Clothes Make the Manspeaker
by Geoff Kelly - posted 10:20 am, October 28, 2008
AV photographer Rose Mattrey recalls her time in LA working with the legendary art and music collective Green Jello (or Green Jelly, if you’re not from Buffalo). The band plays the Town Ballroom tonight.
Take four guys from Kenmore West with nothing to do, add instruments, and stir. What you get is Green Jello. When Bill Manspeaker formed Green Jello in 1980, he probably did not think he would make a career of it, but 28 years later he’s on the road again, on his second major US tour of this year.
What started as a four-piece band has morphed over the years into a traveling circus, with somewhere around 15 members at any given time. More than 245 people have been members of Green Jello. Some more than once. The current lineup is the first incarnation of the band where Manspeaker is the only member from Buffalo.
Early on, Green Jello realized they were going to need a lot more than their music to entertain the masses. (When Joe Cannizzaro was asked to be the band’s bassist, it was because he had a bass. They had to color code the frets so he knew where to put his finger for each song.) What the band lacked in musical ability, they made up for in creativity. Props such as the wheel of torture and girls with whips were incorporated into the show to distract from the fact that the band, by their own admission, sucked. Eventually their costumes evolved into a full-blown production, featuring foam/latex characters such as the Cow God, Shitman. and punk rock incarnations of the Flintstones.
Manspeaker owes his inclination to be outrageous to many influences. His uncle Chuck is Big Wheelie, of Big Wheelie and the Hubcaps, an Elvis impersonator. He also credits Mark Freeland as the biggest influence of his life. He saw Freeland, a friend and fellow Kenmore West student, as wildly creative, never afraid to try anything. Manspeaker has said that there would have never been a Green Jello without Mark Freeland.
Later on, there was Kiss. In fact, my friendship with Bill Manspeaker began when we bonded over our mutual admiration of the band at Villa Maria College, where we were photography students. We both had skipped the first day of the semester to go see Kiss in Rochester. We met the next day and were friends ever after.
The late Bud Burke, the owner of the Continental, played a big role in the early days of Green Jello, because no other venue would book the band. They were banned from so many places early on because of the mess: Fans would sneak in bags of jello and whip it at the band. At a legendary show in a Masonic temple in Kenmore, the crowd broke into the kitchen and used all the ice cream in the freezer as ammunition. The band tried changing their name to American Jello Party to sneak back into clubs like McVans, but the owners soon caught on. So the Continental was home.
By the late 1980s, the Jellos started moving west. One by one they went to Los Angeles, encouraging their friends back home to follow. The band re-formed out there, with some new members too. After catching the attention of Zoo Records, they worked out a deal to be the first video-only band. It was at that point that I left New York to join the band. For the next year we worked on producing Green Jello’s first “video album,” Cereal Killer. Everyone had day jobs, so most of the work happened late at night and on weekends. We did everything ourselves. At any given time you could be cameraman, set-builder, or costume-maker. It was a nonstop creative environment…and kind of like fifth-grade art class at the same time.
When the video was finally released, we all sat back and wondered what would happen next. Much to everyone’s surprise, a radio station in Seattle started playing “The Three Little Pigs” and it was quickly becoming a local hit. More stations caught on and things began to snowball. MTV began playing the video in regular rotation, and it was also a hit on a now defunct video request TV station. Then one day, a call came from the heavy metal band, Testament. They wanted Green Jello to go on a tour of the US. So the rock-and-roll puppet show was packed up and hit the road, playing to thousands of people all over the country. Then came two tours of Europe, following the “The Three Little Pigs” debuting at number five on the UK charts and quickly shooting to number one.
Lawsuits and gold records followed, along with an MTV Music Award nomination for the “The Three Little Pigs” in the Best Breakthrough Video category. It was one of the first music videos to use claymation; bands like Tool and Primus soon followed Green Jello’s. Lawsuits forced the band to change their name from Jello to Jelly, and to remove all of the cereal characters, like Toucan Sam and the Trix Rabbit, from the video. Even Metallica sued the band for “borrowing” the riff from “Enter Sandman.”
Green Jelly didn’t care. Any publicity was good publicity.
Instead of blowing their money on cars and houses, the Green Jelly team invested in a full-scale production studio on Sunset Boulevard. It had a bigger soundstage than the previous studio, and a state-of-the-art editing suite and animation studio. We all set out to make the second full-length video, 333, which would not have the commercial success of the first project but was nominated for a 1995 Grammy Award.
By this time, trouble with the record company and some issues within the band were signaled that the party was almost over. But that was the genius of having become a production company. Soon outside clients such as Kiss, Tim Burton, Elite Models, and more were hiring the team to produce and edit their projects.
Eventually members of Green Jello started going in different directions, and the studio was closed.
Manspeaker created an artist community and a popular rave club in Hollywood. But in the past couple years, he started missing the thing he did best. He realized that putting on the big foam costumes and playing live shows was what really made him most happy. So he reformed the band, and in early 2008 they hit the road on a tour of the US. He was amazed at how many old fans came out to the shows, and how a whole new generation of Jello fans came out, too. Some kids are fans because their parents were, he discovered, and they all came to shows together.
Tonight, Green Jelly rolls into town for the second time this year for a show at the Town Ballroom. Two other costume bands from Hollywood are in tow, Rosemary’s Billygoat and the Radioactive Chickenheads. Also opening will be Buffalo’s the Rabies. An appropriate line-up for Halloween week. There will be a costume contest at the show, so everyone is encouraged to dress in their wildest Halloween attire.
Doors open at 7pm and the show starts at 8pm. Tickets are on sale at tickets.com or at the Town Ballroom box office. It will be a visual spectacular not to be missed!