BetaHeads: The Betamax Fanatics of 1970s Ohio
Art Vuolo’s phone rang. He picked it up. The caller on the line identified himself as being an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“Yeah, right,” Vuolo said. “Give me your number, then. I’ll call you back.”
Vuolo dialed the number. The FBI answered.
“They wound up coming to my house,” Vuolo tells mental_floss, “looking for contraband.”
The only contraband Vuolo could have possessed that day in 1980 was a Betamax bootleg of Star Wars or Jaws, part of the early videocassette piracy that studios were eager to suffocate. With the advent of VCRs and only a handful of movies released through official channels, videophiles were in the habit of recording films from television broadcasts and then circulating them among a network of their peers from all over the country. Although Vuolo didn't deal in bootlegs—agents had actually heard him ranting against illegal copies on a local radio show—he did participate in the swaps.
Goldfinger might net you a Rocky Horror Picture Show; A Star is Born might be of interest to someone holding a duplicate, or "dub," of Psycho. Before video rental stores and streaming services became common, getting the movie you wanted involved placing a classified ad in a newsletter and waiting days or weeks for a response to arrive.
VHS had not yet taken control of the market. Betamax, with its superior visual and audio quality, had earned a small but devoted following, with enthusiasts sniffing at the comparatively mediocre quality of the competition. They were loyal enough for media industry veteran Vuolo and his friend, Ray Glasser, to mount a series of conventions in Ohio where Betamax enthusiasts could meet for a weekend, talk shop, and line up dozens of their machines so they could all grab recordings of the most popular movies in circulation. Collectors would arrive from as far away as Canada and would leave with more than 20 tapes, most of them titles that couldn't be seen anywhere else.
Vuolo had just one rule. He wanted to keep the location quiet.
“We didn’t want to come under scrutiny,” he says. The Betamax group were traders, not bootleggers, but all the same, he preferred not to invite the FBI to the party.
Sony’s first Betamax machine, the SL-6200, was stuck in an expensive piece of cheap furniture. Introduced in May 1975, the LV-1901 was a 19-inch console television sitting in a wooden shell intended to blend in with living room décor. On the right side was the company’s first American Betamax unit, which was being marketed as a revolution in TV viewing, with a new concept called time shifting. Viewers no longer had to be glued to their sets at an appointed time: they set a timer so the machine would record a program they could watch at their leisure.
This was spectacular news for Glasser, who worked from 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. in a Cleveland, Ohio restaurant and often missed his favorite primetime shows. The problem was that the SL-6200 was retailing for $2495, or roughly $11,103 in 2016 dollars. Glasser waited until June the following year before purchasing the SL-7200, more or less the same machine but without the unnecessary cabinet and television. It was a reasonable $1300.
At first, Glasser was content to use the Betamax as Sony directed. Then a friend gave him a copy of The Videophile’s Newsletter, a homemade fanzine created by Tallahassee collector and attorney Jim Lowe that was devoted to the burgeoning Betamax user community. It was full of tips on how to clean machines, where to find the expensive ($16.95) and scarce blank tapes, and included a classifieds section so owners could trade selections from their libraries.
“There were people placing ads looking for television shows like The Twilight Zone or Wild, Wild West,” Glasser tells mental_floss. “A show might be running in your region that someone wanted. They might have episodes of The Outer Limits you wanted.”
Along with friend Gary Herman, Glasser placed the following ad in the June 1977 issue:
"I currently have 76 Betamax tapes. In part, my library includes 16 Star Treks, 15 movies (including The Day the Earth Stood Still, This Island Earth, The Exorcist, Blazing Saddles, Live and Let Die, Diamonds Are Forever, Dracula Prince of Darkness, Man with the Golden Gun…My movie wants include Andromeda Strain, Incredible Shrinking Man, Village of the Damned…Psycho (Uncut Only)…Casablanca…Planet of the Apes…Our trades and wants are limited only on our availability and on-hand stock of blank tapes. We are currently experiencing difficulty obtaining tapes in Cleveland."
Introduced through the newsletter, collectors would begin a private correspondence via letters or long-distance phone calls, sending tapes out via UPS. Some would subscribe to out-of-area TV Guides to figure out what might be playing in another part of the country. If they didn't own two machines, they'd lug theirs over to a friend's house so they could be spliced together. It was time-consuming, but it worked.
“The big thing was to have something uncut and without commercials,” Glasser says. “Someone might write, ‘I have Blazing Saddles or Live and Let Die. What do you have to offer?’ And you’d trade.”
The handful of collectors who had HBO, a relatively new feed for unedited movies, held the Betamax equivalent of a full house. Copies of films that aired on the premium channel were highly desirable, since collectors didn’t want their movies censored or otherwise interrupted. It also saved traders the trouble of snipping commercials from network broadcasts. Without remote controls, that usually meant having the Betamax sitting within arm’s reach, either with a chair right next to the television or the machine's wires extending out to a recliner.
Because the early Betamax tapes were only one hour in duration, movies would typically have to be spread across two of them. A friend of Glasser’s who had HBO would have to set a timer to record the first hour one night and the second hour another night during an encore broadcast. Once, Vuolo wanted to record all three hours of Gone with the Wind: that was almost $60 in blank tapes alone.
Amassing a collection took actual work, which is one reason collectors took a great amount of pride in their tape shelves. By 1979, both Glasser and Vuolo—who lived in Detroit—decided it might be more efficient simply to get a bunch of them in one room, hit Play on one machine, and hit Record on 17 others.
The first assembly of the Video Collectors of Ohio took place in the ballroom of a Ramada Inn in Fremont, Ohio on February 5, 1979. Vuolo operated a Betamax video camera while Glasser, acting as the emcee, had him pan over a row of 17 Betamax machines all being fed Superman: The Movie. Nearby, enthusiasts from all over the state—as well as New Hampshire and Michigan—made small talk waiting for one of the other pre-appointed recordings to start. One man sat patiently for three hours until someone began to play The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Attending the convention required more commitment than just driving long distances. Attendees supplied their own machines, which meant hauling 45-pound Betamax recorders to and from the hotel. At the inaugural gathering, Glasser watched as the massive units that were synced to record at the same time blew a fuse.
“Sometimes we’d have mini stations if only a few people wanted a certain movie,” he says. Saturday and Sunday were devoted to nearly non-stop dubbing, with breaks for meals. Women were a rare sight, unless someone brought along a wife or girlfriend; hoarding video seemed to be gender-specific. Collectors would return home with one or two dozen tapes to add to collections that grew to number in the hundreds and often thousands.
Sometimes Vuolo would bring in a laserdisc player, an even more exclusive format, to feed the Betamax recorders. He once popped in Love Story, but it refused to advance.
“This,” he told the camera, “is bugging me royally. It was working beautifully.”
In another scene, Glasser is panning over the rows of Betamax units that were top-loading, meaning they couldn’t be stacked to conserve space. It looked like a showroom. “Let someone tell us VHS is better!” Vuolo said.
At another con, Vuolo and Glasser made a pilgrimage to a friend who had something even better than HBO: a C-band satellite dish capable of picking up multiple channel feeds, all of which could provide fertile signals for the traders.
Video footage of the convention would eventually go out to those who couldn’t make it, imploring them to try and attend the next one. “If you want Moonraker,” Vuolo once advised viewers, “be here in six months.”
The Video Collectors of Ohio held a total of six conventions between 1979 and 1981, with attendance declining from a peak of 60 to just a handful. After tussling with Sony over the issue of recording copyrighted material, film studios like Universal and Disney were finally acknowledging the demand for commercial releases on both VHS and Betamax. It made the frantic search for movies via newsletters largely unnecessary.
“At the time, it was a thrill to have something no one else had,” Vuolo says. “That just fell by the wayside.”
So did Betamax. Although it was believed to be the superior format, Sony was never able to attract consumers who disliked the short running times of the tapes. (They did eventually release two-hour cassettes, but by that time, VHS was boasting of speeds that could make a tape last four hours.) Video stores didn’t want to go through the expense of stocking both. By the mid-1980s, Betamax had dwindled to just a fraction of the home video market.
“There were still a lot of traders wanting old television shows,” Glasser says. “Movies were a dime a dozen, but old shows were harder to find.”
Those early adopters became the Betamax faithful, preferring the picture quality of their durable machines over the relatively poor quality of VHS. They continued to record off-air programs, with Glasser eventually building up a library of 2500 tapes. “I’ve got some rare things, like NBC’s anniversary specials and an entire Tomorrow show with the Star Trek cast from 1976," he says, things that can’t easily be streamed or tossed into Amazon’s shopping cart.
Despite the immediacy of content services, there are still a number of collectors who see Betamax as the video fan’s version of vinyl—an outmoded format that has a very particular look and feel that digital sources can’t duplicate.
Mike Markowski wasn’t born when the SL-6200 was released but grew interested after seeing some of Glasser’s vintage machines on YouTube. The two met and hit it off, with Glasser unloading 500 tapes that he wanted to clear out; Markowski later bought a player on eBay. Then he bought nine more, six of which actually work.
“I feel like Sony got the shaft,” he tells mental_floss. “It’s a superior format.”
The tapes that Markowski favors are usually unedited primetime blocks from the 1980s and 1990s—typically NBC’s Thursday night line-up, which once included Family Ties and Cheers. Being able to view it as it was originally broadcast, he says, is part of the appeal. “It brings me back to being a kid. My friends and I watch the commercials from the ‘80s. It’s great.”
The units are in plentiful supply on eBay. Solidly built, they were made to be repaired, not tossed. When a machine stops working, some collectors turn to online servicemen well-versed in nursing the units back to health. The cassettes themselves don’t seem to be susceptible to the kind of decay that everyone feared magnetic tape would be prone to suffering. Most, Markowski says, look like they were recorded yesterday.
“The picture quality, the sound, I love all of it,” he says. “I love putting the tape in and hearing the clunk, hearing the whir of motors, and pressing Play. It's a ritual.”
Glasser and Vuolo still have many of their Betamax cassettes and both are still active in the collecting community, though not to the extent they were when the machines were first introduced.
“The era has come and gone,” Glasser says. "It was interesting to see it from start to finish.”
But Markowski isn’t quite sure it’s over. “I’m eventually going to get an old console-style TV to hook the Betamax up to,” he says. “It’ll look a little bit better that way.”
From Betamax to Blockbuster.