FRINGE: The American Music Show and its legacy
Paula Gately Tillman talks about photographing Atlanta’s underground element in the 1980s and early ‘90s
A quirky public-access television program that began in Atlanta in the 1980s turned out to be the genesis of quite a few successful careers in arts and entertainment. The American Music Show was filmed mainly in an Inman Park living room on a budget of $5 (the price of a blank VHS tape) and featured a decadent cast of characters, according to one of its early participants, a then-unknown RuPaul. In his autobiography he called it “a variety show consisting of skits with a sick sense of humor, performed by a kooky cast.” Broadcast weekly on People TV from 1981 (coinciding with the start of the AIDS crisis) until 2005, it featured drag acts, satire, sketch comedy, interviews, games and reports of random goings-on around Atlanta. The longevity of the show cemented its place in the city’s underground subculture and has been described by Wussy Mag as "one of the most thorough archives of queer Atlanta history.”
Despite its prevailing levity, the program often addressed political turmoil: a clip from a 1987 episode shows RuPaul and another Peek sister, Wanda Peek (Molli Worthington) confronting members of the Ku Klux Klan at the infamous protest march in Forsyth County in January of that year. Shymanski notes that it was Worthington, who, as Wanda Peek, was the creator of the Singing Peek Sisters and was instrumental in bringing the whole “family” of Peeks to life on the American Music Show and wherever else they would entertain audiences. Two episodes of AMS focused on "Paris Is Burning," described by The New York Times as “an invaluable documentary of the end of the ‘Golden Age’ of New York City drag balls, and a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America” involving the Black, Latino, gay and transgender communities.
Andy Ditzler, a curator at the High Museum of Art, called the show a unique conjunction of Southern culture, queer performance, black civil rights history and cable television as an art medium. “ The American Music Show remains outrageous, visionary, and above all, an entertainment experience of always low standards,” he wrote. In a rare moment of respectability, the museum in 2019 presented a filmed tribute with clips from the show, compiled by Ditzler, which contained videotaped endorsements from presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush, Sr., as well as performers James Brown and Barbara Mandrell.
The show was produced by Dick Richards — who died in 2018 — aided and abetted by co-host Bud "Beebo" Lowry, performance artist Potsy Duncan as well as Atlanta City Council member James Bond, the brother of civil rights activist and Georgia state representative Julian Bond. Richards also co-founded Funtone Records with Ted Rubenstein; the label released RuPaul’s first three recordings and projects by other unconventional artists from the region. In a 1995 interview with Creative Loafing, Richards said the American Music Show attempted to “hold open this tiny window to let weird and interesting things into the lives of the people who choose to tune in.”
Chronicling all this rampant activity was Paula Gately Tillman, a young, aspiring photographer who inserted herself into the proceedings and honed her craft in the process. Tillman will be appearing in Little Five Points on Saturday, Apr. 8, at A Cappella Books to talk about her work and her book of black and white photographs titled Fringe: New York - Atlanta 1984-1997, published in 2018. “I was photographing the show — all the scene makers,” says Tillman. “It was already in motion when I moved to Atlanta in ‘87. They had this cult following. The cast members were super talented; they all had characters they created and nothing was really scripted; some of them were so fantastic they had their own gigs going and built their own reputations.”
One of the notable spin-off trajectories was that of Rosser Shymanski, who performed as drag queen DeAundra Peek on the show and parlayed the role into a lengthy stint in the local avant-garde. According to Georgia Voice , DeAundra was known for her trailer park antics, disastrous singing talent and questionable Vienna Sausage recipes that were shared with audience members. “And they would actually eat them,” the flummoxed star told the publication. Shymanski went on to create the characters Boompah Bailey, veterinarian Dr. PeeDeen Hunkapillar and aerobics expert Adene Salon.
In her essay "Vienners’ at Odom’s: DeAundra Peek and the Atlanta Televisual Drag Scene," Professor Molly McGehee of Emory University’s Oxford College examines Peek’s shows within a broader context of LGBTQ entertainment, social life, activism and politics in Atlanta during the late 1980s to early 2000s. McGehee writes, “It becomes clear that DeAundra (as well as other Atlanta-based drag queens) did not so much ‘expand southerness’ as expand gayness — i.e., increase gay visibility — in the United States to include LGBTQ populations within Atlanta, in effect ‘unmooring’ Atlanta from its associations with ‘southerness.’” Furthermore, Shymanski “used camp drag to make known and give voice and vitality to gay identities within an urban center in the South, signaling to her audience that Atlanta was a great place to be gay.” McGehee’s piece appears in the compilation book Queering the South on Screen, (University of Georgia Press, 2020) the cover of which is graced by a smiling Peek in full regalia. In 2019, Shymanski retired as operations manager for Georgia Public Television after three decades with the network. More recently he exhibited his abstract paintings on glass at the now-shuttered 378 Gallery in Candler Park.
Another performer on the show was Benjamin Dickerson, better known as Benjamin Smoke, the poet who fronted the Atlanta-based rock bands The Opal Foxx Quartet and Smoke. He scored the short film The Shop Below the Busy Road (1997) and was the subject of Benjamin Smoke, a “highly unorthodox” documentary, according to IMDB. “Drag-queen, speed-freak, all-around renegade, Benjamin left the straight (in every sense of the word) world behind a long time ago,” the synopsis reads. The film was released posthumously; Dickerson died in January of 1999 in Atlanta at the age of 39.
Among the many other players in the show were Hope Nicholls of the North Carolina band Fetchin’ Bones and deejay-turned-fashion designer Larry Tee. Artist Tom Zarrilli and drag queens Betty Jack Devine and Lady Bunny were also in the mix, as was transgender legend Jayne County, as well as the funky Cocktail Girlz: “As good a band as this city has produced in quite some time,” a Creative Loafing reviewer wrote at the time.
Tillman described her time on the set of the American Music Show as “fascinating, hilarious fun,” adding, “I always shot with natural light — I never had any lighting. I was just winging it.” She says costumes were “created out of nothing” due to the lack of funding. “(Richards’ partner) David had the cocktails going. It was all very casual but they all were serious about what they did.”
One of Tillman’s portraits in her book Fringe is of the late Joe Roman, a writer for Atlanta Gazette and Creative Loafing whom she eventually married. Roman helped start the 12th Gate, a small but groundbreaking live music venue located on the bottom floor of a Victorian house at 10th and Spring streets. There were fewer places to play in the city in those days, but the 12th Gate established itself as a home for gigs by The Hampton Grease Band and other seminal local artists. Roman's club also hosted national acts such as Little Feat, Elvin Jones, Weather Report and John Hammond Jr., all of whom made their Atlanta debuts there.
Specializing in gelatin silver prints, Tillman’s work has been shown at group and solo exhibitions in Atlanta; New York; San Francisco; Charleston, SC; and Bunde, Germany, among other places. “The results have been tremendous,” she says. “I have a big body of work.” In Baltimore, where she now lives, Tillman was part of a group show in 2022 at the city’s Museum of Art entitled "Shape Shifting: Transformations on Paper at The Baltimore Museum of Art." “My RuPaul shoot was exhibited with this esteemed group of artists from Picasso to Man Ray. I was just so honored.”
Some of the surviving players of the American Music Show have been invited by Tillman to the A Cappella talk, she says. Her moderator will be Randy Gue, Assistant Director of Collection Development at Emory's Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, which houses some of Tillman’s work as well as videos and manuscripts from the American Music Show. —CL—
Paula Gately Tillman, Free, 3 p.m. Saturday, April 8. A Cappella Books, 208 Haralson Avenue, Atlanta 30307. acappellabooks.com
Rosser Shymanski hosts the Little Five Points Poetry Bash, Monday, April 3, free, at Java Lords. Sign-up 6:30 p.m., readings 7-9:30 p.m. Java Lords, 1105 Euclid Avenue NE, Atlanta, 30307. 404-477-0921 https://www.javalordsatl.com
Lady Bunny, $25, 35, & 45, Atlanta Comedy Theater Underground, Kenny’s Alley, Underground Atlanta, 50 Lower Alabama St #4, Atlanta, 30303.
Friday, April 14, 7 p.m. featuring Connor Lyons + guests
Saturday, April 15, 7 p.m. featuring Brigitte Bidet + guests
Sunday, February 16, 2 p.m. brunch featuring Drew Friday + guests
For GPS: 75 MLK Jr Dr SW, Atlanta, 30303. For Uber/taxi/Lyft: 92 Pryor St. SW, Atlanta, 30303. The Pryor Street entrance to Kenny’s Alley is on the left side of the road, walk through the archway entrance to Kenny’s Alley and down three flights of stairs. 470-428-3493. atlantacomedytheater.com Downtown