VCR put us all in show business

A trip to space
file photo

A trip to space
Henry Thomas starred as 10-year-old Elliott in Steven Spielberg's 1982 blockbuster "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial." In this scene from the film, Elliott carries E.T. in his bike's basket as he and his friends desperately try to outrace the authorities in order to save E.T.
By NANCY NALL of The News-Sentinel

Its invention sparked no headlines. Its path to the center of the home followed that of other technological devices before and since — a tiny edge leading the way for a huge wedge.

In 1980, a videocassette recorder cost about $600, and hardly anyone had one. By decade's end, you could find one for a quarter of the price, and everyone had one. In between, oh, what a ride it was.

1980 was also the year the rentable videotape came to Fort Wayne. Caroline Davis was a teen-ager, working in her parents' tool-rental store on Merchandise Drive, when the family business began changing in much the same way — slowly at first, then eclipsing everything else. The first tapes available at Delmar Rental & Ace Hardware were a lot of 100, purchased used from an entrepreneur who couldn't make a go of it.

"They were right there next to the post-hole diggers," Davis said recently, from her office in what is now Delmar Video, the city's first and today its largest independent video store. Video caught on almost immediately, its rarity bringing customers from as far away as Ohio. In five years, the last Ditch Witch was out the door for good, and Delmar was riding high on a wave of novelty and cultural change.

In just a decade, the VCR would:

* Change the way America experienced the movies

* Put viewers in charge of television in ways they had never been before

* Bring highbrow movie culture to the hinterlands

* Give rise to new vocabulary such as "time-shifting" and "cocooning"

Davis — and most of the rest of us — have been there for all of it.

"I remember coming home and my dad was watching `Entertainment Tonight,' " she said. "I said, `What are you watching?' He said, ` Hey, I'm in the movie business now.' "

The VCR put the Davises in show biz, all right, along with everybody else. You still had to leave your house to see a movie uninterrupted by commercials, but only as far as the corner to pick up a tape. Once home, you could watch it at your leisure. You could stop, rewind, pause and fast-forward. You could talk about the movie out loud. You could go to the bathroom and not miss anything.

"I remember going to see `The Poseidon Adventure' at the Holiday when I was a teen-ager," said Davis, now 37. "It was a huge event, probably the only movie I saw all year." Now her serious customers rent several movies a week. They can quote box-office grosses and critics' assessments of this or that film.

Such familiarity could only have been possible with the VCR. With the ability to control the experience in a way not possible before came scores of changes in the way we watch and regard the movies. Complaints of rudeness by other theater patrons — talking, jeering — rose sharply in the VCR era, a trend many attributed to the habits people picked up while watching movies in their homes. Movies lost some of their specialness, as "wait for the video" became a familiar phrase in reviews.

* * *

But the VCR also made it possible for a person in Fort Wayne to see art-house movies without traveling to a larger city. It enabled millions to have a night out while staying in, a boon to parents and the cash-strapped. And it removed a pestilence from countless neighborhoods — the porno theater.

Suddenly you didn't have to sit in a theater with lots of grungy guys to watch sexually explicit movies — as long as you were willing to go to your video store for it.

Which brings us to a Wednesday afternoon in 1999 at Delmar Video, when five of the six customers in the store on a slow business day were in the adult section. Davis acknowledges the films are an important part of the store's offerings, one that survived a prosecutor on a fishing expedition in that tumultuous decade. Former Allen County Prosecutor Steve Sims expressed concern about two titles at Delmar in 1985. Davis pulled the titles from her shelves. Many others remained.

"I came from a very conservative family, but on certain things they were very liberal. One of them was, put it out there and let people decide for themselves what they want to watch," Davis said.

But no XXX title drew the sort of fire to the store that Martin Scorcese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" did in 1988, a film that you still can't get at your local Blockbuster.

"I couldn't believe it," said Davis of the public reaction to the store's decision to stock the film. "We got mail that had letters cut out of magazines and glued onto the page. It amazed me that people would go to all that trouble just to complain about a movie. . . . One of them told me I'd get AIDS if we carried (`Last Temptation')."

The years since then have been quiet. The video industry has come of age and now faces a much greater threat than angry customers — digital satellite television, the Internet and other technologies that could make viewing movies at home even easier than stopping by the corner video store.

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