My LaserDisc collection numbered exactly one

Gigantic discs once roamed the Earth
  • Gigantic discs once roamed the Earth

Thinking back on visiting Burbank over the 2000 Thanksgiving break, a time when no trek up the 5 would be complete without a holiday visit to Dave’s Video, the Laser Place in Studio City.

Oddly enough, at its height, my LaserDisc collection numbered exactly one: a used copy of Jerry Lewis’s The Patsy that set me back $10. It wasn’t that I didn’t both admire and desire the technology: those lustrous, 11.8-inch optical discs were the first to make available to home video collectors post-1953 titles presented (almost) exclusively in the letterbox format. (Prior to the single-lens widescreen revolution that began with the release of The Robe in 1953, virtually every film was shot and exhibited in the 4x3 aspect ratio.)

There is no arguing the superiority in quality and presentation LD held over VHS and BetaMax, but the technology never caught on with the general buying public. LDs were always pitched to a swank buyer’s market; and even high-end rental outlets were loathe to stock them. Dave’s was the Tiffany’s of niche video stores, with price tags comparable to selling by the carat. Many widescreen films from the ’50s and ’60s were only available in imports from Japan and England that frequently fetched a hundred dollars a pop. Dave’s had ’em all for sale.

It wasn’t just the cost of stocking a collection that kept Laser buyers at bay. The initial investment for a medium-range LD player went for four times what a VHS recorder cost. Only the priciest of LD players were programmed to flip the two-sided discs from side A to side B. Unless you could afford the extravagance, every LD presentation came complete with built-in bathroom breaks.

The biggest problem with LDs was their inability to record. Upon unwrapping my first blank VHS tape — a Maxell priced to move at $19.95 — I proceeded to fill it with three features recorded at the SLP (six-hour) speed. So much for excellence in presentation.

After years of pirating VHS copies off cable, most saw no future in shelling out the cost of an expensive Pioneer LD player no matter how much of a step-up in quality. At the dawn of VHS, collecting studio pressings was still a rich man’s game. A mom-and-pop video store in the early ’80s sold a factory-sealed VHS copy of Annie Hall at the outrageous price of $99.99.

LDs continued to outprice VHS, but the quality of video tape never came close to matching its digital counterpart. Consumers failed to notice, and by the time I paid my last visit to Dave’s that fateful Thanksgiving weekend, it became clear that the time had come to dig two holes in which to bury Lasers and compact cassette tapes. The cumbersome, LP-sized LD bins once stocked with every title imaginable were gradually being overthrown by streamlined units built to display the clamshell DVD packages spine-out.

With nothing to watch them on — Santa didn’t drop a DVD player down my chimney until later that Christmas — I was determined that day to start a collection. The Image Entertainment set of all three Flash Gordon serials ($19.95, out the door) had my name on it. These Sunday morning favorites appeared regularly throughout my childhood, with WGN-TV reviving them for a brief time in the mid-’70s. I’ve spent hours studying the movements of the Clay People — a race of soldiers turned to clay and banished to a subterranean hell by the evil Queen Azura. Never mind the vindictive monarch. What the Clay Kingdom needs most is a special effects man, the only one who, with the aid of a lap-dissolve, can free these workable slabs of wet dirt from their earthen graves.

“Bring me the Earth man!” demands Ming the Merciless, ruler of Mongo

“Bring me the Earth man!” demands Ming the Merciless, ruler of Mongo

Adding to the cardboard thrills is character actor Charles B. Middleton, never more sinister than as Ming the Merciless. People seldom ask, “Scott, what’s the easiest way to tell the individual serials apart?” Here’s my quick rule of thumb: Episode #1, Bald Ming. Episode #2, Arrowhead Ming. Episode #3, Plumed Ming. Memories of spaceships powered by sparklers and a visit from the Great God Tao Himself permeated my brain. These discs would no doubt withstand multiple viewings as proven just last year when the set was pulled from the shelf so that the younger members of the Lickona clan might book passage on their first trip to Planet Mongo.

According to Forbes, disc sales have fallen by about 30 percent since their 2004 peak. Is it time for collectors to download their DVD collections onto hard-drives and prepare to stream our way through the history of cinema? Can connoisseurs let go the packaging? How will a bookcase look with but a stack of 3TB external hard drives to line it?

There are enough of us hardcore collectors out there who like holding product in our hands and won’t let go until you pry the box art from our cold, dying hands. Studios have finally wised up and started offering titles, many of which that had never before made it to home video, through manufactured-on-demand DVDs. Blu-rays are an improvement on DVDs much the same way LaserDiscs bested the VHS experience. Yes, there’s a Blu-ray player in the Marks house, but the collection of titles remains small in comparison to those on DVD. I’m simply not eager to make yet another format upgrade. Besides, the stuff on my hard drive looks great on the Sony 4K.

Why not take a moment to share your first DVD memories in the comments below?

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Comments

Bought my first Beta machine in 1984 - first tapes, The Beatles: Let It Be and Easy Rider.

Didn't downgrade to inferior VHS until over 10 years later, after filling several hundred beta tapes that I haven't been able to play in a working machine for 20 years now.

Held out on DVDs until 2004, when I bought a copy of Pink Floyd: The Wall at the same time as the machine. I still have a dew dozen laserdiscs I bought at a yard sale that I've never had a machine to play.

I just last month started finally duping my most rare VHS gems to DVD, including almost 200 hours of the old USA TV cult program Night Flight.

Soon, I'm buying a refurbished beta player, so I can start duping the best of those old '80s tapes to DVD. Still never downloaded a movie or watched one on a computer, other than a couple of YouTube rarities unavailable elsewhere. And I kinda want a Laserdisc player, to play those yard sale goodies.

I seem to be working my way thru movie tech backwards!

I have a Magic Lantern in the garage that might interest you.

I operated some computer stores in the early 80's selling Apple II and other computer products. It was called Consumer Computers, located in La Mesa and at the Glasshouse Square near the sports arena. I tried to also break into the growing VHS market, but most of the boom in the beginning was x-rated tapes.

Anyway, I owned an Advent front projection TV, it was the size of a coffee table (which is what I used it as) and it had a 48" screen. The picture was washed out with daylight so I had to use blackout curtains during the day. I had a Sony BetaMax and a Hitachi VHS. But I also bought a Pioneer Laser Disc. The picture was superior to the tape devices. But the cost of the Discs where high. I did not own that many disc, but I had an employee who was a hard core movie buff and he would purchase every title that came out in the disc format. I recall in 1983 he probably owned 400 discs.

This story brings back memories of the constant march of technologies and formats that have been used to play music and video. With music, I started with vinyl LP's, then had 8-track tapes, then cassette and then CD's and now download or stream music. Still have many of the vinyl, but no tapes. It was annoying to buy the same album in each new format. I wonder if streaming music and video is the end of the march of formats.

Never did the laser discs (hell, I was listening to music on cassettes until the early 2000s), but the wife and I are very much the type of people who like physical copies of our media - ran out of wall space in the living room after 9 racks for 36 DVDs each, piled another 100 on top of them, and that's not counting the "rarely watched" bin in the spare room...there's also my one VHS copy of Rad that I have yet to have converted.

Nice article. I actually bought an old LD player this past March (of 2016). I did so because I wanted to watch a series about early film-making that I'd caught only once in the mid-80s on (as I recall) the Discover Channel.The series ("The Amazing Years of Cinema: The Great Cinema Story") was hosted by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and has only ever been available for home viewing via Japanese LD. I know, kind of nuts to go through all this for one series, but...I've since discovered neat stuff such as the Criterion "Magnificent Ambersons" release that contains a host of goodies unavailable elsewhere, plus several very reasonably-priced, hard-to-otherwise-locate flickers. All in all, it's been a fun blast from the past.

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