Thursday, October 20, 2011


"I'm a nigger. I can do anything." Statement by black, Northwestern philosophy student Gilton Cross to me in 1974.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: Could you talk about the campus TV show you hosted while at Southern Illinois University?

When I think about the how-to-draw PBS television series I created, hosted and co-produced in 1969, "Charlie's Pad," I'm reminded that public television at that time had the wide-open, freewheeling character that commercial television had in the early 1950s. Anything was possible, as it had been during the early years for Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky.  The year before I approached my campus station WSIU-TV with the idea for this show, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the major source for PBS programming) had just been created by Congress. All over America, local PBS stations were hungry for content. There can be no other explanation for why WSIU-TV went with a proposal for a 52-part series by a 21-year-old, black undergraduate. Of course, there was another reason, too, but I'll get to that in a moment after the following aside:
It's always been amusing to me that I'm primarily known as a "writer," because before the age of 30 I had to prove and distinguish myself in three different professional fields. In other words, between the ages of 17 and 30, I had to start all over again from scratch and Square One three different times in three "worlds" that had their own vocabulary, grammar, "school rules," and expectations. (No wonder I feel so existentially tired some days.) Those professions are (1) As a professional cartoonist/illustrator and journalist; (2) As a black doctor of philosophy and Buddhist scholar; and (3) As a literary artist, and black literature scholar. What I also find amusing is that workers in those three fields tend to believe their field is the only one of importance. As an undergraduate taking as many philosophy courses as I did those in journalism, I once had one of my journalism professors take me to one side and in all seriousness and "concern," tell me that I would have to choose between philosophy and journalism for my career. Later, John Gardner said to me that my earlier work as a visual artist and comic artist was just "preparation" for writing fiction. And I recall in graduate school the late, distinguished philosopher Justus Buchler (a major figure in American pragmatism) inviting me to chat in his office at SUNY-Stony Brook after the publication of Faith and the Good Thing so he could let me know that he knew of no one who had ever distinguished himself as both a great philosopher and great novelist. I dredge up these memories because some people in the three, professional "worlds" I've worked in tended to be provincial and protective of their bailiwick. Those in philosophy and the literary world expressed no interest in my life as a cartoonist/journalist. Many in the "creative writing" world seem to have an aversion to philosophy. And so on and so forth. But, obviously, I ignored them all, because in each case the person was speaking through the lens of their own creative and intellectual limitations. (And I've also loved, too, the very existential epigraph for this post, which was something said to me by a brilliant young black philosopher after he read Faith.) In short, one of my individual life's challenges was always to ignore the kind of negativity and professional parochialism I've just described, to keep working at the diverse things I love, and to find as many ways as possible of bringing all of them together.
In 1969, I came up with the idea of a how-to-draw show for PBS after working intensely---and exhaustively---since the age of 17 in 1965 as an editorial and panel cartoonist, illustrator, and comic strip artist. I'd already taught other students cartooning in a 1968 class that took place in SIU's "Free School," where anyone could teach anything they wanted (for free, of course). I was publishing in the black press (Ebony, Jet, Black World, Players, St. Louis's Proud ) and white newspapers (The Chicago Tribune, my campus newspaper, and The Southern Illinoisan), and selling one-page scripts (drawn by others on staff) to Charlton Comics, which was the low-man on the totem-pole of comic book companies in the late 1960s (their best artist was the brilliant, eccentric, and reclusive Steve Ditko, who was also the original artist for Marvel's "Spiderman.") I was publishing drawings anywhere and everywhere I could, including some soft-core porn for men's magazines (all those magazines vanished after the rise of feminism, thank heaven). You name it, I did it---or rather drew it--- in my youth (a lot of this I see as juvenilia), and to be honest I've forgotten some of the places I published visual art. By 1970, I'd published around 1,000 drawings, and the same year "Charlie's Pad" was broadcast (1970) my first book of political cartoons Black Humor was released by Johnson Publications in Chicago, and followed quickly by Half-Past Nation Time in 1972. (I also did other full-length cartoon manuscripts on slavery and Buddhism, but those have been lost over time.)
          So here is how "Charlie's Pad" happened:
 One spring day in 1969 when I bored, I sent a letter to WSIU-TV, summarizing my work as a cartoonist and pitching the idea for the show. I never expected them to write back. But they did, and called me to come in and talk about the project. I think what they liked about the idea was that it was inexpensive. All they needed to have was me sitting at a drawing table in front of two cameras. I designed each of the 52 programs (or lessons) for a 15-minute slot, and based the lessons on the correspondence course I took with writer/cartoonist Lawrence Lariar between the years 1963 and 1965 when I was in high school. We started shooting in fall of 1969. We shot three shows at a time. Director Scott Kane came up with the title, "Charlie's Pad," which I thought was cute at best. The series began running locally in southern Illinois in the spring of 1970, even before we'd shot the last lessons. Then it ran in Chicago. And Boston (on WGBH). And all over the country on different PBS stations for about eight to ten years. It was even broadcast, or so I heard, in Canada. Some stations ran one show a week for a year, which was my original intention. Others ran two shows together for a 30-minute block of programming. It was the kind of series PBS stations could assemble in different ways depending on the time slot(s) they needed to fill.
"Charlie's Pad" was, in a way, the culmination of my work at the time as a cartoonist. No sooner than it was on the air in 1970, I started writing novels, and by 1971 I was working on my master's degree in philosophy. In other words, I moved on.
But back in the early 70s I received a lot of mail from viewers around the country who would send me their drawings for commentary after they watched a particular show. (I have a box of that old mail somewhere in my attic, but I haven't looked at it in decades.) Personally, I can't watch "Charlie's Pad" because I was so young at the time I did it that what I see on the screen seems like an animated high school yearbook photo of myself. (But the demands that came with doing that show did teach me how to be relaxed on camera, and how to develop a voice appropriate for TV or radio.) And even today, within the last year or so, I still receive mail from people who saw the show when they were kids, learned a little something about how to draw from it, and wrote to thank me because they said "Charlie's Pad" gave them the ability to draw for their own children. (Here's a footnote: that series led to my first speaking engagement in 1970 at Xavier College in New Orleans, which invited me there to do a talk on cartooning.)
You will probably never see this series. It was broadcast before the era of VCRs. I have a DVD with three sample shows on it, sent to me by WSIU-TV. That station, I was informed recently, now only has those three shows left. The rest, 49 15-minute lessons (preserved on very old technology) were lost when one of the out-going station directors did some housecleaning. But the director who replaced him said he grabbed those three shows at the last minute. A couple of years ago, that director broadcast those three shows locally in southern Illinois as part of a series WSIU-TV did on the early days of PBS programming. It was an exciting era in the history of PBS, and I guess "Charlie's Pad" is a kind of window onto those wild and wooly early days.

1 comment:

  1. Ethelbert,

    I am very curious about the origins and ideology behind this Free School at SIU that Charlie mentioned. Could you ask him to elaborate on what this was, why it was, and what kind of people took advantage of it?