Saturday Night Grindhouse Chapter 6: The Ad

Kingsport's City Hall
Kingsport’s Former City Hall

Kingsport’s old city hall building has always been strange for me. It’s an older structure that’s gone through quite a transformation in its location on the corner of West Center and Shelby Streets in downtown. In the 1920s it acted as City Hall as well as the local YMCA, Kingsport Police Department and home to the very first iteration of the Kingsport Library before it became its own city department. And while the library has since moved out, the YMCA has spun off many times and the Police Department now has its own enormous building next door, one thing that hasn’t changed is the form of government inhabiting it: a city manager and board of mayor and alderman. A man by the name of James Dobyns was the first to take the title of Mayor in the city of Kingsport in 1917. The population of the town was around 5,000. 

Fast forward to the year 2005 and the population had grown by more than 830% and the mayor was the newly-elected Dennis Phillips. Phillips was a small business owner and former insurance salesman from North Carolina before he became the mayor of Kingsport. Ask around and you’ll get different opinions of the guy. Some will say he’s a good man that brought higher education to the forefront in Kingsport, which is true. Others will say he’s a racist that ended a decades-old agreement between the Kingsport Convention Center and the descendants of Kingsport’s first black family regarding the use of its rooms for no objectively valid reason and repeatedly called my black coworker “boy”, which is also true. You’d also hear about his drinking habit, which he didn’t hide as well as he’d maybe hoped. To us, he’s the guy who ended Saturday Night Grindhouse.

At this point in the story, I didn’t know that was going to happen, of course. All I knew is that Mayor Phillips, character aside, was gracious enough to let us keep this government access channel and I had a golden show idea to run on it.  

After wrapping the promo, I finally had a more concrete timeline for completion. I certainly didn’t neglect my other projects for the company, but every ounce of spare time I had both at work and at home went toward developing this show. I knew the format would be very much like those of past horror-host shows and I knew the set space we had was minimal so I had a pretty good idea of what we had to work with. 

When I began writing the script I was able to get about two episodes knocked out in short order. It was pretty simple because I had been reading a lot of Tales from the Crypt. I knew I wanted that type of humor thrown into the show and I was full of puns that would work. Shannon’s segments would be relatively short, 2-3 minutes for each for a total of seven segments. The rest of the content would merely be the films that I’d slap a bug on and call it a day. I knew the movies we’d be showing first, too, so the dialog was relevant: Episode One would be The Tell Tale Heart (1941, directed by Jules Dassin and starring Joseph Schildkraut) and House on Haunted Hill (1959, directed by William Castle and starring Vincent Price). Episode Two would be This is Not a Test! (1962, directed by Frederic Gadette and starring Seamon Glass) and The Last Man on Earth (1964, directed by both Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow and starring Vincent Price).

Episode One would begin with an intro from Shannon that paid homage to Captain Spaulding’s DVD introduction for House of 1,000 Corpses, addressing the audience as if they were really in the woods with him. I included some bad puns including “rest in pieces” and alluded to the premise of the first film with Shannon dipping to black after saying he’d see the audience at the conclusion if their conscience could handle it. My favorite bit from the Episode One script was Shannon nailing a body under the floorboards at the end of the Tell Tale Heart and bragging about how much he loves the sound of a still-beating heart almost as much as he loves the taste!

Episode Two’s script was packed with delicious gastronomic-themed puns as Shannon prepares a frightful meal in the woods. His menu would include Roast Doug and Legs Benedict, two items greatly influenced by some comics I had read in an old Creepy magazine from the 80s. I was incredibly excited to get around to shooting this episode due to the amount of special effects we’d have to employ.

Within a week of wrapping the promo, I had two episodes written, four movies ripped for use, graphics designed, a website built, a social presence created and had contacted several Chaotic Underworld bands asking if I could use their music in an episode. At long last, it was time to shoot. We rolled into the studio late one evening, set up some lights, our camera and microphone. The scripts called for Shannon to hammer a heart into the floorboards, bust a head with an ax, drink blood from a glass and cut up human entrails so we drew inspiration from a shared hero: Mr. Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Entertainment. Shannon and I were both big Troma fans and have a great deal of respect for Kaufman, his artistic visions and DIY know-how. 

I had recently finished reading Lloyd’s book Make Your Own Damn Movie and was super impressed with his section on special effects — Chapter 9: Stunts and Special Effects — How to Simulate a Violent Death and Stay Out of Jail. This chapter acted as my bible for this Saturday Night Grindhouse shoot as some of the effects came straight off of those pages. 

I had learned from my studies that chocolate syrup was a perfect substitute for stage blood when shooting in black and white so we had plenty on hand for the gorefest that was to be Episode Two and the introduction sequence to the show. For the bloody shots, we smeared Shannon’s hands, arms, beard and face with the syrup (though somehow none on his shirt) and spread the rest over the remaining props. I had brought a cleaver from my parents’ knife set to the studio for close-up shots of Shannon preparing the Roast Doug (just strips of bacon) in a cooking montage that you can see in the show’s intro. The syrup was used again in a giant glass of water to give the appearance of blood that Shannon would use to wash down his Legs Benedict  – a decision that I still feel bad about because there’s no way that was pleasant. 

Our favorite special effect came straight from Uncle Lloyd’s Make Your Own Damn Movie – Shannon’s victim’s head. There’s an infamous scene from the Toxic Avenger where the band of jocks run over a child multiple times with graphic footage of the his head exploding under the tire. This effect was created by using a melon that would easily explode under pressure so we did the same thing. I picked up a cantaloupe from the store, wrapped it in some of our unused bacon, smeared quite a bit of the chocolate syrup over it then covered it with a stringy black wig.

The effects were cheesy but they worked, especially in black and white. And we weren’t going for total gore anyway, it was government access for Christ’s sake. We were both shooting for a cheese factor that would’ve been missed had we gone the more graphic route anyway. 

Shooting Shannon’s speaking parts was the only time he and I didn’t share the same vision. I had written the script and really didn’t care how closely he stuck to it. He, on the other hand, really liked what I had written and obsessed over getting it exactly right. Shannon getting his lines slightly wrong only added to the charm of the show, I felt, but unfortunately these screw-ups were often accompanied by language that the city wouldn’t have wanted on their network. We did, however, preserve a few of the bloopers that are still alive on YouTube.

We shot take after take after take, long after we had something I was happy with, because he wasn’t pleased with his performance and insisted we keep doing it until he got it right. We laughed, cussed, chopped, swung, paced, got off track, sang, debated, planned, dreamed, got off track again and captured many usable takes in an endless cycle until the wee hours of the next morning. Our table – and Shannon’s beard – was covered with chocolate, the raw bacon was warm and I had used up every battery we had for our camera. After several hours, it was a wrap.

Except one thing: we hadn’t busted the head yet

I didn’t want to bust the head in the studio because we had to use it for other things and cleanup would’ve been a total bitch so we took the cantaloupe head outside of the office. I put a light on Shannon and it was there, on the curb of our parking lot off Kingsport’s busiest street at nearly 3:00 in the morning, that The Cinema Warrior lifted the ax high above his head and swung the blade straight through the center of the cantaloupe. This caused the melon to explode upon impact with fruit guts, bacon, chocolate and wig hair flying everywhere. He took another couple of swings at it before kneeling down and burying his face in it, taking several large bites. It wasn’t planned and it was disgusting. In other words, it was perfect. And we had it on video. 

***

With shooting for Episodes One and Two in the can, I now had a full plate. Not only was I going to have to get our show edited and exported, I would have to finalize the first promo for air, create more hype on our social media accounts and undertake a mission I was in no way ready for — trying to find sponsors. 

Thankfully I had my original promo saved and since I shot the episodes in the studio with the same green screen, the same camera and the same lighting, it was incredibly simple to key out the background and drop in something spooky. Due to the nature of our show, editing was super quick, the most challenging part being the process of finding a spot mid-film to cut to commercial and station identification. 

The process of preparing for air was somewhat tricky and you had to be a master of our system to know how to make it work correctly. Our system wasn’t smart about “ad breaks” and time codes, rather, it would just play a playlist of videos in order, paying no mind to what time it was or how long the videos were. In order to make commercials work, I had to piece together the entire 3+ hour long episode (two films plus chatter), find the commercial break points and literally cut out the entire segment so I could place it on its own independent timeline. Each timeline was exported as its own Quicktime movie, a completely separate piece. Episode One had four segments, therefore it was had four separate videos. 

I’d later learn that this is somewhat common in the big-leagues. Having worked for a company with the largest international broadcast territory in the world, I can say from experience that episodes are still delivered as separate videos (segments) that are then stitched together before airing or streaming online. Were we ahead of our time or simply more pro than we realized? 

Probably not. 

Definitely not.

Having the four separate videos allowed us to upload individual files to our program box and drop in our commercial files between segments. A lot of effort and a bit techy, but the effect on TV was flawless. Unless the same video was programmed to play two or more times back-to-back (which, unfortunately happened sometimes), one couldn’t tell there was a man capable of error behind the curtain. 

With spots available for commercials, my next project was finding businesses to promote in them. I’m no salesman, had no experience in these endeavors and had no real guidance. My boss simply told me to pitch the show and tell them an amount for advertising that I thought the show was worth. 

Easier said than done, but I had some luck before. 

One afternoon while exporting some videos we received a phone call from Championship Wrestling Alliance, an independent wrestling outfit run by pro wrestler Beau James (now known as Innovate Pro Wrestling owned by a former classmate of mine, Tony “The Dragon” Givens). The CWA’s camera crew (likely one person) was out of town and they were desperate for a replacement so they called us and asked how much we’d charge to shoot an event. I was told there would be no editing and all I’d have to do is mic up the commentators, let the camera roll from a tripod on a platform and turn over my tapes at the end of the night. No creative angles, no special effects and just one angle.

I ran into my boss’ office and asked him how much we’d charge for such a thing and his response was “I don’t know – how much would you do it for?” This infuriated me because I would’ve done it for free! Confused, excited and incredibly nervous, I picked the phone back up and said “$500.” The phone went silent. I had stunned the CWA rep for a moment before they let me know they’d never paid anybody that much before … but they’d have that amount in cash ready for me on the day of the event. We were booked, and a few days later I got paid $500 cash to watch local wrestling. It was one of my favorite days of work ever.

I knew in my heart that Saturday Night Grindhouse could be as popular, if not more so, than our popular established shows Culinary View and Robby Spencer’s Adventures, but I didn’t know how to sell any ads. Regardless, I spent a couple of afternoons hitting up niche places around town that I thought would like to advertise on our time.

I started out by visiting a local skate shop whose name I can’t recall but it has since closed. Nobody there would even entertain the idea of sponsoring the show and never returned my calls so I never got a chance to pitch to them. Dilly’s Curiosity Shop was my next stop and while they were open to the idea, they weren’t sure it would be worth the money – regardless of the amount – considering it was a show that had never aired. They wanted me to come back after they got a chance to watch the first episode, which I thought was fair.

Dewayne’s World – Comics and Games was next and after speaking at length with the owner, I was excited to see his enthusiasm for being a part of this great project. That was, of course, until he asked “How much?”

I scrambled. I panicked. And just like my time quoting prices to the wrestlers, I spurted out the first thing that came to mind — “$500.” I remember his eyes growing so wide I feared they would swallow his head. Clearly this was too much. Realizing what I’d done, I quickly tried to fix it — “Actually, that’s what we were originally going to ask but since it’s a brand new show just getting off the ground, we’re good with $200 a month.” He shook his head and said he wasn’t ready to swing that for us just yet. I told him I understood and left, 0 for 3. 

My final attempt was at Ink Revolution tattoo shop where I spoke to the owner. He was a longtime friend of Shannon’s and was my first tattoo shop contact (I had ZERO tattoos at the time). He was thrilled with the idea of being a part of it and didn’t bat an eye at the ridiculous dollar amount I had been quoting up until that point. Still, I wasn’t able to get him down as a sponsor just yet — he did, however, agree to give me a really good deal on my first tattoo, which he definitely did. 

Walt Jabsco — My First Tattoo, Ska’d For Life

Ultimately most of the businesses were interested in advertising on the air, but nobody wanted to spend any money on it. I guess it made sense because all they had to go on was the word of a kid they didn’t know. I didn’t let it bother me, though – I knew that after our first episode aired, we’d have to beat off potential advertisers with a machete. I don’t think we were being pretentious, but we both had a feeling we were about to make some of the most important art to ever come out of Kingsport, we just needed time to convince everyone else.

So I went back to my edit bay with a little more sales knowledge and a lot more experience in being rejected. I tried to put a spin on it by reminding myself how interested these people seemed to be in the show and ultimately that was the goal. I was already getting paid to do my job and Saturday Night Grindhouse was merely a pet project. True though that may have been, it still would’ve been nice to have a shooting budget and be able to pay Shannon for his efforts. He never held out for money and, like me, wasn’t looking for it, but it would’ve been great to compensate him in some way for helping me achieve this strange vision.

***

At this point, the show was in the can and was ready to upload to the programming machine. We had significant support on social media and were already getting emails to the account we’d set up for the show from people requesting movies and thanking us for our efforts. We planned our premiere for a week out and in the meantime decided to start running our first episode-specific promo. 

This was the graphic used to thank people for adding us on MySpace

I made some rather crude trailers for the public domain features and stitched them to the tail of the original teaser. The ads were about 120 seconds in length once the three “segments” were stitched together.

Not incredibly creative or earth-shattering but it did what we wanted it to do, and in the day or two that it aired, it got a lot of people talking.

I say “day or two” because one of the people that got to talking about it was the mayor. He’d recently approved the addition of large flat-screen TVs in the lobbies of city hall that were to be tuned in to the government access channel at all times. In passing he’d noticed our promo for the show being aired. When I was walking through the halls there merely days earlier, I remember the sound being completely turned off, so even though he saw Shannon on screen promoting his passion, I’m sure he had no idea what he was saying. All he knew was a beast of a man was on TV waving his arms about. 

And he didn’t care for it.

Later that night, Mr. Mayor called up my boss, slurring his speech, to tell him he didn’t like “the big guy on TV yelling at the screen.” No shit — that’s verbatim. We were ordered to take the promo off immediately. After a bit of ass kissing the next day, we were able to talk the city’s government into letting us air the show as planned, but we would only show it at midnight (except the 9pm Saturday night premiere of new episodes each week) and we’d remove Shannon from the promo, which would allow us to air it during the day.

They agreed, and while I hated to do it, I cut another promo with Shannon removed (seen above). I couldn’t fucking believe I was having to run a promo for our show without the talent featured. I also couldn’t believe it was all because our mayor was afraid of him. It was a horror movie show for God’s sake. Either way, my personal opinions of the government and art aside, we pressed forward hoping to finally see our work on local broadcast television.

Little did we know what kind of an impact we were about to have.

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