With more than a million visitors every month, Robert Berry’s retroCRUSH.com puts the “cult” in pop culture
Like so many local art projects, retroCRUSH.com was born in the open-mic scene. In 1992, retroCRUSH webmaster Robert Berry attended an open-mic poetry reading on a dare. After listening to poet after poet read tales of love and strife, Berry took the stage. “I went up to the microphone and read the lyrics to the Spider-Man cartoon as if it were the greatest poem in the world,” he recalled in his essay “My Short Career as a Black Poet.” “I was moving my arms around and even making little web-shooter motions at the crowd during my performance. I was hooked.”
During a recent interview, Berry explained his evolution from pop-culture poet to creator of one of Sacramento’s most popular entertainment Web sites. “I was always interested in pop culture and nostalgic pop-culture writing,” he said. “I found myself going to poetry readings. I met Ted Finn [co-host of Poetry Unplugged at Luna’s Café], and he was writing poems about the Creature from the Black Lagoon and King Kong. I thought, ‘Wow! He’s a kindred spirit.’ We started going to readings together.”
Although Berry created several pop-culture-based performance pieces, he ultimately decided poetry was not his artistic medium. “I found that what I had to say was a waste in poetry form. I really wanted to write articles and essays.”
Berry embarked on an extensive search for the perfect means of expression. Throughout the next several years, he experimented with writing zines, e-mail newsletters, scripts for wrestling shows and essays for friends’ Web sites. Then, in the mid-1990s, a company called GeoCities forever changed the face of the Internet by giving a piece of the World Wide Web to anyone with a computer and enough free time. “When GeoCities made free Web sites possible, I decided to give that a try. I’ve been making Web pages ever since.” Berry’s quest had ended, but his reign as webmaster had just begun.
For those who have yet to visit retroCRUSH.com during bouts of surreptitious workplace Internet-surfing, the site has grown extensively from its humble GeoCities origins. RetroCRUSH, dedicated to “things you used to have a crush on,” is an ever-changing shrine to the entertainers, toys, products, films and experiences of yesteryear. The site, which is based largely on Berry’s comic essays about pop-culture phenomena and photo galleries of stars from decades past, attracts more than a million visitors per month from every continent on Earth.
Berry listed some of the retroCRUSH-friendly countries: “My page is linked up in Japan, Iceland, Israel. … I can’t read what they’re saying about me. It’s bizarre.” The site has attracted the notice of producers at VH1, TechTV and Hustler magazine. In addition, Berry is currently in negotiations about developing a pilot television show based on the site.
It’s not a bad response for an after-work hobby. With a day job, a wife and two children, Berry relegates his Web duties to his spare time. “I wish there were 40 hours in a day so I could do all the things I want to do,” Berry admitted. “I don’t have a staff or anything. Every new idea is coming from me.”
Throughout the years, Berry’s ideas have included interviews with such cult celebrities as actor Bruce Campbell and Buckner & Garcia (who wrote the 1980s novelty song “Pac-Man Fever”), such lists as “Top 100 Movie Monsters,” photo essays about his in-laws’ home décor and mock exposés about Tom Cruise’s sexual preferences and Jennifer Lopez’s nipples. “I spend 15 to 20 hours a week on it in some way—writing, keeping things updated or working with advertisers,” Berry estimated. “It’s subject matter I love, so I never feel like I have to write about it.”
So, how does a one-man operation like retroCRUSH garner such a large audience among thousands of personal sites vying for public attention? Initially, Berry “decided to use a tamer of version of the Playboy approach. Hook ’em with the girls and hope they’ll stay for the writing.”
“There are so many celebrity galleries on the Internet,” Berry continued. “Pamela Anderson! Fake pictures of Britney Spears naked! I thought, ‘What about the celebrities you used to like in the ’60s and ’70s?’ The first thing I did was put together a gallery of pictures of Julie Newmar with lots of old Catwoman pictures. I called it ‘a retroCRUSH gallery.’”
Since then, the retroCRUSH Babe Gallery has grown to include sex symbols from Sophia Loren to Traci Lords, as well as such less-acknowledged women as Lisa Loeb and “the girls of Buck Rogers.” Berry’s advertising contracts prohibit nude photos, but otherwise, the gallery selections are governed by his personal taste. “I just pick pictures I’d like to see. No one’s going to have a Lisa Loeb or Tina Fey gallery, so I’ll make my own. I think of them as contemporary classics, women we will look back on in 20 years.”
Lest anyone call the site sexist, Berry insists he has tried to include male celebrities in his photo galleries. Each attempt was met with a decidedly negative response—from women. “The Babe Gallery is a big focus of the site, but most of the e-mail I get and the messages on the message board suggest an overwhelming amount of my readers are women. I’ve tried to feature Erik Estrada and other cheesy ’70s male celebrity galleries, but the female response seems to be, ‘Eeew! Erik Estrada!’ The male celebrities don’t seem to endear to women over time, but today’s women still look back at stars like Betty Page and Marilyn Monroe. All the feedback I’ve gotten has been, ‘More women!’”
Though the celebrity galleries do draw people in, Berry attributes much of the site’s success to his friends in the Web community. “You really can’t exist in a vacuum,” he said. “There’s only so far you can go by making the best site you can and then hoping more and more people find out about it. It’s by finding other sites similar to yours, meeting kindred spirits out there and linking each other that you grow.”
One such kindred spirit is Rob Cockerham, whose prank-laden site Cockeyed.com is a local cult favorite. “Rob and I had been fans of each other’s sites before we put it together that we both live in Sacramento,” Berry related. “We’ve done a lot together, cross-promotion-wise. It’s made both of our sites grow in the process.” The two have visited timeshare meetings and other odd events looking for comic opportunity. “We have contests to see who can come up with the most ridiculous eBay auctions. Rob sold a piece of bread in a jar. I sold that I would call your house and scream at you and hang up. Somebody bid $25 for that!”
“With Web sites, there’s not a lot of competitiveness,” Berry explained. “It’s not like people can only look at one Web site. If you’ve got 10 favorite sites, and I tell you about two more, you’re not going to give up the ones you already like. It’s easy to share the wealth.”
The Web community also finds a home inside the retroCRUSH Forum, where nostalgia junkies worldwide remind each other about commercial jingles, fashions and junk food from their youth. Requests for audio files of the “Mac Tonight” McDonald’s commercial and ruminations on the Kool-Aid pitcher’s penchant for knocking down walls are par for the course here.
As the site’s fan base continues to grow, Berry is committed to using this popularity to shine a spotlight on his community. “I like to write about local things and put Sacramento in what I do. People don’t know a lot about Sacramento, and there’re a lot of crazy things going on in this city. I can use my audience to expand the audience for local projects, like the Trash Film Orgy.”
Participating in the Trash Film Orgy, a six-week B-movie film festival held at the Crest Theatre each summer, gives Berry a chance to get out from behind the computer and share his love for nostalgia with a live audience. Berry is the host of the festival’s retroTRASH Lounge, where he displays his collection of vintage Atari video games, pulp novels and old board games to amuse patrons while they drink.
On July 5, Berry reprised his role as a pop-culture performance artist when he played Mr. T on the Crest’s stage during the Trash Film Orgy’s Blaxploitation night. “T is a character I really understand,” Berry enthused. “The celebrities when I was a kid seemed more real, like Muhammad Ali and Evel Knievel, and the shows, like The A-Team and The Six Million Dollar Man. Now, it’s just reality TV. I continually find myself liking things from long ago. I don’t know if I’m jaded against the new stuff.”
Berry is optimistic about the longevity of retroCRUSH’s appeal. “I think there’ll always be a place for that ‘remember when’ approach. When you mention things from people’s pasts they liked a lot, they get that glow like, ‘Oh wow! I remember that!’ That’s the great thing about nostalgia—you’ll always have it, no matter how much time passes.”