Steve Gruberg and “The Grube Tube”

"The Grube Tube" was the greatest television show in the history of mankind, and anyone with a telephone could be on it.

By all accounts, public access television is dead, or dying, or just living an anonymous existence in the lesser-trolled channels of cable. But despite its decrepit state, I became mildly obsessed with, and then fully addicted to, The Grube Tube—a live talk show on Time Warner Cable New York’s channel 35. The show followed a simple and well-known format: a number was displayed on the bottom of the screen, and callers were instructed to dial in. The host answered these calls from a landline phone on his desk. The caller, who was now being broadcast live on air, could say anything he or she pleased. It was the host’s decision to converse with said caller or hang up. That host was Steve Gruberg. The callers were a mix of eccentric Manhattanites, adolescents with an unusual fondness for the c-word, and longtime viewers who refused to let the program lose relevance. I fell somewhere in between.

I joined the party on a late Thursday night in 2008, while mindlessly fooling around with the “Last,” “Favorite,” and “Channel” buttons on my remote. The television settled on a heavyset, gray-haired, bearded Brooklynite with a thick accent. The word "schlub" came to mind. He seemed the type you’d find smoking a half-chewed cigar at a midtown OTB, reminiscing about past years’ Belmont Stakes. Instead, he sat at an old desk adorned with a relatively new phone, in front of a green screen that displayed any number of amateur production hues. It only took a matter of seconds to grasp the show’s concept, and only a couple of minutes before I tried my luck on the dial-in.

Despite all the talk of extinction, television is still a worshipped medium. Fifteen seconds of fame on TV can outweigh any internet notoriety. It’s why moms from Sheboygan drive 1,700 miles to yell, “Happy Birthday, Al!” on The Today Show corner. It’s why NY1 can’t do a man-on-the-street interview without someone screaming “Baba Booey” in the background. And it’s why getting on The Grube Tube was more exhilarating than a hit of crack cocaine. After my first call, it quickly became a Thursday night ritual. I’d dial up with friends and talk to Grube in any number of disguised voices. On some nights, I might be a call girl complaining about her pimp. Other evenings, I’d simply curse like a sailor after a dozen shots of Jameson. On occasion, depending on Grube’s mood and the accuracy of my accent, the call would lead to a few exchanges of witty dialogue. Those were the moments when I realized Grube wasn’t just some blockhead.

Steve Gruberg reminded me of the New Yorker I would have been, had I been born two generations earlier. He was a Sheepshead Bay Jew with a beatnik demeanor, part Lenny Bruce, part heartbroken Dodgers fan, part Queens College grad who in a later generation would have been Ivy League alum. Now he had a 35-year career on an increasingly irrelevant channel, on a medium that was on its way out the door. What began as a simple request for an interview led to more than 50 back-and-forth e-mails. The communication would start with me suggesting a time and place to meet, and further explaining how I envisioned the piece. They would end with Grube pushing it off for “later,” alluding to “other things on his plate.” This lasted six months. I finally gave up on the story when I concluded that Grube was simply an asshole. But he wasn’t. He was a man who’d been secretly battling cancer, and just three weeks after our last e-mail, he died at age 69.

Early Grube Tube, circa 1976

The story of Steve Gruberg coincides with the history of public access Television in New York. Before 1970, television was a predominately black-and-white medium. The signals for color channels weren’t able to reach homes in the maze of high-rise buildings, and so television sets were suspended in an outdated format. This made Manhattan a perfect candidate to be hardwired for cable. Two major companies emerged as the players to do so–TelePrompTer and Sterling. Within their franchise agreements, they were required to provide two channels for public use–channels C and D. As is described by Leah Churner in her Moving Image Source story, “The cable companies would provide studio space, training, equipment, and airtime for free, to anyone who wanted it, on a first-come, first-served basis. Other than a ban on advertising, patrons would enjoy full First Amendment protection, with no restrictions on content.” By 1971, public access was born.

Steve’s early aspirations were to become a stand-up comedian. Like all beatnik Brooklynites of his creed, he identified with acts like Robert Klein and Richard Belzer. On May 13, 1975, The Grube Tube first aired as an attempt to get closer to that dream. The original format was 30 minutes of sketches–sometimes funny, sometimes not. But as the friends who took part in the early antics left for more sustainable lifestyles, he needed a new companion. And so the dial-in format was introduced.

“People would call up and ask about anything. ‘Should I get married? ‘Should I quit my job?’,” recalled Steve’s widow, Adrienne, during our first meeting. “He was in his 30s, and he was the wise old man of cable.” But apart from his time on air, he was in a failed first marriage and frustrated with a slew of unfulfilling sales jobs. When a third channel was introduced to the mix of public programming in 1976–Channel J–things got more interesting for Steve, and for anyone else paying attention in New York. Under this new Leased Access format, Sterling and TelePompTer charged $50 for 60 minutes of airtime. They also gave hosts permission to run commercials within their original programming. One of the first and most significant productions was Al Goldstein’s Midnight Blue. Goldstein, the publisher of Screw magazine, was a loudmouthed, pinky ring-wearing, self-proclaimed “Fat Jew.” His show included profane rants and sexual escapades, and the advertisers were what you’d expect from a publisher with cover stories like “Tranny Training” and “Disco Gang-Bang.” The 30-second spots never extended past downtown escort services, sex hotlines, and the occasional plug for Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse. But the commercials brought in money, and after being poached by show producer Alex Bennett, Steve Gruberg was hired as Midnight Blue's ad salesman.

Midnight Blue wasn’t the only program with city-wide notoriety. Coinciding with the advent of Channel J was Jim Chladek’s ETC/Metro Access Studios. It was a shoddy production house in the Flatiron District that became a hotbed for avant-garde programming in the public access world. Shows like The Live Show, The Vole Show, Tomorrow’s TV Tonight, Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, and The Scott and Gary Show hit a nerve in the underground psyche. Coca Crystal’s Yippie program, If I Can’t Dance, You Can Keep Your Revolution, aired in a haze of sherm, with guests like Blondie, Abbie Hoffman, and Tiny Tim. Richard Concepcion dressed up in a rabbit suit on the children’s show Rapid T. Rabbit, inspired by Jim Henson’s Muppets. In 1977, fresh off her porn debut in Debbie Does Dallas, Robin Byrd guest-hosted Hot Leggs. It ultimately became The Robin Byrd Show, running for over 30 years, with every Manhattan teen having watched with a tube sock and jar of petroleum jelly. This was the scene, and Steve Gruberg was part of it.

Jackie Mason on The Grube Tube

The show became Steve’s life. Not that it was the only thing, but it touched nearly every facet of who he was. An incredibly private person, the show offered a way for Steve to interact with the world, while still possessing the control he desired—the ability to hang up. “The show was his vehicle,” Adrienne said. “He would look for apartments on the show. He would meet women through the show.” And in 1979, when Adrienne tuned in to The Grube Tube, Steve, who was fresh off a first divorce, was attempting the latter. Adrienne decided to call, and so began their 30-plus year relationship. But The Grube Tube wasn’t only how Steve met Adrienne. Soupy Sales, Al Goldstein, Al Lewis, Robert Klein, and Jackie Mason—men he had admired even before the show took form—appeared in his life via the program, too.

Perhaps Steve’s greatest moment behind the desk was when entertainment icon Soupy Sales came on set. For eight months, Steve had been asking his viewers where Soupy was, hoping that some connected Manhattan caller might have his hero’s contact. The pleas for Soupy paid off, and the man who served as the inspiration for entertainers like Howard Stern, Pee Wee Herman, and Andy Kaufman came to Channel J. Watching the short clip, listening to Steve greet his guest with a jubilant “Souuuuupppppppyyyyy!” is like watching a ten-year-old meet Mickey Mouse. The pair's relationship lasted until Soupy’s death in 2009.

Steve Gruber and Al Goldstein on Richard Auriello, and the possible cancellation of Channel J.

An equally funny, but sadly prophetic clip came towards the end of Channel J, in September of 1990. The president of Time Warner's New York City Cable Group, Richard Auriello, was attempting to replace Channel J with C-Span. Steve was joined by Al Goldstein to take their First Amendment fight public. A week prior, in a New York Times article, Auriello explained that no city official lobbied for the continuation of channel J. “I guess that implies they believe the experiment failed,” he said. Steve and Al proved the contrary when they began publicly berating Auriello on The Grube Tube, a show being funded by the very cable company in question. “Auriello! Lick this baby!” Screamed Goldstein into the camera, as he fingered his belly button with his right index, and smoked a Monte Cristo in his left. After a puff of his cigar, he continued, “You are a piece of shit, like the Eichmann organization. You are a cog in the bureaucracy of Nazism. You are a turd!” His rage suddenly subsided, and he turned to Steve calmly, “I’m looking at the monitor here, and we look like an ad for Slimfast!”

Steve began to laugh. He stood up and removed his shirt. Al followed suit. The two men pressed their bare stomachs together. Steve looked in the camera, “Now that’s obscenity! That’s indecent, obscene, and it shouldn’t be made available to anyone under the age of 47!” Then he answered the next caller, who sounded like an 80-year-old Staten Islander claiming to have cut himself on a Screw Magazine. Before he could say where, Steve hung up and continued berating Auriellio. Even with their very existence in jeopardy, the unpredictability and immaturity of The Grube Tube continued. But in the end, Channel J did in fact disappear from cable, and was replaced by C-Span.

Many of Channel J’s programs moved on to the remaining public access stations, The Grube Tube included. However, those who had achieved notoriety during the 70s and 80s had already lost their cultural relevance. They were born out of a pre-AIDS New York culture, and were stifled by the shifting ethos. In addition to a cultural irrelevance, the technical side of the medium shifted as well. There were more channels, covering more special interests, and less of a place for public access. But The Grube Tube continued. He moved from Chladek’s dilapidated digs to his own studio down the street, where he would tape every Thursday until his death.

The Grube Tube circa 2010

When I tuned in towards the end of Grube’s tenure, the calls were less insightful discussions than sophomoric antics. And though the antics were always part of The Grube Tube, their proportion eclipsed the idea of television as a two-way medium. When a new viewer stumbled upon a live program that didn’t screen or censor their calls, an unleashing of vulgarities seemed in order. Sorry to say I fell into that category many times, not knowing enough to act differently. In a clip from one of the later episodes, someone asked Steve, “You take so much abuse. I’m wondering why you keep doing this.” His answer could really be boiled down to three words: “I enjoy it.” I did too. I just wish I could get one more call in.