Howard Cable gumshoe runs on shoestring 'County Spy' show made with $700, help from friends

October 05, 1992|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

A man in a trench coat and a houndstooth hat sits at a desk, scribbling in a folder marked "Top Secret." A drum roll plays in the background.

"As I begin my mission," a voice-over starts, "I realize I must find out everything so that people can be told. That's the American Way and my way. For, you see, I am the County Spy."

The man then leaps up and clasps a briefcase to his wrist with a pair of handcuffs. He darts through a tunnel, sprints across a barren field, climbs over boulders, unlocks a safe and, finally, splays himself across a brick wall and stares wide-eyed at the camera.

Thus begins the first and, so far, only episode of "County Spy," the most eclectic program on Howard Cable's public access Channel 6.

A show that defies categorization, "County Spy" has a loose documentary/interview format and focuses on county life. The first installment begins like the "The Fugitive," a 1960s television show. It then shifts to a segment resembling a Sunday morning fishing program and concludes with man-on-the-street interviews.

As television goes, there is nothing quite like it.

"It's not typical of most current public access shows," said county public access coordinator Don Perkins.

The 30-minute-11-second opus is the brainchild of producer/director Paul Siger, a 26-year-old video store clerk from Columbia. It airs at 9:30 on Wednesday and Friday nights and is available to Howard Cable's 45,000 subscribers.

Mr. Siger is producing "County Spy" with a $700 grant from a Howard government program. Howard Cable provides equipment and studio time. The county grant program, which is funded by subscriber fees, distributed more than $12,000 this year to 17 local public access producers.

Nearly all of them are more conventional than Mr. Siger's. They include "Spotlight on Seniors," an informational show for senior citizens, and "Speakeasy," a public speaking program.

Mr. Siger, who stands 6-foot-5-inches tall and wears a beard, a ponytail and an earring, persuaded the Howard government to fund his idea by arguing that it would stimulate the county economy -- he features a car dealership and a pet cemetery in two upcoming episodes -- and give local people a voice.

Mr. Siger is more interested, he says, in exploring the quirks and eccentricities of American Life and finding out what people are thinking.

So far, the public seems to like it, he says. A friend called him one night while watching the program and laughed continuously into the phone. His mother is also a fan but wishes her son could earn a salary doing it.

After the first episode's dramatic opening sequence, the scene shifts abruptly to the smooth surface of Centennial Lake in Ellicott City. It is early morning and, as the superimposed letters on the screen inform us, we are going "Fishin' with Mike."

Mike Orr, who used to live in Columbia, is a friend of Mr. Siger's. He is piloting his aluminum skiff across the water this morning in search of bluegill.

Michael Lipowski, also of Columbia, plays the Spy. He wears a life preserver over his trench coat and follows in another boat. During the trip, the Spy alternates between questioning Mr. Orr on his choice of bait and solemnly whispering a play-by-play as Mr. Orr casts.

The show then shifts to the streets of Ellicott City where the Spy asks citizens who they want for president. The only problem is that the segment was taped in March, so people are giving names like Tsongas, Harkin and Brown.

The best moment comes when a young man wearing a black "Who" T-shirt suggests 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche.

Mr. Siger said he wasn't able to air the program until July because it took three months to edit and dub the original theme music. He hopes to have his next episode, in which classic car jTC owners discuss why they love their cars, ready in December.

Mr. Siger spent his formative years at Wilde Lake High School where he was a "misfit, class clown [and] disciplinary problem," he says. In addition, he helped direct plays and lettered in three sports, which included heavyweight wrestling and shot put. He went on to the University of Maryland where he studied cinema and finished with a degree in fine art.

After helping out on two earlier Channel 6 shows, including a travel and leisure program that was shot entirely in a studio, Mr. Siger decided to strike out on his own.

He wanted to get away from the "talking head" style of public access. So he chose the documentary/interview format, decided to shoot almost exclusively on location and created the Spy to serve as emcee.

He met Mr. Lipowski, a sometime actor, at a pizza parlor. When Mr. Lipowski revealed that he owned both a trench coat and a hat, Mr. Siger gave him the role. Like Mr. Siger's other friends who help on the show, Mr. Lipowski receives no pay.

A 37-year-old Brooklyn native, Mr. Lipowski works for a printing company in Columbia. His credits include a small role in an upcoming Robert Townsend film and a Japanese TV movie about Babe Ruth in which he ended up on the cutting room floor.

"That's the business," he sighs.

The first episode of "The Spy" concludes as unusually as it began. Mr. Lipowski sits on a stool, his trench coat casually flung open. He wears a pair of dark sunglasses. An acoustic guitar rests on his knee.

Mr. Lipowski begins to strum and sing: "I'm the County Spy/My oh my/Howard Cable's own low-budget private eye/And we'll be back, not because of clout/We'll keep on doing it, as long as our grant holds out."

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