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Ray Glasser

BetaHeads: The Betamax Fanatics of 1970s Ohio

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Ray Glasser

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.

The stylish LV-1901. Wikimedia Commons

 
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 Video Collectors of Ohio meet up. Ray Glasser

 
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.”

A Sony SL-7200. cosworth532 via eBay

 
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.”

Additional Sources:
From Betamax to Blockbuster.

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30 Memorable Quotes from Carrie Fisher
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Just days after suffering a heart attack aboard a flight en route to Los Angeles, beloved actress, author, and screenwriter Carrie Fisher passed away at the age of 60 on December 27, 2016. Though she’ll always be most closely associated with her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher’s life was like something out of its own Hollywood movie. Born in Beverly Hills on this day in 1956, Fisher was born into show business royalty as the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.

In addition to her work in front of the camera, Fisher built up an impressive resume behind the scenes, too, most notably as a writer; in addition to several memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels, including Wishful Drinking, Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, The Best Awful, Postcards from the Edge, and The Princess Diarist (which was released last month), she was also an in-demand script doctor who counted Sister Act, Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Wedding Singer among her credits.

Though she struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness, Fisher always maintained a sense of humor—as evidenced by the 30 memorable quotes below.

ON GROWING UP IN HOLLYWOOD

“I am truly a product of Hollywood in-breeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result.”

“I was born into big celebrity. It could only diminish.”

“At a certain point in my early twenties, my mother started to become worried about my obviously ever-increasing drug ingestion. So she ended up doing what any concerned parent would do. She called Cary Grant.”

“I was street smart, but unfortunately the street was Rodeo Drive.”

“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That's my word for it.”

ON AGING

“As you get older, the pickings get slimmer, but the people don't.”

ON INSTANT GRATIFICATION

“Instant gratification takes too long.”

ON THE LEGACY OF STAR WARS

“People are still asking me if I knew Star Wars was going to be that big of a hit. Yes, we all knew. The only one who didn't know was George.”

“Leia follows me like a vague smell.”

“I signed my likeness away. Every time I look in the mirror, I have to send Lucas a couple of bucks.”

“People see me and they squeal like tropical birds or seals stranded on the beach.”

“You're not really famous until you’re a Pez dispenser.”

ON THE FLEETING NATURE OF SUCCESS

“There is no point at which you can say, 'Well, I'm successful now. I might as well take a nap.'”

ON DEALING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

“I'm very sane about how crazy I am.”

ON RESENTMENT

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

ON LOVE

“Someone has to stand still for you to love them. My choices are always on the run.”

“I've got to stop getting obsessed with human beings and fall in love with a chair. Chairs have everything human beings have to offer, and less, which is obviously what I need. Less emotional feedback, less warmth, less approval, less patience, and less response. The less the merrier. Chairs it is. I must furnish my heart with feelings for furniture.”

“I don’t hate hardly ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.”

ON EMOTIONS

“The only thing worse than being hurt is everyone knowing that you're hurt.”

ON RELATIONSHIPS

“I envy people who have the capacity to sit with another human being and find them endlessly interesting, I would rather watch TV. Of course this becomes eventually known to the other person.”

ON HOLLYWOOD

“Acting engenders and harbors qualities that are best left way behind in adolescence.”

“You can't find any true closeness in Hollywood, because everybody does the fake closeness so well.”

“It's a man's world and show business is a man's meal, with women generously sprinkled through it like overqualified spice.”

ON FEAR

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

ON LIFE

“I don’t want life to imitate art. I want life to be art.”

“No motive is pure. No one is good or bad-but a hearty mix of both. And sometimes life actually gives to you by taking away.”

“If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

“I shot through my twenties like a luminous thread through a dark needle, blazing toward my destination: Nowhere.”

“My life is like a lone, forgotten Q-Tip in the second-to-last drawer.”

ON DEATH

“You know what's funny about death? I mean other than absolutely nothing at all? You'd think we could remember finding out we weren't immortal. Sometimes I see children sobbing at airports and I think, 'Aww. They've just been told.'”

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12 Surprising Facts About Bela Lugosi
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On October 20, 1882—135 years ago today—one of the world's most gifted performers was born. In his heyday, Bela Lugosi was hailed as the undisputed king of horror. Eighty-five years after he first donned a vampire’s cape, Lugosi's take on Count Dracula is still widely hailed as the definitive portrayal of the legendary fiend. But who was the man behind the monster?

1. HE WORKED WITH THE NATIONAL THEATER OF HUNGARY.

To the chagrin of his biographers, the details concerning Bela Lugosi’s youth have been clouded in mystery. (In a 1929 interview, he straight-up admitted “for purposes of simplification, I have always thought it better to tell [lies] about the early years of my life.”) That said, we do know that he was born as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugoj, Hungary (now part of Romania). We also know that his professional stage debut came at some point in either 1901 or 1902. By 1903, Lugosi had begun to find steady work with traveling theater companies, through which he took part in operas, operettas, and stage plays. In 1913, Lugosi caught a major break when the most prestigious performing arts venue in his native country—the Budapest-based National Theater of Hungary—cast him in no less than 34 shows. Most of the characters that he played there were small Shakespearean roles such as Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Sir Walter Herbert in Richard III.

2. HE FOUGHT IN WORLD WAR I.

The so-called war to end all wars put Lugosi’s dramatic aspirations on hold. Although being a member of the National Theater exempted him from military service, he voluntarily enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. Over the next year and a half, he fought against Russian forces as a lieutenant with the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry. While serving in the Carpathian mountains, Lugosi was wounded on three separate occasions. Upon healing from his injuries, he left the armed forces in 1916 and gratefully resumed his work with the National Theater.

3. WHEN HE MADE HIS BROADWAY DEBUT, LUGOSI BARELY KNEW ANY ENGLISH.

In December 1920, Lugosi boarded a cargo boat and emigrated to the United States. Two years later, audiences on the Great White Way got their first look at this charismatic stage veteran. Lugosi was cast as Fernando—a suave, Latin lover—in the 1922 Broadway stage play The Red Poppy. At the time, his grasp of the English language was practically nonexistent. Undaunted, Lugosi went over all of his lines with a tutor. Although he couldn’t comprehend their meaning, the actor managed to memorize and phonetically reproduce every single syllable that he was supposed to deliver on stage.

4. UNIVERSAL DIDN’T WANT TO CAST HIM AS COUNT DRACULA.

The year 1927 saw Bela Lugosi sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime. A play based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker had opened in London in 1924. Sensing its potential, Horace Liveright, an American producer, decided to create an U.S. version of the show. Over the summer of 1927, Lugosi was cast as the blood-sucking Count Dracula. For him, the part represented a real challenge. In Lugosi’s own words, “It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success.” It certainly was. Enhanced by his presence, the American Dracula remained on Broadway for a full year, then spent two years touring the country.

Impressed by its box office prowess, Universal decided to adapt the show into a major motion picture in 1930. Horror fans might be surprised to learn that when the studio began the process of casting this movie’s vampiric villain, Lugosi was not their first choice. At the time, Lugosi was still a relative unknown, which made director Tod Browning more than a little hesitant to offer him the job. A number of established actors were all considered before the man who’d played Dracula on Broadway was tapped to immortalize his biting performance on film.

5. MOST OF HIS DRACULA-RELATED FAN MAIL CAME FROM WOMEN.

The recent Twilight phenomenon is not without historical precedent. Lugosi estimated that, while he was playing the Count on Broadway, more than 97 percent of the fan letters he received were penned by female admirers. A 1932 Universal press book quotes him as saying, “When I was on the stage in Dracula, my audiences were composed mostly of women.” Moreover, Lugosi contended that most of the men who’d attended his show had merely been dragged there by female companions.   

6. HE TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER.

Released in 1931, Dracula quickly became one of the year's biggest hits for Universal (some film historians even argue that the movie single-handedly rescued the ailing studio from bankruptcy). Furthermore, its astronomical success transformed Lugosi into a household name for the first time in his career. Regrettably for him, though, he’d soon miss the chance to star in another smash. Pleased by Dracula’s box office showing, Universal green-lit a new cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lugosi seemed like the natural choice to play the monster, but because the poor brute had few lines and would be caked in layers of thick makeup, the actor rejected the job offer. As far as Lugosi was concerned, the character was better suited for some “half-wit extra” than a serious actor. Once the superstar tossed Frankenstein aside, the part was given to a little-known actor named Boris Karloff.

Moviegoers eventually did get to see Lugosi play the bolt-necked corpse in the 1943 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. According to some sources, he strongly detested the guttural scream that the script forced him to emit at regular intervals. “That yell is the worst thing about the part. You feel like a big jerk every time you do it!” Lugosi allegedly complained.

7. LUGOSI’S RELATIONSHIP WITH BORIS KARLOFF WAS MORE CORDIAL THAN IT’S USUALLY MADE OUT TO BE.

It’s often reported that the two horror icons were embittered rivals. In reality, however, Karloff and Lugosi seemed to have harbored some mutual respect—and perhaps even affection for one another. The dynamic duo co-starred in five films together, the first of which was 1934’s The Black Cat; Karloff claimed that, on set, Lugosi was “Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene stealing. Later on, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.” During one of their later collaborations, Lugosi told the press “we laughed over my sad mistake and his good fortune as Frankenstein is concerned.”

That being said, Lugosi probably didn’t appreciate the fact that in every single film which featured both actors, Karloff got top billing. Also, he once privately remarked, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”

8. HE LOVED SOCCER.

In 1935, Lugosi was named Honorary President of the Los Angeles Soccer League. An avid fan, he was regularly seen at Loyola Stadium, where he’d occasionally kick off the first ball during games held there. Also, on top of donating funds to certain Hungarian teams, Lugosi helped finance the Los Angeles Magyar soccer club. When the team won a state championship in 1935, one newspaper wrote that the players were “headed back to Dracula’s castle with the state cup.” [PDF]

9. HE WAS A HARDCORE STAMP COLLECTOR.

Lugosi's fourth wife, Lillian Arch, claimed that Lugosi maintained a collection of more than 150,000 stamps. Once, on a 1944 trip to Boston, he told the press that he intended to visit all 18 of the city's resident philately dealers. “Stamp collecting,” Lugosi declared, “is a hobby which may cost you as much as 10 percent of your investment. You can always sell your stamps with not more than a 10 percent loss. Sometimes, you can even make money.” Fittingly enough, the image of Lugosi’s iconic Dracula appeared on a commemorative stamp issued by the post office in 1997.

10. LUGOSI ALMOST DIDN’T APPEAR IN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN—BECAUSE THE STUDIO THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD.

The role of Count Dracula in this 1948 blockbuster was nearly given to Ian Keith—who was considered for the same role in the 1931 Dracula movie. Being a good sport, Lugosi helped promote the horror-comedy by making a special guest appearance on The Abbott and Costello Show. While playing himself in one memorable sketch, the famed actor claimed to eat rattlesnake burgers for dinner and “shrouded wheat” for breakfast.

11. A CHIROPRACTOR FILLED IN FOR HIM IN PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Toward the end of his life, Lugosi worked on three ultra-low-budget science fiction pictures with Ed Wood, a man who’s been posthumously embraced as the worst director of all time. In the 1953 transvestite picture Glen or Glenda?, Lugosi plays a cryptic narrator who offers such random and unsolicited bits of advice as “Beware of the big, green dragon who sits on your doorstep.” Then came 1955’s Bride of the Monster, in which Lugosi played a mad scientist who ends up doing battle with a (suspiciously limp) giant octopus.

Before long, Wood had cooked up around half a dozen concepts for new films, all starring Lugosi. At some point in the spring of 1956, the director shot some quick footage of the actor wandering around a suburban neighborhood, clad in a baggy cloak. This proved to be the last time that the star would ever appear on film. Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956;  he was 73 years old.

Three years after Lugosi's passing, this footage was spliced into a cult classic that Wood came to regard as his “pride and joy.” Plan 9 From Outer Space tells the twisted tale of extraterrestrial environmentalists who turn newly-deceased human beings into murderous zombies. Since Lugosi could obviously no longer play his character, Wood hired a stand-in for some additional scenes. Unfortunately, the man who was given this job—California chiropractor Tom Mason—was several inches taller than Lugosi. In an attempt to hide the height difference, Wood instructed Mason to constantly hunch over. Also, Mason always kept his face hidden behind a cloak.

12. HE WAS BURIED IN HIS DRACULA CAPE.

Although Lugosi resented the years of typecasting that followed his breakout performance in Dracula, he asked to be laid to rest wearing the Count’s signature garment. Lugosi was buried under a simple tombstone at California's Holy Cross Cemetery.

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