This week marks a special occasion: the 100th Throwback Machine column! Sure doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, has it? For many of you, it probably hasn’t been.
Did you know that this column actually debuted Feb. 24, 2015? You couldn’t be faulted if you didn’t, because for the first year of its existence it was an online-only feature of our website. This means if you weren’t my parents or my friends then you probably didn’t know I was there at all, thus letting me fulfill that peculiar dream of being the “cool uncle” living in the website’s basement.
And to show you just what I was talking about in 2015, here, from that very first Throwback Machine, this new-and-improved photo of a Radio Shack ad taken from the Jan. 21, 1978, Journal-Gazette. I say “new and improved” because back in those days I had to take pictures off the microfilm viewer with my flip-phone, resulting in photos that looked like they had been developed in a tray of Tang.
The idea for The Throwback Machine came to me rather quickly one day while using the microfilm machine to track down some old photos of a Mattoon blizzard. Not an easy task at the time since I’d somehow managed to make it through higher education two times over without ever having had to use a microfilm viewer before. And while scrolling my way through an old paper from the ‘70s I saw this huge ad for a held-over screening of “Saturday Night Fever” at the climate-controlled Time Theater with John Travolta striking that classic “one finger up to the heavens” disco pose.
And without rambling on about “Saturday Night Fever” in this space (for the second time), I just stared at that grainy picture of Travolta in his leisure suit and imagined life in Mattoon in the late ‘70s; dudes firing up their Rancheros and taking the little lady to Tomasso’s before trying to catch “Saturday Night Fever” for the third time. And that’s pretty much the headspace from which this column was born. Makes sense, right?
A few loose scribbles in one of my many handy notebooks later and I had worked up a rough outline of what I wanted this column to be: a collection of the misbegotten, tattered pieces of Coles County culture tucked away in the margins of our old papers that weave us all together. To my surprise Penny jumped at the idea, even though I was pretentious enough to actually use the phrase “cultural ephemera” while trying to explain myself.
The things I remember being the most obsessed with when I was younger were the movies, music, TV shows, and books that it felt like only I knew about. Stuff like “Johnny B: On the Loose,” “Nightmare Alley” late Saturday nights on WTWO or “MonsterBeast Theater” Friday nights on WEIU; the comic book adventures of Rom: Spaceknight, the deeply demented ‘90s anti-sitcom “Get a Life,” or even the daily serialized Batman comic strip that ran in the JG-TC in the late ‘80s. They’re all things I cherished because, back in those pre-internet days when you couldn’t prove otherwise, I believed I was the only person who knew they existed.
I wonder if my article is like that for at least one person out there. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love as many readers as possible but it’d sure be neat if at least some of you had that same “What in the world is this?” feeling while you did so. Along those lines, as a tribute to those old late-night Creature Feature shows I mentioned above, that’s why I program my column to go live on our website at 1 a.m. every Saturday morning. So for those night owls out there like me, now you know when to tune in to get your fix before everyone else does. While you’re there notice, if you please, that if you scroll down past the article you’ll see that every Throwback Machine column I’ve written is right there for you to read. And trust me, you’d better enjoy at least a few of them because it took me an hour of fidgeting with our system to get them to show up like that. At the very least it will show you that even from the beginning I’ve always been really obsessed with Radio Shack.
Writing Throwback each week is always an experience. I’ve always got plenty of material to ramble on about, but I never know what’s going to connect with folks out there in readership-land. According to our online stats, the recent column of mine that had the most readership was “Memories from my MTV Notebook” about late Didjits bassist Doug Evans, which I sort of suspected as it’s one of those columns where my Mattoon past and my Mattoon present converged, and that’s followed up by “Back when Rated R really meant something” and “Mattoon’s getting a Starbucks. Great, but will they have biscuits?” taking up the number two and three slots respectively; three columns about totally different things that prove that people here really love reading about their old local bands, Die Hard, and Hardee’s.
When it comes to the print edition readership, I have only my imagination to go by. Dare I dream that somewhere in Coles County there’s a woeful soul at a Laundromat late Saturday night who, having forgotten their smart phone, finds my column in a JG-TC that someone left on one of the folding tables and is left to think, “Whoever this Clint guy is, he’s clearly got issues,” on their way to the fabric softener machine?
I think James Joyce once said you could use “Ulysses” as a map to learn everything you needed to know about Dublin. Without intending to do so, that’s sort of what The Throwback Machine has become for me. I’d like to think that if you took the time to lay all one hundred editions of it out from start to finish, you’d learn a lot about Mattoon, Charleston, the JG-TC, and, well, quite a bit about me. Not bad for old Radio Shack ads, right?