Notes on 'Camp MTV'

by Julie Klausner

Oh to be Young

“God gives each of us only what we can handle” was advice a lesbian bike messenger and Brussels Griffon owner gave me when I expressed guilt about our relative suffering. She had just shared with me a harrowing story about growing up poor in the South with a father who sexually abused her, following my own disclosure that I had a terrible time at sleep-away camp when I was ten.

I know it’s not much when you set it against some kind of real life banjo-scored horror show that could’ve been written by Dorothy Allison, but I swear to God, my first summer away from home was packed with more crying than I remember doing in my life until that point — a short period, I know, but one which included the experiences of both being born and watching Dumbo.

Jews like myself are supposed to love camp. To this day, I know Rothmans and Strausses in their mid-40’s who still keep in touch with their camp friends. My mom loved her summers away from Flatbush, Brooklyn. She got to play the lead in her camp play after singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at a campfire, and went on to become a counselor at the same spot, where she led a hike with her campers to a flat, grassy expanse to set up their tent, only to awaken hours later to a chorus of approaching cowbells and moos. At the time, a summer upstate was a Jewish rite of passage, whether it was at Dirty Dancing-era Grossinger’s or at Camp Hillel, where you’d trade the relentless attention of your overbearing relatives for the sloppy, tongue-based advances of an adolescent with braces. It was a way for Jewish Americans to reap the benefits of the outdoors, without the moneyed, WASPish advantage of having New England summer homes.

Meanwhile, I hated the trappings of camp: lakes, bugs, meeting at the flagpole in the morning in hooded sweatshirts — all of it. The great outdoors was hugely distasteful to me, as was the philosophy of bunk pride, or teamwork, or whatever it’s called when groups of young people thrive on camaraderie and go without television.

I was a nerdy child, way too close to my parents and not fluent in the language of social skills. My friendships, until then, had been very soul mate-fueled; all “you and me against the world” stuff, running up against the occasional love triangle whenever a new Israeli girl moved to town and my BFF Aliza would decide to bump up our twosome into a clique. I couldn’t handle the politics of the schoolyard — not even Solomon Schechter’s. My idea of heaven was a day at the zoo with my dad, or a trip to the Clinique counter at Neiman with my mom, where I’d get to keep the freebie make-up bag and Dramatically Different mini-moisturizer she’d get with her purchase. See? I’m still a stereotype.

I was ten when my parents dropped me off in late June at a bus stop in White Plains, and as soon as my Walkman-scored “looking out the window” activity wound down, I arrived at Camp Scatico unqualified to do anything but fail at my mission to make friends and be a big girl. As soon I got off the bus, it was all pain.

I thrashed with angst on a cot my first night alone, and cried from homesickness every day, taking breaks to write pleading, desperate letters to my parents, begging them to pick me up. They didn’t do it, and to this day, I think they wonder if they should have. “We thought it was the right thing to do,” my mom will say in a hushed version of her regular voice, when I ask why she left me at a place I colorfully referred to as “Camp Hellhole” when writing my daily postcards home. She was probably right, but the folly of explaining tough love — with a hefty price tag attached — to a chubby, tear-streaked cream puff intent on fleeing a pine-studded section of the Upper Hudson Valley is up there with other idiocy, like trying to bathe a cat when you’re wearing short sleeves.

But for a short time that summer, everything terrible receded into white noise.

On an early evening in mid-July, I assembled in the main cabin with the whole camp. Upper Hill and Lower Hill campers sat cross-legged beside their counselors as the Camp Director, Nancy, took the stage to announce she had a big-deal surprise. We had no idea what was going on. The rumor was that Tribes was starting early. Tribes was like Color War, only campers were divided into four groups instead of two, the names of which — Flying Eagle, Racing Wind, Thunderbolt and Blazing Arrow — were decidedly more queer than “Grey Team” and “Green Team.” I still hate imitation Native American schmaltz unless it comes in the form of a Cher song or something you can buy in the “Gift Ideas” section of Shirley MacLaine’s website.

But what Nancy had to share was way more extraordinary than the kick-off to the latest relay race-strewn time-killer. “MTV is coming to Camp Scatico!” She practically shrieked into the microphone. There was more screaming, and even more, and I think some counselors did a “skit” to drive the point home. As a side note, my aversion to the term “skit” to describe something from “SNL” may be as much due to my sketch comedy snobbery as it is a product of my experience at camp, where there are as many skits as mosquitoes. If somebody wasn’t rowing a canoe or eating a fish stick, they were grabbing a wig and “doing a voice.”

The reason our camp was chosen for the gig, it turns out, has to do with Doug Herzog, the then-VP of Programming for MTV, who was an alum of Scatico. Apparently Herzog remembered his camp days fondly, and it was his idea to shoot on-site interstitial segments for what was then the MTV of “Remote Control,” the phrase “Wubba-wubba-wubba” and Richard Marx’s “Satisfied” video in heavy rotation. The 6-hour special would feature MTV-lebrities and stars of the soon-to-be-released movie UHF in summer camp-themed segments that would run between videos under the umbrella moniker of “Camp MTV.” It would air on a Sunday in late July of 1989, and was to be shot on Scatico grounds two days after Nancy’s announcement.

The excitement of the counselors and the other campers — the same kids I couldn’t connect with over jacks — was infectious. The VJ’s are coming! We’re going to be on TV! MTV is still relevant! That kind of thing. But by the next day, the elation had worn off and I remembered how much I didn’t want to be there. When I complained to Nancy, a perimenopausal matron who wore a whistle like a necklace, she told me, somewhat conspiratorially, that after her announcement at lunch, I would feel much better. My heaving wheezes turned into long pulls of nostril-filtered air: she knew something I didn’t.

After we’d finished our chicken patties and stacked our plastic tumblers atop one another, Nancy got on the mess hall microphone and said she had another surprise. Some lucky campers would get to be on-camera as extras when MTV came to town. My heart leaped out of my white Gap pocket-T, because this was probably what Nancy was talking about when she told me I’d miss my parents less after lunch. I thought at the time she’d been hinting at my being allowed to leave early. It turned out instead that I was one of fifteen campers whose names had been drawn from a hat. I was going to be on “Camp MTV.” That night, I didn’t cry. My bunk-mates were jealous, but still excited for me; we all couldn’t wait, and suddenly, there was a “we.” The transformative and redemptive powers of television!

The next day, they arrived. The MTV talent got The Beatles Welcome from Scatico campers, even though we had no idea who some of them were. Still — -OMG, it was Ken Ober! Kevin Seal! Mario Joyner! Julie Brown-the black one, not the redhead! Colin Quinn! Dr. Dre and Ed Lover! Adam Curry! The “Club MTV” dancers, which were a bunch of hot 20 year-olds who wore their gray “Camp MTV” t-shirts over-sized and cut off at the midriff (!!!) And also, because of the “UHF” tie-in, Michael Richards! Victoria Jackson! “Weird” Al! And the motherfucking Beastie Boys.

I remember chasing after the late Ken Ober like a manic harpie, along with another freckled husky girl who bunked a cabin over. Ober rode in the backseat of a silver sedan, which pulled up in front of the infirmary at dusk. When he got out to greet his two fans, he smirked and asked us what the kitchen was serving for dinner. I saw Colin Quinn the next morning sitting on a bench by the lake, flanked by giggling female counselors and cracking wise beneath not-retro-yet Ray Bans. I didn’t know why he was funny or cool at the time, but I remember taking both things as a given.

“Weird” Al was the crown jewel of “Camp MTV” sightings, and, likely still, the most exciting famous person of all time to a geeky 10-year old like me. When I finally met him, he was hugely professional — not as friendly as the VJ’s, but also, completely willing to sign an autograph for me and pose for Polaroids by the lake. His curls were stunning in the upstate summer sun.

And then, it came time for my scene. Well, if you want to be technical about it, it was Kevin Seal’s scene. Do you remember Kevin Seal? Of “Kevin Seal: Sporting Fool” and sundry other late 80’s-era MTV hosting bits written around his broad chops from the “Steve Martin acting like an idiot” school of comedy? He wore pleated chino shorts and had those cleft chin/black Irish goofball kind of good looks. In the scene we filmed together (ahem), Seal stood on the same stage as Nancy when she first announced that MTV was coming to camp, and I sat cross-legged at his feet, next to a thin girl from my bunk named Lisa and a spate of other camper extras. The premise of the scene was that Seal was a theater counselor who took his job too seriously, and directed us like we were grown-ups doing Mamet.

I remember the director telling me and Thin Lisa to “do some business with our hands” at the top of the scene before Kevin began his monologue, and she initiated that game where one person puts her hands over the others’ palms, and pulls them away before her partner can slap them. Lisa only teased me about running to Nancy whenever I was homesick before that day, but she took her job as a background actress very seriously; when I put my hands in my lap for one of the takes, she made a point of telling me, curtly, to do what the director said. The only other thing I remember from that day was how funny Kevin Seal was. I thought he was the center of the universe, and I was so happy to be in his background.

The next day, everyone was gone. Just as quickly as the cast and crew broke out into our piney space, it was all over. The famous people disappeared, the crew packed up, and Camp MTV was Camp Scatico again. All was as still as the lake we swam laps in until Visitor’s Day, when I ducked into the air-conditioned bliss of my father’s Camry for a short moment, praying the thing would start moving and I would be home soon, away from camp — which was now “Weird” Al-free. There would only be Color War after this as the next special thing. Even the play I got to be in was over, and my parents didn’t even get to see me in it. When they left that day, I remember crying so hard, it was like I was coughing salt water onto my dark green Scatico-issued shorts. I loved my parents, and my first experience away from them felt like they weren’t just gone, they were dead.

I got a letter from my mom a few weeks later, after “Camp MTV” aired. She told me in her handwriting how exciting it was to see me on television, and how much I would love it when I got back and watched the VHS tape my brother Phil made with our Mitsubishi TV/ VCR combo in the living room — the one that sat pridefully atop our beige carpeted console, like the Lion King on a cliff. My mom said she didn’t like the skit featuring Randee of the Redwoods in a hockey mask with an axe, and mentioned that Phil wanted to know if I got to meet the Beastie Boys (I didn’t). She expressed sympathy for my having a hard time at Scatico, reassuring me that I’d be home before I knew it, and, before signing off next to my dad and his smiley face doodle, cooed over my TV debut once more — as though I were the one destined for greatness, and not just the chubbo brushing with it.

In reality, the time I was on screen in relation to the bigness of the event’s meaning to me is laughable. I was a blip, an extra. Nobody who wasn’t looking for one particular red-headed camper would ever notice I had been in the mix of all the other kids whose names were picked out of a hat that day. But there’s nothing like the warped perspective of an emotional little girl to recast a scene in her head, with her in the leading role.

The events at Scatico from late July to the end of August were fewer and more far-between — an engrossing arts & crafts project here, a first kiss there, a surprise allergic reaction to pesto. (Nuts in noodles?!? I never thought to ask.) But it took the manpower of a cultural institution with all its trimmings — I’m looking at you, Chris Connelly! — to shake me out of the grief-stained separation anxiety that woke me up every morning that summer, sure as reveille. And while it didn’t make me feel much better about myself admitting it to my friend a few years ago — the one who regaled me with lurid descriptions of her shitty childhood before giving me permission to share my own meager memories — it took the illusion of being famous to shock me out of missing my parents — like David Bowie said — just for one day.

Julie Klausner would like to give special thanks to her brother, Phil Klausner.