Sunday, February 10, 2008

Variety -- November of 2006:
VHS, 30, dies of loneliness
Home Ent News: The home-entertainment format lived a fruitful life -- After a long illness, the groundbreaking home-entertainment format VHS has died of natural causes in the United States. The format was 30 years old.

As is my fashion I'm often doing pieces on recently deceased celebrities that have had some sort of effect on my development as a person, i.e. Mike Douglas, Robert Goulet, Mr. Whipple. So after I read a really interesting article in the New York Times about the new film Be Kind Rewind, which recently premiered at the Sundance Festival, I began to reminisce about this odd piece of technology. I've not been without one since the purchase of my first VCR in 1983 (Gold Star, purchased at Zayre for $299), it changed the way I spent my free time, introduced me to hundreds of films, changed the way I watched television shows, saved my life during times when I thought I couldn't get through another boring day living at home; and yet now it's disappeared and I can hardly say that I miss it. These themes of the life and times of the VCR are well stated in the article which can be accessed here: INSTANT NOSTALGIA, LET'S GO TO THE VIDEOTAPE.

For this post I asked some of my favorite bloggers and commenters to read the article and then give their own views on their memories of home video...

It was sometime in the 1970's when I remember hearing for the first time that you could actually play "movies in your home". Video discs were being talked about in Popular Mechanics. Yes, soon you'd be able to own and watch such hits as "Hello Dolly" or "Airport". They were in the same issues that predicted cars that ran on air and had articles on how to build your own solar paneled garage. So, it seemed impossible, improbable that it would ever be something that everyone would have. Bill Mackey, a friend of my parents, had the very first home video system that I can remember. This must have been in the mid-1970s because I remember going there with my parents to watch tapes he'd made of the Carol Burnett Show. He'd been taping all the Eunice sketches. I vaguely recalling my mother saying what a waste of money it was, because who would want to watch those things over and over.

It wasn't until 1979 when Paul Szumski's parents bought one that I had my first video rental experience. There was only one video store in the neighborhood. As I recall it was part video store, part head shop. There might have been fifty or so titles to choose from. Paul's parents were out of town and he had the house to himself. So he'd had invited 'the guys' over to watch movies. We got "Barbarella" and a John Leslie porno... "Dracula Sucks". I Kid You Not! So on a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon I sat in a Southside living room watching my first home video movie and porno with six teenage guys. Talk about uncomfortable!

Then the father of some high school friends got one. Brian and Julie's father was a huge movie buff and would often rent three movies a night and I spent many a evening there, whether they liked it or not. Home video gave people the first chance to watch newer movies that were just out at the theatre a few months before. And it also gave everyone the chance to comment during the movies. I've fond memories of their mother's hilarious and insightful comments about holes in plot points, or praising someone's performance saying, "That's how people really are..." No longer was watching a movie something that was done in the dark, but was now a group activity that everyone was sharing.

A favorite memory was when their parent's Sis and Dik, decided to have the neighbors over to watch "Deep Throat". We 'kids' were all forced out of the house, so all we could do was peek in the front window and watch 'the adults', watching Deep Throat. The looks on their faces were priceless. Years and years later I inherited that first VCR from Dik. It was huge, weighed about 25lbs. Through the years I gave it away to friends who didn't have a VCR, when they would move or get an upgrade, I would always get it back. I swear this happened at least three times. It just felt like something you just couldn't throw out. Finally when I moved into my current place 14 years ago I put it on top of the garbage can and said goodbye to this sturdy friend who had given me so many fun times. I don't know if I could ever have the same feelings for a DVD player.

Wondrous, to hit a slick, jet-black button and begin to save what I'm seeing. Television is no longer ephemeral. I can collect snippets and chunks of colorful time, bright ribbons of sound and motion. Out of static, out of the void will emerge voices in mid-sentence, commercials unedited, entire shows unwind until they hit the end of the tape, the end of the line. Rewinding, fastforwarding, movement blurs like hummingbird wings, speech turns to high-pitched squeaks and clicks. Pause freezes and stutters. The electronic veil over reality is as thin as mylar and magnetized motes of iron, and I can mummify all media in its spools. -- Graeme Udd

Learning2Share is an amazing site of ephemera. Since I knew that Jim and I were both collectors of the useless and the sublime I wanted his memories: Visit his site HERE (LEARNING2SHARE)

Remembering back to the early days of home video, the machinations of the first movie rental places that began popping up all seem sort of quaint in retrospect. It seemed every store had a different flawed system of operation. - - Also, this was in those pre-internet days when you were lucky if you could find a good guide book to movies, and felt blessed if you had a well-stocked eclectic video store with knowledgeable staff. ("Do you have '8½'?" "We have 'Nine 1/2 Weeks'...) Somehow the technology and the VHS / Beta format wars all seemed pretty unspectacular to me. I remember being much more impressed by the ancient gigantic bulky early video cassettes and 'reel-to-reel' video tapes that would pop-up occasionally back in the days of elementary school and junior high. I did a year or two in the middle school AV Squad, but never got to run one. When VHS came in, it was the home recording aspect that really floated my boat. Immediately I was compiling tapes of cartoons and old movies and old TV shows. It was the obsession du jour for me. I still have some of them, though I weeded out a bunch that I ruled superfluous as DVDs came in. Is there anything sadder than old home- recorded video cassettes full of crappy '80's movies taped off of HBO at the 'ep' speed? I still have my rock-solid Mitsubishi 4-Head VCR, too. It's still a champ, though I think it's available calendar settings only went as far as 2007. I'll have to get creative next time I try to program it. Thankfully I never had the Laserdisc bug. How much longer 'til we're turning in our DVDs to upgrade to the next format? (or did I already miss the memo?) Thus far I remain a-scared of Tivo and whatever the newer innovations might be... Cheers, Jim (aka 'The In Crowd')

Dave who is transcribing his mother's 1945-46 diaries is a comrade of mine in our common love of old movies and showing them largely projected in yards or on livingroom walls. Visit his site HERE (Dorothy's Diary)

I remember going into a new store at 96th & Cicero, Classic Video, in about 1979-80. About the size of my living room. Three rows of glass shelves, with a thin selection of boxes, one of which caught my eye. "Notorious". I asked the one and only clerk (the owner), "Are these tapes for sale?". I didn't have a machine, but I soon got one: a big Panasonic with piano-type keys, weighed about 25 lbs. and was about $500.

I was on a Hitchcock binge at the time. There were a bunch I had never seen. So glimpsing "Notorious" on the shelf of that store really sparked the videotape craze for me. I got obsessive about it. I'd rent three tapes for $10 for three days. Returning to the store every three days for more. The guy once asked me how I could be watching all those films. I bought dozens of blank T-120s. The Ampex were the cheapest at about $12-14. The Scotch or Maxells were more--about $15-16 each. It really got to be an addiction. My next door neighbor and I would borrow each other's machines and make copies--for our own use (not to resell). I'd record two or three movies on a tape. Made intricate replicas of the movie posters on self-adhesive labels. I began to stockpile a big, themed collection. Hence the nearly 200-plus tapes that eat up space in my closet today.

Chris Ligon is a fantastic singer/songwriter. His music has been featured on the TV show "Weeds". You can buy his album at this site HERE (CRAZY DAZE). Do it... You won't be sorry! He and his wife, cartoonist Heather McAdams, are unique in that they are purists in the world of media and still collect 16mm films which they project at their shows. I was curious what he remembered about the avent of home video.

I remember when my family first got a video recorder I was so excited that I wouldn't have to record tv shows with a crummy little cassette tape recorder anymore. For years I would tape comedians like John Byner on The Tonight Show just to preserve their bits. I even made a reel to reel tape recording of Plan 9 From Outer Space that I used to listen to in the 70's! Sometimes I would shoot Super 8 movies of tv shows and I still have tons of photos I took of tv shows like Gilligans Island and SCTV. Somehow these still seem more precious than pristene DVD copies of "everything in the world". It's kind of like getting that tiny little handful of cashews for a quarter out of a machine. They tasted so much better than they do now that I can buy and eat an entire can. Chris Ligon

Mike Lynch is a very accomplished cartoonist and his site is a wealth of information for fellow cartoonists. And he's really funny. Visit his site: MIKE LYNCH CARTOONS. When Mike sent me his cartoon he said that he said that he mentioned this idea a couple other cartoonists over lunch. One of which is syndicated cartoonist Stephanie Piro. Her cartoon sums up my memories of VHS tapes... Visit her site HERE:

As time goes on I imagine that VCR tapes will be only be seen in racks in Salvation Army stores. Imagine the landfills crowded with classic deluxe box-sets of The Prisoner and Gone with the Wind. I still have a problem letting some of mine go...

Recently I ran into Doris, my senior citizen neighbor, and her boyfriend. She asked me if I wanted to borrow any of the VHS tapes she'd recently bought at an estate sale. "They were only fifty cents a piece, " she beamed. "Did you get a DVD player yet?" I asked. Her boyfriend scowled and said, "I hate those things. You can't rewind on them..." Blink, blink.... I decided not to argue.

Thanks to everyone who helped with this post... I'll win one of those blogger awards yet...!!!

Photos of VCR's from Total Rewind Everything you'd ever want to know about home video.


Aaron said...

I'm sorry, I forgot to send you my story after you asked!

It was early 1984...when I wasn't busy listening to my new Eurythmics album, I accompanied my parents to Sherman's furniture and appliance store in Peoria to look at VCRs. I remember it well: a wood-cased (because it was considered a piece of furniture then) Hitachi that cost in the region of $800 (yes, they were new in those days--and I suppose wood wasn't cheap).

We spent an entire week watching Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in "The Mirror Crack'd" on tape (it had just been on HBO and my mother was quick to pirate things off cable :-)). I didn't learn to work it myself until later that summer.

The machine lasted almost nine finally died (or at least, the motor broke) in 1992, right after I came home from college. Rather than pay to have it fixed, we set it out by the curb and just used the one I'd bought during school, until I moved out for good...

Now I have TWO VCRs that are sitting in my closet unused. (My current TV set has a built in VCR and DVD player, so I don't need the outside units.)

It's hard to watch VHS when you're used to DVD quality and don't have the popping and sizzling you get when tape starts to deteriorate. (Although DVDs sometimes have glitches in them and freeze up too...)

ArnoldRimmer said...

Hey, don't be so quick to dismiss VCRs! If all you ever used a VCR for was watching pre-recorded movies, then, yes, DVDs are MUCH better, no doubt about it, no argument here. However, if, like me, you used a VCR for recording broadcast TV shows to watch later (AKA "time-shifting"), then VCRs were indispensable until the DVD-RAM format became widely available, which now gives a DVD recorder the same basic functionality of a VCR when used for time-shifting and the like. I used to have four, yes four, VCRs in the house, and now I’ve switched them all to DVD-RAM recorders, and I love it!! So, if you're still clinging to your VCRs because you still use them for time-shift recording, check out to learn more about the very cool DVD-RAM format.