For far too long, I've quietly sat upon a cultural treasure trove deserved of cult fame (although it's found its fair share already, as NPR has pointed out). Between 1979 and 1982, Brooklyn resident Frank Masi created and hosted a program on New York cable access called Stairway to Stardom. Filmed in what appeared to be a freshly carpeted Staten Island basement, Stairway was low-budget combination of American Idol and Star Search, but sprinkled with the key element of magic dust reeking of desperation.
While the average viewer may soak up the glory of witnessing wannabe singers/dancers/comedians on So You Think America's Got Talent While Making The Band, there is only a sliver of American Idol (early in the season, before the actual competition begins) in which we are treated to the cleverly-edited, mind-boggling weirdness of deluded contestants. But Stairway centers its focus exclusively on that: the weird, wild, and bizarre, adjectives which are only applied as a result of the context in which we can now view the material. It's quite unlikely that Frank Masi was playing a cruel joke by humiliating ugly child actors and amateur comics mentally blinded by their own self-confidence. Rather, Stairway entertains through its sheer sincerity: eccentric New Yorkers at their best, making love to the camera whether we like or not because, Goddamit, they're walking up that 'Stairway' and ain't nobody gonna stop 'em!
Producer Michelle Sharpe brilliantly collected all the videos (all of which I've tried - unsuccessfully - to secure the rights myself, even going so far to call every Frank Masi in the Brooklyn/Queens Yellow Pages), and has posted them on her YouTube channel. Below are my top 5 faves (which, like children, are difficult to peg as most cherished...unless they're adopted, duh!), but do take the time to view them all. You'd be doing a disservice to yourself and to the history of irony to not do so.
# 5: Al Villa
Anyone who starts their stand-up set with "No, it's true" immediately grabs my attention. WHAT'S not true? Tell us, Al! Somehow segueing from Pancho Villa to lying paratroopers to a tepidly-received Steve Martin impression, Al Villa and his ill-shaped mustache bring awkwardness to a new level.
#4: Don Costello
I'm not sure who thought up such a mean-spirited joke, but throwing a patient from the Cedars Sanai mental ward in front of a camera and saying, "GO!" is just not right. (It did, however, result in a grand performance, years later, by Rosie O'Donnell's turn as a developmentally disabled Pee Wee Herman.)
#3: Lola Perazzo
The year is 1983. The song is "Thriller." The dancer is Lola Perazzo. Although only 13, Lola - busting out all over in her fire-engine red bodysuit - is the definition of terrifying. In order to enhance her performance, Lola cleverly took a cue from the legendary video for the song in which the main characters were zombies. Something evil's lurking the dark, and she's prepared to become a professional dancer, no matter how many Frank Masis she "accidentally" kisses on the lips in her quest for superstardom.
#2: Gloria Huddle
When your name is Gloria Huddle, you have no choice but to stand in front of a camera and deliver a rambling existential monologue in a faintly Scottish, British, or Southern accent. Fluttering her eyelids while warbling and whispering a gospel hymn, it isn't clear as to whether Gloria is lost in a religious seizure or just dizzy. Whatever the case may be, she sure is something special.
#1: Horowitz & Spector
Take two easily excitable New York Jewesses, blow out their Jewfros, strap on some bedazzled pleather bodysuits (with headbands, natch), hand them a musical parody about dieting and what do you get? My dream. I don't know which one's Horowitz or which one's Spector, but what I do know is that they make my pants a little bit damp. If the one on the right could open her mouth any wider, I'd totally put down a deposit on that place (it's her mouth, so heat and hot water are undoubtedly included). This lady-duo not only laid the foundation for all middle-aged ladyduos to perform musical parodies about eating habits, but they may have been the first musical act to ever incorporate "hot pastrami" into a song without its functioning as a euphemism for a vagina.
(And could they also have been responsible for this, as well?)