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Ray Glasser
Ray Glasser

BetaHeads: The Betamax Fanatics of 1970s Ohio

Ray Glasser
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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Every New Movie, TV Series, and Special Coming to Netflix in May
Netflix
Netflix

Netflix is making way for loads of laughs in its library in May, with a handful of original comedy specials (Steve Martin, Martin Short, Carol Burnett, Tig Notaro, and John Mulvaney will all be there), plus the long-awaited return of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Here’s every new movie, TV series, and special making its way to Netflix in May.

MAY 1

27: Gone Too Soon

A Life of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana

Amelie

Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures: Season 1

Beautiful Girls

Darc

God's Own Country

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous Live at Radio City

Mr. Woodcock

My Perfect Romance

Pocoyo & Cars

Pocoyo & The Space Circus

Queens of Comedy: Season 1

Reasonable Doubt

Red Dragon

Scream 2

Shrek

Simon: Season 1

Sliding Doors

Sometimes

The Bourne Ultimatum

The Carter Effect

The Clapper

The Reaping

The Strange Name Movie

Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V: Season 2

MAY 2

Jailbreak

MAY 4

A Little Help with Carol Burnett

Anon

Busted!: Season 1

Dear White People: Volume 2

End Game

Forgive Us Our Debts

Kong: King of the Apes: Season 2

Manhunt

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Tina Fey

No Estoy Loca

The Rain: Season 1

MAY 5

Faces Places

MAY 6

The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale

MAY 8

Desolation

Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives

MAY 9

Dirty Girl

MAY 11

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 3

Evil Genius: the True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist

Spirit Riding Free: Season 5

The Kissing Booth

The Who Was? Show: Season 1

MAY 13

Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife

MAY 14

The Phantom of the Opera

MAY 15

Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce: Season 4

Grand Designs: Seasons 13 - 14

Only God Forgives

The Game 365: Seasons 15 - 16

MAY 16

89

Mamma Mia!

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

The Kingdom

Wanted

MAY 18

Cargo

Catching Feelings

Inspector Gadget: Season 4

MAY 19

Bridge to Terabithia

Disney’s Scandal: Season 7

Small Town Crime

MAY 20

Some Kind of Beautiful

MAY 21

Señora Acero: Season 4

MAY 22

Mob Psycho 100: Season 1

Shooter: Season 2

Terrace House: Opening New Doors: Part 2

Tig Notaro Happy To Be Here

MAY 23

Explained

MAY 24

Fauda: Season 2

Survivors Guide to Prison

MAY 25

Ibiza

Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life

The Toys That Made Us: Season 2

Trollhunters: Part 3

MAY 26

Sara's Notebook

MAY 27

The Break with Michelle Wolf

MAY 29

Disney·Pixar's Coco

MAY 30

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 4

MAY 31

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Howard Stern

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20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. WILD WILD COUNTRY (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary that touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights—should be your new obsession. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. FLINT TOWN (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA (2013)

Narrated by Meryl Streep, this three-part series covers a half-century of American experience from the earliest days of second-wave feminism through Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Condoleezza Rice, Sally Ride, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and more are featured, and the series got six more episodes in a second season.

Where to watch it: Makers.com

4. THE JINX (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. One was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO

5. MAKING A MURDERER (2015)

The second major true crime phenom of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. WORMWOOD (2017)

Speaking of good conspiracies: documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. FIVE CAME BACK (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011)

If you can’t afford film school, and your local college won’t let you audit any more courses, Mark Cousins’s 915-minute history is the next best thing. Unrivaled in its scope, watching it is like having a charming encyclopedia discuss its favorite movies. Yes, at 15-episodes it’s sprawling, so, yes, you should watch it all in one go. Carve out a weekend and be ready to take notes on all the movies you want to watch afterward.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

9. UGLY DELICIOUS (2018)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people through the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. JAZZ (2000)

A legend of nonfiction, Ken Burns has more than a few docuseries available to stream, including long-form explorations of the Civil War and baseball. His 10-episode series on jazz exhaustively tracks nearly a century of the formation and evolution of the musical style across the United States. You’ll wanna mark off a big section of the calendar and crank up the volume.

Where to watch it: Amazon

11. THE STAIRCASE (2004)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. (Netflix just announced that it will be releasing three new episodes of the series this summer.)

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

12. PLANET EARTH II (2016)

The sequel to the 2006 original is a real stunner. Narrated (naturally) by Sir David Attenborough, featuring music from Hans Zimmer, and boasting gorgeous photography of our immeasurably fascinating planet, this follow-up takes us through different terrains to see the life contained within. There are snow leopards in the mountains, a swimming sloth in the islands, and even langurs in our own urban jungle. Open your eyes wide to learn a lot or put it on in the background to zen out.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. CONFLICT (2015)

Experience the too-often-untold stories of conflict zones through the lenses of world class photographers like Nicole Tung, Donna Ferraro, and João Silva. This heart-testing, bias-obliterating series is unique in its views into dark places and eye toward hope.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. LAST CHANCE U (2016)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. There are two full seasons to binge and a third on the way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. VICE (2013)

Currently in its sixth season, the series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens.

Where to watch it: HBO

17. CHEF’S TABLE (2015)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. No shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. NOBU’S JAPAN (2014)

For those looking to learn more about culture while chowing down, world-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa guides guest chefs to different regions of Japan to ingest the sights, sounds, and spirits of the area before crafting a dish inspired by the journey. History is the main course, with a healthy dash of culinary invention that honors tradition.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

19. THE SYSTEM (2014)

Should a jury decide if a child is sentenced to life in jail without parole? How can you go to jail for 20 years for shooting your gun inside your own home to deter thieves? These are just two of the questions examined by this knockout series about the conflicts, outdated methods, and biases lurking in America’s criminal justice system. Insightful and infuriating, it makes a strong companion to Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

Where to watch it: Al Jazeera and Sundance Now

20. BOBBY KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT (2018)

It won’t be available until April 27 (so close!), but it’s well worth adding to your queue. This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

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