Guess what? I found out where the tapes are. That's right. ALL the tapes. Wanna know where?
Some people are satisfied with just looking up a few of their childhood commercials on YouTube and that's it. On the other end, there's the crowd dedicated to tracking down, digitizing and preserving as much raw footage of late 20th century television as possible. I fall into the latter camp, which you definitely know by now if you're a regular reader of this site.
Usually, while I'm doing other work, I'm digitizing VHS tapes in the background (mostly my dad's). Every now and then I search thrift stores, hoping someone donated their old recordings of Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, but I never get lucky. I hunt through garage sales whenever I run across them. Nothing. eBay is where most of my disc-trading material and site fodder comes from, but prices vary and in many cases are unreasonable. A recent auction of Super Bowl tapes, which included recordings from as far back as 1979, sold for over four hundred dollars.
Good tapes can be so hard to find. Until now.
Like I said...I found where the tapes are. Thanks to a recent discovery, I'm practically drowning in tapes, and they're coming in faster than I can preserve them. It turns out every old VHS cassette in the country is being magnetically drawn to one place: the Goodwill Outlet Store.
What is a Goodwill Outlet Store? If you can find one, the Goodwill Outlet Store is where everything winds up that wasn't good enough to sell at a Goodwill. No, I'm not kidding....something exists that is one notch below a Goodwill and one notch above a junkyard. In fact it basically IS a junkyard, just one you have to pay for.
This is also where things wind up that Goodwill doesn't even want. I've heard that they no longer accept VCRs, and indeed, I haven't seen a Goodwill stock one in years. But at the Outlet Store it's impossible NOT to see one. People leave them in the boxes anyway, so Goodwill burns them off here. The workers haphazardly pile the rejected donated wares onto long plastic troughs, which they wheel out into a large open concrete warehouse. To find anything, you have to dig through these troughs like a pig. It is about as inelegant a shopping experience as you can imagine.
Despite this, I have NEVER been to the Goodwill Outlet Store at a time where its parking lot was not full. It has been popular as long as I've known about it. Dozens of folks zip in and out of there constantly, and whenever a new trough comes through, about fifty people crowd around it and dig through it noisily. You decide how sad that is.
I never really made a habit of going here because....I mean....ugh, would you? Unlike the "higher-class" model of Goodwill, there are no plug outlets for you to test machinery you find. Couple this with the giant "ALL SALES FINAL, NO REFUNDS" signs on all the walls, and it just seemed like too much of a risk, even with the rock-bottom prices. But one afternoon I wandered in just to see if anything had changed. I first entered this place over a decade ago, and....nope, nothing about it has changed one iota; it is STILL the Great Recession in there. Lots of things that hadn't been cleaned in years, and lots of people that hadn't taken a bath for far longer. But then....
Then I noticed one of the blue bins had a few stacks of VHS tapes in it, and they weren't all pre-recorded movies. I reached in, a chorus of angels sang, a beam of light shone down from the flourescent tubes, and I pulled out A PORTLAND RECORDING OF THE 1996 ATLANTA GAMES OPENING CEREMONIES. I had been looking for anything involving the Atlanta Games on eBay for years. I never dreamed I would be able to find a tape that was recorded in my area, with all the ads and promos exactly as I remembered them. And I definitely never expected to pay $1.29 for it.
A few days later, I returned to the Outlet Store to see how much of their inventory had changed. The entire lot was different, and so were the tapes. I finally had a reason to become a regular patron of that foul diseased place -- but it was even wilder than I thought. I went back a mere DAY later and the inventory was AGAIN completely different. It turns out that stuff comes in and out of the Outlet Store on an HOURLY BASIS. It's sorted, it's wheeled into the Outlet Store, it stays there for a few hours, and whatever isn't picked out is sent to the dump. That's how narrow the window is to rescue a good VHS recording. Not kidding.
I started making Outlet Store visits a routine thing, and each time I went I found something new, though there was one problem...I would never know if it was something GOOD until I got it home and stuck it into a VHS player. While I was wasting money, I learned a lot about American television habits in the 1990s and what to watch out for.
1. The vast majority of things
people taped with their VCRs were movies. The typical prerecorded
tape contains three or four movies taped off TV. These are a
complete crapshoot to buy. Ideally you want something intact with
all the ads in it; otherwise it's worthless. It's impossible to
tell from just the handwritten label, though there are hints. If
a tape has four movies, the ads have been edited out. More than
once, despite the stern warnings of the FBI and the best efforts
of Macrovision, the movies have turned out to be bootleg
transfers of purchased tapes.
2. You would not believe how many home movies pass through here. Don't people care about their memories? How many of them were dropped off accidentally? No way to know for sure.
3. There is not as much porn as you might think. Either they do a very good job filtering that out before it hits the trough, or people actually look at what they're donating before they drop it off (and they don't -- see #2).
4. A lot of them have no labels. I
can't buy something with a blank label -- I have no idea what it
is, and if I bought all the blank-labeled tapes I'd be drowning
in them. I'm sure a lot of treasures have been junked because
nobody labels their stuff properly.
5. The best bet is when you find something that has the name of a TV show on its label -- it is the most likely candidate to contain the ads. If I can only go with one, it's this one.
Even if you uncover a tape that meets all the criteria, you can still get skunked. For some dumb reason what's written on the label doesn't always indicate what's on the tape. Wouldn't that be confusing for whoever recorded it? I don't know; as social media has taught us, there are a lot of people out there who can't be explained.
This activity is an exercise in frustration, not to mention money loss. I spotted a tape that had several crossed-out entries except for one, giant, distressed scrawl that said, loudly, "9-11-2001." I snagged it, took it home and found a Downton Abbey episode taped over its entirety. More recently I found a label with "SUPERBOWL" written on it. It was a documentary about the first Super Bowl.
What I hoped for: the TV series.
What I got: the movie. On Cinemax. Bah.
BUUUUUUUUUT after fast-forwarding past that, I discovered an episode of You Can't Do That On Television from Nickelodeon, complete with its ads including the Nintendo Power spot where the guy eats a magazine and explodes. Reward found, but there was no way to know it was there.
What would you expect to get out of a tape with this label? I can tell you I certainly DIDN'T expect all THIS:
SIX UNCUT HOURS OF CLASSIC CARTOON NETWORK LEADING INTO ADULT SWIM AND AN FLCL EPISODE! From a tape that was supposed to be Carol Burnett. You would have skipped it, wouldn't you? This process is completely unfair.
What I was expecting now: the
What I got: the show? Well, good.
You might think we're home free, but the final hurdle is whether the recording has its ads, because that's not guaranteed either. This time, it did -- and it also had one episode each of Eek the Cat, Tiny Toons and Taz-Mania before leading into several hours of X-Men, and then two of USA Cartoon Express.
This had sure BETTER be what its label says it is. Aaaaaaaaaaaaand...........it was! Faboo!
In fact there were nearly four hours of Animaniacs from September of 1994, meaning lots of promos for the first Tick episode and every single installment of the X-Men Phoenix Saga, which had its original run over the course of five weekdays. Those promos only aired once, and yet I remembered all of them, because I watched this show on repeat nonstop for at least three years. Will kids today, living in a landscape of endless entertainment, even understand that? Our choices were limited, so if we found something good, we had to cling to the reruns.
Every time I reveal I have another Animaniacs recording, I get at least one request for another Full Experience article covering it. And this time....I might? There's a lot of material in this one.
Of the programs promised here, only Siskel & Ebert was actually on it, and even then, just the second half of the episode.
This one would have been rejected if that Post-It hadn't managed to cling to it for dear life, a remarkable feat when you consider how rough the sorting process must be. Only two-thirds of one singular Sifl and Olly episode were actually on it, but it also had two SNLs, a Will & Grace and the local Portland news from May of 2004. Surely this is worth something to someone.
Did you know Fox Family produced a TV movie about Michael Jordan's life, and it was financed by Haim Saban? Anyway, that's what's on here instead of Eureeka's Castle. (I did find a Eureeka's Castle on another tape, but it was the Christmas special.) There is also, for some reason, two thirds of a West Wing! Jordan fans and Sorkin fans are both served.
Speaking of Saban stuff...
This is one of the most adorable things I've ever seen! Once upon a time, a child loved this tape dearly.
Then years passed, he got older, he found the tape and he thought "What's this KIDDIE BABY STUFF? I'm gonna record the 2002 NBA All-Star Game over it."
And that is exactly what he did. But an hour of Power Rangers (with ads) still survives at the end.
It's hard to see from the scan, but the promise this label makes is "1992 Barcelona Olympics Dream Team Gold Medal Match." Half the time I find Olympics tapes, they don't have the Olympics on them at all. Fortunately, this time I DID get the greatest basketball team ever assembled playing their greatest game, and after that, the final Cheers episode and a couple of Seinfelds.
Just...."TV," huh? That's real helpful. Time to take a big gamble.
I got.....Wings, Law And Order, Friends, Seinfeld, Homicide: Life On The Street, Friends again, and the 11 PM news from Anchorage, Alaska, because somehow this tape had managed to journey from there to here. Not only that....it wasn't alone.
I found multiple tapes that day, most of which were better indexed than this and even helpfully marked with their dates. They all had their ads, they were all from Alaska, and we even know the name of the person who brought us all this:
The side label noted that this was the "complete" version of Ren & Stimpy, which would be impossible to fit onto one VHS, even the T-160 eight-hour model. It turned out to be all MTV showings -- specifically, a New Years 1993 marathon of every R&S episode that had aired up to that point. All went well for the first four hours, but right after Sven Hoek, something unprecendented happened:
The tape broke in half.
I opened it up to see what the matter was. See the little rat tail coming out of one of the spools? When VHS tape breaks in half, it is never a clean split. It's always a diagonal cut, and depending on the speed, it can get long. But I'd never seen one THIS long, and it couldn't have happened in the VCR it was just in -- it ejected right when it sensed trouble ahead and started rewinding, never reaching this part. Somehow, a VCR out there managed to do this to a tape and STILL rewind it completely. This is absolutely baffling to me.
Following Sven Hoek was Powdered Toast Man, and I HAD to know if it was the uncut version where PTM burned the US Constitution in a fireplace. So I pulled out the spool until the tape was its normal size, which took a while. I wondered if the entirety of the cartoon was a loss. I rethreaded both spools into the shell and reattached one end to the other with Scotch tape (this only needed to play ONCE). Then I let it roll. It was right at the part where PTM farts on Ren and Stimpy's toast, so the answer was still possible.
And there you have it. The MTV version was uncut.
Shortly thereafter, the tape hit a SECOND split, and I gave up on it.
A football game. Sigh.
To date, nothing's surprised me more than this one.
It had no label. But it also had a slipcover from the early days of VHS, which meant there had to be something really old on it, and late 70s / early 80s stuff is always good no matter what it happens to be. The odd part was the brand name. This style of slipcover usually bears the TDK logo; here it says "Victor." I popped the tape in and....
....guess what, it's from Japan! There's only a half-hour of content, and I don't understand a single minute of it, but it wound up in a Portland thrift store trough somehow.
By the time I reached into a bin and pulled this out, I really couldn't keep quiet any longer. Four tapes comprising episodes 12 through 49 of Gundam Wing, as it aired on Toonami in the summer of 2000, ads 'n all......WHY WOULD ANYONE GIVE THIS AWAY??? DON'T THEY UNDERSTAND HOW CLOSE IT CAME TO A LANDFILL???
I was so mad that I tweeted my frustration that evening. Usually my tweets disappear into a black void, but this time people actually heard me, It's the most popular tweet I've ever written to date, which isn't saying much, but it's been retweeted 83 times as of this writing. They had no idea it was only a small portion of what I'd actually found.
What's happening here has to be happening at Goodwill Outlet Stores all over the country. People don't own VHS players anymore, so when they clean their homes, they give all their tapes to Goodwill. Then Goodwill immediately tosses them into outlet bins and gives them an eight-hour chance at life. The savvy ones use eBay, but for the most part, it's all flowing into these Outlet Stores -- and barely anyone is rescuing all this history from destruction.
I go to the Outlet as often as I can now, because it won't last forever. Like fossil fuels, random VHS recordings are a non-renewable resource, and eventually every closet and basement will be Spring Cleaned and Kon Maried. The river may be flowing mightily today, but it will slow to a trickle eventually. And then nothing. It's now or never to catch all these. But it's so....much....to catch. Too much for one man. Who knows how many were lost before I even discovered this was going on?
Archivists, hear my words and heed my warning. Get out there, find the Goodwill Outlet Store nearest you, and SAVE THESE TAPES from a clueless world that's destroying them without thinking!
eBay leeches, stay out of there.
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Keep watching Myspleen dot org for Goodwill Gifts, an ongoing series. Everything you see here will be uploaded to Myspleen eventually.