In the late ’80s, L.A. performance artist and musician Craig Roose took his breezy, ‘60s-obsessed “drag” character “Miss Summer Caprice” to the airwaves, making “her” the star of his music and comedy cable TV show, Decoupage! With Summer Caprice! PKM’s Anthony Mostrom dives deep into the obscure history of this pioneering public access cable program that was rich in colorful kitsch, and important musical guests like X, Redd Kross, L7, Phranc, Julee Cruise…and even comedian Fred Willard.
By the late 1980s, the punk scene in Los Angeles was in a more or less dissipated state. But a magazine and a record label that were both called Slash were still going strong, keeping the memory of punk alive like some lingering, collective dream, or maybe a giant mass hangover. By this time many of the more musically adventurous listeners had moved on to “shoegaze” bands like My Bloody Valentine and the Burt Bacharach-flavored avant-garde of Portishead and Broadcast (though the dominant cultural force that carried everybody into the ‘90s was, let’s face it, not a musical group at all…it was David Lynch).
In the Silverlake district, a performance artist and singer named Craig Roose was working at Slash-the-label by day. By night he was putting on humorous, one-man (or at times, one-woman) monologues in art galleries and clubs, appearing elaborately costumed and coiffed as a series of gender-bent characters of his own creation, including a pop-culture vulture named Summer Caprice. At the same time, Roose was fronting a glam-rock band called Billy Wisdom and the HeeShees that played a lot of gigs in L.A, including at the Troubadour.
Meanwhile a former fashion model named Kathe Duba was working at Warner Brothers Records (which distributed Slash “product”) in beautiful downtown Burbank. Besides her job there as an Editorial Manager, she was a music fanatic who arranged gigs for bands and occasionally put on gigantic parties in large halls (and even bowling alleys) both in Hollywood and the Valley, sometimes as far away as Pasadena. (“There was this bar attached to a bowling alley in San Gabriel,” she recalls now. “We’d say ‘hey, we’d like to put on these parties where we’ll decorate the place.’ So at this place the Leprechaun Bar, for example, about 300 people showed up.”)
Through two mutual friends, guitarists Juan Gomez and Michael Uhlenkott who had both played in the HeeShees, Kathe managed to connect with Craig Roose. This meeting would eventually result in their collaborating on a cable TV show called Decoupage! with Summer Caprice!
From the distance of today, of course, the media landscape of the ‘80s can look very primitive: back then you had limited TV choices and. of course. no internet (but you knew that). It was a tough life back then for those hardy, analogue pioneers.
Cable television was still in its infancy. Decoupage! (yes, it was always spelled with an exclamation point) was an underground cultural product that flowered underneath the proverbial radar because there was no radar back then, thriving as it did in that weird, sub-media netherworld known as “public access cable,” a thing which for all the public itself knew, was barely there.
(Here’s an hilarious, latter-day parody of some typical ‘80s video cheesiness:)
Summer Caprice was a breathy glamour girl with a big, silvery bouffant hairdo who was clearly obsessed with the more awful ‘70s fashion of the orange-plaid-and-paisley variety…that and the detritus left over from ‘70s drugstore and grocery shelves (see in one episode Summer as she duly enthuses over a greeting card, “Why, here’s a card…and it says I WUV YOU!”).
Her opening monologues were of course sprinkled with tongue-in-cheek references to ‘60s and ‘70s TV shows and commercials (“it’s the show that softens hands while you do the dishes!”) and her favorite sponsor was Sego, the nearly-defunct diet drink from the Coca Cola company. Yes, Summer Caprice was determined to bring yesterday to you, the viewer, today, totally now! (Despite her name, I notice now that Summer Caprice never actually wore capris pants, like my mom did in the early ‘60s…)
Bric-a-brac aside, it was Decoupage!’s parade of late ‘80s-early ‘90s musical guests that made (and make) the show more than just an interesting curio of pop culture. Decoupage! amounted to a “post-punk talk show,” and a too-hip tip of the hat to the gaudy side of the ‘60s and ‘70s (the barely-remembered early days of many a punk’s embarrassing youth).
Gaudy, as in those stupid mosaic “paintings” you saw on everybody’s walls back in the ‘60s of lithe, sexless “oriental” figures playing flutes to swans. Despite the significance of Decoupage! as a 1989-vintage time capsule that captured some rare glimpses of an L.A. music scene in transition, Decoupage! is almost completely unknown today. Considering some of the musicians and bands that showed up to play on its tiny set: L7, Redd Kross, Exene and more, that is a sin and a shame to be rectified.
One of the more, er, volatile guests to appear on Decoupage! was the culty Hollywood actress Susan Tyrell, who seemed, in marked contrast to Summer’s sunny graciousness, like she was about ready to claw somebody’s eyes out (see her screech here: “this is my interview!”). Here she is in a clip (if you dare) together with Summer Caprice and Miss Vaginal Davis, at that time a local L.A. drag cult heroine and “award-winning Blacktress.” See if you think Susan was acting here or just…well, acting out.
Despite such occasional awkwardnesses, the exclamation point in the show’s name gave it away, in a way: Decoupage! with Summer Caprice was a lighthearted, “let’s-put-on-a-show” show: funny, breezy and garish, the ultra-colorful, campy sets assembled from Roose’s clearly expert thrift-shop runs…cheeseball mosaics and all. It was hipster-gay-punk-crossdresser variety entertainment mixed with unadulterated kitsch, featuring loving close-ups of things like those corny I Love You This Much statues and, of course, lava lamps.
Chronologically speaking, Craig Roose’s hilarious love of kitsch echoed that of John Waters, but it was years ahead of Amy Sedaris and her own humorous wallowing in ‘50s and ‘60s kitsch cheesiness, which often included literal cheese…specifically, American cheese…
Summer Caprice’s delight in this kind of stuff made for moments of pure comedy gold, extending even to her favorite sponsor, the by-then nearly forgotten diet drink of the ‘60s, Sego, which she exhorted with her own made-up motto for the stuff: “Sego! It’s good for your ego!” Here’s an actual commercial for Sego from 1967, which echoes the long-gone era of Marlo Thomas and That Girl when she, for a brief, shining moment, ruled planet Earth:
SEGO 67 COMMERCIAL !
The show’s tapings were “helmed” by producer Kevin Brechner, a multitalented producer and filmmaker who went on to direct videos on such disparate subjects as sculptor Paul McCarthy and Pasadena’s annual Doo-Dah Parade, aka the anti-Rose Bowl Parade. One veteran of the show remembers him as being “a very liberal producer” who gave the creative kids free reign.
As a cultural “historian”, I wanted to get to the bottom of something that very few people have ever wondered or thought about: namely, is it possible that the Decoupage! theme song was inspired not only by that ‘60s Sego commercial you just heard but, nay, rather by the song that inspired the campaign itself: namely the song Tangerine? When I asked Craig this question he answered: “yes…unconsciously.” (I love that bit in the Decoupage song about “We wanna know about you…”)
Filling in the cramped set, located at PCAC (Pasadena Community Access Corporation)’s secret headquarters in Pasadena were some of Roose’s famous musician and Hollywood-type friends, come by to chat or play music: these included Exene, John Doe, cult actress Ann Magnuson, Film Threat magazine founder Chris Gore (definitely one of the more sober personalities to appear here), and the famous Day of the Locust film star, Karen Black…all that, and some surly street people with an attitude:
Let it be said that Summer Caprice’s wide-eyed pretty face was the star of the program, and her sincerity the hoot thereof: if her breathy exclamations sometimes came off as nervous or shaky early on, well, they were all the more charming for that. When she announces “this is my show,” then declares “it’s sort of a Dinah…(pause)…Shore show” you just say aww, and root for her to succeed. No bitchy queen, her friendly earnestness meant she often seemed nonplussed by the antics of the show’s unruly, untamed, at times drunk-and-disorderly guests. In this connection it’s interesting to witness, in this clip, the angry lesbian drummer getting pissed off at the drag queen hostess, when Robin Ryan says to Craig Roose-Summer, “you sickie…” (Hey, what happened to the sisterhood?)
So who or what were the forerunners of Decoupage? What inspired it? The 1970s being Craig Roose’s center of gravity, it’s worth noting here that that was a golden age for humor, what with everything from National Lampoon to SNL to Steve Martin in full swing, the era of hip and sophisticated satire gone mainstream. And as it happens, Fred Willard was one of the first guests on Decoupage! That’s Fred Willard who had once starred in a ‘70s parody of a talk show, called Fernwood Tonight! (also with an exclamation point).
Launched in that cultural golden egg year of 1977, this satire of a small-town Midwestern talk show was hosted by comedian Martin Mull as the dry-witted host, Barth Gimble. Mull’s co-host-playing-a-co-host was Willard as Jerry Hubbard, who was basically a loveable doofus.
Fernwood was underground-ish, SNL-flavored, and it aired around midnight through syndication. This was during that long, hot (ahem) Summer that was dominated in America not by the Sex Pistols but by the “Son of Sam” murders in New York City: 1977. As was typical in that National Lampoon-dominated era, the humor on Fernwood was both hip and aggressively anti-PC.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines decoupage (without the exclamation point) as “the art of decorating surfaces by applying cutouts and then coating with several layers of finish, such as lacquer or varnish.” So, something old ladies or children would do to kill time I guess, or to quote Summer herself: “Just kind of a low-quality type of collage at this point.”
In any case, here’s a clip of Fred Willard “doing it” with Summer Caprice on Decoupage! Notice Fred’s crowd-pleasing references to both Martin Mull and Sego brand diet drink…and Summer’s telling mention of comedienne Jo Anne Worley.
And where else but on Decoupage! could we see the exotic dance gyrations of local L.A. performance artist and hypnotic danseuse, Carole Cetrone aka Perpetua?
Even Hollywood movie star Karen Black showed up on Decoupage! singing Cher’s hit song Bang Bang, backed by the soon-to-be-famous all-grrrl group L7, an early appearance by said band. As Kathe Duba remembers it: “it always seemed like Craig knew everybody.”
Director Kevin Brechner recalls: “In one episode we made a music video remake of the novelty tune Purple People Eater, and Craig appeared as one of his other characters, lounge singer Rusty Varian, with Kathe Duba and another singer inhaling helium from balloons, to create ultra-high-pitched backup vocals…parts of it were shot against a yellow chromakey screen in order to superimpose the green and purple picture elements.” (You can see this and many other video clips here:)
Was Decoupage! too good to last? Well, considering the medium, the audience had to be tiny, and the show did indeed die young. Later on, in the year 2000, energies were gathered up one more time for a grand reboot, a sci-fi version of Decoupage! called Decoupage 2000! with Summer Caprice, which lasted for all of one episode. 2000! featured Summer and her personal assistant, FU2 (“thanks, F!”), special guest Exene sporting something looking like a dildo that would (ironically) spell the “death of patriarchy,” plus some apocalyptic special effects that spelled…doom for the universe:
Earlier, one of Decoupage’s greatest cultural coups was snagging an interview with Twin Peaks chanteuse Julee Cruise, who proved to be thoroughly sweet and loveable…this was thanks to Kathe’s Warner Records connection:
Among the local scene-makers who helped put Decoupage! together, many were members of the Pasadena noise-music collective, the Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAFMS). These included photographer Fredrik Nilsen, art director Michael Uhlenkott, and composer Tom Recchion, whose sample-and-loops-based music put in a few brief appearances, if one were paying close enough attention:
Watching Decoupage! from our own hyper-awareness of how pop culture shifts and changes color from decade to decade, it’s interesting to slip into the “meta-nostalgic” feeling one gets from watching this, an ‘80s show that harkens back to the ‘70s. As far as the history of “drag” is concerned, some might recall the most obvious drag queen from that earlier decade, Divine of Pink Flamingos.
Aesthetically though, there’s no comparison. Summer Caprice didn’t trowel on grotesque makeup for the purpose of looking ugly, for one thing. Summer was in fact a rather handsome (not to mention buxom) dame, wearing colorful, legit clothing ensembles that remind me of the aforementioned Jo Anne Worley from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, in all her late ‘60s glory.
Summer and Divine did both come across as breathless and well-meaning (uh, except for Divine’s moment of cinematic excrement-eating but hey, that only happened once), but for me the main similarity between them would be the exaggerated feminine voices that both actors had to put on…but that’s par, isn’t it? and I don’t mean Jack Paar.
But enough of my ham-fisted heterosexual observations on the “fabulous,” live-fast-die-young-and-leave-a-beautiful-corpse thing that was Decoupage! Here’s what a few seasoned veterans of the show recently have had to say about it:
I was one of the production supervisors of PCAC, and later production manager. Kathe said she had seen a previous show I had produced and directed, of a great band called Victor Banana. Decoupage! looked like an interesting and unique project. They asked me to join them. I directed all the episodes.
We produced seven half-hour episodes of Decoupage over the course of a year or so. We had wonderful guests on the shows.
Summer Caprice was definitely the star of the show. She was stunning in her bigger-than-life platinum hairdo, hip and sassy, flirtatious, always tasteful…and she just might be an international superspy… Decoupage! won the 1991 National Hometown Video Awards for Most Innovative Program and Most Innovative Series. We all had busy schedules, but we tried to do one segment of the show per month.
We concluded the series with an eighth show that was much more elaborate, more narrative, and more costly, called Decoupage! 2000. In addition to directing, I helped produce and write it with Kathe and Craig. That episode took a year or more to complete. The final episode was more elaborate on almost every production dimension including make-up and hair, special effects, set design, musical numbers, lighting, sound effects, and wardrobe. This last show featured Karen Black, Exene, and the all-female band L7. Exene did a spoken word poetry video, and all the guests performed in other skits.
We had some great supporting actors in Jennifer Moon playing Summer’s sidekick FU2, and Carol Cetrone as the central brain of the evil giant D2 Corporation. Decoupage! 2000 was screened at the American Cinemateque in Hollywood, and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the end, Kathe and I worked on a couple of series together at PCAC: Decoupage, and Cult Movies TV, with hosts and producers Buddy Barnett and Mike Copner.
I believe I was credited as Art Director: a very, very, very important post! As for Decoupage, it was one of the most amusing and creative projects I’ve ever worked on. As “Art Director”, I had the privilege of working with Craig and Kathe for the entire run of the show. Craig’s showmanship and visual genius were a real inspiration. I laughed myself hoarse many times during the production. Like I said: genius! Here’s a photo of me in front of a background I painted with Craig (“The Fetus Tree”) for an episode.
I worked at Slash Records for 12 years. Shipping at first, then as a production manager…or some stupid name for being a secretary. The inspiration for Decoupage! was just remembering the ‘60s and ‘70s, though the popular resurgence hadn’t really happened yet. But shopping at thrift shops, you could still find incredible stuff from those days. People weren’t even using the term ‘mid-century’ yet…
I stored all the set stuff in my garage. I would leave work at Slash Records, put all my stuff in a U-Haul and get out there, sweating. It was exciting. it was like live TV. Sometimes I wished things were a little tighter, we’d have 2 or 3 takes sometimes. I’d read the script in my kitchen in advance. I think by show number two, I felt more in the groove.
Oh yeah, we got fan letters. This guy at PCAC said that of all the shows that were done there, we got the most letters, we got a lot of fan mail.
Susan Tyrell was writing her one-woman show, My Rotten Life, then. Gregory Poe was supplying her with her flask: “go out and get me some vodka!” Eventually she lost her legs from a rare blood disorder.
The guys at PCAC, they would chastise us for being up ‘til 5 AM: “You guys just did two episodes? Don’t do that again!” You had half an hour to set up and half an hour to break down.
Yes, Kathe was a backup dancer with our band, Billy Wisdom and the HeeShees, at some gigs. Josie Roth (a musician) did voiceovers for the show and general announcement duties.
Exene felt comfortable with me.
My recollection of working on the shows is that we just had an awful lot of fun entertaining each other and coming up with ideas constantly as a group to help realize the episodes. It was all somewhat spontaneous with Kathe and Craig at the helm, and Kevin acting as a very liberal producer. Michael helped to create a lot of fun art props. It was all very inventive and relatively unfraught with ego battles or disagreements. I remember laughing a lot. Also, creating the music tracks and the theme title song was very rewarding and I thought those tracks worked really well with the concepts in several of the episodes. The tune came together with Craig Roose, Bill Noland, and myself creating the actual theme. I play bass, Craig sings, and Bill plays keyboard stuff on it.
It was Juan Gomez and Michael Uhlenkott who had said, “What! How can you not know Craig?” Craig was doing his characters at galleries downtown, etc. I think I met him at an art opening. There were just so many people we had in common. It was a while before we connected, though. Later on, I was performing, doing back-up dancing with Craig, in this band called Rusty Varian. We were at the Disco Bar doing this show…then I was in one of his Billy Wisdom and the HeeShees gigs in Silverlake. So we kind of got to know each other that way.
I guess a couple years after doing these performances and parties, the way I got into doing this show was: there was a band called Victor Banana, and I was talking to the band after this gig one night. Their singer Tom said, “we’re gonna do a gig at PCAC (Pasadena Community Access Corporation).” This guy said, let us teach you how to do a show. So I ended up taking some classes at PCAC.
So you could produce anything there except hardcore pornography, though nudity would be okay. The first person I thought of after taking these classes was Craig, with all these characters of his. He was already well known in Hollywood from doing these characters. Never on stage, though. It was hipper than that, always at galleries: the Soap Plant, the Pik Me Up…different clubs around town.
I was always the lesser creative one of the two. So obviously, Craig was 80 to 90 percent of the look of the show, the design of it all. It was really him. Remember, Craig is a set designer. Every time we had a shoot, he would have to bring his whole set in his pickup truck. But there was a hard and fast rule: you could not store anything there. So here’s poor Craig having to drag this whole bunch of stuff with him back and forth, every time!
Roz Music did his hair and makeup. She was Lorenzo Music’s daughter. (Lorenzo Music was a producer on the old Mary Tyler Moore show.) We once shot two shows in one night. Oh my God, we were there until five in the morning! The cast and crew were falling down…
Robin Ryan? I found her through some online thing called The Acts of Venice Beach. She was listed as “funny drummer Robin Ryan.” I think Craig as Summer introduced her on the show at one point as “Robin Ryan, a sarcastic Scorpio.”
It was Joe Bergman’s office at Warner Records where we did the interview with Julee Cruise. (I was Editorial Manager at Warner Records, meaning I coordinated, typeset, proofread all text on album, single, video packaging, etc…sometimes getting in the middle of power-tripping artist’s egos and the legal department. Trying to please, but up-against-the-wall on deadlines…stuff like that.)
The outdated cameras we used on Decoupage! I think were donated to PCAC by KTLA Channel 5 News, or some such thing… The Laguna Art Museum and LACMA both screened Decoupage 2000 later, at one point. Decoupage 2000!with Summer Caprice was more a film style shoot that we made over several shooting days, rather than one.
“Decoupage is a forum for all philosophies…both old and new, both bold and taboo!”
To see a generous menu of Decoupage! clips, click on the words: