Velveeta Laid it on Thick

When we talked with underground cartoonist Stuart Helm last May, he was getting ready to fight a temporary injunction that would force him to wipe his professional name, King VelVeeda, from his Web site ( and stop signing it on his art. The injunction was sought by Kraft Foods, which was suing Helm for infringing on their Velveeta trademark, claiming “pornography, bestiality, and negative attitudes toward women” in his work were damaging their product’s image. In June a U.S. district court judge ruled against him. “The injunction was upheld, and I had to take my name off my Web site,” Helm says. “In the meantime we were gearing up for the real trial. Kraft kept serving us with papers. They told my lawyers they would spend whatever it took [to litigate]. At a point where I was pretty beaten down by the whole thing, they asked if I wanted to settle out of court. Comic Book Legal Defense Fund [which was paying for his defense] was embroiled in other cases, and I was getting an ulcer over it.” Last week Helm made a deal. He agreed to give up the VelVeeda name (“I can’t even write it on a piece of paper”), and Kraft agreed to donate money to a charity of his choice. Helm suggested himself, but they balked; they wouldn’t donate to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund either, he says. They finally agreed on $10,000 for the Freedom to Read Foundation. Considering they were willing to spend whatever it took in court, Helm says, “I think they cheaped out on the money.”

But the King is moving on. “This is now a low priority for me,” Helm says. “There are much greater issues in the world. If I’m going to be in court fighting, this isn’t what I want to be fighting over. I didn’t want to lose the case and set a bad precedent; there was no admission of guilt; we don’t have to pay their legal expenses.” Kraft initially wanted Helm to sell his stock of thousands of pieces of original art bearing the King VelVeeda signature in 30 days, but he wound up with five years to unload it as long as he doesn’t do so on the Internet. He also avoided a nondisclosure clause that would have shut him up about the settlement, and he hung on to his right to parody Kraft in the future. He doesn’t plan on making a career of that: “I don’t want to spend any more time on these guys,” he says. “I want them to go away and not bother me anymore.” That sounds like a win for the big cheese. But Helm still uses the crown and “V” that made up King VelVeeda’s royal shield. And, he says, if the spirit moves him, there’s nothing in the settlement that’ll keep him from drawing those cheese-filtered cigarettes manufactured by a company called Krapt.

CAN Can-For Now

Six months ago it looked like CAN TV, Chicago’s public-access television network, was about to get stiffed. RCN cable company, which had committed to giving CAN nearly a million dollars a year to operate in four areas of the city, was overdue on payments for three of those areas–an amount that equaled a quarter of CAN’s annual budget. With RCN’s stock down from a high of more than $60 a share to less than $2 (it’s been trading at 70 cents recently), its failure to pay might not have come as a total surprise. But CAN executive director Barbara Popovic hadn’t been given any warning and thought it would be a dangerous precedent to let the company walk away from its contract. In September, eight months late and faced with a city council resolution that would have slapped the company with penalties, RCN delivered a check for the $645,000 they owed plus $20,000 in interest. “We were made whole for 2002,” Popovic says. “That allowed us some time to do planning.” The plans will have to be creative: the city’s allowing RCN a year’s hiatus on payments for two of its four areas in 2003; as a result, CAN will get $430,000 less from RCN than they got in 2002. According to Popovic, CAN will dip into reserves to maintain programming and services during the freeze. After that, who knows?

“It was a split-the-difference solution,” Popovic says of the agreement with RCN, completed last week. “For us it was not going to be good news no matter what, but we wanted to lessen the damage and get through this year so we could make a transition. Our budget next year will drop from $2.7 million to about $2.3 million, but we won’t be making any immediate cuts.” Eighty percent of the station’s income comes from its contracts with cable providers: “At the end of the day, our funding is going to depend on the survival of cable competition in the city,” she says–and that’s an open question. “We’re not backing down from our commitments. But we can’t continue spending at those 2001 levels or we’d run the organization into the ground.” On the other hand, she says, “The airwaves belong to the public too. We’re not getting part of them and not really getting money for their use. . . . This is big picture stuff, but I’d love to see federal legislation that said ‘let’s have everyone using the airwaves do what cable does.'”

Roosevelt Back in Business

In October, after eight years of courtroom maneuvering and millions of dollars in legal fees, the Illinois State Supreme Court ruled in favor of Roosevelt University in its struggle with a runaway board over control of the Auditorium Theatre. The board, the Auditorium Theatre Council, had launched the epic battle after hearing that the university wanted to use theater money as collateral for a new campus in Schaumburg. Now the council’s been replaced by a seven-member transition board chaired by attorney Mel Katten. It’s made up of new members Norman Bobins and Jack Sandner along with four carryovers from the council: David Smerling, Sonia Florian, Ed Weil, and Betty Lou Weiss. Noticeably absent is Fred Eychaner, who contributed a cool million for the theater’s recent renovation. (Taxpayers footed the rest of the bill with a $13 million Build Illinois grant.) A larger, permanent board with a solid university contingent is expected to be in place by spring.

Meanwhile programming continues as planned, with a variety of dance events in the remainder of the 2002-’03 season and a ten-week run of Phantom of the Opera scheduled for the fall. “I haven’t heard otherwise, so I’m here, and the whole staff is,” says executive director Jan Kallish. “We’re having a good season; no drop-off in bookings.” University board of trustees chair James Mitchell says management of the theater was never the problem. “The issue was ‘Whose theater was it?’ We wanted to be able to govern it.” Mitchell says any money given to the theater will be used for its intended purpose. He maintains it was profits from productions, not donations for rehab, that former university president Theodore Gross had considered borrowing against, triggering the legal misadventures. Gross, who moved up to university chancellor when new president Charles Middleton came on board in July, says he’s looking forward to teaching next year and is at work on his memoirs, including a chapter on the Auditorium Theatre. “I’m very pleased I lived long enough to see this case resolved,” he says. “I was so deeply involved and so scarred by it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry Robert Drea.