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Valley Weekend : Centerpiece : Breaking New Grounds : 'Electric Coffee' Creator Tries to Bring a Cultural Blend to the Airwaves

October 19, 1995|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A coffeehouse that you can watch on TV. The contradiction doesn't escape Philippe Hartley, host of "Electric Coffee," the talk-variety show that emulates coffeehouse culture.

After all, you can't discuss politics with your TV. And not even the most expensive television can make a decent cappuccino.

But the concept makes sense, says Hartley, if you think of coffee as more than a beverage. Consider coffee an icon. Icon for what?

For conversation--the ideas you exchange late at night over a cup of joe.

For music--the band crowded into the corner of a coffeehouse.

For art--the paintings hung on the walls of these cafe-galleries.

That's "Electric Coffee." And it is presented, of course, at a caffeinated pace. The show airs locally on United Artists Cable Channel 70 at 7 a.m., 3 p.m. and midnight Fridays, and packs its 22 minutes as tight as the grounds in an espresso-maker.

Each installment starts with a brief monologue by Hartley introducing a loose theme--like 'how do you know you're free?'--followed by two musical guests, an artist, an interview, maybe some poetry or a videotaped visit to a local java joint.

"I think of this show as if I was hosting a party," says Hartley, 38, who also co-produces the show. "I like to put an interesting group of people together and see what happens."

Sitting outside--appropriately--Priscilla's Gourmet Coffee in Burbank, Hartley explains that following the 1992 riots, Los Angeles was viewed as a city in decline. What Hartley saw in the aftermath was a community of artists who were trying to find their voices and address the city's crises. One of the primary places they were doing that was in the city's percolating coffeehouse scene.

He and co-producer/director Steve Silas developed "Electric Coffee" as a way to give these coffeehouse poets, painters, singers and thinkers a national audience.

The first season, however, they didn't make it out of the city, says Silas. The show was bought by KMET and broadcast only here. The first "season" was half a dozen installments produced for $500 apiece.

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How did "Electric Coffee" fit on KMET, the international channel? "It didn't," says Silas. "They were just looking for a hook for Saturday night. They were doing some experimentation and gave us a shot."

This year, the show was picked up by Planet Central, part of the tv! network created by the TCI cable system. The show's budget soared to almost $3,000 for each episode. OK, that's less than Michael Eisner probably spent on his last suit, but it's a notch up from the bare bones of cable access.

But much of the crew is still volunteer and there's no time for re-shoots. So if you catch an episode where the camera operator lets Hartley wander completely out of frame, consider it part of the show's charm.

"All along the way, we've gotten a little more money," Silas says. "But nobody is making money on this show."

The midnight slot on KMET or tv! didn't exactly carry the prestige of a "Tonight Show" appearance, though. Because the largest part of "Electric Coffee" is devoted to two musical performances, Hartley searched the coffeehouse circuit for unsigned musical talent. And he found some.

He taped singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb at Highland Grounds in Hollywood a year before her song "Stay" was nominated for a Grammy. He spotted Nan Vernon late on a Wednesday night at Eagle's Coffee Pub in North Hollywood, performing for a crowd of two. Six weeks later she was the new artist pick of the week at the Virgin Megastore in West Hollywood.

Referring to Los Angeles, Hartley says, "This is one of the places on Earth that is going to shape what we listen to for the next century. It's one of our thrills to be recording that transformation."

He also searched out artists, poets, philosophers--each of whom gets a maximum of three minutes of attention paid to their work. Painter Tu-2, for example, explains his many paintings of Mao to the sounds of original musical accompaniment. Or, a 20-minute interview with anarchist-libertarian and author Alexander Cockburn is condensed to its three-minute core.

"My feeling is that oftentimes you have a much more powerful opportunity to make a statement in three minutes than in 20," Hartley says. "This isn't 'Alexander Cockburn Uncovered.' It's, 'Here's a little bit of Alexander Cockburn.' "

And then there's a very little bit of poetry. Thirty seconds. Tops. It doesn't translate well to television, Hartley says, but, "We think that 30 seconds of TV is not too much for an art form that's been around for thousands of years."

The artists, generally, are grateful for the exposure. Acoustic singer-songwriter Danny Peck said shows such as "Electric Coffee" help forge ties between artists in the same way that real performance spaces do.

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