Women in the Videofreex: A Conversation with Nancy Cain, Mary Curtis Ratcliff Carol Vontobel and Ann Woodward
How did you come to be a member of the Videofreex?
NANCY CAIN: In the summer of 1969, I got a job as a production assistant to Don West who was producing a presentation for a pilot for the CBS television network, which wanted to replace the newly cancelled Smothers Brothers program. Although at first it was going to be a new variety show, it soon became clear that Don was interested in trying his hand at film documentary. “Even experimental,” he said.
The first few weeks at my new job were spent meeting with a steady stream of peculiar and amazing people who we hoped might be fun to see on television or who wanted to be on television, or had something to say about what they thought should be on television. Word had gotten around that we were looking for contemporary themes for documentaries, so now we were being wooed by the counterculture, lefty college politicos, drop-out rock and rollers, maverick rabbis, and any and every group with an agenda for the revolution.
It wasn’t until early September that we were introduced to the Videofreex who had just returned from the Woodstock Festival. David Cort, [Mary] Curtis Ratcliff and Parry Teasdale sat us down in front of a nine-inch monitor and showed us their tapes, “First Aid #1” and “First Aid #2”. They were information tapes that David had videotaped to play back in the field at the festival to help people with medical emergencies. Then they played “Latrine,” affectionately known as “The Shit House Tapes,” showing endless lines of stoned hippies waiting for the port-o-potties. Riveting. It was like being there without actually having to be there. I had never seen video before. I loved it. Don hired the Videofreeex right away and we started searching for stories and events to videotape. There was major excitement. We had a new way of seeing. Whatever was happening during the fall of 1969 we wanted to videotape it. We wanted to show it. I began being assigned to accompany the Freex on their production shoots, the first being the trial of the Chicago 8. It was during this time that I learned that David and the Videofreex were not exactly totally working for CBS. I was working for Don at CBS, but the Videofreex had their own political agenda. When people asked, “what’s this for?” David would say it was an underground media thing. I realized television could be something that was not even remotely like CBS. This was beyond television as I knew it. And it occurred to me that I might not be there just because I was working for CBS, either. This was new, this was conceptual. It wasn’t TV, it was VT. It was dyslexic. We were on the flip side and I liked it there.
On December 17, 1969, Don West and the Videofreex made their presentation of Subject to Change to the CBS executives. It was a disaster. Don was in a rage as he left the building. It was midnight. We sat in the smoldering wreckage. One thing was clear. We were fired. I never saw or spoke to Don West again after that night. Now, we were all Videofreex.
ANN WOODWARD: I don’t have a very “liberated” answer. I met the Videofreex at the VISION AND TELEVISION exhibition at the Rose Art Museum (Feb 1970) at Brandeis University where I was a student. I worked at the Rose as a curatorial assistant. Russell Connor was Asst. Director of the Museum and had organized the show. (He remains a close friend.) I liked the Freex and tried to find places for them to stay with other students or in my apt. I think I put up Skip and Chuck on different days. Chuck and I connected and we stayed in touch. I visited him as much as I could, staying with him in the loft the Videofreex had in SoHo. He had given up his paying job at CTL and his penthouse apt and was living in his shop. It was a little funky, but we fell in love, and when I graduated and finished my job at the Rose (it was too boring a job and too isolated down in the basement office to stay on as Curator) I left in the fall of ‘70 to live with Chuck in NYC.
CAROL VONTOBEL: I was living with Nancy during the summer of 1969 and Don West hired me to work on the CBS project. We went in December to upstate NY to edit the tapes and Parry and I became a couple there. I was not working on the tapes at that time, but managing the household. I was not too interested in the shooting or editing of the tapes but I was very interested the political mission of the Videofreex. When we were all fired from CBS I just became a Videofreek and started learning how to shoot and edit tapes and a little bit about how to maintain and fix the equipment. I always enjoyed interviewing people on air (Lanesville TV) or on tape.
MARY CURTIS RATCLIFF: I was visiting my grandfather in Michigan and saw Woodstock on the news and knew David Cort, my “old man,” was there. When I got back to New York, he told me all about the festival and said that he had met another guy with a portable video camera named Parry Teasdale. Furthermore, Parry was going to come down and live with us in my loft on Rivington Street in the next two weeks!
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