“New Wave Theatre” returns to Night Flight: The early ’80s cable TV show focused on L.A. punk, hardcore, and art rock bands

By on April 13, 2016

Now, on our new Night Flight Plus channel, we’re offering up a “Best of New Wave Theatre” show that was previously released on VHS in two volumes by Rhino Video. This is the very same show, hand-picked and re-edited in 1986 by David Jove, the man who created “New Wave Theatre.” Discover what you might have missed when “New Wave Theatre” aired the first time on “Night Flight” and for more of the story, read on!

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Thirty-five years have passed since the first 30-minute episode of “New Wave Theatre” aired on a Sunday night @ 10pm, on the upstart L.A. public access TV station KSCI, on UHF channel 18 — a station dedicated to only broadcasting “positive” news and programming — and also the Theta Cable network, on channel 3.

In less than a year’s time, Stuart Shapiro — Night Flight’s creator and executive producer — would pick up “New Wave Theatre” and begin airing it during the last half-hour of his “Night Flight” cable TV show, which was then being broadcast nationally on the USA cable network, one of the first national cable television channels.

“Glad to get this jewel on our launch of NF Plus as a prime example of what our fans will get access to on our membership channel on nightlfightplus.com,” says Shapiro today from Night Flight’s NY headquarters.

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When it first started out, “New Wave Theatre” was taped live-to-tape, on JVC 1/4-inch equipment on a soundstage at the Media Center in downtown Burbank. Jove operated one of the cameras, edited each episode and co-wrote the show with Billboard magazine editor Ed Och, who was credited as “mortification consultant.”

Once Night Flight’s Shapiro came up with a budget for the show, the relatively spartan production would expand from a single camera to a four-camera, thirty-person operation being shot at Leon Russell’s Paradise studios — a complex of recording studios and a video soundstage, also located in Burbank, at the corner of Magnolia and Ledge.

When Russell moved his studio facilities to Nashville, “New Wave Theatre” also moved on, to new L.A. locations, including a frequently-used downtown L.A. loft, as well as large music venues like Florentine Gardens.

In an article for Billboard magazine in June 1982 (“Video Won’t Swim in the Mainstream: ‘New Wave Theatre’ Cable Show Exposes Rock in Major Markets”), writer Cary Darling says that Jove was back in New York, and meeting with TV executives, hoping to perhaps persuade NBC to pick up the show as “a monthly alternative for ‘Saturday Night Live’.

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Today, Shapiro remembers meeting with David Jove in Night Flight’s New York offices, who he says was a “whirlwind of creative anarchy, a raging genius, and politically very irreverent.”

“In the early days,” remembers Shapiro, “USA had only one satellite, and there were no time shifts — if ‘Night Flight’ aired in New York at 11pm, that means it also aired live in the whole country at that same time, so it was on in L.A. at eight o’clock.”

USA aired a mix of movies on the weekends, whatever low-budget films and shorts they could manage they could afford, but after a few months, they gave “Night Flight” a treasure late-night slot on Friday and Saturday nights in four hour sets, starting from 11pm EST and going til 3am, then repeating again once it aired, making for eight full hours of original Night Flight programming awesomeness every weekend, a glorious amalgamation of music videos, short films, cartoons, interviews, concerts, and cult movies — and the cutting-edge, truly original “New Wave Theatre.”

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It’s possible that you may not have seen a single episode of the short-lived “New Wave Theatre” – new shows aired for just two years, between January 1981 and March 1983, until “best of” episodes began airing years later — and there’s also a good chance you may not have even heard of it. If so, that just means you’re in for a real treat, especially if you’re nostalgic for public access insanity.

“New Wave Theatre” was part performance art and theatre (frequently offering up Dadaist comedy sketches and bits by Robert Hull, who appeared on the show as a huckster named “Chris Genkel”) and part experimental video TV playground (Jove liked experimenting with chroma key special effects, quick edits, roving hand-held camerawork, and inserted stock footage (Hiroshima, outer space, etc.), as well as providing an unrehearsed and often unforgettable independent music showcase for early ’80s Los Angeles-based punk, hardcore, and art rock bands, in addition to all kinds of uncategorizable acts, all of them about as far as you could get from the corporate rock that flourished in the 80s.

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Notable mostly L.A.-based bands who appeared on the show included mostly left coast bands you may remember — like X, the Blasters, the Circle Jerks, the Angry Samoans, Johanna Went, Dead Kennedys, 45 Grave, Fear, Suburban Lawns, the Surf Punks and The Plugz — but sometimes there were relatively unknown individuals and ensembles of one type or another that you may have forgotten about or never even knew existed in the first place (unless you were deep into the L.A. music scene at the time), like Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, Wet Picnic, Killer Pussy, Sexsick and Mnemonic Devices, to name just a few.

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We asked Josh Frank — we’ve told you a few times about his excellent book In Heaven Everything Is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and The Lost History of New Wave Theatre, which we’ve excerpted from a few times, like this post — to tell us something about the show that had made such a big impact, and here’s what he said:

Josh: “I still think about what it must have been like back in the 1980s, to turn your TV on in Ohio, or Kansas, or Texas, and see these kids broadcasting music, ideas, performance art, surreal insanity. I imagine for some it must have felt like ‘I’m not alone! A huge relief and surely it inspired many people in small town America to make their own music scenes, just as MTV would do a few years later on a larger scale. For many others, though, t was more like ‘The world is ending!’ This was before the Internet. There was no warning that this kind of scene was even out there. One day it wasn’t there and the next it was! Click. BOOM!”

“New Wave Theatre” was hosted by musician, composer Peter Ivers, who would sometimes appear on camera looking like he’d just stepped off the set of a low-budget sci-fi movie.

Ivers — a Harvard graduate and world class harmonica player versed in the deep blues — had his own recording career prior to hosting the show, and although he released a handful of albums under his own name, and even led his own ad hoc band called Vitamin Pink (they appeared on the show a few times too), he’s often remembered for a memorable song he wrote for David Lynch’s 1977 feature debut, Eraserhead: “In Heaven (Everything Is Fine),” a song he also performed for the soundtrack (lip-synched by Holly Near’s actress sister Laurel who appeared as “The Lady in the Radiator”).

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In addition to introducing and then interviewing band members during post-performance bits, he’d open each episode of “New Wave Theatre” with odd little gonzo monologues and soliloquies (mostly written by Jove), and during each show, with a little twinkle in his eye and a wry little smile, he’d ask his musical guests what they thought was “the meaning of life,” or preaching optimism for the Nuclear Age.

Sometimes the band members would just act like assholes — hey, this isn’t “American Bandstand,” people, a lot of these bands were pretty punk rock about everything back then — or they’d just giggle and smile, silenced by Iver’s apparent seriousness. Ivers would just smile and wait for their answers to his questions, the same ones that have stumped bearded sages and philosophers for centuries.

Although it was often clear which bands and artists appearing on the show were personal favorites, he was always respectful to everyone, even when he was tweaking the punk bands who were never quite able to drop their guard lest they be considered “poseurs” (ask your grandpa), which Ivers just couldn’t resist doing from time to time.

Shapiro says Ivers was “magic on the set,” and he was really into talking about what was going on with the planet, way into topics like global warming even before the term was in wide use.

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Peter Ivers also seemed to know everyone and sometimes his friends would drop by the live tapings to watch the insanity, sometimes appearing on camera with Ivers to say a few things . W’ere talking about people like Harold Ramis, David Lynch, Beverly D’Angelo, Elvira and John Belushi, all part of a veritable Who’s Who of 80s celeb coolness that were circling in Ivers’s hip little L.A. orbit. Their occasional cameo appearances were usually credited as being the appearance of a “Ghost Host,” which meant you were likely to see them doing something that they wouldn’t be doing on a network show like “Saturday Night Live.”

We told you about Peter’s close friendship with National Lampoon‘s Douglas Kenney here; Kenney, the writer of Animal House and Caddyshack, memorably appeared on “New Wave Theatre,” where he put his entire fist into his mouth, a trick he performed often for friends, during his appearance on June 17, 1980, just months before he died.

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“‘New Wave Theater’ even effected me in this way when I first discovered it in 2005,” Josh Frank continues, “when I begin researching Peter Ivers’s life for my book. I had no idea these kids did all this on their own and that a major network telecast it across the entire country. Because as many of us lost history writers know, history is simplified when told, and very often the true start of a movement is washed over for the more commercial version of the start. But ‘New Wave Theatre’ was the start, and this archive is so very important and it’s fantastic that Stuart, and Night Flight are finding ways of giving folks a peek into this lost vital exciting world.”

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Today, Shapiro says he’s “bullishly proud” of being involved with “New Wave Theatre,” which he says, watching the episodes today, that it still seems somewhat “raw, even rude,” and, Shapiro says, “Jove really pushed it to the edge as much as possible.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.