Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Release of E.T.- a "just for fun" look back at the golden age of VHS

From the spring of 1987 (a few months before I graduated from college) to the spring of 1991 (when I was in the process of finishing up my Master's Degree and preparing to move to New York with my fiancee) I worked for a video rental store chain in the DC/Northern Virginia region.  I started out as a part-timer and ended up managing several stores, making enough money to pay my tuition, take girls out to dinner, and generally have the kind of fun you are supposed to have when you're in your mid-twenties and getting ready to start Real Life.

E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial was released on VHS in October 1988, a month after I had started grad school and right after I had been bumped up to Assistant Manager at The Video Place's hole in the wall store in the underground mall at Crystal City, Virginia.  I can remember taking multiple pre-orders every day for months beforehand, taking down deposits of 50% for the $24.95 tape (minus the $5 Pepsi promotion) and answering one "is it there yet" call after another (nobody seemed to quite understand what the term "release date" meant, and in the pre-Google age nobody seemed to know how to find it anyway.)

There were a lot of big films released on VHS while I worked at The Video Place- An American Tail, Lady and the Tramp, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Rocky Horror Picture Show where probably the biggest, but I can also remember selling Janet Jackson and Phil Collins and Tears for Fears concert compilations at a pretty quick clip.  I wonder if they are still collecting dust somewhere.  But I don't think we ever experienced anything from our customers that approached the excitement of the E.T. video release.  It was even bigger than the rush to grab a copy of Legend of Zelda they were experiencing across the hall at Waxie-Maxies.  I think we sold about 300 pre-order and hundreds more off the shelf before that Christmas.  I still have a copy lying around somewhere, I'm sure.

Anyway, like all Golden Ages, this one didn't last forever, and The Video Place didn't long survive my departure- in fact, three of the four stores in the chain had been closed before I left, and the final one shut down before the end of 1991.  I spent most of my last months with the company going from store to store organizing close-out sales- I've mentioned before at this site that when I closed one store there was exactly ONE unsold VHS tape on the shelf- Satisfaction, "starring" Justine Bateman but including Liam Neeson and Julia Roberts.  I didn't know it then, but the rental industry had passed its peak and the internet was looming on the horizon.

Thirty years after it's release, E.T. is still a solid seller on Amazon (I don't know how well An American Tail aged) and a generation is growing up less susceptible to the charms of the brick and mortar store, so I guess the idea of a place where you could go and browse movie titles on the shelf is going to sound more and more alien as the years go by.  For us, it's still a loss, just one that's going to be harder to describe and explain to the next generation.  I like to remind myself of those days anyway.

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