Originally ran in Sunday, August 16, 2020 editions of The Times and The News-Star.
By TEDDY ALLEN/DesignatedWriters
Sunday, August 16 is the anniversary of the death of Elvis, and we take a knee to honor his memory as we did in 1977, when we actually cut off the lawn mower—my dad walked outside to tell me—and took a physical double knee.
After that small tribute, my dad told me to get through mowing, a hard lesson that life goes on.
This week we were made aware that, while Elvis is still dead, a franchise we thought kicked the bucket years ago is on the positive side of the grass. When I heard this, I said to myself, “Wait…what? There’s a Blockbuster video store still open somewhere in the world?”
If you count Bend, Oregon, as part of the world, yes. She represents the Last Blockbuster Standing. I thought Blockbuster, the video store magnate of the 1990s and early 2000s, was as dead as a hickory stick. Or the Boston Red Sox “pitching” staff.
There was a time when Blockbuster was a glowing blue and yellow beacon of entertainment, and every American—most humans, actually, since it was a worldwide phenomenon, like Elvis himself—was required at least once a week to make a pilgrimage to the bowels of the local franchise. There you scoured the video cassette-lined walls in search of a movie that you and your significant other would enjoy. Your laminated Blockbuster card was your golden ticket to weekend entertainment.
Of course you always rented more than you could watch. Couldn’t be too careful. It was better to overshoot the runway than to come up short. And who knows?, you might have to have an emergency appendectomy over the weekend and then where would you be come Monday or Tuesday while you were recuperating? Did you really want to watch Saving Private Ryan 14 times in six days?
The pros went mid-week and got all the Movies You Wanted To See. Unforgiven. Schindler’s List. Pulp Fiction. Forrest Gump. Good Will Hunting.
After they’d picked over the good stuff, you’d mosey in on Friday and be lucky to find Bowfinger or Twister or Mars Attacks. And you’d make the Walk of Shame to your truck and tell yourself, “Maybe Wayne’s World II and whatever this Steven Segal movie is won’t be so bad.”
Steven Segal, for heaven’s sake. The lies we tell ourselves when we’re late to the party.
You could also buy Junior Mints and microwave popcorn and candy bars right there at the Blockbuster counter. Blockbuster had it going on, I’m telling you. The guy who owned it, Wayne Huizenga Sr., ended up buying the Miami Dolphins, the Florida Marlins, most of Daytona and Cocoa Beach, and everything else in the state that retirees hadn’t already snapped up.
Owning Blockbuster was a license to steal before Netflix and Redbox came along and proved to be for Blockbuster what the ice age or a meteor strike was to the dinosaurs.
The Blockbuster video tapes came in hard plastic blue boxes that snapped open and shut. The video tape inside had a sticker on its side that read “Be Kind. Please Rewind.” Most of the time the loser who rented it before you was Not Kind and Didn’t Rewind. Hated it when that happened.
These things worked the same as your modern day DVDs. Except of course the tapes were much bigger and you played them in a VCR, short for “video cassette recorder,” if memory serves. Mine was the size of an engine block, weighed about the same, and cost approximately what’d you’d expect NASA to spend on a Saturn V rocket.
You could even buy blank VCR tapes and record your own stuff off your television, if you had an advanced engineering degree and could get all the wires plugged in correctly. The first thing I ever recorded was off MTV, just to see if I could. It was a three-pack: Maneater by Hall & Oates, Allentown by Billy Joel, and Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye. Why I remember that I have no idea, but I’ll spare you more Useless Information as there’s plenty more where that came from.
This sort of thing still goes on, apparently, in Bend, Oregon, where it remains 1994. The store has been in business 20 years, and to celebrate, its turning into an Airbnb for three weekend nights in September. This is the store’s way of saying “thank you” to the residents of Deschutes County, which is the location of Bend and what must be the VCR Capital of the World. I thought I was the only guy who still had one.
The store is set up like a big 1990s living room, complete with a bulky TV like we all owned back then. And they’re charging just four bucks a night, a penny more than you’d spend to rent a new release. Sit on the couch or on a beanbag, snack, and watch whatever you can find on the shelves. Do it up like Lionel Richie, all night long.
But if you think that might be fun, forget it. The deal is open to residents of Deschutes County only. But in my dreams, I win a night in Blockbuster. I invite the gang—then wake in a cold sweat because someone’s checked out the good Elvis movies and all that’s left to choose from is G.I. Jane and Free Willy.