PITTSBURGH (AP) — Paul Petroskey – also known as “Weird Paul” – had been waiting for something like YouTube for decades.
Petroskey considers himself the “Original Vlogger.” The 47-year-old Bethel Park native had hours of video tapes that he recorded in the ’80s and ’90s that included homemade music videos starring his family, a review of McDonald’s breakfast items, homemade award shows and whatever else the teenager found interesting.
“As soon as YouTube came about, I said, ‘This would be great. We didn’t have this when I was making these back in the ’80s,'” Petroskey says.
“I wanted to put it on YouTube because I knew it would be something interesting for people, because not everyone was alive then and the people that were, not all of them had video cameras.”
However, he had no idea how to use the new technology.
“I’m always kind of technologically impaired,” Petroskey says. “I’m creative, but I’m not really good at figuring out the side of how all the wires work so much.”
Once Petroskey overcame that technical hurdle and began sharing his home video archive, he found that people were interested in what he was doing in present day.
Since he didn’t own a digital camera, he stuck to his lo-fi roots and started making new videos on VHS tape and shared them online using the same method he had figured out for his vintage videos.
His channel now reaches more than 16,000 subscribers from across the world with videos created in Petroskey’s Brookline home and was even spun-off into a local TV show, “The Weird Paul Variety Show,” that ran on WEPA until the channel ceased operations last year.
“I do things differently than most people,” Petroskey says. “A lot of people watch it and immediately they get sucked in, because it either makes them think of a time when they used to watch VHS or, if they weren’t alive then, it’s just interesting because it doesn’t look like everything else.”
People who have been “sucked in” by Petroskey’s videos include two Emmy award-winning documentarians who have produced a feature-length documentary about his life and a Pittsburgh-based advertising company seeking to help his brand.
A musical past
YouTube isn’t the first time Petroskey was in the limelight.
As a teenager, he began making music under the name Weird Paul. Mixing the do-it-yourself aesthetic of punk rock with his own brand of humor led to colorful song titles such as “Dreaded Glaucoma Test,” ”(I Stole a) Bunsen Burner” and “Scott Baio Was Seen at the (Legendary) Pink Dot Convenience Store Buying 12 Cans of Tuna and a Carton of Cigarettes.”
His homegrown music resulted in a record deal with Homestead Records – the home of indie rock stalwarts such as Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Big Black – in 1991. While the resulting album, “Lo-Fidelity, Hi-Anxiety,” didn’t burn up the charts, it did result in Petroskey gaining fans.
“I used to get fan mail all the time,” Petroskey recalls. “By 1993, I was getting a letter every week from somebody.”
Petroskey continues to make music and has released 42 albums to date. He says people finding his YouTube videos – especially his music videos – are now getting interested in his discography.
“It’s working out well for me in a promotional kind of way, because I’ve always been a musician,” Petroskey says.
When Petroskey’s father, Ward, bought a video camera on Sept. 7, 1984, the new technology became a major part of Petroskey’s life.
In one YouTube clip, he reads a high school essay calling it the day that changed his life forever. The video includes clips of the very first moments of video the family recorded on that day – including his father angrily trying to get Paul to leave the camera alone.
“His idea was that it was just to film important family events – which is probably the way that most families were – and that I should never touch it,” Petroskey recalls, adding, “and I think that now, after all this time, he still believes that I never should have touched it.”
There are several vintage videos in Petroskey’s collection that show him getting a rise out of his parents – sometimes even bringing his siblings into the mix to help “drive them nuts.” However, he says they have always been “extremely supportive” of his artistic endeavors.
“They’re rooting for me. They’re in my corner,” Petroskey says.
Petroskey’s musical past also intersects with his vintage ’80s home videos, where he’d recruit his family to make their own homemade versions of popular music videos of the day.
Dozens of these videos are now finding an audience on YouTube – albeit on a separate channel because of copyright claims. Petroskey’s family has also enjoyed looking back at the videos and he says their favorite is a remake of Twisted Sister’s iconic “We’re Not Gonna Take It” music video.
“We just tried to make it exactly the same. It’s hysterical. It couldn’t have come out any better – and by better, I mean, there’s a lot of mistakes in it,” Petroskey says. “But that just makes it better. It’s perfect. It’s one of the greatest pieces of art I’ve ever created.”
Apart from the vintage videos he created for entertainment purposes, Petroskey’s obsession with the family camera also resulted in footage the South Hills area in the ’80s, including a drive down Banksville Road and – Petroskey’s personal favorite – a trip to the long-defunct Hills Department Store.
“I feel like I’m there again when I’m watching it,” he says. “I don’t know anyone else that has that footage.”
A nostalgic point-of-view
Even with Petroskey’s newly produced videos, the theme of nostalgia runs through many of them.
Most of his new videos showcase various forgotten items from his own personal collections – which include toy musical instruments, ’80s plastic candy containers, newspaper ads, photographs of birthday cakes, vintage wristwatches and more – and items he finds at local thrift stores.
Petroskey says the thrift store haul videos are the most popular videos and usually receive 2,000 views within the first week they are available. He believes the popularity is because viewers are excited to see forgotten items and are also surprised at how little he spends when buying these items.
“They get a good feeling from watching it and the memory is there,” Petroskey says.
However, don’t ask Petroskey about what thrift stores he frequents. After telling someone where he was finding a particular item he was collecting and all of those items vanishing from the store, he keeps his sources a secret.
“I hate to have to keep it from people,” Petroskey says. “It’s not that I want to keep it from people, but at least for right now, I can’t tell people, And people do ask me often.”
The enthusiasm for Petroskey’s off-beat collections has also led to viewers sending donations of various items and he shows gratitude by making videos showcasing the items.
In fact, Petroskey’s viewers have sent so many packages in recent months that he’s been creating these “mail day” videos almost exclusively just to clear up space in his home.
“The pile was about 4 feet tall and 7 feet long. I couldn’t keep it in the room anymore because you just couldn’t walk around,” Petroskey says.
Petroskey’s enthusiasm for archiving and sharing items from the past even came through during our interview, when he pulled up a 1984 copy of The Advertiser, a former competitor to South Hills Living’s sister publication The Almanac. Petroskey was particularly entertained by the front-page headline, “Hummus or Tofu: Try it and you’ll like it,” stating, “it was like nobody in Pittsburgh was willing to eat hummus or tofu in 1984.”
As he continued to flip through the pages, Petroskey found advertisements for long-shuttered department stores and began pointing out various items and their costs. It was like watching a Weird Paul in real-life.
“You can still get a black and white TV for $58 because back then, everybody wanted color at that point. Blank audio cassettes, $1.98 each. Jeez, I pick them up for a dime now, guys!”
‘Working in the stone age’
While Petroskey’s choice to use the antiquated VHS format for his videos may seem strange in the day of high-definition video, he says it became a necessity because he’s “always very poor” and working with outdated equipment.
Petroskey is using a laptop from 2005 to edit his videos and says the machine is “archaic” and even stumbles when editing his low-resolution VHS clips.
“I’m working in the stone age here as far as this is concerned,” Petroskey says. “Basically, I’m working with a stone axe. When I press play (while editing), the picture is static the entire time. Only the audio plays,” Petroskey explains. “Of course, I don’t want to have to work like that, it’s frustrating, but I don’t have any money.”
Petroskey’s day job is at Spencer’s Gifts in the Ross Park Mall, but he is hoping that someday he’ll be able to make his YouTube channel a fulltime job.
“I mean, most people have to work or do something to get the bills paid . but my dream of course is to not be working a day job,” Petroskey says. “Every year, it feels like it’s getting closer . maybe this might be the year.”
However, even if he did have money for new high-definition cameras, Petroskey says he still would not move away from the grainy VHS look of his videos.
“The people have spoken. They like what I’m doing and they don’t want me to change,” he says.
Weird Paul goes Hollywood
While working on the Emmy-winning National Geographic show “Life Below Zero,” Los Angeles-based filmmakers Joseph Litzenger and Eric Michael Schrader were seeking interesting subjects online and stumbled across Weird Paul’s YouTube channel.
“We watched a couple videos and thought like ‘This guy is an amazing actor. He’s doing a great character,'” Littenger says.
After delving deeper into the videos, they discovered that Petroskey wasn’t an actor and instead found “one of the most authentic and genuine people we’ve ever met or seen.”
Littenger and Schrader quickly reached out to Petroskey about potentially making a documentary about him, leading to a crowd-funding campaign that raised nearly $19,000 for the production.
After two years of production, “Will Work For Views: The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul,” is finished and being submitted to film festivals. The film premiered at the Harris Theater June 23rd. Littenger was hoping for a Pittsburgh premiere, as his family is also from the area.
Interestingly, this is the second time Petroskey has been the focus of a documentary. In 2006, director Stacey Goldschmidt produced “Weird Paul: A Lo Fidelity Documentary.” Littenger says he has watched the previous documentary and applauded Goldschmidt’s work, but emphasized that their film takes a different approach.
“It was more targeted to the music and I think what we’re doing is a study of the everyday struggles of an artist and . what kind of a toll it takes on someone to be struggling to make it for 30-35 years,” Littenger says.
The documentary filming even brought Petroskey to Los Angeles for the first time and the trip was capped off by a sold out live concert at a Hollywood music venue.
“People drove literally from 2 or 3 hours away,” Littenger says. “Either they knew him because they were transplants from the Pittsburgh area or they discovered him on YouTube.”
Littenger says he thinks the film will help Petroskey reach a wider audience. While he says Petroskey’s fan-base is mostly niche, the themes of an artist’s struggle will resonate with viewers who might not find his work otherwise.
“One of the things we want to do as filmmakers is help Paul get his art seen by as many people as possible and get the word out about the impact he’s had on people,” Littenger says.
The future for Weird Paul
Along with the documentary, Petroskey has big plans for the future.
He has recently started working with the Pittsburgh-based advertising agency Z Brand to try to finally get to the point where he can make a living from his artistic endeavors.
Marco LaGamba, vice president of Z Brand, says he first discovered Petroskey from “The Weird Paul Variety Show” on WEPA and was amazed to find that his wife and six children all loved watching the show.
“It’s funny how he reaches out to all people,” LaGamba says. “He’s a genuine guy and I want to help out.”
LaGamba cold-called Petroskey to offer his assistance, though he says that the majority of the work has already been done and just needs proper organization.
“Weird Paul is of the few brands that came along where everything is done and in place, it just needs to be deployed correctly,” LaGamba says.
Some of the plans Petroskey says are in the works for the future include recording a new album, touring, finding sponsors and pitching “The Weird Paul Variety Show,” to streaming networks.
“That was only on television,” Petroskey says. “It was never on YouTube or anything like that.”
Petroskey has also been making appearances on WDVE – an achievement he had dreamed about as a teenager but thought was “unattainable.”
“I’m amassing this huge list of all these incredible things I’ve done,” Petroskey saya. “But even with all that, you can’t say I’ve gotten anywhere.”
But mostly, Petroskey wants his parents to see his success – even if his dad might not have ever wanted him to touch the video camera.
“I want to show them that it wasn’t all for nothing and that I was able to become successful. And I feel like I am going to be. I don’t know how long it’s going to take. It could happen quickly or it could take a very long time. But I’m in it for the long run . though I am getting older.”
(By JUSTIN CHANNELL, (Washington) Observer-Reporter)