I actually remember when our family bought our first VCR. I’m not sure what year it was, but it was circa 1986 I believe. It was a fairly large, front-loading model. JVC brand maybe? Anyway, my dad bought it was Best Buy in Rochester, MN. At the time, the local Best Buy actually had a video rental side business attached to the main store! So that became our go-to rental outlet for the first few years of VCR ownership.
At the time he bought the machine, my dad bought a VHS tape to go with it. And that tape, was Return of the Jedi! That tape and weather slipcase stayed around our house for probably 15 years (and it might still be in there somewhere). We watched that things so many times as kids that I have almost the entire movie memorized. When I recently watched it again with my kids, it all came flooding back to me.
But we were also an avid renting family. Best Buy closed their rental store eventually and we moved on to another store that I remember being called “Rave” at some point (but that went through various names over the years). This was the store that advertised an art contest when The Little Mermaid was released on VHS. My two art-inclined younger brothers entered and my mom convinced me to give it a shot too (even though I have never been a good visual artist). Of course, my art somehow won 3rd place in the contest. 1st place won the video tape of The Little Mermaid. I think 2nd place was the movie poster of the film. But third place was 5 free candy bars of my choice from their movie snack selection! I chose 5 Nestle Crunch bars.
Our VHS collection grew over the years as we acquired many Disney animated films and others as well. We added The Empire Strikes Back at some point – via garage sale, I believe. Our shelves were filling up. Since we didn’t have cable and were only able to pull in our one local station with rabbit ears (Rochester’s NBC affiliate KTTC), our entertainment options were pretty limited to VHS tapes.
That also meant that I quickly became the expert “heads cleaner” guy in our family. If you know what I’m talking about, then you also remember that horrible task of cleaning the heads on a VCR by using a special tape that you applied drops of cleaner fluid to and let run in the machine. It was the updated method of what my dad did manually with Q-tips to our audio cassette players. It was tedious for sure, but it had to be done to improve the quality of the viewing. Still, it was secondary to the most hated VCR action: tracking. Pushing the up and down tracking buttons and hoping that they actually did something was a daily occurrence at our house as it was in every house that had a VCR and used it as much as we used ours.
At least twice, some friends from church who did have cable got a free preview of The Disney Channel and just taped everything and gave us the tapes. It was a little bizarre, like a grab bag of random Disney shows and weird low-budget movies. However, many of these became indelible parts of childhood for my brothers and me. One movie that was part of these tapes was “Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood”, later retitled “The River Pirates”, a coming of age story about a boy in the Louisana bayou that had been mashed up with The Goonies. Here’s the trailer to give you a taste of it’s terrible greatness:
And actually, the full movie is on YouTube too!
Maybe it was those Disney “mix tapes” that started us down the path of recording TV shows for later rewatching. I soon started checking the weekend paper for the week’s TV listings to identify if there were any movies being shown that we would like. If so, I made a note of it and made sure I had a tape ready to go on that night. If I was particularly on the ball, I would pause the tape on commercial breaks to edit out the ads. Most of the time, however, the commercial were left in to be fast forwarded through on rewatch. Of course, we were often lazy on rewatch and would sit through the commercials as well. And that meant that we memorized many early 90’s commercials. To this day, I can still hear the excited voice repeating that NBC’s “Dear John” was moving to Wednesday nights! One Sunday Night Movie that we watched on a loop for awhile featured tons of these commercials AND Corey Feldman. It was called EXILE and was actually a back-door pilot that never got picked up to series. It was pretty good though!
Around this time, being the nerd that I was, I figured out how to use the timer feature on our VCR so I didn’t have to worry that I’d forget to record the movie or show I wanted to watch. I could set the VCR to begin recording a certain channel at a certain time and then cue up the tape to the right spot to put the recording. It worked like a charm most of the time! This was also around the time that I discovered that blank VHS tapes could be recorded in 3 speeds: standard play (SP), Long Play (LP) and Extended Play (EP). A standard tape could hold about 2 hours in SP mode, but up to 6 or even 8 hours in EP mode. Of course, recording in EP mode meant a significant loss of quality. Still, if you wanted to save money on blank tapes and fit lots of shows and movies onto the tape, it was a no-brainer to us EP mode!
Armed with my knowledge of VCR operation, I soon began a somewhat crazy ongoing project. In the early to mid 90’s, I was a huge Star Trek fan. I was constantly checking out original series episode tapes from the public library and began buying a few too. Soon I became interested in the current Star Trek series – The Next Generation. However, it was aired in syndication and VHS tapes of episodes were hard to come by at rental stores. I would watch it at my grandparents house when I was there and that was about it. Soon I heard that Deep Space Nine was premiering too! Two Star Trek shows I couldn’t watch!
Then I made a discovery. KIMT, a CBS affiliate out of Mason City, Iowa, was airing both series on Saturday nights after the 10 o’clock news. And we could pick up that station at our house, but only if the TV and rabbit ears were on our dining room table. Thus began a long-running ceremony where, on Saturday nights, I would lug our 13 inch TV and VCR upstairs from the basement, place it on our dining room table, adjust the antenna until the reception was acceptable, reprogram the VCR clock (because I had unplugged the machine) and set a timer to record the two episodes in EP mode on a blank tape. I started building a library of barely watchable episodes of TNG and DS9, 6-8 to a tape, with scrawled titles on the label stickers. The worst was during the NCAA basketball tournament because the games were long and pushed back the newscast and everything that came after it too. My timer was powerless to predict these changes and I would end up with chopped episodes. It seems unfair that I can now watch any episode from those series on Netflix in HD at the push of a button.
Another aspect of the VCR was it’s ability to dub the mini tapes that our family camcorder used onto the more user-friendly VHS format. We had a number of home movies from our camcorder on our shelves growing up and these got plenty of replay over the years as well (yes, to the point of memorization).
Fast forward to my first year at college. I heard through the grapevine that some friends who worked at summer camp with me were making a movie that they would show everyone at our staff reunion in the winter. They were apparently shooting some scenes at my college – Northwestern College (now Northwestern University of St. Paul). For some reason, I hatched a plot with another camp co-worker to produce a “rival film” to also show at the reunion, but ours would be primarily shot at Bethel College (now Bethel University). We schemed up a weird story, bought props and costumes and shot the whole thing on two weekends with the help of a 3rd co-worker who came down for one of those weekends.
Now, once we had all the footage, it needed editing. I had no computer with enough power to edit a movie. I knew I had to do it the old fashioned way. I had to dub the scenes to VHS and re-order and cut them as I dubbed to cobble together a complete film. It was tricky and took almost an entire day of work. At some point, I had a revelation. I was dubbing audio and video from the camera to the VCR using RCA cables. If I wanted to, I pull the audio cable and dub in a different audio track along with the video from the camera. For me, that meant I could add music to a few scenes, as long as I didn’t mind not having the camera audio in the scene at all. It worked and I added a few musical elements to a few scenes. The finished product was a very, very weird movie with all sorts of stuff that I can’t believe we did. We showed it to our friends at the camp staff reunion and it was quite the experience.
What was the film about and what did it look and sound like? Well…. see for yourself.
I ended up make two more “movies” with friends from camp, but alas – those see to be lost to the ether.
I get a little nostalgic about these old, analog things. Those were simpler times, you know? Actually no, they were a lot more complicated. But still, I have many, many fond memories of the era of tape. Things that, I’m afraid, my boys will never quite understand.