The American Music Show: Atlanta Public Access Television & LGBTQ+ Communities

By Joseph DeLeon, a 2023 LGBTQ Collections Fellow.

Joseph DeLeon

I came to the Rose Library this Summer to watch television. I devoted my time to the world’s longest-running public access cable show, The American Music Show, which aired on Atlanta’s People TV cable channel from 1981 to 2005. Dick Richards and his friends produced the program from a lavishly decorated home production studio with additional segments recorded in locations around Atlanta. Richards managed a small-scale media empire that included the Funtone Records label, which provided one frequent The American Music Show guest and now global drag icon, RuPaul Andre Charles, with his first record contract in the mid-1980s. Originally co-hosting the show with Dick Richards was James Bond, brother to civil rights leader Julian Bond. Potsy Duncan then shared co-hosting duties with Richards for the majority of the show’s run, with a cavalcade of repeat performers offering their campy, satirical take on characters from across a predominantly white Southern class spectrum. For example, frequent guest Paul Burke regularly played the buttoned-up, bespectacled Maxine Odum, who ran the trailer park in which DeAundra Peek, played by Rosser Shymanski, lived with her teeming family of off-key singing sisters. In 1999, while making a rare return visit to the program, RuPaul looked back fondly at his time on public access in Atlanta: “[The American Music Show is] the best show I’ve ever been on. I’ve been on Hollywood Squares. I’ve been on Oprah three times. I’ve been on all the shows. And this show is the best show I’ve ever been on.”[1]

Far too often, queer history suffers from archival scarcity. Material documents not valued as culturally significant in past eras have been lost to time. Videotapes that hold public access television programs can degrade through repeated viewing and through less-than-ideal storage practices. LGBTQ+ media producers seeking to preserve their legacy have frequently had to assume a role of self-archivist to assert their own place in the historical record. The gift of The American Music Show collection for researchers is due in large part to Dick Richards’ own assiduous collecting of his videotapes and of those of his best friend, Nelson Sullivan, videographer of New York City’s downtown queer arts and culture scenes in the 1980s.[2] These videotapes present a tableau of queer history within a small-scale production culture that would otherwise not be available to experience with such immediacy were it not for Richards’ safekeeping. Potsy Duncan, Dick Richards, and Richards’ partner, David Goldman, in turn performed another archival intervention by ensuring the donation of The American Music Show’s materials to the Stuart A. Rose Library.

This past July, I watched many digitized episodes of The American Music Show, witnessing an ephemeral media format from the 1980s come to life through an iPad screen. Although Dick Richards regularly uploaded clips from The American Music Show to YouTube on his “misterrichardson” account, the only place to watch full episodes of the American Music Show is now in its digitized form at the Stuart A. Rose Library at Emory University. I previously researched the program in two much shorter research trips in 2018 and 2019 for a day or two at a time. This prior viewing had merely provided a glimpse into the world of the show. My goal for this summer trip was to investigate how the program responded to the HIV/AIDS epidemic from the early-1980s through the 1990s. I found that the show, and the performers and artists involved closely with it, organized and documented numerous benefits and fundraisers for LGBTQ+ causes. I also learned much more about the show’s political sense of humor, one that was grounded in a fiercely defended independence from the public access establishment. Through these media strategies of resistance to the mainstream, The American Music Show’s political commitments animated my viewing and offered a vibrant social portrait of Atlanta’s underground, alternative, and queer performance scenes.

The American Music Show recorded benefits in local clubs for many organizations, such as one episode that documented a fundraiser for the Atlanta chapter of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) and the Georgia Abortion Rights Action League (GARAL) in December, 1991.[3] Lurleen Wallis, a drag queen and frequent The American Music Show guest, organized the event and was interviewed at the start of the episode. Lurleen explained that the event was meant to bring together “gender illusion and lots of musical fun and political action and consciousness raising and [a] hooting party all in one.”

Lurleen Wallis (L) with Potsy Duncan (R) in 1991.

The American Music Show documented such ephemeral events of queer solidarity for Atlanta’s public access audience, creating the material groundwork for queer folks’ validation and visibility as a community fighting for their health, their rights, and for justice.

Later, in 1993, another episode documented a fundraiser at the Velvet Club for Leif Eric Spivey, candidate for Atlanta’s city council.[4] Spivey was Cobb County’s delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1992, when he made history as the first openly HIV-positive delegate ever sent to a national political convention. Spivey was also himself an Atlanta public access host, producing with his partner John Ishmael the program Out in Atlanta on People TV in 1991. A year later, he started the show Positive Living, a show dedicated to HIV/AIDS issues.[5] Alongside The American Music Show, Spivey and Ishmael’s programs were important platforms for LGBTQ+-related news for Atlanta’s cable-subscribing customers. As I discovered, a close viewing practice of The American Music Show can open a portal into other currents of queer life that coursed through public access in the South and that are difficult to locate through other means.

Alongside the cataloguing of queer Atlanta, an unflagging satirical sense of humor pervades the show. This sense of humor undergirded a political commitment to independence and a campy, self-aware embrace of limited technical knowledge in the show’s production. The show’s guiding motto through its early years was “Always Low Standards,” a phrase which Dick Richards would write on the final videotaped episodes that were sent for broadcast to People TV’s main office. Rosser Shymanski, who played an array of characters on the show in addition to DeAundra Peek, called this approach one of “no retakes, even if mistakes.”[6] Through The American Music Show, Dick Richards mobilized this aesthetic signature as a badge of honor. Sometime in the 1980s, Bill Crane, a People TV board member, sent a stern rebuke of the show to Richards: “People TV was not established to guarantee you or anyone else a free avenue to do vanity piece productions like The American Music Show. In my opinion, public access has nothing to do with providing you and your minions a venue for passing in-jokes and sophomoric humor.” Seeing no better advertisement for his program than in this terse summary, Dick Richards took the venom out of Crane’s critique by simply turning around and including this comment as a scrolling block of on-screen text after a series of celebrity endorsements of the show in an episode from 1988.[7]

Tape 131

In this and other examples throughout the collection, Richards and those involved with the show maintained a commitment to transparency through an impish acknowledgment of their subversion of the standards and limitations of public access television. The overturning of norms in media production should be read in tandem with the consistent platform they provided for queer artists and performers. As Dick Richards reflected in a television spot for QTV, a Toronto-based LGBTQ+-oriented television station: “We always try to promote all of the gay and lesbian stars that we possibly can.”[8] In today’s political climate, in which incidents of anti-queer & anti-trans harassment have been on the rise and in which drag queens are frequently demonized by the far-right as rending the fabric of society, learning how to build media strategies for intersectional inclusion from The American Music Show has never felt more vital.



[1] Tape 558, video recording, 1999, American Music Show Collection, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[2] For more on Nelson Sullivan and the second life of archival videotapes on YouTube, see Joseph DeLeon, “Nelson Sullivan’s Video Memories: YouTube Nostalgia and the Queer Archive Effect.” The Velvet Light Trap 86 (2020): 16-26.

[3] Tape 204, video recording, 1991, American Music Show Collection, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[4] No tape number, Video recording, 1993, American Music Show Collection, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[5] KC Wildmoon, “Leif Eric Spivey, Atlanta Activist and TV Host, Dies at 35,” Southern Voice (December 1994): 4.

[6] Popcorn, issue 6, page 24, zine, ca. 1992, Jon Arge Photographs, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[7] Tape 131, video recording, 1988, American Music Show Collection, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University

[8] Tape 588, video recording, 2000, American Music Show Collection, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

One Reply to “The American Music Show: Atlanta Public Access Television & LGBTQ+ Communities”

Comments are closed.