In today's world, viewers can now access free programming on a variety of apps, from the traditional television-like streaming of Pluto to the endless array of content available to watch anytime on Tubi. On a local level, Channel Pittsburgh offers a similar service, airing classic films and television shows available in the public domain, as well as original content.
All of it — the colorized versions of black-and-white movies and TV episodes, the music videos by area bands, the classic game shows, et cetera — comes courtesy of James A. Richards, who created and runs Channel Pittsburgh out of his South Side apartment.
Richards, who studied communications at the University of Wisconsin, has done a variety of arts and entertainment coverage, and has worked with organizations like the LGBTQ film nonprofit ReelQ, started Channel Pittsburgh about three years ago in the thick of COVID quarantine.
“It was in the middle of the pandemic,” he tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “You know, we were all locked down. And I decided, you know, we’re home 24/7 now, I may as well go ahead and launch this thing. I've got lots of programming prepped. I've had some equipment donated. So I went ahead and did that.”
Those unfamiliar with Channel Pittsburgh — now available online and on Roku-enabled devices — should begin with the entity’s Pride Night programming. Taking place on Tue., June 20, the evening begins at 8 p.m. with the cheekily titled Dudes, described by Richards as a “collection of vintage short films about being a young man.” It includes an obscure film about two high school students discussing rumors of a friend’s sexuality, and features a young Don Stark, known to sitcom fans as the obnoxious, but well-meaning neighbor on That ‘70s Show.
Much of the Channel Pittsburgh programming seeks to preserve and introduce to new audiences what has otherwise become largely lost to time, and Pride Night is no exception.
Richards made a point to depict the LGBTQ experience through various eras of media, dating back to the silent era with Different from the Others, a 1919 film made in Weimar Republic Germany. The queer melodrama follows what Richards calls a “tragic love affair between a concert violinist and his protégé.” To enhance the film, Richards digitally colorized it, and added title cards and other missing elements, as well as new music and sound effects.
At the time of its release, same-sex relations in Germany were a criminal offense but, until the Nazis took over, any enforcement of the rule remained “largely unenforced.” Though the film was banned and prints of it were later destroyed, it managed to survive.
Richards says that he added information explaining the historical context behind Different from the Others, considered by many experts as one of the first sympathetic portrayals of queer individuals.
“It's one of the first gay movies,” says Richards.
Also included in Pride Night is World of Light, a rarely-seen documentary short about lesbian writer May Sarton, and General Audiences, a Channel Pittsburgh-exclusive series “highlighting cinema history through movie trailers.” Though General Audiences normally airs on weekday afternoons, the special Pride Night installment showcases examples of the New Queer Cinema, what Richards calls a “groundbreaking era in filmmaking” that took place in the late-1980s and early-1990s.
As with Different from the Others, Richards went the extra mile with World of Light, which he says captures Sarton, in her own words, during a shoot at her New Hampshire home.
“I was able to get additional information about her life and add it as sort-of subtitles that appear periodically throughout the documentary to get more context to what she's talking about,” says Richards.
Richards agrees that younger generations may assume that LGBTQ representation in media has only happened in more recent decades. He points to the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever as a counterexample, citing how its two hit men characters, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, are actually a gay couple.
“They don't use the actual word, but it's very clear from the beginning,” says Richards. “They’re a little stereotypical, but also amusing and accessible. So yeah, I mean, LGBTQ — however you want to phrase it — people have always been there. They just haven’t always been upfront.”
Beyond Pride Night, Richards says Channel Pittsburgh boasts a massive array of programming slots featuring everything from Atomic Age sci-fi films to old radio plays. As time goes on, he plans on expanding the concept into a place where media artists and students work in a “semi-professional environment.” That would require some help and additional resources, however.
“I do need some volunteers who work with me, people who will have a lot of fun creating things, especially if they have the skills to do it,” he says. “I have been gathering donated equipment, so I have nearly enough for a production studio.”
For now, during Pride Month, he hopes Channel Pittsburgh can at least shed light on little-known queer texts from throughout the 20th century.
“I think it's just very enlightening, very interesting,” he says. “Our community’s always been there. We've always played a role. And that's something to actually feel good about. We are contributors.”
Channel Pittsburgh. channelpittsburgh.org