We called it the Mat’

Memories of The Welcomat’

6 minute read
Poster for 'Between the Lines,' 1977: The faces looked familiar.
Poster for 'Between the Lines,' 1977: The faces looked familiar.
Talking about Philadelphia's late lamented alternative weekly, the Welcomat, as Philadelphia Magazine and BSR's Dan Rottenberg have done recently….

If anyone would ask me who my writing influences are— and alas, no one ever has— I would say the gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and Dan Rottenberg, my editor at the Welcomat. I started contributing to the Welcomat in 1984, became its associate editor in 1985, quit that position after a year and thereafter wrote a gonzoid religion column and free-lance articles for Dan through 1989.

One of the first things Dan taught me was to include a "so-what" paragraph in every story, and I've always remembered that (well, until now). He also told me, "Don't forget to slug your copy." This was before I got onto newspaper lingo, and I thought it was one of the funniest things I'd ever heard.

You see, back then we wrote our stories on typewriters. For the benefit of the typesetters at the composition shop in South Philadelphia, we were supposed to write "welco" followed by our name and the story's title at the top of every copy sheet. That line of type was called a slug. But I smiled every time Dan said it. And he said it every day.

The whining writer

The 'Mat was located in a small three-story townhouse on Ludlow Street— between 18th and 19th and Market and Chestnut Streets. The reception area and clerical staff were on the first floor, with the ad department on the second and editorial on the third.

Those of us who put the Welcomat together every week understood that the name would never be changed. But it sounded so silly, when we were serious about putting out an informative and readable paper. We called it "The 'Mat," which seemed to have a more jaunty ring.

The 'Mat prided itself on doing things differently, and not just in print. Derek Davis, who supervised the "After Dark" entertainment section, was a talented editor with, shall we say, a unique management style. He never imposed his own quirky writing style on writers, but he always made our writing better. Derek was kindhearted, although he could be volatile, and he certainly didn't suffer fools gladly.

One day Derek had more than he could take from a whining motor-mouth free-lancer. Derek hopped up on his desk, stamped his feet and screamed, "Go away! I hate you! I hate your writing! I hate everything about you!"

We all applauded. Unfortunately, the nudnik thought Derek was kidding.

April Fool's issue

In 1987, when April Fool's Day fell on a Wednesday— publication day— we published an April Fool issue in which many of the contributors lampooned each other. Some readers never did understand that the entire issue (even the weekly Crime Report and the listing of Community Events) was a spoof. They were particularly baffled by Derek's crossword puzzle, with not one clue fitting the allotted spaces.

One of the 'Mat's most popular features was Stu Goldman's weekly "Eavesdrawing" cartoon, in which Stu used overheard comments and situations from his real life. To find your quip in a Goldman cartoon was the highest compliment.

Readers often told us that we should be more like the Boston Phoenix. The Phoenix started out as a so-called underground newspaper in 1972. It had been through its salad days and had become very prosperous. A 1977 movie called Between the Lines was based on that paper's early days.

He lived on a sofa

I finally got around to watching it while I worked at the 'Mat. Michael J. Pollard played a character who lived in the newspaper office, sleeping on couches and taking spit-baths in the lavatories. I thought: Oh my god! That's wonderful! We have a guy like that at the 'Mat.

Susan Seiderman, the tempestuous publisher, could be a difficult woman to work for. But Susan had a strong humanitarian streak. Disadvantaged people often touched her. One of her projects was Ray Fillerup.

To this day, I'm not sure exactly what Ray's duties were at the 'Mat. I do remember that he was sitting at the reception desk when I submitted my first free-lance story in September 1984. In the late '80s, Ray and some cronies made the worst hand-held camera movie I have ever seen. And then he took off for California. But for a while, Ray lived in the Welcomat office— sleeping on the lumpy couch in the editorial department and performing his ablutions in the lavatories.

Robin Martini was an ad rep who liked to come to work early to do her paperwork. I was coming up the stairs one morning when Robin burst out of the second floor john, screaming, "Jesus Christ! Someone's fucking teeth are in a glass in there!" Occasionally, you see, Ray overslept.

Woe to the advertiser

Larry Singer was the Welcomat's advertising manager. To me, Larry was a wonderfully unflappable voice of reason. Whenever I felt overwhelmed and irritated at having to type up tedious listings, I'd go downstairs and decompress in the ad department. Larry never failed to make me laugh. And his job couldn't have been easy: Under the 'Mat's policy, editorial content couldn't be influenced by advertisers. If a reviewer said an advertiser's restaurant, performance or product stunk— so be it.

Every Tuesday, in those days before desktop computers, Dan, Derek, Susan, copy editor Eileen Fisher, Larry, assorted ad reps and I traveled down to the composition shop in South Philadelphia, where the 'Mat was put together and sent to the printer. The art boards for every page were placed on long easels. Headlines, copy and ads were pasted on the boards with rubber cement.

Embarrassing typos

Typos were the bugaboo for all of us who did proofreading (no automated spell-checkers in those days, either), because Tuesday at the comp shop was the last time typos could be caught and corrected. Even so, one Welcomat issue contained a Chinese restaurant ad that offered "roasted dicks."

When each board was finished and proofed, it was signed by Dan or Derek and sent to the printer. It was a day of time-consuming, labor-intensive, exasperating detail work. And yet those were some of the most enjoyable days I've ever spent. The paper was usually put to bed by 6 p.m., and we all went home exhausted but feeling we'd done an important day's work.

Eventually, of course, the Welcomat's name was changed: to the more generic Philadelphia Weekly. Which is just as well, because the Welcomat was unique. Its timeline as a publication was finite: It couldn't have come into existence before it did— the dawn of the underground newspaper movement— nor could its life have been extended into the age of Internet blogs.

But oh my! There will never again be writers like the 'Mat's Jim Knipfel and Kiki Olson, who lived to antagonize their readers, not to mention each other. And there will never be, nor could there ever be, another Welcomat.

To read responses, click here.
To read a related commentary by Derek S.B. Davis, click here.

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