll scene, Michael says, “I’ve loved all types of pop music since I first heard top-40 radio, probably before we had a TV set. I was too little to experience the peak of original rock’n’roll (my parents were into typical MOR), but can clearly remember what was on the radio from about 1958 on. I liked novelty songs and instrumentals first, then was a fan of surf music, girl groups, early Motown, crossover R&B and country and singers like Gene Pitney, Del Shannon, Dion, and Roy Orbison—pretty much whatever was good on the radio and there was a LOT. Late ’50s and early ’60s music was great but the British Invasion caused a major exciting shift away from solo acts and singing groups, and really was the reason why so many guys started playing guitars and forming local bands—all over the world. The first band I was in (The Water’s Edge) was around 1966–’68. I played rhythm guitar (a black, solid-body Hagstrom) through a used Ampeg amp with a torn speaker. It was an exciting time because local garage bands could actually hope to maybe have a local—and sometimes national!—hit, and guitar effects (feedback, distortion, echo, wah-wah, etc.) were being discovered and accepted. The band I was in played all covers of hits, B-sides and LP cuts by Love, The Blues Magoos, The Byrds, The Who, and The Yardbirds plus the great songs every band played then (“Louie Louie,” “Hey Joe,” “Gloria,” “Wipeout,” etc.). There were two older guys in the band, which was a good thing if you wanted to learn new things. The singer owned Freak Out! by The Mothers of Invention (we never attempted to play any of that!) and the bass player owned LPs by all the bands I just mentioned. We weren’t organized enough or wealthy enough to make any records, though. This was before any of us had tried any drugs (although one guy sniffed glue) and I hadn’t even had a beer yet. Two band members later became junkies. I don’t know if either one is still alive.
“As far as favorite artists go, I still love The Beatles and The Stones but also Howlin’ Wolf, The Shadows, Link Wray, Phil Ochs, The Kinks, The Pretty Things, Captain Beefheart, Thirteen Floor Elevators, The Flamin’ Groovies, The Stooges, Can, Motörhead, The Cramps, The Avengers, The Saints, and Wire to name just a few.”
During his formative years in Cleveland, Michael held quite a few jobs. “I worked in restaurants for too long, then at the Record Rendezvous store in Cleveland’s Public Square. Leo Mintz, the owner of this small local chain of stores had been a friend of Alan Freed. Mintz sponsored the famous early ’50s Moondog Matinee show and has been credited with convincing Alan Freed to play R&B music on the radio for white kids and call it rock’n’roll. Mintz also sponsored Cleveland’s wildest-by-far DJ, The Mad Daddy. After ‘The Vous,’ I worked at Northern Records, a major regional one-stop distributor, and then The Drome.”
In the late 1960s and into the early ’70s, Michael got to know quite a few people involved with the early punk scene in Cleveland, and he also played drums for a band called the Mirrors, who would later evolve into the Styrenes. “I only played drums because nobody else wanted to and there was a cheap used set around. I never played drums before or after The Mirrors. By the early ’70s, most Cleveland-area bands were strictly cover bands and they tended to cover whatever was the most popular at the time. Any “scene” that had existed with The Choir, The Baskerville Hounds, and The Outsiders was long gone and the days of the local-based, more experimental bands (James Gang, Glass Harp, Damnation of Adam Blessing, etc.) was over, too. I knew and hung out with all the members of The Electric Eels and some of the Mirrors since high school. Founding Mirrors members Jamie Klimek and Jim Crook were older. When I was still in school Jim was fighting in Nam, which was where we all expected to end up. I first met the late Rocket From the Tombs and Pere Ubu founder Peter Laughner when I was still in school (late ’60s) because his bass player then was my locker partner. The Mirrors later played on bills with the Eels and Rocket, and I later worked at The Drome record store with (Ubu frontman) David Thomas. He quit when Ubu was signed, which was about the time I met the Pagans, whose records were on Drome Records. Other people I knew, had worked with in record stores, or had at least met, ended up in bands in Manhattan (The Cramps, Dead Boys, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, DNA, Feelies, Zantees, Bush Tetras, etc.).
“I knew the guys in The Electric Eels the best since we all went to Lakewood High. I went to The Atlantic City Pop Festival (featuring Dr. John, Arthur Brown, Little Richard, Lothar and The Hand People, Tim Buckley, and others) with Brian McMahon (Eels) and Dave. I was in a high school movie that Paul Marotta (founding member of The Electric Eels and infamous Cleveland studio musician and producer/engineer who also worked with the Pagans, Pere Ubu, and the Styrenes) made—something about sex under a table during dinner and shooting drugs. I shared apartments with Dave (had to throw him out) and Brian. Brian and I spent the night in jail after partying at Peter Laughner’s and I was threatened with guns in a working class bar because of John Morton’s (Eels) and Brian’s confrontational antics. After the drummer for Rocket from the Tombs stole equipment from The Eels, I went with John and Nick Knox (Eels drummer, later of The Cramps) who were planning to beat him up, but we never found him. Other memories are of going to see bands like The Stooges, The New York Dolls, Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper and Sun Ra with various Eels and best of all, seeing the looks on people’s faces when the Eels played live.”
Even though he was spending a lot of his time running around with these notorious Cleveland punks, Michael was still very much interested in B-movies. “I got into ‘underground’ films going to weekly midnight shows at a local (Lakewood) theater during the late ’60s. They showed features and shorts of all descriptions—usually featuring sex, drugs, and politics that had been banned from mainstream movies. The films ranged from West Coast hippie dreams to Warhol/New York stark reality. I started writing about movies in school, pretty much for myself. Shortly after I went to work at The Drome record store (in ’77), Jim Ellis, David Thomas and store owner John Thompson (a.k.a. Johnny Dromette) started Cle magazine and I wrote a column of movie reviews being shown on local Cleveland TV.
“By ’79, the exciting new ‘punk’ scene had already devolved into ‘new wave’ and cocaine was becoming a serious problem for many people. There were still great new bands, but the emphasis was on stupid gimmicks (picture discs, colored vinyl, etc.). Cleveland had defaulted and many people I knew had already moved to NYC. The Drome had been thrown out of its Cleveland Heights location and had moved to Lakewood (a mistake). The local radio stations refused to play our commercials if they had any music that sounded like ‘punk’ (the same sounds now used on countless commercials selling everything). Everybody seemed depressed by the state of the incredibly shrinking city of Cleveland, Jonestown and Three Mile Island. We put on a show in ’79 at The Drome featuring the pre-LP B-52s and tried showing Eraserhead as a midnight movie. The number of people at these shows numbered in the tens. It was time for a major change, so I packed up a rented van and arrived at former Eel John Morton’s loft in Brooklyn on the 4th of July.”
Eager to continue his movie critiques and do something productive with his time, Michael started Psychotronic as a weekly, xeroxed, hand-printed alternative NYC TV guide in 1980 shortly after moving into an East Village apartment and landing his first NYC job, which was with another excellent record store, now long gone—Record City on Broadway. “It just seemed like the thing to do. I hand-delivered copies every week to shops around lower Manhattan, then returned and tried to collect money. There were no ads. I had help and encouragement from Village Voice employees Akira Fitton (still with PV) and artist Sally Eckoff (my girlfriend at the time). Some others who helped out in various ways included Charlie Beesley and Fred Brockman (both from Ohio), Fangoria editor Bob Martin and Lester Bangs, who actually asked me if he could write movie reviews for Psychotronic.”
Asked how he could afford to live in Manhattan on a record store clerk’s salary, he says, “If you were lucky, apartments could be found in the Village for even cheaper than in Cleveland at the time. Many were rent stabilized or controlled. I met people in my building who were still paying under $100 a month! After a while all of them either died or were bought (or scared) out of the building so the landlord could charge $800, $1,000 or whatever. I held on to mine for over 20 years. When I lived at 341 E. 9th St., tenants included a one-time member of The Holy Modal Rounders, a former Voidoid, an Irish female filmmaker whose main star was Lydia Lunch, and a resident biker/dealer who collected pulp novels.”
It didn’t take long for the weekly Psychotronic guide to attract some good local media attention. “After all, I was in New York City writing about ‘trash culture’—it would have been amazing if I hadn’t gotten any media coverage.” This led to a deal at Random House/Ballantine to do a book of reviews. “I knew I couldn’t devote enough time to a book then AND still grind out a weekly ’zine, so with mixed feelings I stopped publishing Psychotronic and used my advance money to live on for a while. When it was published (in ’83), The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film got many great reviews, good publicity and sold well and steadily. It has been reprinted many times and is still in print nearly 20 years later, which is unusual for any movie book.”
Michael continued writing movie reviews, and thirteen years later published the second volume, this one being called The Psychotronic Video Guide. “It has done well too, but 1996 was not 1983 and, although St. Martin’s is a ‘cool’ publisher, it’s not Ballantine. I would love to write and assemble one Psychotronic book with everything from both earlier books (with corrections and additions) plus newer reviews. Since every company on the planet is busy being bought out or merging these days, I figure if I wait long enough, my former publishers will both be owned by the same multi-national conglomerate and there will be no more legal problems. I just hope that books are still being published by then!”
In 1989, Michael decided to take Psychotronic a step further and start a more or less “real” magazine again. “It just seemed like the thing to do at the time. I had recently been inspired by touring Europe with a package of Psychotronic movies (which included Dementia (a.k.a. Daughter of Horror), Robot Monster, Carnival of Souls, Night Tide, and Nabonga), had met my future wife, Mi Hwa, and was tired of writing formula freelance reviews for video magazines. Psychotronic Video grew slowly and we have had to deal with the realities of the real world ’zine distribution system (they’re all crooks), rising paper and postage costs, and the rush towards our current ‘connected’ world. I still love publishing a magazine but whenever anybody asks about starting their own ’zine I tell them that unless they’re independently wealthy and have spare time they’d have to be out of their mind to do it and expect to not lose money. We continue to sell enough issues and enough ads and subscriptions to hang on. Otherwise, as I said, you have to be out of your mind to do this for so many years without ANY financial backing and at the mercy of distributors.
“Fanzines peaked in popularity at some point in the ’90s when there were books about them; Factsheet Five was around and there were more and better distributors to handle them. It now seems like they were on the way out even then. The Internet really is changing everything. Most of the distributors that didn’t declare bankruptcy or were bought out changed all of their policies (on returns, percentage paid, and other matters) and made it even harder for indy ’zines to survive. The biggest distribution nightmare was when Fine Print of Texas went under owing money to all the ’zines they had carried.”
Even though Michael now lives in Virginia, he says that PV is still printed in the NYC area. “We moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia in 2000 after a series of memorable negative events both personal (we nearly died in a head-on car crash in New Jersey) and well-known and newsworthy. 1999 was the year of the Y2K panic, The Woodstock disaster (we had first-hand reports) and Columbine. Locally, The Narrowsburg International Film Festival was part of a short-lived but book-worthy con orchestrated by a low-level wise guy from Brooklyn who had starred in an autobiographical shot-on-video movie called Wacking Cows. We had to escape from the huge Times Square Loews Theater in Manhattan on Easter during a wilding-style riot at a showing of The Matrix. Our car was totaled by a guy talking on his cell phone. We spent New Year’s Eve in Times Square and decided it was time for a change of scenery (and weather).
“I basically felt the same way I did in 1979 when I decided to leave Cleveland; things in general were getting dangerously out of hand and it seemed like something really awful was going to happen. Just after I moved to NYC, the Iran hostage crisis happened, Reagan and Bush were elected and Lennon was shot. Just after we moved totally out of New York (City and upstate), George W. was elected, the WTC (where we ate dinner on our wedding day) toppled and George Harrison died. Somehow we seem trapped in cycles as things devolve. Did I mention that Devo played live in The Drome?
“I first saw Devo in a small club in nearby Akron. Johnny Dromette got to be friends with Mark Mothersbaugh and their hard-working original manager (who they dumped after being signed). The Drome showed Devo’s amazing videos to open several Disasto shows (starring Pere Ubu, Suicide Commandos, Destroy All Monsters, Pagans, and others) and Devo played live for free in the store once, complete with Mark as Boogie Boy in a playpen. I thought they were totally unique, funny and disturbing. I remember hearing Mark talking to David Thomas about the future and goals of their still-unsigned bands, never imagining that both would last so long and do so well. Mothersbaugh had a homemade scrapbook illustrating all aspects of de-evolution. That must have been the primer for the Subgenious Foundation.”
Some of you fellow zinemakers reading this who may have encountered printing/publishing nightmares may be relieved to know it’s not an uncommon thing, and has even happened with PV. “The most memorable production memory is when our new printer refused to print at the last possible moment because someone at the company was offended by a photo of a naked woman. We’ve been turned down by other printers because I refuse to censor things—at least not at their demand.”
Michael and his wife decided to close up their Manhattan-based Psychotronic Boutique video store (which was recreated by almost-resident fan Quentin Tarantino in his movie True Romance) in ’93 when they bought a house in Sullivan County (upstate), which was surrounded by a farm with cows and overlooked the Delaware River. “We thought about having somebody else run our store so we could live in our house, but (wisely, I think) decided to close up. We had a good and profitable time running the Psychotronic store for a few years but we also had to put up with relentless shoplifters (including bored students, homeless people, junkies and drag queens), ‘anarchists’ from Tomkins Square Park who smashed windows and glued our locks shut, gangster garbage collection shakedowns, a psycho super, and New York’s (Mayor) Dinkins-era general chaos. While we had our store, two neighboring restaurant owners were murdered, and a guy down the street was arrested for killing a ballerina and boiling her head. Our store was basically in storage for years until we moved to Virginia.”
When flipping through the most recent issue of PV, I noticed he has “Legal Counsel” listed on the masthead for BOTH coasts. Michael told me there’s a good reason for this. “I never thought of hiring a lawyer for anything until after the first book came out and I found out how many different ways you can be cheated and conned if you are doing something others would like to profit from. We have had to use lawyers to collect money, to work out convoluted publishing deals, and to stop several stores and an international corporation from blatantly misusing and abusing Psychotronic.
“While our NYC store was open, an existing local chain of video stores (that I was a member of) started putting the Psychotronic logo on their membership cards and above their own name outside their stores! When I calmly told the (immigrant) owner that this was unfair, uncool and illegal, he started yelling ‘This is America! I can do whatever I want!’ He pointed at a truck going by and said ‘I can call my store Coca-Cola if I want!’ It took a lawyer to stop him. Then, some men from a very large international corporation came by and said ‘We love what you’re doing and we’re planing a syndicated Psychotronic TV show. We’ll hire you as a consultant but we’re going to do it if you agree with us or not.’ They had already shot a promo short (using our logo) for it and everything! A lawyer stopped them. After a while, whenever I’d hear the words ‘fan,’ ‘synergy’ and ‘business’ at the same time, I’d know to call a lawyer.”
When I asked him if he could recall some of his most memorable features that have been included in PV over the years, he recalls, “The most memorable people interviewed for PV for various reasons were David Carradine, Susan Tyrell and Sammy Petrillo. I didn’t interview them myself but dealt with all of them. Meeting Al Adamson shortly before he was murdered was memorable, too. Of the interviews I conducted myself, I have the best memories of Ernie (Ghoulardi) Anderson.”
Michael says the people he has working on PV (most for no money) are a good combination of old friends and people who he’s met or have contacted him with good ideas over the years. “I have assigned some interviews but others were just sent in out of the blue.
“The film industry has always been a mindless greedy machine. It’s amazing that any good and worthwhile movies are and were produced. Luckily I also enjoy watching mediocre and terrible movies. I hate paying top dollar to see a boring, mediocre movie, but love seeing a good one in a theater and I’ll watch just about anything on tape or TV—it’s part of my ‘job.’ Even the best directors usually only make a few really great movies. I’ve pretty much given up counting on any of them. For example, I like some films by the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch a lot, as well as ones by David Cronenberg and David Lynch—but not all of them.” When asked if he thinks the B-movie film industry might be drying up to the point where it might become increasingly more difficult to find subjects to cover in the pages of PV, he says, “There will NEVER be a lack of interesting PV-type actors, directors and musicians to interview, or releases to review.”
And that, my friends, is good news indeed.
“Stay Sick.” – Michael J. Weldon
To order a copy of the latest issue of Psychotronic Video magazine, send $5 (plus $1.75 for postage in the U.S.) to Michael Weldon, c/o Psychotronic, 4102 Main St., Chincoteague, VA 23336. Subscriptions are also available. On the Web: www.psychotronicvideo.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org