Decades before “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “The ‘L’ Word” or “Pose” hit screens across America, there was “Just for the Record,” a New Orleans public affairs show on Cox Channel 49 with programming and features just for the LGBTQ community.
Behind it all was creator and producer Valda Lewis, a recent transplant to the United States, the daughter of a U.K. public relations professional. Although Lewis had never worked in broadcasting or behind the camera, she helped steer “Just for the Record” to an incredible six-year run, from 1987 to 1993.
“The show was an answer to the Great Plague [the AIDS crisis]. At the time, I was kind of driven. This was what I could do, given the crisis that was around us,” Lewis says from her Cleveland home.
“The show is a document of the time. We did spots on cooking, healthy eating, holistic care and channeling good energy. We were spotlighting long-time survivors, the latest medical breakthroughs and any info that was out there that we could get to keep people informed through the TV. There was no internet.”
Given Lewis’ contributions to chronicling LGBTQ life over the past 32 years, the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana honored her in September at its Fifth Annual Oracle Gala. Amistad Research Center shared in the honors as repository of the “Just for the Record” collection. The event was held at New Orleans Jazz Market on Sept. 14.
“There were a couple of things we took into consideration in deciding to honor Valda this year. The overwhelming thing is the breadth of her collection,” Frank Perez, president of the LGBT+ Archives Project, says. “Her collection is by far the largest video collection we’ve ever facilitated the collection and processing of. It’s not just its breadth, but also its importance and the scope of its rarity.”
Last year, the LGBT+ Archives Project funded a grant that Amistad used to digitize the shows. Researchers can now easily comb through 124 hours of the 30- to 60-minute shows permanently housed at Amistad Research Center. The Center hopes to make the content available online in the future.
Early in-studio segments of “Just for the Record” feature a bare bones set. Host Loretta Mims interviewed activists, business owners, professionals, culture bearers and other newsmakers in the local and national LGBT community. Events like New Orleans Gay Pride Fest and an ACT-UP rally, which first ran on Channel 49, are digitally preserved for posterity.
“For 26 years Amistad has had the honor of being the steward of the video collection “Just for the Record,” a wonderful record of the LGBTQ community and its activism in New Orleans,” Amistad’s Executive Director Dr. Kara Tucina Olidge says. “As a cable access show, it was truly groundbreaking because it aired from 1987 to 1993. As you know, there were few, if any, programs representing the LGBTQ community during this time.”
The show’s subtitle, “A Series for Gay People,” is plucky, upfront and revelatory. One week, “Just for the Record” made the cover of the now-defunct newspaper supplement “TV Focus.”
“I thought they’d been destroyed in Katrina. I’m kind of pleased that they still exist,” Lewis, 63, says. “When I looked, I found I still had the originals and more. I continued to tape. I have 700 hours of footage here. Everything from national conferences to church services. I’d like to see what we could do with the rest. I was the only one out there filming this stuff.”
“It’s hard to be responsible for the physical well-being of this archive,” Lewis says. “I have 30 office-size boxes of tapes. A real value to me is the historical value. This is important stuff.”
Within those well-preserved boxes from Lewis’ basement are tapes from conferences of “Celebration,” the Louisiana LGBT group; the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute; the National Commission on AIDS; several Bourbon Street Awards contests; carnival balls; and more.
“In those days, you could show the backs of heads. But no one wanted to be on that 1995 tape,” Lewis says. These days, she works in desktop publishing, creating websites and promotional videos. Lewis is putting her 32 years of footage to good use in a documentary. She’s been in talks for a couple of years to find financing.
To properly celebrate her honor as someone who has made a substantial contribution to the preservation of local LGBT+ history, the three Lewis sisters flew in from London to attend the Oracle Gala. Lewis produced a video just for the gala crowd. It included a three-minute clip of “The Plague” and music montages from Gay Pride Parade 1989.
“People were just thrilled to see the footage, whether they were old enough to be there [then] or not. We highlighted the presenters. One is now a judge,” Lewis says.
“The tapes are just as good today as when we shot them. It’s been a long time, and this is a good time for the archive people to get involved. Many people in the clips that I shot are gone. AIDS was killing people every day.”
Perez says the Archives Project’s board of directors selects one annual honoree based on the donations it facilitated during the prior year. Lewis’ desire to place her “Just for the Record” collection somewhere in New Orleans made her selection a “no-brainer.”
At 25-years-old-plus, Lewis’ tapes have far surpassed their prescribed 15-year life span. Even as second-hand tapes. This is her hope for the copies of “Just for the Record” awaiting viewing at Amistad Research Center.
“We couldn’t fully understand what was going on at the time [AIDS was ravaging the community.] Our show made a difference,” Lewis says, remembering the certificate former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy presented her. “People said, ‘Thanks so much for doing this.’ This is what I could do.”
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