Saturday, May 15, 2010

Video On Demand a'la 1965

I marvel at technology, and sometimes cower from it. Does anybody really believe that instant gratification 24/7 is good for the human psyche? If I want to see a favorite show, movie or cartoon, like as not I need only pop in a DVD and -voila! - it's there. If I don't have it, odds are it's on YouTube. Last month, I converted and downloaded 14 Hootenanny episodes (8 complete & 6 partials) onto my Ipod. From the moment VHS entered my life in 1983, finding at least one Hoot was one of my two Holy Grails; now I almost take them for granted, seeing as how they're in my shirt pocket! (The second Grail was The Johnny Cash Show, and thanks to a friend I have all 58 of those.) Nearly all the great Warner Brothers cartoons are out, along with the best of Max Fleischer's Popeyes, all the Three Stooges shorts with Curly, the Little Rascals, Adventures of Superman, the Chaplin Mutuals... pretty much everything that made the best video memories of my childhood. Even, heaven help me, Diver Dan.

And yet... as Mr. Spock so aptly put it, "Having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true." And so most of what I own sits on a shelf gathering dust, and I find that I watch these shows about as often as I did when they were making the rounds of the local station schedules. And, truth be told, I don't enjoy any of them as much as I did the rinky-tinky little toy that I cherished from Day One: Kenner's Easy Show Projector.

This is me at 6 years old, opening and caressing that little blue darling on Christmas Day 1965. My cousins had Kenner's earlier Give-A-Show Projector, which was basically a slide show. The images were in color, but they didn't move, so who cared? Where were the sight gags? The action sequences? The Easy Show ran real movies projected on a wall! Yes, they were in black-and-white, but so was our TV set. Sure, if you wanted brightness, you were limited to a postage-stamp sized image. But then, I'm not getting much bigger on my Ipod now!

Three things made the Easy Show cool:

1) It was film. There's something about handling film, holding it up to light and seeing all those separate images that pass through a shutter and merge with your brain to make magic. I was always careful not to let it get tangled, although as time passed and Kenner used cheaper stock, that became more difficult. And threading the projector was a point of pride. My friends used to struggle, but I - the least coordinated kid on the block when it came to sports - handled it like a pro.

2) It was versatile. Being a hand-cranked projector, I could run the film as fast, or as slow, as I wanted. One of my favorites - I must've bought one annually for as long as it was available - was the Superman episode "Beware the Wrecker." I'd crank the takeoff s-l-o-w-l-y. . . then run it backward and do it again, over and over, until it snapped. (Which is why I bought one annually.)

3) It was affordable. Each new film cost about .79 cents, so whenever I got a dollar each from my grandfather and uncle, it was off to the store for a new cartridge or two.

So, yes: video on demand has been part of my life since age 6. In theory, I didn't ever have to wait until 3:30 pm when Bugs Bunny and Friends came on if I wanted to enjoy Bugs Bunny and friends. But the limitations of the Easy Show - small, silent, flickering b&w images - ensured that I would still be parked in front of the set at 3:30 pm. No need for that today thanks to DVD technology, which explains in part why Looney Tunes, Superman, etc., aren't on commercial TV anymore. No longer there for our heirs to discover on their own after school... we have to introduce the kids to our childhood favorites; always risky, and usually unsatisfying for all parties.

Have we gained or lost something in the last 45 years?