Sunday, July 10, 2011

Video Daze

Back in the early 1980s I worked at a video rental store called National Video in St. Petersburg, Florida. Days and nights spent renting VHS tapes to people thrilled that they could actually bring home any movie they wanted, slide it into a machine and voila.

There was this customer named Jimmy who had a boat docked at the Isla Del Sol Yacht and Country Club located on Sun Boulevard between St. Pete proper and St. Pete Beach.

Jimmy was mostly into action flicks but had developed a penchant - thanks to me - for blaxploitation movies from the 1970s.

The first movie in this genre I suggested he rent was MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS, a 1976 actioner directed by and starring Fred "The Hammer" Williamson. It was a convoluted (if not uneasy) mix of blaxploitation and mafiasploitation (mafiasploitation films exploited the mob on the heels of Francis Ford Coppola's THE GODFATHER and started to peter out by the time BARROWS was released).

Nevertheless, MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS was an economical and violent flick peppered with some A-List (at that time) actors - Elliot Gould and Roddy McDowall. Short, sharp with a cigar chomping Williamson, MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS was a quick punch to the solar plexus clocking in at around 75 minutes.

Jimmy loved MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS and when he returned the video, he said to me, "Anything you want. Anytime," and left the store. I opened the video case to make sure the tape was rewound and a half dozen joints tumbled to the floor. His way, I guess, of thanking me.

Since the National Video store I worked at had a pretty decent collection of blaxploitation, I handed Jimmy the father of all blaxploitation - Melvin Van Peebles' SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG. I told him Van Peebles shot the movie over the course of 19 days with money loaned to him by Bill Cosby. I mentioned the music was a cacophony of Earth, Wind & Fire. I told him it was sloppy, edited like it went through a blender, but loud and infused with a relentless energy.

Jimmy returned the move a couple days later. It was so great he told me he watched it a half dozen times and that it was worth the late fees (which I waived).

Jimmy went on to tell me he had a make-shift theater on his boat - basically, a couple rows of plush La-Z-Boy chairs and a big screen TV (not like today but big for the early 80s, maybe 32-inches 4:3 square screen).

He told me about these weekend movie parties he'd have on his boat.

He then 'hired' me as his personal movie programmer.

What this meant was I would suggest a theme and hand over an armful of tapes that would keep his guests entertained. What was beloved about these parties was exposure to movies the guests never heard of and themes they had never thought of: Italian Crime Film Nite; Foxy Brown and Friends; Don't Go In The House Weekends; Teens Gone Wild; 48-Hour Women in Prison Lock Down...any subgenre theme that popped into my head was fair game and ended up blowing minds.

In turn, Jimmy spread the word about my "services."

The owner of National Video took notice of a Friday night trend. At most video stores (that is, when they existed), Friday night was usually the busiest night of the week. But this store was literally mobbed and by closing time there wasn't a tape left on the shelf. Even the weakest rentals went out due to my on the spot theme development (Pippi Longstockings vs. Italian Zombies anyone?).

Needless to say, I always worked Friday nights.

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