Blast from the past

Scott Gordon

Blast from the past

Former Medill professor’s magazine keeps decades-old pop culture alive

By Scott Gordon

There was once a time when people would pay to see the film “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” A time when children admired TV heroes like “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.” For Michael Stein, these pop culture tidbits aren’t just relics — they’re cover stories.

In a small loft at 1320 Oakton St., Stein edits and publishes “Filmfax,” a quarterly magazine that celebrates and explores B-movies, music, animation, rock ‘n’ roll, science fiction, under-appreciated character actors and the early days of TV.

Stein, 59, and his staff of two are keeping readers informed about the formative years of American pop culture.

“It’s not real healthy to live in the past, but it sure is a lot of fun to visit,” says Stein, a self-taught publisher and onetime professor at the Medill School of Journalism.

Freelance journalists write most of the magazine’s stories — usually 3- to 6-page pieces that delve into the lives and talents of people who were often obscure even at the height of their careers. For Stein, the magazine exists to “get their story on what it was like creating what they considered to be work and what is now considered to be pop culture.”

Filmfax’s spring 2004 issue — released in bookstores and newsstands worldwide this week — features articles about 1950s actress Anne Kimbell, character actor Leo Gorcey and Paul Blaisdell, an illustrator who built monsters for low-budget ’50s horror films.

Filmfax also sells videos, DVDs and assorted movie memorabilia through mail-orders and its Web site, Stein’s catalog of B-movies and classic TV shows includes titles like “Wrasslin’ She-Babes 1-17” and “Glen or Glenda?”

Stein grew up loving the science fiction shows and horror films of the 1950s and the youthful music of the 1960s.

A few years after graduating from Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., Stein collaborated with two friends to start Fantastic Films magazine, which in 1986 turned into Filmfax. In 1994 Stein also created Outre magazine to cover art, music and other pop culture that wouldn’t fit into Filmfax.

In the 1960s Stein joined the Air Force and enrolled at Wabash College, working his way through college in a factory and hoping to get a degree in science and math and eventually work for NASA. But when he lost two fingers in a factory accident, he was discharged from the Air Force and decided to switch to journalism. He worked as a freelance artist and writer before starting Fantastic Films.

Stein was also a member of Wabash College’s first integrated fraternity. It began by reactivating a fraternity chapter whose members had all been killed fighting in World War II. The fraternity was the only one on campus to allow “Jews, blacks or geeks,” he says. “And I was a geek.”

But being a self-professed geek didn’t prevent Stein from witnessing a seminal moment of the 1960s. In August 1969, Stein and a friend drove to upstate New York to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. In a 2002 issue of Outre, Stein wrote about his Woodstock memories.

Stein moved from Chicago to Evanston in the mid-’70s with his wife, whose daughter was attending Evanston Township High School at the time. Stein and his wife played blues and folk music together in clubs in Evanston and Chicago. They still occasionally hold music nights at the Filmfax office.

“A lot of our creative life revolved around a creative community, which Evanston is,” Stein says.

For a short time in the late 1980s, he worked with another of his Evanston connections, Medill professor Abe Peck.

“I basically learned publishing through experience,” Stein says. His experience qualified him to teach graduate students at Medill. For five years, he taught students how to create and publish their own magazines — all of this while running Filmfax.

“I loved it,” he says. But when his own magazine began to expand, Stein had to leave Medill to put more time into publishing.

Since then, Stein has been dedicated full-time to preserving what he thinks is a “fascinating” era of film and entertainment.

“One of the wonderful things about it is, this subject matter is not dated,” he says. “It’s already old.”