On the Beat

Skip Elsheimer is a man ahead of his time

Back in 1999, a News & Observer profile of A/V Geeks mastermind Skip Elsheimer had a pretty prescient quote from Rick Prelinger -- a film collector who was Elsheimer’s mentor in the world of artistic marginalia. At that time, Elsheimer was beginning to amass the film collection that would make him nationally known. Prelinger was among those who noticed, calling Elsheimer “a media archeologist doing important and uncredited work.” He made a prediction, too:

“In the next 10, 20, 30 years, a lot more people are going to recognize the importance of what he’s doing.”

Well, here we are 16 years down the road and that has come to pass, thanks to Elsheimer’s part in getting an almost unknown but historically significant film named to the National Film Registry. You can read about that in this story from Sunday’s paper. Meanwhile, that 1999 profile of Elsheimer (written by my former colleague Geoff Edgers, nowadays an arts reporter at the Washington Post) is below.

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The Reel Thing: From Wifflefist to A/V Geek, Skip Elsheimer makes an art of being a misfit

By Geoff Edgers, News & Observer -- April 4, 1999

Once a month, Skip Elsheimer, recovering performance artist, arrives at the Lump gallery in downtown Raleigh with reels of castoff, 16-millimeter films. Elsheimer is wearing jeans with an untucked, button-down shirt. As he sets up his projector, the curious file into the one-room gallery and form rows facing a wall. He turns out the lights.

Every show has a theme; tonight’s is hygiene.

“It’s always seemed very odd when you have a company or agency telling you how you’re supposed to clean yourself up,” Elsheimer says, the closest he gets to a formal introduction.

To start, he shows a filmstrip with everybody in the audience reading a line out loud. That way, the stragglers get a few extra minutes before the program proper.

Then he spins the reel. Elsheimer takes special pleasure in knowing how far the Lump scene is from what was originally intended by the film financiers, among them Coronet, Encyclopedia Britannica and McGraw-Hill. These didactic shorts were meant for suburban-classroom brainwashing, not art gallery kicks.

And that’s another level of fascination, the way each crackling frame turns back the clock. A deep-voiced narrator confides that “part of the fun of growing up is you have your own toilet articles.” Moms clean windows. Dads fix car engines. A balanced diet is a plate of juicy hamburgers.

Nothing surprises Elsheimer. He has seen the films before. He devotes every Sunday night, at home, to the screen that hangs over a window of his apartment. What interests him is how his viewers react. Med Byrd, one of the Lump owners, talks back to each film. He gets particularly annoyed that a chubby teenager is cast as the central dirt-bag, a boy who just will not shower.

“I hate that,” Byrd shouts, half-amused. “I was a fat kid, and I was clean as a pin.”

Just about everybody groans at the hygienic images designed to scare young boys and girls into the bathtub - raw athlete’s foot, a face covered in eczema sores. When Billy declares that washing is for sissies, he gets a bedroom visit from “Soapy, the Germ Fighter” a living, breathing, talking soap cake in tights.

The laughs come when Elsheimer expects them - Soapy’s arrival, when a mother instructs her son to wear his “rubbers” in the rain. There is also a pleasant surprise in the groaned displeasure that meets every toenail-cutting scene. In fact, after the night has ended with a Fat Albert episode centering on the bath-phobic Suede Simpson, after he has accepted the applause and the $30 collected in a passed-around bucket, Elsheimer is still thinking toenails.

“I didn’t anticipate that,” he says. “People just don’t like that.”

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Packrat with a purpose:

There are so many things to collect. Bottlecaps, comic books, Norman Rockwell plates, old records, phone charge cards. Elsheimer, a 32-year-old technical support manager at Alien Skin Software, collects educational films. The short reels were designed to teach the children of America how to drive cars, meet girls, get in shape, master multiplication tables and avoid painful rashes.

Elsheimer usually finds the films at auctions or flea markets, sold by the lot, often no more than a dime a flick. The price is only part of why he has 8,000 now, each in a classroom-gray and brown plastic case the size of a small pizza box. They fill his four-bedroom apartment, known as Pine Haus.

“I have a packrat mentality,” he says. “If somebody throws something out, I look and say, ‘Why are they throwing out this valuable thing?’ Maybe it’s valuable because somebody threw this out.”

Elsheimer is used to living in the middle of everything. Pine Haus serves as a clearinghouse for the defunct Wifflefist collective, best described as a cross between an indie record label and alternative circus. Before fizzling out over the last two years, Wifflefist produced some of the funniest, weirdest, most absurd experimental art in the Triangle. Most of its members have continued creating, spinning off into smaller, lower-profile projects. What they left behind surrounds Elsheimer.

Films stacked in the bathroom, bedrooms, basement, hallway, around the kitchen counter. Wifflefist CDs and tapes, which he still distributes, in a large, back room. Two dozen CPR dummies in the attic. Mounds of electronic equipment, in various states of disrepair and decay, against a wall of the basement.

A corner of the living room contains three VCRs, two Sony Playstations, a satellite dish player, floor fan, strobe light, video projector, beanbag chair, plastic saxophone that doesn’t work, Teletubby poster, cassettes, CDs, tapes and a Bible.

Elsheimer is a packrat with a purpose: to perform. The shows he holds every month at Lump and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University are as important as the collection itself.

“Skip sees archival access in the broadest of terms,” says Rick Prelinger, 46, a San Francisco-based collector whom Elsheimer considers his mentor. “There are wonderful things in archives around the country, but most archivists don’t go out and show stuff.”

Elsheimer has always performed. When he was 6, he would stage productions with the papier-mache puppets he made. At 32, he compiles themed shows with the films for which he pays next to nothing.

In between, there was Wifflefist, a mish-mash of music, avant-garde performance art, just about anything. He credits his time with the collective, a group of like-minded friends, for showing him that the ideas in his head could be translated for an audience.

Wifflefist got its spiritual start a few years before the phrase itself was coined in 1992. Michael Pilmer and Elsheimer, two of the principals, were self-described high school misfits who began to find the world opening up in college.

Elsheimer, born in Pennsylvania and high schooled in Albemarle, N.C., was a gawky teen, almost 6 feet tall and 110 pounds. He had a couple of close friends, but he spent most days in his room, listening to Devo and Pink Floyd, reading Kurt Vonnegut, playing on his Commodore VIC-20.

College would be different. Not that N.C. State didn’t have its faults - a physical education requirement and early morning classes just daring him to sleep through. But in college, the two or three resident geeks at his high school became a group, kids indifferent to the rhythms of campus life, able to create a place where weirdness wouldn’t just be tolerated, it would be embraced.

That’s how Pine Haus got started. Pilmer lived there first, when it was a single-story, party shack crammed into a generic apartment complex near Mission Valley. He met Elsheimer on campus, where each noticed the other’s T-shirt. Pilmer’s read: “Party Dead.” Elsheimer’s read: “Deadheads Go Better with AI Steak Sauce.” Not long after, on the eve of a national election, Elsheimer would be postering the campus with fliers headlined “VOTE” and featuring close-up pornographic images.

Elsheimer moved in, followed by Ian Shannon and David Jordan and microphones, synthesizers, a printing press, copying machine and art supplies.

The name itself, Wifflefist, came from the need to “have a name that didn’t have a meaning,” says Rich Misenheimer, a member of the collective who didn’t live in the house.

“I think initially it was just a love of sounds,” Misenheimer says. “We all liked to make music where we could grab sound from various places, whether it was a synthesizer drum machine or sounds from film strips. We weren’t terribly interested in the music that was getting played on the radio, and the local scene at the time was very healthy, but it was very guitar based. We wanted to have a sense of humor, to look at the absurdity of our consumer culture and advertising. We all liked to throw that into a blender and spit it back out at people.”

They would take just about anything - prom night, tape loops, a desperate recording by a lovesick hillbilly, carving knives, T-shirts, a short Filipino who sang “In the Ghetto” - and slap it with the Wifflefist stamp.

The Hee-Haw/Lawrence Welk show, one of several Wifflefist events, was a production with close to 30 cast members. The stage show, held at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, revolved around the sorts of corny musical segments and comedy skits embraced by Cold War, couch-potato culture. Separate at first, the two shows eventually merged into one.

It was a surprisingly smooth production, with the parts of Buck Owens, Roy Clark and the “Champagne Ladies” perfectly executed. Lawrence Welk was represented by a life-size wooden cutout placed to the side of the makeshift bandstand. Illuminated by the strobe, bobbing at the end of puppet strings, this Welk is even spookier than the real deal.

The show’s finale would be a surprise, Elsheimer and Jordan divulging it to only a couple of the performers. The script handed out was without the last page, which called for a set-crushing nuclear explosion.

There were other events, including the Wifflefest-run prom held at Local 506 in Chapel Hill. (Elsheimer and Pilmer didn’t go to their high school prom.)

Pine Haus even made Details, the New York-based glossy young men’s culture magazine. In one of the countless Chapel Hill-as-next-Seattle stories that appeared in the national press in the early ’90s, Picasso Trigger singer Kathy Poindexter led a Details writer to Pine Haus. In the article, the writer refers to “a room cluttered with tampon dispensers, Shaun Cassidy figurines, and posters advertising corn dogs. Kathy’s friends are watching a children’s potty-training video.”

In the summer of 1995, Wifflefist also hooked up with Mark Hosler of Negativland, the group most famous for naming one of its albums “U2” - and getting sued for it by the band U2. Hosler heard a Wifflefist band, Silica Gel, during a tour stop at the Cradle. Silica Gel’s album became the first non-Negativland release on Seeland Records. Hosler and several Wifflefisters set out on a mini-tour, which included stops in Pittsburgh, Richmond and Atlanta. During that time, Hosler stayed at Wifflefist headquarters.

“I remember,” Hosler says in a phone interview from New Mexico, “going to the Pine Haus and thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, I can’t believe this exists in the middle of North Carolina.’”

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After the Fist:

Four guys can only live so long under one roof, and so what held Wifflefist together began splitting it apart. There would be dirty dishes in the sink, shoes in the hallway. There would be complaints about dirty dishes, shoes in the hallway.

“And there were always people coming and going, which was also one of the nice things and one of the bad things,” says Pilmer. “Pine Haus turned into this shell for all this stuff.”

At one point, Haus inhabitants considering moving as one, looking at an old school near Pittsboro being offered for $250,000.

“It had amazing potential, this weird discarded white elephant,” says Elsheimer. “I thought, ‘I have all this school equipment, now I have a school.’”

There were 13 classrooms, no living quarters. Pilmer, for one, didn’t like the idea of living in such a primitive situation. The others also had reservations.

“I said, OK, this is something,” says Elsheimer. “This is telling me we don’t all have the same vision, we’re not struck by the same things.”

Shannon moved first, eventually getting married and settling in Cary. Pilmer was next, buying a small house in Raleigh. Jordan, in graduate school in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, decided to shorten his commute.

Once they were living apart, getting the group together was like “herding cats,” says Misenheimer.

“It was frustrating for a long time,” says Elsheimer. “This has all dissolved and all these people just can not get along. But I realized, you cannot force people to stay together. They do grow from where they were and they grow away from whatever they were doing previously. Very few people are the same as they were five years ago.”

The other guys don’t sound like they want to go back.

“It’s a [expletive] rental house,” says Jordan. “The ceilings are low, it’s dark, everything is beige and paneled. We’ve done it. Why do we need to do it again?”

But Elsheimer can’t pretend. Even if he has found movies to replace the space they filled, he misses the people. “I’m lonely as hell,” he says.

So he works with others when he can. Asked why the film program is operated by A/V Geeks - geeks in the plural - Elsheimer says it’s because he never intended to do it alone.

The film collection did start in the Wifflefist days, with six palettes of audio visual equipment purchased for $200. It included dictaphones, turntables, reel-to-reels and a film projector. Some of the equipment worked; the rest went into the basement pile.

By the time Wifflefist dissolved, there were close to 3,000 films. Elsheimer used to say he would stop, that he had enough. He can’t. Recently, when the state’s Department of Cultural Resources was putting its education films up for auction, a contact from Greensboro called and gave him the heads-up. He ended up taking the films in.

“They would be in a landfill by now if he hadn’t picked them up and made them public again,” says Tom Whiteside, assistant director of Duke’s Program in Film and Video. “He’s a curator.”

“He’s a media archeologist doing important and uncredited work,” says Prelinger. “In the next 10, 20, 30 years, a lot more people are going to recognize the importance of what he’s doing.”

For now, Elsheimer talks about leaving Pine Haus behind, of no more dirty rugs and unresponsive maintenance men and $760-a-month rent.

The plan, loosely based on Prelinger’s company, is to start an archival supply service and earn enough to store the collection properly. He wants to be free of a full-time job, to take his shows on the road, a la Negativland. He wants to write a book on educational films about venereal disease, a goal he’s had since his days working for the National AIDS Hotline. He wants a family and kids. First, he has to move.

Elsheimer has talked about packing up for years. The inevitably condescending response makes him want to drop the idea, to stay for good. Glad to hear you’re finally moving out of that college house, they say. Nice to see you’re finally growing up. “I want to say, ‘Look what I’ve done; look what I’ve amassed here.’”

But he knows he can’t live in Pine Haus forever. He has run out of space. “Oh, if I had to, I could cut back on the dummies,” Elsheimer says. “I don’t need more than 10 of them.” For a moment, the complication of moving is solved. Which is when, amidst the clutter of everything he needs, Elsheimer asks the obvious out loud: Just how am I going to find a place big enough for all of these movies?

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