Seinfeld on Hulu? Big deal. Friends on Netflix? Old news. Another classic, New York-based television show has recently become available for streaming online, and it’s something infinitely more bizarre than either of those long-running sitcoms. An internet staple for years, the much-loved, much-mocked, no-budget New York public access talent show Stairway To Stardom (1979-1992) has heretofore been available only via brief clips—a tap dancing routine here, a dramatic monologue there. Just enough to immerse the viewer in the show’s charmingly tacky, occasionally delusional world of frustrated lounge singers and would-be comedians. As engrossing as these excerpts were, they had been taken out of their original context. But recently, 16 full-length, half-hour episodes of Stairway To Stardom have surfaced on the YouTube channel lovingly maintained by Stairway superfan Mitch Friedman, who was memorably profiled on NPR back in 2006 as part of a story in which the series was posited as a precursor to American Idol and Star Search.
The complete episodes of Stairway To Stardom are revelatory. Not only do they contain numerous performances which have not been seen in decades, but they document the show’s dramatic evolution over its 13-year run. The only real constants on Stairway, it turns out, were the low production values and the genial presence of old-school crooner Frank Masi. In fact, the program began under the title The Frank Masi Show: Songs To Remember and was originally intended as a showcase for the nostalgic song stylings of its host, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 88. In those early days, Masi’s co-host was the oddly-accented singer and clarinetist Evie Day.
By 1981, however, the program’s title had changed to Stairway To Stardom, and the focus shifted to up-and-coming acts, ranging from magicians to rappers, who were looking for their first big break and thought they might find it on public access television. This, ultimately, is what made Stairway a cult phenomenon, as the show featured a seemingly never-ending parade of oddballs, eccentrics, and nose-picking children, all vying for airtime and the affection of the viewing public. Eventually, however, the cost of producing Stairway To Stardom became too much for Masi, and he reluctantly shut the show down in 1992. It all ended with an episode which largely brought the program back to its nostalgic roots. Besides several songs by Frank Masi, the music-heavy finale featured an extended set by genuine doo-wop legends Earl Lewis And The Channels. As always, the show was marked by numerous blown technical cues. It was a more satisfying send-off than either Seinfeld or Friends were able to provide.