VHS Memories

So the era of the VHS videotape player has finally come to an end. Last year, the last company that was still making the things rolled the last one ever off its lines, and that’s it.

I don’t have any particular attachment to the VHS technology in itself, but I did have a lot of fun times using it. How could I not? VHS was the home video thing for me for about 17 years (give or take). We got our first VCR in 1985 or so, and I didn’t get my first DVD player until 2002. Movie nights, recording shows for watching later…VHS was it.

I’m a member of the first generation to make the shift to “watching it later” or “watching a movie whenever I wanted”. Before the mid-80s, for most people, if you missed an episode of your favorite show, your options were to wait for that episode to run a second time in the summer, or just never see it at all (unless the show made it to syndication, in which case you could see the episode years later). I remember hearing about videotape recorders in the late 70s, but the technology didn’t become a serious thing for home use until the mid-80s, and that’s when we jumped on board. I don’t remember what brand our first VCR was, but I remember that unit pretty well: it had a silver casing, it was a front-loading machine (as opposed to top-loaders, in which the tape went into this carriage that rose up from the top of the machine and then snapped down into place). The ‘play’, ‘record’, and other buttons were on the left, and there was a long line of little buttons across the front for the channels. No “up” and “down” channel buttons – you programmed a button to a specific channel.

I’m sure it’s just an accident of the day of the week that we finally bought that first VCR, but the very first thing we ever recorded was an episode of a crappy detective show on NBC called Riptide. This show aired right after The A-Team for a couple years, and right before Remington Steele. I was so amazed at this technological quantum leap for our household that I watched that damned episode of Riptide five or six times. Hey, it’s what we had. (What, you don’t remember Riptide? Well…frankly, the only reason I remember it is because I watched that stupid episode five or six times. Here are the opening credits, and I don’t remember a thing other than three guys who were always around water and who were solving crimes. Huh…thinking back, weren’t just about all the shows in the 1980s about two or three guys who were always around water and solving crimes?)

The first movie we ever rented was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which blew my friggin’ mind, man. I just could not believe that I was sitting in my own living room watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. I watched that four or five times, too. We rented it from this place that was primarily a stereo and TV place, which had added movie rentals to its list of services, and in addition to the movie rental charge, I remember them charging a deposit of $50 for each rental! This was refunded upon return of the unbroken tape. That struck me as weird, but this was 1985 – no one knew how commonplace video rental was to become. I was just astonished to be watching one of my favorite movies of all time, in my own living room.

The first movie that I bought, with my own money, was Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Maybe that’s why I still have a soft spot for that movie? I remember desperately wanting a copy of Star Wars and/or The Empire Strikes Back, but in that part of the home video era, no one was really sure that people were going to want to own movies, so a lot of titles were “priced for rental”, meaning that individual copies were $80, aimed at rental joints that were starting to become more common. I eventually got copies of the first two Star Wars flicks via illegal copies made by a friend’s family member (how that transpired, I’ve no idea), and I wouldn’t actually buy my own legit copies until college in 1992.

Oh, and we broke a videotape once by dropping it on the floor! The tapes you bought at the store to record you own stuff? Those came in boxes with the opening on the side, so you pulled the tape out like a book in a slipcase. Tapes of prerecorded movies, however, opened at the bottom, so one time one of us held up the box and the tape just slid right out and hit the floor. Yipes.

I would, however, record movies “to keep” off broadcast television. Right around the time we got our first VCR we also got cable for the first time, so I was able to tape movies in what I thought was great quality. Sure, they were edited for broadcast, but that was OK! I’d sit there, watching faithfully, and at each commercial break, I would jump up and press PAUSE, stopping the recording so I wouldn’t get a commercial in the middle. Sometimes I missed the target and got commercial bits; other times I missed the target and missed a little bit of movie on the back end. Video quality? Please! It was shitty as all hell, but I had no idea. I’d record on “Extended Play” mode, getting six hours on each VHS cassette. If I wanted to watch the third movie on a tape? I’d have to fast-forward through the tape and keep pressing ‘play’ until I found it!

Video rental stores were different in those days, too. There was a store in Olean, NY that not only didn’t categorize the tapes at all, but they didn’t alphabetize, either. It was all there on the shelves, and if you wanted a specific movie, you had to search for it, through the entire store. That place didn’t last terribly long.

By the time I got to college, VCRs were prevalent enough that every household owned one, but not every college student did. So if you happened to own one on campus, you became everybody’s best friend. We had many a Friday Movie Night in college, so many that I’m surprised we didn’t burn out the motors of my roommate’s VCR. A favorite was Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which one roommate owned on a dubbed tape that had started to wear out. If you remember VHS tapes, as they wore out the color on the programs started to do funky things, and this copy of The Wall was, as a result, even more psychedelic than usual.

Other movies that got frequent VHS play? The Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, obviously. Close Encounters. The Star Treks, which at that point numbered only five. And one year in college I discovered that the little video joint up at the corner, a tiny place next door to the local student bar, actually had the complete run on VHS of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos! I rented the entire thing, one night after another. ‘Twas glorious, it was.

Fast forward to family life. We owned, at one point or another, just about every Disney movie that existed. These were invaluable during The Daughter’s early years. There was a show on the Disney channel called Bear in the Big Blue House that she adored when she was just a year old: when that show came on, she was transfixed and wouldn’t make a sound. So when we learned that the Disney Channel was going to run a marathon, we taped the whole thing. Six whole hours of that show, man. Yes, we used the teevee and VCR – once in a while – as a babysitter. I feel a little bad about this, but only a little.

At some point, The Daughter got jelly on the VCR’s innards, which infected our copy of The Rescuers. I don’t remember how this happened, but I remember that we had to buy a couple of head-cleaning tapes that we had to use every time she decided to watch The Rescuers. Which was often, as she really liked that movie. There are a lot of Disney films that I have never seen since we moved beyond VHS some years ago. It’s a shame that some films haven’t made the transition along with us. Remember how Disney films came in those oversized plastic clamshell boxes, unlike most other VHS movies, which came in cardboard boxes that opened at the bottom?

In the mid-to-late 90s, people started realizing that they were missing parts of the movies on VHS, quite literally: they began learning about aspect ratios, and realizing that teevee screens of the day were not the same shape as movie screens. VHS movie transfers covered this by use of what was called “pan-and-scan”: the image would shift back and forth as needed. The worst example of this I can recall came at the beginning of Return of the Jedi. First, the opening crawls weren’t legible until the crawl reached halfway up the screen, because that’s when the words were all visible, but then the camera panned down to the Death Star over Endor, at left, and a Star Destroyer enters the frame from above right, echoing the original film’s famous first shot. For the video transfer of Jedi, though, we had the pan down to the Death Star, and then a new pan right – not in the original film – to allow the Star Destroyer’s entrance. This was awful…and in the mid-90s, more and more movies started showing up in a “letterboxed” format, meaning that you got the see the entire cinematic composition, at the expense of black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. “Widescreen” or “Letterboxed” VHS copies of movies became a big enough deal that a lot of video stores and places like Media Play (God, that store was awesome in the mid-to-late 90s!) had entire sections devoted to them.

Through all this, digital video formats were always a thing. Laserdiscs were always popular with the high-quality set, but the dream always seemed to be a CD-sized format. This finally arrived in the late 1990s, with DVDs. We finally made that transition ourselves in 2002. The first DVD I ever watched was Spider Man, and I remember being shocked at the sharpness of the image and the fact that the colors didn’t bleed. We wouldn’t ditch VHS for good for another few years, but I knew that the writing was on the wall. At that point we only used VHS to tape shows to watch later, and eventually this function, too, fell by the wayside as on-demand and streaming services (along with, I cannot lie, torrents) came of age.

Of course, even DVD had its day, and now Blu-ray is the thing for those who insist upon physical formats. Most folks seem to think that online streaming will replace it all, of course, in our onward march to the Internet becoming the equivalent of Star Trek’s library computers, where the Enterprise’s computer had so much storage that Captain Picard could call up the text of a shitty novel that had been out of print for over three hundred years and had been forgotten upon publication.

I don’t miss VHS. Its technical limitations were too glaring in retrospect. But I do miss a certain feel about home video back then. Watching a movie with friends was an event, and for a really special night you’d cue up the entire Star Wars trilogy or some such thing. I discovered Casablanca on VHS, and I came to love it deeply by watching it every single Sunday afternoon, after football, for a solid month in my sophomore year of college. There was a feeling of uniqueness to VHS, even five or six years after the technology began taking hold. Nowadays, watching whatever we want whenever we want is a fact of life. Everybody owns at least a small selection of movies. The idea that missing a teevee episode once meant missing it forever is utterly alien to most now.

No, I don’t miss VHS. But I had a lot of good times around VHS, and those, I certainly do miss.

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3 Responses to VHS Memories

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    I must have had one in 1987, because I remember struggling at 10 pm trying to watch either the Equalizer or St Elsewhere. Later, I'd watch one and tape the other.
    First 3 tapes purchased: Annie Hall, Being There and one other very early in the alphabet.

  2. Call me Paul says:

    My son figured out really early that if he waited for the tape to get to the end, it automatically rewound, and ejected. And if he then pushed it back in, it would start playing again automatically. He would watch the same episode of Barney 10-20 times in a row, while his father gently banged his head on the wall and moaned quietly in the background. On the plus side, to this day, if we want him to clean his room, all we have to do is start singing the Barney clean up song, and off he goes. He's 22.

  3. Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness says:

    I loved my VCR. I could watch more shows and the first movie I saw and bought for the VCR was Star Wars. They were suppose to go for 100 bucks each but I won a raffle with ten other people to get a copy for free when it first got released and the video store wanted to pull in more people. DO you remember the huge VHS player that came before the more 'compact' model. I am glad I kept all my mixed tapes that I created. I like to watch them n the summer out in the garage.

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