My younger brother and I spent a lot of time learning the value of VCRs when we were kids. My dad would record hours and hours of Chinese language programming from our local foreign language station and watch them after we went to bed. My relatives traded tapes of various Chinese miniseries and home videos for years. My aunt, who had the coveted Disney Channel back in the days when it was a premium cable offering, sent us several cardboard boxes of old Disney movies like "Lady and the Tramp" and "Sword in the Stone," which we watched constantly. I remember the VHS tapes everywhere in the house, lined up on shelves, tucked away in cabinets, and many labelled in Chinese. Among the first Chinese characters I learned to recognize were "ka" and "tung," which phonetically come together as the English loanword, "cartoon."
At some point in the early nineties, my brother and I figured out how to use the VCR ourselves to record things. This was also roughly when we realized that our dad was reusing the old VHS tapes from our aunt, and systematically taping over much of our childhood collection. After we raised a fuss, Dad promised to keep his mitts off the remaining tapes, which were moved to a more secure shelf in the cabinet. Then my brother and I started adding our own to the pile. An "Animaniacs" tape that collected the segments featuring the Warner siblings. A chunk of the fourth season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Edited versions of the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" movies, from when they were shown on network television.
Quite a few of these old tapes are still sitting around in my parents' house, taking up closet space. I should sell or donate the retail cassettes, but I have no idea what to do with the ones my brother and I filled with all manner of 90s television detritus that I'm never going to watch again. There is one of these VHS tapes, however, that I still keep under the TV with my DVDs and CDs and the home movies my mother converted to digital format over the last few years. It's traveled all over the country with me and survived half a dozen moves. The label on the spine reads "Please do not tape over this" in faded purple Pentel marker. The contents are as follows:
- "The World of Jim Henson" documentary, produced for PBS's "Great Performances." It originally aired in 1994, but the version I have was from a repeat shown around 1996. I saw the program on the original broadcast date and enjoyed it so much, I spent months scouring the TV listings every week, trying to find it again. This was before the Internet, when it was much harder to access and keep track of TV programming. I think there's a copy of the documentary on Youtube out there, but it's never been released on DVD.
- The first three "Wallace and Gromit" shorts from when they were shown on PBS, probably also from around 1996, after "A Close Shave" won an Oscar. They're in the wrong order, with "The Wrong Trousers" followed by a making-of featurette, titled "Inside the Wrong Trousers," and then "A Grand Day Out" and "A Close Shave." I also own a DVD release of the shorts that includes "A Matter of Loaf and Death," but I still think of "Wallace and Gromit" as a trilogy.
- The final episodes of "Pinky and the Brain" and "Animaniacs," aired together on November 14, 1998. It's essentially a long "Star Wars" spoof stuck to a clip show special, but the final segment features a wonderful orchestral arrangement of all the show's major musical themes. There are also goodbye in-jokes in abundance, including a tease for a nonexistent 100th episode in the credits. The fourth "Animaniacs" boxset was never released, so the last episode has never been made available for purchase.
- The first "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" trailer, shown on various FOX affiliates on November 19th, 1998, the day before it was released in theaters. I'm not sure where I heard it was being shown, whether it was from an online source somewhere or possibly from a newspaper announcement. However, my brother and I had the VCR ready at the right time, and we got the trailer on tape. It was ours. We could watch it over and over again as many times as we wanted, which we did. Words cannot describe the excitement.
I used to watch the tape, especially "The World of Jim Henson," whenever I was in a particularly bad mood or stayed home sick, to help me feel better. I still enjoy the content, but it's really the memories of how I got all these programs on the same tape that makes me happiest. It's silly, isn't it? So much adolescent nostalgia and nerdiness on that one VHS cassette. I watch the "Star Wars" trailer and I forget about the actual "Phantom Menace" movie, and remember the joyous frenzy of the year-long lead-up to its release. Thanks to the Henson documentary, I went and searched out his obscure titles like "Dark Crystal," "Labyrinth," and "The Storyteller," fueling my artsy-chick reputation in high school. My brother and I bonded over "Animaniacs" episodes, and at one point had my dad convinced the show was educational. Which it was. Sort of.
And I remember my brother playing "Return of the Jedi" over and over and over again on that cranky VCR until he could recite the whole Battle of Endor. And the sad day we taped over one of our favorite episodes of "The Wonderful World of Disney" ("Disneyland: The Adventures of Chip 'n' Dale") by accident. And Dad scolding us for screwing up the timer for his evening shows by leaving the VCR on after we were finished with it.
I really ought to go and digitize the tape before it hits the end of its shelf life. It might be too late already - it's been sitting unwatched on the shelf for years. I don't really mind if it's gone though. The important stuff it held was never on the tape itself.