A Key to Boofland Babylon

Part One: Boofland and Detroit Low-fi TV

Hudson’s Thanksgiving Day parade float, early 1960s, photo by Norman Zadoorian.

Boofland Babylon was a 2015 art installation produced by ArtX (and the Kresge Foundation) and created by Cary Loren and Michael Zadoorian. The inspiration for the display was a photograph taken by Michael’s father, Norman Zadoorian; a 1962 Thanksgiving Day parade float, sculpted as a giant television set. The photograph depicts Norman’s son Michael on top of the float, standing inside the TV among a group of Detroit children’s television hosts, including; Captain Jolly, Poop-deck Paul, Milky the Clown, Ricki the Clown and Canadians Larry Sands and Jerry Booth who created the Boofland show, an alt-universe of puppets, giants and Jingle-the-Jester who lived in a fantasy castle.

Jingles the clown with his Herkimer Dragon and Cecil B. Rabbitt on Feb. 11, 1960. (Windsor Star)

Boofland was a cheap variety show of sing-alongs, puppets, a cardboard castle set and starred Jingles, a  balladeer jester played by Jerry Booth. The show was a surrealistic set with puppets as local natives, all slightly deformed sad creatures. It was a parallel world to the Soupy Sales show, produced in the early sixties and utterly mesmerizing. A day was incomplete without watching it. Boofland was completely out there, a castle floating in the clouds, a whimsical escape with giants, dragons, and magical rabbits residing in a set of cardboard, paper mache and glitter. An off-kilter dream with each show ending with a loyalty song refrain.

“Oh Boofland, my Boofland/ Let us always sing/ And have some fun with Cecil B./ Herkimer and Jing/ No matter how big I get/ No matter where I go-go-go/ I’ll always watch my TV set/ For the Jingles show.”

Boofland was also a physical fantasy vacationland, founded by Booth in 1960, similar to a low-budget Disneyland situated on the edge of Windsor Ontario in Canada, just across the Detroit river. After six months it burned down in a fire.

In the ’50s and ’60s, Detroit youth were raised on a steady diet of Popeye, Tex Avery, Looney Tunes, Flash Gordon, Tarzan and Three Stooges episodes. Wixie in Wonderland (1948) on WXYZ-TV was one of the first shows nationwide to screen cartoons, and starred Marv Welch as Wixie-the-Pixie, who in the evening was a local X-rated night club entertainer. Wixie set the standard that would be followed in many variety cartoon shows aimed at children.   

In early ’60s Detroit, Soupy Sales was the undisputed king of daytime TV. His show was pure vaudeville, with borscht-belt humor and an odd assortment of puppets. Giant dog puppets: White-tooth and Black-Fang, and Pookie the sassy Lion were all played by Soupy’s sidekick Frank Natasi. The Soupy show had a subversive edge that made it conspiratorial viewing. If Soupy told you to have tomato soup or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch–that’s exactly what you’d eat.  

In the late fifties on Saturday nights at 11:30 PM, Shock Theater would begin with creepy Doctor X reciting, “Lock your doors, close your windows, and dim your lights. Prepare for Shock.” Then his face would dissolve into a screaming skull or hypnotic eyeball to begin the monster film feast. The skull and op effects scared the living hell out me. The opening was so frightful and psychotic I rarely could stay up for the movie. For a few years after Shock Theater, Detroit was home to Morgus the Magnificent, a mad scientist who was also an afternoon weatherman. I was so enamoured with Morgus I started my own mad-scientist club. Detroit was filled with character actors who played horor and cartoon hosts -the unsung heroes and presenters of the insatiable low budget fare we became addicted to.

The foundation of the Boofland installation is not only TV culture but also the landscape of Detroit; the scenic views captured by Norman Zadoorian’s square format Rollie. Northland: the first suburban shopping center captured on opening day in 1954, Bob-lo Island: the amusement rides and cotton candy parades. Strage atomic restaurants in day-glow colors. Santa’s sleigh up in the sky at the Hudson’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The Auto show. The Car Wash. The working class and the expanding suburban hinterlands. Mid-century photographs are the “hidden exhibition” from the basement, a sideshow behind the cut-outs. The real exhibit is unearthed, discovered slowly, dug up masterworks from the root cellar. Norman’s world was the backyard suburban dream-world we now call Tiki culture; a mixture of Martin Denny lounge music, Easter Island South Pacific pop-Primitiva and exotica.    

Zadoorian’s photography is presented as a pyramid, like steps along the Aztec avenue of the dead: Teotihuacan, the sun pyramid of youthful promise beneath the valley of industrial exploitation. Foundational and ancient memories hold up the spiritual, non-material and imaginative banners of the past and future. The Thanksgiving Day banner sits at the top of the pyramid, a childhood vision of kitsch-wonderland. The banner is part castle/Boofland set and part TV, a life-sized TV that one could walk through and into, merging with our heroes; Jingles, Milky the Clown, Riki the Clown, Captain Jolly, Poopdeck Paul, and Sagebrush Shorty, a TV vision more real and compelling than reality. 

The power of these derelict low memories are like Proust’s ephemeral ‘madeline’ –they are virtual dreamlands that have little evidence of their reality left behind. Only a few photographs and perhaps seconds of screen time exist. Nothing has been saved of these media hosts except for their memory, and they are cherished for that fragile intangible nature; memories transportable to a time of instant childhood happiness.   

The Boofland Babylon installation is a Detroit-centric memory piece, loosely based on the structure of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. Life sized figures of Detroit icons are cut out and serve as a kind of rogues-gallery tableau to pop-media idolatry. This basic concept is embellished and transformed by personal histories along with visual, musical and sound commercials from the ’50s-’70s, wired by a random computer program and small hidden speakers placed beside the cut-out figures. The design is loosely organized by concepts of sacred geometry and includes supplemental displays of our collections that draw on memories of growing up in Detroit.

Zadoorian and I expanded our thoughts on Boofland Babylon in a small booklet, containing several short essays and a self-interview along with a small gallery of images by Norman Zadoorian. The book was published during the exhibition in 2015, and can now be downloaded as a free PDF file here:  BOOFLAND BABYLON BOOK V5 

Part Two: Experience Regained; The Nature Banner or Mescaline Spirit

“The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?” –Gary Snyder, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems

During the summer of 1969, I hitchhiked with my friend Tim Burton to the most northern tip of Michigan: White Fish Point — a desolate rugged area on the shores of Lake Superior. We camped on the beach and awoke to fresh blueberries growing in the sand around us. We hiked through miles of a solid birch-tree forest, sparkling white above a bed of bright green ferns.

We finally met up with Tim’s older brother Eric and his girlfriend. Our guidebook over the summer was Gary Snyder’s Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, a manual for buddhist meditation and the solitude of pure thought. We camped our way across the United States and stayed for a while at Lake Solitude in the Teton mountains.

One night (it may’ve been the coldness or rain) Tim and I dragged our sleeping bags into Eric’s woody station-wagon. Sometime in the night we awoke to something shaking the car. Metallic scratches across the hood and door. A few seconds latter Eric and his girlfriend pounding on the door to let them in. A black bear had attacked their tent and was just outside the car.

More than any experience, that trip was my key to the world. We slept outdoors, seeing the sky clear as a pool with shooting stars. Every few seconds, a star would streak across space. We followed the old beat trail west. Cold Mountain was an idea that lived. Nature became a spiritual unity we shared that magical summer.

The Burton family owned an A-frame cottage on an isolated Michigan lake. Around that lake in high school I made films and Tim and I tripped on mescaline, a psychedelic chemical substance made in the basement by a local neighborhood chemist-guru. Tim spent his trip swinging Tarzan style across the treetops. A ballet of strength and pure nerve. I stared into the fire, playing ragas on guitar with Steve Milgrom. Later that evening, Tim played chess with his father. I sat watching him amazed. The mescal trip was a seminal step, an opening into music, light and unity –a foundational cosmic awareness.

The central image on the Boofland nature banner illustrates our “Cold Mountain” camping group gorging on a road-side feast of corn and plums. The white birch forest re-created in the background. Beneath that is the Black Bear, symbol of destruction and chaos, nature run a-muck. Water and earth surround the banner and cascade across dimensions of childhood; monster model building, Mighty Mouse cartoons, The Addams Family, Vernor’s ginger-ale and Jane Mansfield water-bottle sex mysteries. The run-on waterfall comes to rest at the Detroit river, daylight and earth, finally at home.

The sides of the Nature banner depict the food, nourishment and landmarks that sustained us during our youthful discoveries; The Clock, B’Wana Don’s pet shop, Big Boys, Faygo and Towne Club sodas, Hamtramck, Wig-Wam, Bray’s Burgers and other places of reverence…

A portrait of Michael Zadoorian is juxtaposed centrally beside the Monkeemobile, a Pontiac GTO modified for the 1966 Television show band the Monkees. A large part of Michael Zadoorian’s youth was also spent camping. His family trailer is depicted in the top right corner of the banner, cruising by roadside attractions that would inspire his later writings, especially his novel:The Leisure Seekers.

Spirit Banner top third

Part Three: Air & Fire, a combustion of mind.

“The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” –Douglas MacArthur

“Fire & Air”, a spirit banner is imaginary play, cartoons, radio airwaves, comics, airships, Night sky, space exploration, horror, objects and characters floating, an imaginary, non-physical heaven and hell. WWII firefights, Buddhist dream world with cupids and angels. Backgrounds made of gumball tokens, marbles, toy cars, other collections. Hypnotic sound waves, transitional and illusion, the physical made spirit. There was some effort to categorize the comics and cartoons as spirit centers, for example; Atom Ant, MIghty Mouse and other ‘flying’ creatures share the space with angels and buddhas — they occupy a higher realm. 

The Spirit banner also contains radio transmissions and deals with electricity. As Detroit Edison was Norman Zadoorian’s employer they are also represented by the “Sparky” logo in the mid-section.  

The pillar that distributes thought and imaginary games, the light that melts into industrial warfare, flows downward as General MacArthur steps onto the beach of Leyte, Philippines, a site where Norman Zadoorian was wounded and sent home. Some of the darkest and most disturbing  “noirish” photographs were taken on the streets of Detroit son after Norman’s discharge. Fire bombs litter the sky bursting with cartoon characters, figures of pure imagination, a show of dominance, violence and pomp. The post-war boomer ‘comic’ landscape emerging from bombs and the hell of war. An inheritance of absurdity and media overload provided for us with utmost love by the ‘greatest generation’. 

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