Joe Engressia, Jr. was born blind, in Richmond, Virginia in 1949. At a young age, he developed an interest in the communicative power of the telephone. Joe had perfect pitch, and he discovered that if he whistled the exact tone of 2600Hz into the telephone receiver, he could make free phone calls and explore the inner workings of the telephone network. His incredible skill for hacking the network awarded him the nickname "The Whistler," and he became famous among a group of underground telephone hackers who called themselves phone phreaks. The phone phreaks were mainly active in the 1960s and 1970s, when the telephone network was based on a system of tones.
The phone phreaks were the first real technology hackers, and Joe Engressia, Jr. was at the center of their network. In 1968, when he was a student at the University of South Florida, he got in trouble for making free long distance telephone calls for fellow students. The incident gained national attention in the media and exposed the vulnerability of the telephone system. Two years later, in 1971, Joe was arrested in Memphis, Tennessee for conducting "phone pranks." This second incident also garnered the attention of the media, and led to journalist Ron Rosenbaum's seminal Esquire Magazine article, "Secrets of the Little Blue Box." The main characters in the article were Joe and fellow phone phreak "Captain Crunch," who were portrayed as techno-outlaws who exploit the intricacies of the telephone network by mimicking it's tones. The article brought the world of the phone phreaks into mainstream media, and influenced scores of future innovators, like Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
In the 1980s, telephone signalling shifted from analog to digital, and Joe's life took a dramatic turn. He could no longer make free calls by whistling or listen to the intricate sounds once used to control the telephone system. Instead, Joe began to fixate on early memories of domestic and sexual abuse. He obsessed over the thought that he never experienced a real childhood. At the biological age of 39, Joe declared himself "the age of five forever." As he attempted to live out his fantasy, he legally changed his name to Joybubbles in 1991, and surrounded himself with toys and a cast of imaginary friends in his Minneapolis apartment. Joybubbles loved reading children's books and listening to episodes of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. In 1998, he travelled to Pittsburgh for two months to listen to hundreds of hours of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood at the University of Pittsburgh Library. His trip was financed with a job he took smelling pig manure for scientific research.
During the last thirteen years of his life, before passing away from congestive heart failure in 2007, Joybubbles hosted a radio program called "Stories and Stuff" as an outgoing message on his answering machine. He updated the show weekly and made the recordings available to anyone who called the telephone number +1-206-FEELING. Joybubbles loved to tell stories about his imaginary friends, telephones, eternal childhood, and sensual pleasures he enjoyed like the smell of chlorinated swimming pools, eating "gooey angel food cake," and listening to the sound of venetian blinds fluttering in the wind.
JOYBUBBLES is a story about overcoming disability, loneliness, and abuse through the telephone lines. The telephone provided Joe/Joybubbles with a means of escape and a way to travel around the world without having to leave the safety of his home. Friends, communities of like-minded people, and an audience to which he could broadcast his thoughts was always just a phone call away.
JOYBUBBLES celebrates the bizarre, imaginative, and wonderfully eccentric life of Joybubbles, and the pioneering contributions he made to the history and tradition of technology hacking. The film features exclusive interviews, rare archival footage, never-before-heard audio recordings, newspaper articles, photographs, and animation.
ALL CONTENT © WHISTLE PRODUCTIONS, 2016