Nancy Cain remembered people on the street being amazed by their Portapaks because, at that time, most people had never seen themselves on a video screen before. More than being a mere novelty, the Videofreex were trying to create media on their own terms. “We wanted to make our own world,” Mary Curtis Ratcliff said, “and this video movement was part of changing the world. There were only three networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—so this was an underground way of getting information out.” Skip Blumberg added, “We had this front-row seat to everything that was going on, because the major media wasn’t covering it. And if they were, they were covering it from the outside and we were covering everything from inside.” Predictably, the other CBS executives hated West’s pet project. When the network suits descended from Black Rock to watch the Subject to Change pilot on December 17, 1969, they were taken aback by the Videofreex’s studio production. Buzzy Linhart led the show’s house band, and the downtown audience sat in bleachers. “We put the CBS executives in our neighbor’s loft,” Cain said, “and they were smoking these big smelly cigars, like, straight out of central casting. They were obnoxious and they burned a hole in our neighbor’s futon, stuff like that. Then at the end, they just stomped out. I never really thought it was going to get on the air, and I was right. But it was a great adventure, then everybody got fired. Don West, he got fired.” Over the course of five months, the Videofreex had blown through about $70,000 of CBS’s money, about half a million in today’s dollars. They may have failed in landing a major network television show, but this freed them artistically and left them with a lot of equipment.
From Chapter 22 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore