Everybody Dance Now

Two Sundays ago, while most Chicagoans were glued to NBC watching what could have been Michael Jordan’s last game, Jake Austen was crouched down inside a wooden box at the Chicago Access Corporation studios in Greektown, conducting a phone interview with local teen R & B singer Sara B! Or rather, the interview was being conducted by Ratso, a large rat puppet Austen manipulated over his head. Ms. B! was originally scheduled to perform on Chic-a-Go-Go, the public-access cable show Ratso cohosts on Channel 19, but just two days before the taping her parents decided she had too much homework, and Ratso was making the best of a bad situation. “OK, Sara,” he asked in a raggedy falsetto, “who wrote Romeo and Juliet? Who’s the president of the United States?”

The singer’s cancellation was unfortunate but not out of the ordinary for Austen, 29, and his wife, 28-year-old Jackie Stewart, who have produced 54 episodes of Chic-a-Go-Go over the last two years. Since they work with a nonexistent budget, a volunteer staff, and only about an hour to tape each show, circumstances have a way of eluding their control. But their ability to think on their feet–or in Austen’s case, with his hand up a puppet’s backside–is one of the series’s genuine charms.

To an unsuspecting channel surfer, Chic-a-Go-Go might look like a low-rent version of American Bandstand or Soul Train: dancers strut their stuff to prerecorded music; mostly local guest artists give lip-synched performances; and the hosts, Ratso and Miss Lisa (aka Lisa Biggs), engage in hokey banter with each other and with the dancers. But whereas the big dance shows target very specific demographics, Chic-a-Go-Go is notable for the absence of boundaries based on age or race. Ten-year-old kids in Bulls jerseys cut a rug right alongside twentysomething hipsters and dowdy moms with babies on their hips. And the records Austen spins for them range from doo-wop to soul to garage rock to funk to bubblegum to hip-hop–“anything you can dance to,” he says.

“One of the things they say you can do on cable that you can’t do on commercial TV is to narrowcast,” says Austen. “But I think that’s exactly what commercial dance shows do. I think we broadcast. Part of the aesthetic for everything I do is that anybody should be able to enjoy it–there’s no prerequisites.”

Austen’s other projects include a similarly unrestricted radio show on WHPK and fronting the masked garage band the Goblins as “the Phantom Creeper”; he also contributes comics to Nickelodeon Magazine and is working on a video documentary about the extremely popular Addams Family pinball game that will be included in a new Playstation version. But he’s probably best known for his long-running music-and-trash-culture zine, Roctober, in which he pursues an improbably broad range of subjects–Liberace, midgets, monkeys, the Monks–with infectious enthusiasm. In fact, it was a Roctober feature that gave him the idea for Chic-a-Go-Go.

In a 1995 issue, Austen ran a story by Boston writer Phil Milstein about Kiddie A-Go-Go, a live, all-kids dance show produced in Chicago between 1963 and 1970. In the process of digging up artwork to accompany the piece, he met the show’s creators, Jack and Elaine Mulqueen. They showed Austen and Stewart a few old episodes, and inspiration struck. Neither Austen nor Stewart, who’ve been together since they were high school sweethearts, had much experience with film or video, but in March 1996, after completing the short certification course required to use Chicago Access Corporation’s equipment and space, they put together the first episodes of Chic-a-Go-Go. Former Scissor Girls guitarist Kelly Kuvo, whom Austen fondly calls “an access monkey,” helped the couple for a while, but she moved to New York later that year.

“When we realized that we could actually do something like Kiddie A-Go-Go cheaply and easily, we totally went for it,” says Stewart, who’s finishing a doctorate in English at the University of Chicago. “To be certified you have to work on somebody else’s show. So we finished our class at 6 PM, and as soon as it was over we walked into the studio to volunteer.” They got their footing pitching in on the set of Unity in Diversity, which Austen says is a “Haitian Baha’i talk show.”

Although Stewart, who directs Chic-a-Go-Go, has grown increasingly adept at controlling the path it takes, the show remains very much a seat-of-the-pants affair. At the taping I attended, one of the dancers accidentally cut in front of a camera that was zooming in on Ms. Lisa, who let out an astonished “Hey!” Rather than reshoot the scene, Austen and Stewart chose to leave it in, making the most of the cohost’s surprised reaction.

Another perilous area they’ve often twisted into spontaneous entertainment is the segment where the musical guests lip-synch their own tunes. Local acts as diverse as Frontier, the Nerves, the El Dorados, the Polkaholics, and Rockin’ Johnny have performed without incident, but plenty of others have had their problems. Instead of starting over when R & B veteran Andre Williams (the subject of last week’s Reader cover story) blanked on the lyrics to his classic “The Greasy Chicken,” Austen and Stewart simply kept rolling while he played off his memory lapse as cool defiance. And when they could only get the harmonica player from the 60s garage band the Dirty Wurds to appear, they simply cut away to the dancers when he wasn’t playing.

“It’s the purest form of entertainment,” says Austen. “Just watching people move is always fun. When you do TV you don’t need to be scared of making mistakes. It’s not necessarily bad if you can see the strings.”

You can watch Chic-a-Go-Go Tuesdays at 8:30 PM and Wednesdays at 3:30 PM. The next two episodes will be taped on June 28; would-be dancers should show up at Chicago Access Corporation, 322 S. Green, by 3 PM. To be put on the Chic-a-Go-Go mailing list, which spreads the word about upcoming tapings, write to Austen and Stewart at 1507 E. 53rd #617, Chicago, IL 60615.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chic-a-go-go/ Jake Austen and Jackie Stewart photos by Nathan Mandell.