Tag Archives: old

WEWS TV-5’s The Morning Exchange – Vintage Coffee Mug

Yeah yeah, I know, I took nearly all of August off. A combination of being busy, lack of ‘writable’ material and absence of drive kept me from duly updating my arbitrary blog. Those last two reasons are related; technically, I’ve always got lots of stuff I could write about, but the fire man, the fire has to be there. It’s like how a car don’t go without no gas or some stupid analogy like that. And when I go out thrifting, I very nearly always come home with what I consider some good winnins, but it’s the cool winnins that give me the fire. And it’s those very cool winnins that have been more-or-less MIA in recent weeks. This, my friends, was not an ideal situation for your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter, but it’s not like I had much say in the matter.

‘Course, it’s times like that when I can just sit back and let my old material do the work for me. I mean, when I wrote about that sentient alarm clock over a year ago (!), I held no illusions about it being a particularly popular post; I just got jazzed enough over the device that I wanted to introduce it to a potential audience. It’d be there for the right people when they come looking. And for quite awhile, that’s pretty much where things sat, until in recent months when its popularity relatively exploded, with enough page views and comments to put a figurative smile on mah face.

ANYWAY, this find from just last night is, rest assured, just the sort of thing that can get my creative juices flowin’ and another new update on the dinner table. Dig this: it’s a vintage coffee mug promoting WEWS TV-5 of Cleveland’s long, long running and incredibly influential daily talk show, The Morning Exchange. Cool winnins.

I take solace in the fact that (apparently) most people don’t find the same things that I do interesting, because this is the sort of thing that I would (and did) snap up with extreme fervor; there was absolutely no question it was coming home with me from first glimpse. And yet, when I came upon it, it sat nearly alone in a big tub, seemingly unwanted by those who knew no better. But I knew. I knew.

Now to be honest, I’ve got lots of glassware and mugs and what have you that I could write about, and sometimes I did consider doing so during what turned out to be my unintentional hiatus. I decided against it though; it just felt too soon after the last time I looked at old Northeast Ohio television-related coffee mugs. Heck, in the time since, I picked up yet another new-to-me WVIZ java accessory, but I just didn’t want to go back to that well. Not yet, anyway. I don’t want to become known as “The Mug Man,” man.

This Morning Exchange thing is different though. Not only because it’s promoting an absolutely legendary piece of Cleveland television history (it was so popular locally, it inspired ABC to create the national Good Morning America!), but also because it was hosted for nearly all of its 27 year (!!) run by local icon Fred Griffith, who sadly passed away recently. No joke, Griffith was a certified local legend, and from what I’ve heard, a genuine good egg to boot.

Here’s the thing with this mug: as you can see in the above pic, the logo is quite wide, and as such, getting the whole thing in one definitive shot just isn’t going to happen, unless y’all wanna provide me with one of them Matrix cameras or something. Wait, I don’t think that would work here, either.

So anyway, to better educate and inform and annoy the masses, I’m gonna have to provide some additional pictures. As such, here’s the left side of the mug, showcasing the, uh, left side of the Morning Exchange logo. Also visible: the ever-handy, erm, handle that allows one to make use of the mug without scalding their delicate lil’ hands.

Look, I don’t really know what you want me to say about it, okay? It’s one side of a coffee mug. And since I just used up whatever I could think to say about it here, I’m already questioning what I’m going to write about the other half. Nothing can ever be easy in my world.

So yeah, here’s the right side. The rest of the logo, close-up of the channel 5 logo, big swoopy thing comin’ off the “g” in “Exchange,” you can see it all here. The white lettering over burgundy is an attractive, appropriately morning-ish look. I dig it!

(Yeah, now I’m spent.)

It’s funny; I didn’t (and don’t) ever really watch any morning shows, mainly because I’m rarely up in time, and even though I have little direct history with The Morning Exchange, because it was such an ever-present part of the Northeast Ohio television landscape for such a long time, I remain fond of it. My grandmother used to watch it, my mom says she used to watch it, so there’s some pleasant memories there. But really, it’s more about what this mug represents that enamors me so. What’s that? One of the giants of Northeast Ohio television, that’s what!

All that said, I have no idea how old this mug is; there’s no date anywhere on it. I’m considering it late-80s or early-90s, but I could be dead wrong on that. The channel 5 logo was updated around 1995, so methinks it’s prior to then. The Morning Exchange ran from 1972 to 1999, so even at the latest it’s around 20 years old as of this writing. I really don’t think it’s even that relatively-recent, though. I do think it’s somewhat newer than this example, but how, when and where it relates to these examples, I do not know. I’m going with a mental “circa-1990” descriptive term, though I’m not confident in it enough to add it to the title of this update. (While on the subject, I couldn’t find a sequence of wording for the title that I was totally happy with, so if it reads awkwardly, that’s why.)

How would one go about getting one of these back in the day? My brother suggested it was a souvenir of actual guests on the program. If that’s the case, MAN is that cool. I’m not prepared to go quite that far though, not just yet. I’m thinking this was a promotional item anyone could have gotten, but that begs the question: where? There (probably) wasn’t any internet yet, at least not in any form approaching how we now know it. So, personal appearances by the hosts? Industry swag? A mail order item? Was there something akin to what WJW TV-8 later had, their very own store? (It was in Summit Mall.)

These are questions I know not the answer to. Maybe it was a guest-used/show-used item. That’d be, as the hip individuals say, pretty baller.

Regardless of its origin, the very fact that this coffee mug promotes a veritable Cleveland institution such as The Morning Exchange is more than enough. The fact it’s a coffee mug (cause coffee/morning, dig?) just makes it all the more appropriate. The era and images and feelings it invokes is indelibly Northeast Ohio. A bygone era in our broadcasting history. The sad fact of the matter is stuff like this doesn’t turn up all that often, but when it does, it’s cause for celebration and weird, amateurish touchdown dances. I didn’t, but I could have.

There’s your precious update. Maybe I’ll get another one up within the next several decades, we’ll see.

Vintage KSTP-TV 5 DIALING FOR DOLLARS Promotional Token

Do you remember back in June when I showcased a vintage Dialing For Dollars keychain from the Duluth and Superior areas of Minnesota? Of course you don’t.

Anyway, we’re taking another trip back to “The Gopher State” (unknown to me beforehand, but that’s apparently one of its nicknames; Wikipedia sez so) for this update, because I’ve obtained another vintage piece of Dialing For Dollars memorabilia from Minnesota, this time from the Minneapolis/St. Paul market. KSTP-TV 5 had their own version of the franchise, and I’ve got the promotional token to prove it.

Like the above-linked keychain, this was an eBay find. (What, you think I’m likely to come across stuff like this locally?) Unlike the above-linked keychain, this was an auction, rather than a buy it now. This meant I had to bide my time and hope no competitors had their eyes on the same prize. I waited, they didn’t, and so here we are. I’m the champ?

Here’s the ‘face’ of the token, presenting what I presume was “the count and amount” system that viewers needed to know in order to win the big, big bucks. (In other words, when  the host came a-callin’, y’all best know it was “15 DOWN” or “1 UP” or however they went about playing the game.) I’m a little confused as to why it’s labeled “LETTER GAME,” when it seems to me that numbers are much more the focal point here, but then, I wasn’t there and I wasn’t watching, so I’ll just guess that whoever struck the coin knew better than I.

One thing about Dialing For Dollars in general that I talked about in the earlier article: because it was such a 1960s & 1970s phenomenon, much of it aired in the pre-home video-era (in a widely commercial sense anyway), and as such, learning about the finer details of some iterations can be difficult. For example, the host(s) and/or exact format for a particular market isn’t always immediately certain. At least not from what I can discern through online research; respective television historians from wherever probably know all this stuff automatically, but for those of us ‘on the outside’ and learning about things waaaay after the fact and waaaay outside of the original area, well, sometimes it can be tough.

Also, some local versions of the franchise were movie showcases, with a daily flick interrupted by the, say it with me, dialing for dollars segments during the breaks. But for other versions, it was all dialin’ for dinero, all the time. (As in, that was the whole show.)

My issue here: I couldn’t figure out which ‘type’ KSTP’s version was. I don’t know how long it ran, I don’t know who hosted it, and I don’t know how it was exactly played. I’d certainly prefer that it was of the movie-hosted variety, but either way, it represents a live, call-in aspect of television history that just can’t happen anymore. (At least not on a regular basis.)

Never mind, I found some solid info: this site has an advertisement for the show. KSTP’s Dialing For Dollars was evidently not a movie showcase, but rather a standalone program, albeit one with interviews, cooking segments, and other things you’d expect of a typical daytime program. Interestingly, the ad makes a loud and specific declaration that this wasn’t just a woman’s show, despite the fairer sex making up 63% of its audience (which makes sense; more women stayed at home back then, after all).

The host, or hostess rather, was Jane Johnston, who sadly passed away in 2007.

Here’s the back of the coin, with more pertinent identification information. After all, what good is an advertising token if you don’t let the people know where they can tune in? You’ve got the station call sign, the viewing area the station served, and who the owner was. And look, color television! I love that they call specific attention to the fact it was a color station; it’s just so evocative of that era of television broadcasting.

While I don’t have an exact date for this coin, I do, hopefully, have a time frame: according to Logopedia, the style of logo seen on this token was only in usage from 1968 to 1969.

HOWEVER, that above-linked advertisement claims to be from 1966, and the logo seen in it is identical to the one here, so I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine. Johnston’s obit says she came to KSTP in 1963 and hosted the show in the 1960s and 1970s, so…? Did she immediately start this show in ’63, or did it take a few years? It had apparently been on the air for some time before that ad came about.

Another question remains: how would someone go about obtaining one of these back in the day? Was it a prize for contestants? Something given away during personal appearances by Johnston? A promotional item passed out during industry events? Unfortunately, these are things I just don’t know. (Also, I wonder what that “8101” stamped into the back designates? Does it refer to the number of coins struck? Are there possibly 8,100 more of these out there?!)

At any rate, I love pieces of promotional material like this, because there’s only so much pertaining to the source material (seemingly) still floating around nowadays. I mean, maybe KSTP has footage of the actual show in their archives, and if it ran into the 1970s, it did crossover into the commercial home video-era (technically 1972 with Cartrivision, but more likely 1975/1976 with Betamax if it made it to the middle of the decade), but in regards to what can fall into my paws, I imagine I’m limited to the smaller accoutrements such at this. Maybe some press photos, potentially some appropriately-branded mugs or glasses, probably print ads from old TV listings (TV Guide or otherwise), but realistically I can’t think of a whole lot else.

That’s okay though, because even on its own, this token is suitably neat; I wouldn’t wait for an auction to end for anything less! As it stands, it now proudly resides right by the Duluth/Superior keychain I linked to at the start of this update. They belong together because they is cousins.

Vintage WUAB-TV 43 & WAKR TV-23 Golf Ball Markers (Circa 1984)

I went Christmas shopping this past Saturday. Well, ostensibly; I did find one thing to check off my list, but came up empty for everyone else. Well, except for me. I did find a few things for me.

I wasn’t trying to – really! This was a mission to get Christmas shopping done, and since I don’t have that many people to buy for, theoretically it could have been completed during this one outing. Several locations were visited over the course of several hours, and where I myself was concerned, I dutifully passed up on some things I considered merely “neato,” because unless something practically jumped out and punched me in the face with awesomeness, I wasn’t going to get anything for my personal collection. It wasn’t an issue of cost either; this was about principle. I was on a specific mission, man!

I made it safely through the day – until the last place I visited. There, as I perused small display boxes made up of compartments filled with various knick knacks, my eyes fell upon the baggie you’re seeing right here. This was one of those cases where I got so immediately excited, so incredibly stoked, that I dropped what I was doing and instantly began extricating it. I knew, I knew, that as long as the price wasn’t prohibitive (and it wasn’t in the slightest), it was coming home with me. And so it did.

I hadn’t been to this antique store in several months (as it has been operating on reduced hours lately), so this must have been a fairly new addition to their wares, because I’d really hate to think my normally-fairly-astute eyes passed over this time and time again. Dig this: two pairs of vintage Northeast Ohio television-branded golf markers, WUAB-43 and WAKR TV-23! Cool winnins!

And Golf markers! If there’s one thing my collection lacks, it’s golf stuff. Not that I have anything against the sport; it’s just that aside from some old school video games and Happy Gilmore, I have little experience with it. Heck, I wouldn’t have even known what these markers were if not for the handy sticker affixed to the baggie notating the contents. This was an entirely unexpected find, but this was also exactly the sort of random TV-related thing I’m always hoping to come across.

(Also picked up for myself at the same time? I rarely drink alcohol, but a vintage Bud Man patch for only a buck was just too cool to pass up.)

It was the old WUAB logo here that first caught my eye, and because I have such an ongoing-affinity for the station, those markers were the ‘biggies’ for me. As you can see, one is pink and one is white, but otherwise they’re identical with the black “half-moon” 43 logo. (“Half-moon” is how *I* refer to this particular iteration of the station I.D., but as far as I know, I’m the only one to do so. Maybe that is the ‘official’ term for it though, I dunno.)

The WAKR markers are less logos and more mere station identifications. Unlike the two WUAB markers, they’re both completely identical to each other. Besides WAKR, WAEZ is also featured; I can only guess that this refers to what later became WONE 97.5 FM, which was WAEZ prior and WAKR-FM before that. There was some kind of connection there, is what I’m sayin’.

I have no idea what the actual age of these markers are. I’m assuming both pair hail from the same general era, but they could have just as easily been, erm, paired up later. WUAB only used that style of logo from, roughly, 1980 to 1986, before going to a full-circular version. WAKR TV-23 became WAKC TV-23 in 1986, and WAEZ became WONE on January 1, 1985. So yeah, I’m sticking with what I used in the title of this update: “circa 1984.” That seems to be a safe guess. At any rate, the WUAB ones have to hail from 1986 or earlier, and the WAKR/WAEZ ones from before January 1, 1985.

Regardless of the actual date(s) that brought these markers forth, they both demonstrate a terrific time in Northeast Ohio television, when quirky local programming and an eclectic line-up of movies and shows was the order of the day. I love that!

Hey, know what I discovered when it came time for a picture-taking session of these earlier today? Golf ball markers aren’t the easiest things in the world to photograph! Not these ones, anyway. Because they’re rounded, they tend to roll ll over when I don’t want them to. Indeed, I had to poke them through a disposable styrofoam plate for the main shots, and to your left here is the best I could come up with as far as a side-view goes. See, they done got lil’ pegs, perfect for plunkin’ down into the ground! These aren’t especially big markers, they’re all the same size, which is roughly that of a regular shirt button (a bit bigger actually, but not by much). They seem to be bright enough to show up on the ground during a golf outing, but I’d have thought they’d be a bit bigger for easier visibility. But then, I’m not a golfer; far be it for me to go tellin’ ’em their business.

The last remaining question for me is: how did someone go about acquiring these originally? They almost seem too niche to be widely-spread promotional items. I have seen golf balls with station logos/I.D, emblazoned on them, so this sort of thing was (is?) not unheard of. Perhaps they were from some industry event? A friendly game between the staffs of 43 and 23? These are things I do not know, and perhaps the finer details of which have become lost to time. (If you’ve got some additional information on them, by all means share it in the comments!)

So, as it stands right now, I’ve still got some Christmas shopping to do, but when I come home with cool promo items such as these to add to the ever-growing collection, well, how can that ever be considered a wasted trip? Like I said earlier, TV-related things like this are what I always hope to come across during my travels; sadly, it doesn’t happen often enough for my liking, but when it does, it’s usually worth the dry spells. Given the last update, I seem to be on some kind of streak right now – hopefully it lasts a bit longer!

Vintage WDSM TV-6 DIALING FOR DOLLARS Keychain

I’m going to go outside of Northeast Ohio (but not the Midwest) for this update, because it’s my blog and I’ll do whatever I want. There’s only so much I can say about the subject, both because of its nature and because I’m neither from the area nor era in which it hails, but this is such a neat piece of vintage television memorabilia that it needs to be archived. Even if said archiving is on my stupid dumb website.

Backstory: I’m a big fan of the various incarnations of the Dialing For Dollars franchise that aired nationwide (though each market got their own locally-produced version). You may or may not recall this was a daily program, typically airing in the late morning or early afternoon, in which a movie was shown and viewers were phoned live on-the-air during breaks and given the opportunity to win a cash prize – a jackpot that would increase for the next lucky person called if the one prior failed to win it. Certain game play details could vary from iteration to iteration, but Wikipedia has an excellent write-up on the normative format and program in general. (NOTE: Apparently some incarnations of the show were standalone deals and didn’t feature a movie, instead focusing solely on phone-call action. I guess.)

Obviously, with the live, daytime format and (presumably) lengthy block of time it would take up, having a regularly-scheduled Dialing For Dollars today just isn’t feasible. Too many people work during the day or are busy streaming inconsequential crap on their smartphones to pay enough attention to something like this now. Still, there’s little doubt it was a wildly successful franchise across the U.S. for decades, and as an example of not only television history but local television history, the “cool factor” is off the charts.

Here in Northeast Ohio, we had Prize Movie on WUAB TV-43, which wasn’t quite the same format as Dialing For Dollars but still had the ideal of live callers, daily movies and (potentially) big money prizes at heart. ‘Course, if you headed Youngstown way, you could see WFMJ TV-21’s Dialing For Dollars, as well as the Money Movie over on WKBN TV-27. Whether you could get those stations in my particular neck of the woods probably depended on weather conditions and/or how cheap you decided to be when you purchased your rabbit ears. You better reach deeper in them pockets if you want extra channels, sport!

(There was also something called the Bingo Movie on Canton’s WOAC TV-67 in the 1980s, which I can only guess was similar in spirit if not in practice.)

ANYWAY, Finding artifacts pertaining to Dialing For Dollars is a little tricky; for obvious reasons, there weren’t any official video releases of these programs (to the best of my knowledge), and besides, a good many of these aired either before or during the infancy of the home video era. (Though some, such as our Prize Movie, ran well into the 1990s; it really all depended on the market.)

So, that leaves the, as I like to call them, “supplementals.” You know, the promotional items. Things like glasses, mugs, TV listings and advertisements, and as our subject today demonstrates, keychains. I collect television-related stuff like this anyway, but Dialing For Dollars is an area of extreme particular interest in that, erm, area.

(Boy, I sure killed the end of that paragraph dead.)

And that brings us to the eBay-purchased promotional item you’re seeing to the right. From WDSM TV-6 of Duluth and Superior, MN, it’s a vintage keychain spotlighting their local version of Dialing For Dollars. I don’t know what year(s) it hails from exactly, but since Wikipedia tells me WDSM became KBJR in 1974, it’s at least as old as that. Neato!

The ring and chain project some old-timey vibes, as in I can’t see a modern day keychain using either style (unless they do; it’s not like I keep heavy tabs on this stuff) but it’s really all about the Dialing For Dollars fob here. It looks like a film reel! (well, okay, it’s probably actually supposed to be a rotary phone dial.) And check out the “R,” or rather, the swoop (?) coming off of it: it kinda sorta looks like a strip of film! Apropo! (I hope; I don’t know if WDSM’s iteration was a movie showcase, or a standalone thing like I mentioned above.) Also, lotsa dollar signs, because big money was at hand and it was just waiting for you, yes you, to win it!

Look, the thing is just cool, okay? I’m going to assume it’s an approximation of the actual logo used for the show, but that’s merely guesswork on my part and based on nothing substantial whatsoever.

I don’t know who hosted WDSM’s iteration of Dialing For Dollars, nor do I know for how long. A Google search told me nothing. TV Guides from the area would probably reveal some print ads for the program, but without knowing some rough dates, searching out appropriate issues on eBay could quite conceivably be like the proverbial needle in a haystack, and while I’m always up for a quest, I’m far too broke to attempt such a thing right now.

That’s my long-winded way of saying that anyone with any memories and/or info pertaining to WDSM’s Dialing For Dollars is invited to hit the comments and share what they know. See, this is an interactive site!

The other side of the fob features the station identification and location. More $$$igns, and look close for the covert, kinda-easy-to-miss “6.”

I wonder how people could obtain this keychain back in the day? A giveaway at personal appearances by whoever hosted the show? A consolation prize to those who failed to win the mighty dollars? I don’t know, but it’s definitely cool.

You’re not getting a true sense of scale from my pictures, and I don’t really feel like digging out a measuring implement to give exact dimensions, but the fob is about the size of a larger coin, as in it’s positively quarter-ish. Minus Abraham Lincoln’s George Washington’s visage plastered all over it, of course.

In fact, remember those Sacagawea dollar coins nobody really liked? Maybe they still strike them, but either way, I refuse to believe their inspiration was anything other than this Dialing For Dollars fob. Yep, you can spit facts about the legendary woman and her helping Lewis & Clark at me all day, I’ll still maintain an obscure, regional keychain was the actual catalyst. An exercise in frustration for you, an exercise in amusement for me.

I don’t know what this keychain is made of. Obviously the fob is shiny and plated in gold or some gold-like substance. Could be 22 karats for all I know. The actual ring and chain look to have some mild tarnishing, as you’d expect of something this age, but there’s no rust anywhere on it, so it’s made of whatever is resistant to those substances.

All things considered, it’s in exponentially good condition. A little tarnishing, a little wear, but since it’s at the very least 44 years old, that’s beyond minor. I’ll guess whoever originally owned this never actually used it. However they got it, maybe they either babied it, or it got thrown in a drawer and forgotten about. Hey, we’ve all got stuff like that. I know I do.

So there you have it, WDSM TV-6 of Duluth and Superior, Minnesota and their local incarnation of the Dialing For Dollars franchise, immortalized as an old promotional keychain. Like I said before, I don’t know who hosted the series or for how long, and I have no idea as to the specific details of its format, either. And you know, it occurred to me that this exact keychain could have shown up nationwide, with only the station I.D. on the back varying from location to location. I mean, I’ve never seen one, but then, I’ve never seen another one like this, either.

WDSM wasn’t the only Minnesota television station to have a program of this nature, by the way. WDIO TV-10 (also of Duluth) and WIRT TV-13 of Hibbing ran the Matinee Money Movie, hosted by Lance Parthé, for a period. Maybe its run coincided with this Dialing For Dollars at some point, I dunno. I’d like a keychain representing that show too, though.

VHS Review: BATMAN & ROBIN Widescreen Edition (1998; Warner Home Video)

I don’t have a ton to say about this one, because it’s shrinkwrapped and I can’t bring myself to crack the seal. Now granted, it’s not factory shrinkwrapped; judging by the amount of wear on the box itself, this is almost certainly a used copy that was re-shrinkwrapped at some point. A former rental, perhaps? I don’t know, but the fact remains I can’t work up the nerve to rip the plastic off.

And why’s that? Because this is Batman & Robin, that of generally-poorly-regarded late-90’s sensibilities, on VHS. Of course, under normal circumstances this isn’t an even remotely tough movie to find on the format, and indeed, we took a look at a one such example years ago.

Still, why the need to keep this as minty sealed fresh (such as it is) as possible? Take a look at the red banner string across the top edge of this tape, because that’s what makes this one special. It’s the widescreen edition! That’s cool! And evidently fairly rare; I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person before landing this copy, I’ve seen none for sale on eBay (currently or in the past), and Amazon turned up nothing upon keyword searches.

In fact, it wasn’t until I did a Google image search that I found a single shot of the mythical beast, which linked to this Amazon listing, which oddly enough I couldn’t figure out how to bring up otherwise. Maybe it’s a UPC thing. (Look, I did the legwork for you!). There were exactly two used copies for sale there, I bought the cheaper one, and here we are.

Aside from that banner along the top (and which extends to the sides, FYI), the front cover is identical to the ‘normal’ VHS release; you know, Arnold in his career-defining role as Mr. Freeze, looming above wildly miscast George Clooney as Batdude and Chris O’Donnell as Robin, plus Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy and Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl. Seriously, if you hit up thrift stores as often as I do, you’ve seen this cover approximately six thousand times by this point. Except for, you know, that banner

That Amazon page is really my only resource for this release, and it tells me that it hit shelves on April 14, 1998, several months after the regular edition, which according to Amazon dropped on October 21, 1997. There was no small amount of negative press leveled at the movie, so it’s a little surprising to me that Warner Bros. thought there’d be enough demand to warrant a widescreen edition, especially one so many months later. I’m assuming the print run was pretty low, which would explain why there are quite possibly only two copies in the entire universe. Approximately, I mean.

Actually, for the most part, the print runs of widescreen VHS editions in the 1990s seems to have been lower in general. I pay special attention to these while out and about, and I even keep an eye on online auctions, and they tend to show up much less often than their full screen counterparts. There are exceptions of course, but apparently widescreen VHS editions of movies were a pretty niche category throughout the 1990s and even into the 2000s; maybe widescreen didn’t truly catch on until DVD flourished, I don’t know.

For example, I think I see at least one copy of that double VHS Saving Private Ryan set every time I’m out – the full screen edition, that is. And yet, just a couple of weeks ago, I finally found the seemingly-less-common widescreen one, which naturally became mine. Jurassic Park is another one; I’m not talking about the later THX edition with the shiny cover and all that, but rather an earlier copy that, like Batman & Robin here, looks identical to the full screen edition except for a red banner along the top edge. I stumbled upon that version by happenstance at Goodwill a few months back, and there was no way it wasn’t going home with me.

1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns also received the widescreen treatment on VHS, and while there’s a bit more evidence supporting them out there, even those don’t show up frequently at all. I’m not sure 1995’s Batman Forever even got a widescreen VHS – though eBay listings say otherwise; I’m guessing they’re auto-listings repeating an error over and over, because every time I tape a closer look, it’s the regular full screen tape.

I just realized not everyone may know what widescreen (or letterbox, as it was/is also called) refers to. Wikipedia explains it better than I ever could, but simply put, it’s the preservation of a film’s original ‘wide’ theatrical aspect ratio on home video, rather than cropping, panning and scanning for a 4:3 screen. Of course, we have big ol’ widescreen TVs and Blu-ray and whatnot now, so it’s not much of a big deal anymore, but back in the standard-definition television days, widescreen was the way to go if you wanted to see the whole movie. Yes, the image was technically smaller, with big black bars along the bottom and top of the screen “sandwiching” the film in the middle, but you got the entire image, and that was the important thing.

Does Batman & Robin benefit from this enhancement? It’d take more than letterbox to save the movie, but then, maybe that’s why I get such a big kick out of this release. “Well, it’s not a very good movie, but at least now we can see all of it…”

Plus, I just like widescreen in general. As such, I try to pick up these versions whenever I can. Or more truthfully, I like to get both pan-and-scan and widescreen copies when possible, not unlike both mono and stereo LPs.

Like the front cover, the back cover for the widescreen edition of Batman & Robin is practically identical to the full screen version you trip over while walking down the street. The only real differences are the additions of a 1998 copyright date added to the fine print and the box at the bottom explaining the widescreen situation (as opposed to the usual “this film has been formatted…” line). Look, Batman & Robin‘s 1:85:1 aspect ratio hath been preserved!

If you go back and read my older article on the full screen edition of the tape (albeit a Blockbuster-branded one, hence the article in the first place), you’ll see I felt the descriptive summary on the back cover was a little “out there.” All these years later, widescreen or not, that feeling remains. In lieu of re-sharing my thoughts in a slightly altered form, I’m just going to copy and paste what I wrote then, because you can’t plagiarize yourself and it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want: “My favorite part is the mention of ‘New very special effects…’, as if these special effects are substantially more special than your usual , run-of-the-mill special effects. I love this tape. Also, ‘From our Batfamily to yours’? That’s adorable Give me a break.”

Batman & Robin is one of those movies I’m inexplicably fond of. Yes, the negative buzz surrounding it is warranted. BUT, it’s such an artifact of late-1990s Hollywood and the period of my life in which it falls, that I just can’t hate it. In fact, I’m going to quote myself again here, because like I said, my blog, my rules: “Despite the fact the movie is one of the worst things ever, I have an inexplicable fondness for the film. Well, not really for the film per se. More for the time period and where it falls in my lifetime. Going further into all that would be a huge digression, so let me stay kinda on track here. Batman & Robin: I remember the release, I remember (and sampled) the Taco Bell tie-in promotion, and I remember the revelation that it apparently made theater-goers cry. I wouldn’t know, though; we tried to go see it, but the only available-to-us showing was sold out, so we settled for, I’m pretty sure, Men In Black.”

Look, this is all my half-hearted way of trying to close this one out. Like I said before, I can only say so much about a sealed tape. And besides, today the prospect of a widescreen version of this movie isn’t so novel anymore; you’ve been able to see it this way since it hit DVD, as far as I know. (Wasn’t it a flipper disc, with full screen on one side, widescreen on the other? I have an old DVD copy boxed away, but I refuse to dig it up for an article approximately four people are going to read.)

Still, a widescreen VHS copy of Batman & Robin, that’s pretty neat. I don’t know how long it was in print or for how long it was sold, but in my experience, it’s not easily found nowadays. Since the regular VHS version had that late-90s home video charm in spades, it stands to reason that the special widescreen edition does as well, though I’ll admit the feeling of ‘exclusivity’ takes away from the mass-market, mainstream appeal of the version you usually come across. Or something like that.

I don’t know where exactly I’m going with this. Look, 1997’s Batman & Robin, they put it out on a widescreen VHS, and you’ve just see the proof. THE END.

Video Rental Artifact: ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (1991; 1992 Blockbuster-Branded VHS)

Sometimes when I’m out hunting for this or that and I find a VHS tape that strikes my stupid dumb fancy, it’s not always just about the tape itself. I mean, yeah, it helps when I have at least some vested interest in the release proper, but oftentimes there are ‘supplemental’ features that will take a a tape from “well, alright, I guess” to “must must must buy and you can’t stop me and if you try I’ll throw down legit.” Today’s subject is a definite example of the latter.

(HINT: I’ve been down this route before.)

Before we get to that, let me provide a little backstory first: It’s 1991, I’m five, and the big budget Kevin Costner film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is seemingly aimed directly at me and my kind. Kenner put out a neato toy line that, unbeknownst to me then, was chock full of re-purposed molds. (Y’all get genuine props for reusing the Ewok village as Robin’s forest fortress, Kenner!) There was even a Nintendo game that, I discovered years later, was actually pretty good (a rarity in the world of NES movie-based carts).

The marketing worked, and just like a year earlier when I jumped on the Dick Tracy bandwagon hardcore (or at least as hardcore as is possible for a four-year old), little me was all about the Hood. Erm, Robin Hood, I mean. Dad took me to see the film in theaters, and frankly, I don’t remember much about it, but it was probably a bit too dark for a five-year old.

Nevertheless, there’s some definite nostalgia on my part now when I look back at Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It’s not a film I’ve revisited in the 27 years that have elapsed, but yeah, nostalgia. Plus, it’s a film I can conceivably see myself revisiting nowadays, which is no small feather in its cap, or arrow, or [insert further Robin Hood-themed pun here].

The VHS release of this movie is not even remotely hard to find. Lately, I’ve noticed that a lot of movies from that era, which for the longest time were seemingly ever-present used, are not as commonly found nowadays. I’m not saying they’re rare, not at all, but unless it’s ’89 Batman, Jurassic Park or (looking ahead a bit) Titanic, you’re not always guaranteed a quick find while out hitting up the thrift stores and whatnot for VHS. (It’s not a dead format thing – yet – either, because I still come across a lot of VHS during my travels.)

No kidding, it took far longer than I care to admit to stumble across Cop and a Half, another one I saw in the theater back in the day, until I finally, finally did, several weeks back. It was a moment of triumph, flourish, and bravado that, quite frankly, I probably shouldn’t be so ready to admit. Of course, once I finally found that copy, some two weeks later I came across another one; I picked that one up too, on principle alone.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is, in my mostly-useless experience, not one such release. Hardly a thrift run goes by that I don’t come across one or more copies of the flick on VHS. As such, nostalgia notwithstanding, I’ve never felt much need to throw one in the cart when I’m out and about and picking up too much crap I don’t really need, because it’s pretty much always available.

But then, this copy came into my life, and that all changed.

Several weeks back, during a fairly impromptu thrift trip, the location of choice had somewhat refreshed their home video shelves, which meant there was a decent selection of obsolete media for yours truly to gawk at. I didn’t see much worth buying at first glance, but then I happened to take a closer look at the copy of Robin Hood that was laying there, of which I had previously paid little attention. This was fortuitous because, man, I had inadvertently stumbled upon not only something that tied into my formative years, but was also a legitimate artifact of the video rental-era – an era that was also a part of my formative years!

Behold! It’s a vintage Blockbuster Video-branded copy of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves! Cool winnins!

I’m always on the lookout for tapes like this, and while Blockbuster-emblazoned stuff isn’t very hard to find, in my (again, mostly-useless) experience, tapes prior to 1995 or so show up much less frequently. (This is from 1992; hold your water, you’ll see proof in a moment.)

Of course, as far as the sleeve goes, this branding extends only to the shrinkwrap; the jacket itself is your common, garden-variety Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves VHS sleeve, what with the title and Kevin Costner with his flamin’ arrow and whatnot. If I were to be foolish enough to remove said shrinkwrap, outside appearances would belie the real history of the tape.

And that history, the very fact this is such a relic of the video rental-era (at or very near its height, no less), when Blockbuster was veritable king of the VHS world, that alone makes this tape worth the 60 cents the thrift store was asking for it. You could claim that I’m flippin’ my beans over that swanky old school “previously viewed” sticker, and I am weird enough to buy a tape just for something like that, but it’s really the whole package with this one. Like I said, this is a legitimate artifact of early-1990s home video! The fact I have real history with the movie just makes it all the better; I wouldn’t be as happy if this were a copy of Curly Sue, for example. (Sorry, Jim Belushi.)

That particular “special price sticker” on the front isn’t something I come across often at all when it comes to used VHS buying; usually, it’s those square yellow stickers from the mid-90s or circular red ones of later years that I find affixed to my obsolete video formats.

But it’s the sticker on the back of the sleeve (well, shrinkwrap) that puts this one over the top, though. Dig this: this copy of the movie was placed out for sale on February 9, 1992! And look, it was only $9.95! This was a time when you could get away with charging that much for a used VHS tape! (Though, granted, wasn’t $9.95 like $600 in 1992 dollars?)

In a nice turn of events, there was no description on the back of the sleeve for the sticker to obscure, though the fine technical print wasn’t so fortunate. Still, you get the typical ballyhoo of quotes and taglines and whatnot. And look, recorded on BASF tape!

I’m not sure when Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves debuted on home video. In the U.S., it hit theaters on June 14, 1991, and while home video releases didn’t move as quickly then as they do now (or so it seems to me), I would assume it was out in time for the Christmas season. At any rate, by early ’92, this particular Blockbuster location had a used copy out for sale. I’m going to guess that this was a holdover from an initial “rental push,” after it first debuted on VHS. That’s my theory, anyway; early-92 seems pretty close to when this would have initially hit rental shelves. Or not; what do I know?

As I said, remove the shrinkwrap (not that I ever will), and that video rental lineage mostly goes away, but slide the tape out of the sleeve, and there’s a piece of evidence a bit more solid…

Ah, the famous “y’all betta rewind” reminder! As per the norm, slapped right over the left window of the tape! Thas adorable. And look, the previous owner did NOT rewind all the way to the start! Despite that being the benefit of owning a tape yourself, I still demand restitution. But from whom?!

I’m not sure why the title “label” on the tape, which is actually just printed right on the casing itself, is upside down though. Was this normal, or a mistake? I come across plenty of Robin Hood tapes, so I really should know this, but I, uh, don’t.

Actually, during a thrift trip just two nights ago, one store had not one but two copies of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves on VHS for sale. Well, technically, one plus a sleeve; the first copy was legit, but the other one had what appeared to be a blank tape mistakenly (?) housed in the sleeve, and severely molded to boot. The ‘real’ one, however, I checked, and it had an actual label on the tape, placed right side up. Maybe a later pressing? I don’t know, but my attempts at sleep later were relatively tortured, and there’s the slight possibility that it was a subconscious reaction to this Robin Hood conundrum.

None of this really matters and I’m clearly just babbling now.

(EDIT: The label as seen here is normal; I’ve since verified it with yet another stumbled-across copy while out thrifting. I didn’t buy it, but maybe I should have…)

Anyway, I’m not going to play this; what would the point be? I can get a “watching copy” at essentially any time I please; heck, I had yet another chance just the other evening! And probably another one later today! And besides, for the purpose of this article, what could I really say? “It’s Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, on, uh, VHS…” The quality will be fine, SP, not up to the standards of DVD, but then, would you expect it to be?

No no, this particular copy hath been deemed my “collector’s copy,” and as such deserves a place of honor. Like a shiny display case or something, maybe with a rotating stand. You know, like how they show off rotisserie chickens at the grocery store. No, wait, that might end badly…

Really, I get a big kick out of this find. As mentioned, I have childhood memories of not only the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but also the associated merchandising hype that went along with it. Add to that definitive evidence of Blockbuster Video’s heyday, which lends an even more decidedly early-90s ambiance to the proceedings, and you’ve got something that could really be considered special. If you’re into old home video, anyway.

On a final, related note: you can almost be guaranteed that if I ever come across a copy of 1989’s Batman, or even 1992’s Batman Returns, with similar Blockbuster-branding all over it, there’s a good possibility you’ll hear my giddy exclamations from wherever you may currently be situated.

DVD Review: A BIG BOX OF COWBOYS, ALIENS, ROBOTS AND DEATH RAYS (S’more Entertainment, 2011)

You know how much I love budget DVD compilations of old movies; I’ve gone to that well more than once here on the blog. I don’t claim to own, or even seen, all that the “genre” has to offer, and so, it’s always a thrill to find a new, unbeknownst-to-me set – especially one that makes my eyes figuratively pop out. S’more Entertainment’s A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays is absolutely, without a doubt one such DVD collection.

This was released in 2011, seemingly to cash in on the hype surrounding a movie I have practically zero recollection of: Cowboys & Aliens. I haven’t seen it and I have no intention of seeing it.

Still, I always love it when a new home video release plays into the vibes of a then-current Hollywood product; we saw this big time with Sons of Kong, and in the same vein comes A Big Box… That is old, public domain movies, in this case B-Westerns with elements of science fiction and/or horror, put together to “ride the wave.” All four of my regular readers will recall how much I love B-Westerns, and when they broke out of the mold and included elements not commonly associated with the genre (that is, sci-fi and horror), as we saw this past Halloween season with 1944’s Wild Horse Phantom, well, that’s just double-interestin’ to yours truly.

Given the title, I was expecting an actual box set, but when my copies arrived (that’s right, copies. I had to order these, and I got two; one to watch watch/review, and one to keep minty sealed fresh cause that’s how I roll), but in reality, what arrived was a four-disc, eight-movie set (two movies per disc, giving them a nice “double feature” feel), all housed in a standard-size DVD case with four hubs inside. Rest assured, I prefer this packaging; it’s a sleek, compact design that doesn’t take any extra space on the figurative DVD shelf, but with enough weight to it to really feel like a product, if that makes any sense. I dig it, is what I’m saying.

I like the cover art. The robot on the horse seems to be a modified version of the ‘bots seen in the first movie of the set (more on that momentarily). As you can see, the graphic artist in charge put him on a horse, threw him in a western village, and gave it a flying saucer to loom overhead – complete with big ol’ explosion! This art is also found (in slightly animated form) on the DVD menu screens, and I like it a lot – even if there are no actual flying saucers in any of these films. It absolutely gets the point across, and appears competently made to boot. Well done, me says!

So now, let’s check it out, disc by disc. Being such old films, the print quality obviously varies movie by movie, as (I hope) you’d expect. Yes, there are splices, scratches, dirt, dust, and quite often the edge of the frame is plainly visible. I don’t mind any of that one bit. The print quality lends these films an added air of old-time matinee charm, and besides, scratches or not, they’re all uniformly watchable.


Disc One: The set kicks off with a bang, with Radio Ranch, a 1940 feature version of the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire. This film alone basically sums of the title of the collection as a whole. Starring Gene Autry (in his first lead outing), the flick combines the singing cowboy sub-genre of B-Westerns with a legitimate science fiction bend, and from start to finish, it’s pretty wild.

Gene hosts a daily radio program from the aforementioned “Radio Ranch,” a showcase in which to sing his songs. He’s amassed quite a following; he even has his own fan club on the premises. Unfortunately, not everyone loves Gene’s show; a group of scientists want him off the land so they can harvest the valuable radium deposit right underneath.

Oh, and also located directly beneath the ranch? A lost underground civilization, and guess what? tThey want Gene outta there too. (These are the “aliens” of the collection’s title; no outer space fellas in this one!) The underground city is a trip; it’s a sprawling underground city (think of a cut-rate Metropolis), complete with goofy-lookin’ robot servants, citizens that can’t breathe our air and thus need oxygen masks (we can breathe okay down there, though), and a really icy (as in disposition) queen ruler.

Since it’s a condensed version of a 12-chapter serial, it stands to reason the flow of the film is a somewhat disjointed, but you know what? It’s a lot of fun, and a good summation of what this DVD set is supposed to be about.

Nearly any film is going to appear tame by comparison, but even so, the next feature on the disc, 1936’s Ghost Patrol, seems really tame, which is too bad because the title of Ghost Patrol is pretty cool. But in actuality, it’s a talky Tim McCoy vehicle, and while there is a legit sci-fi element to it, it doesn’t appear in full until the last 15 minutes of the feature, and even then nothing much happens until the last 4 minutes. As such, this is more of a straight B-Western than anything.

In it, a scientist has been captured by baddies and forced to perfect a death ray, capable of causing a plane’s engine to fail. Said baddies use this to bring down planes carrying the, as you would say, big money. Tim McCoy is a government agent out to put a stop to such shenanigans. Also present is the scientist’s daughter, who…doesn’t do much of anything, honestly.

Ghost Patrol isn’t a bad film, but a little slow and definitely a huge step down from the wackiness of Radio Ranch. Still, neat title


Disc Two: For the sake of full disclosure, I muse admit that when I first dug into this set, this was the disc I started with. Under normal circumstances, I steadfastly refuse to enter in the middle of things, as it were. Nope, I like to start at the beginning and go in order until it’s finished. So why the deviation this time around? Two words: Ken Maynard.

No joke, Ken Maynard is my favorite B-Western actor, and quite possibly my favorite western star period. I haven’t seen a film of his that I haven’t liked to some degree, and the first feature here, Tombstone Canyon, is a flick I’ve been jonesin’ to watch. I actually already owned it, as both a standalone DVD and an old VHS release, but for one reason to another, I just never got around to checking it out, despite its cool concept.

(In fact, the whole reason I stumbled upon this DVD set in the first place was because I was researching different releases of Tombstone Canyon.)

Tombstone Canyon falls much more on the horror side of things than the previous two films. In it, Ken rides into town at the insistence of an old friend, but to get there he has to pass through the titular location, and that’s where the trouble starts. Not only are there some villains running rampant right from the start, but more distressingly, there’s someone dubbed “The Phantom Killer” roaming the canyon. He makes weird howling calls, he’s really strong, and he has no qualms about killing people. The character lends a creepy, engrossing air to a film plot that would have been standard western fodder otherwise.

The ending is also slightly abrupt, but in a good way. Think of some of those shocking endings in certain episodes of the original Hawaii Five-O or Miami Vice, where there’s some violence, and then it just ends. It’s a little like that, and it works really well. The entire climax of the film is terrific, come to think of it.

Tombstone Canyon also boasts the best film print of all 8 movies in this set. Oh, there’s scratches and dirt and such, but the image itself is beautifully sharp and clear. It even looked good while being unnaturally stretched to widescreen on my HDTV. (I refuse to fiddle with the picture settings.) Add that on top of an already phenomenally entertaining flick and first-rate star, and you’ve got easily my favorite movie in the entire collection.

The second disc starts strong and finishes strong, with 1937’s Riders of the Whistling Skull. I’m not sure if this or Radio Ranch is the more famous example of the “weird western” sub-genre, but it’s certainly a heavy-hitter. An entry in the long-running Three Mesquiteers film series, Riders… may be a little (but just a little) less overtly nutty than Radio Ranch, but it’s still pretty out there.

Here, the Mesquiteers get involved with an expedition into a lost city, where a fortune in gold resides. A scientist had previously traveled there but never returned, so it’s up to his daughter and crew to try and rescue him. Along the way, there’s a weird Indian cult (complete with a guy dancing around in a skull mask), murder, some double-crossin’, a skull-shaped mountain (not that one!), even a temple with some mummies! A standard B-Western this most certainly is not!

A ton of action, too. In comparison to how the first disc ended, Riders… is incredibly action-packed. It’s a pretty good movie as a whole too, and since I’m not a big Three Mesquiteers fan, that says a lot.

I dare say that of the four discs, this second one is the strongest of the lot. Two excellent films that are pretty much worth the price of admission alone.


Disc Three: The second half of the collection opens with an entry in the “Renfrew of the Royal Mounted” series, 1940’s Sky Bandits. As you may surmise, Renfrew was a Canadian Mountie, and with the Yukon setting, this isn’t technically a western film, but these Renfrews are (seemingly) usually lumped in with the genre anyway, and besides, it has all the other correct ingredients.

Another reason this inclusion fits perfectly? According to Wikipedia, it’s actually a remake of Ghost Patrol! The plots are strikingly similar; both feature a scientist under the thumb of some unscrupulous types, both feature a death ray that is used to bring down airplanes in order to extract valuable cargo, and both feature the scientist’s daughter showing up to get in the way.

Sky Bandits is a better movie by far, however. It moves much faster, with more action, more usage of the death ray, and with some real comedy relief provided by Dave O’Brien as fellow Mountie. Even the daughter actually has a real bearing on the plot here. Throw in a couple inexplicable-but-fun musical numbers, and you’ve got a fun, breezy flick. I had never seen a Renfrew before, but I genuinely enjoyed this movie! More than I was anticipating, quite honestly.

Next: 1938’s Gun Packer, which is the most ‘normal’ western movie in the entire collection (though it’s a close call between it and Ghost Patrol). Honestly, it’s practically a straight B-Western. Oh, there’s a scientist on the premises, and he’s devised some weird method for making gold “disappear,” as well as created a highly-explosive liquid substance, but the science fiction threads aren’t overt at all here.

Unfortunately, Gun Packer also demonstrates the era in which it was produced. Our hero has an African-American sidekick, played by Ray Turner, and, well, he portrays the kind of stereotypical comedic character that was common in movies at the time. It’s pretty uncomfortable, and it’s in cases like this that a film has to be watched with a historical context in mind.

Fun Fact: Dave O’Brien and Louise Stanley are in both of the third disc’s offerings, making me wonder if the pairing was intentional. Stanley is the usual female lead in both, but O’Brien’s roles are polar opposites; goofball comedic relief in Sky Bandits, one of the bad guys in Gun Packer.


Disc Four: The final disc of the collection starts with 1941’s Saddle Mountain Roundup, an entry in the “Range Busters” series. Another one of those trio films like the Three Mesquiteers, (Max Terhune plays the jokey ventriloquist member in the examples of both found in this collection), there are very strong horror overtones in this one.

In it, cranky land owner Magpie Harper is convinced someone is trying to kill him and, well, he’s right. The Range Busters, already hired to watch over his property, try to figure out who done did it.

Sadly, like Gun Packer, the racial stereotypes of the era rear their head again, this time in the form of Chinese cook (and occasional suspect) Fang Way, played by Willie Fung. His sometimes-shifty behavior, nearly-incomprehensible English and scatterbrained demeanor are wildly unacceptable today, so again, this is a case where you have to view with historical context in mind.

That’s the only serious blight on the movie though, because otherwise, I genuinely enjoyed it. Creepy cinematography, rain storms, a murder mystery, cloaked figures, a cave that is essentially the fill in for an “old dark house,” horror vibes are found throughout. The plot is fun and at less than an hour, breezy enough.

And that brings us to the final movie of the collection, 1935’s The Vanishing Riders, and boy is creeeeeeaky. B-Westerns weren’t exactly high-budget items anyway (hence the “B” branding), but even so, the cheapness of this one really shines through.

Bill Cody (not the Buffalo one) and his real-life son Bill Cody Jr. (also not the Buffalo one) star as a (former) sheriff and his adopted child, respectively. There’s a deserted town, a marauding gang of thieves, a crotchety old man, a lovely leading lady and a plot to rustle some cattle, but I’m going to be honest with you, only two things stick out to me about this one: 1) Cody Jr., roughly 10 years old, has a role comparable to the other adults, and he gets a lot of screen time doing ‘heroic’ stuff. We’re talking Gamera-movie levels of importance for the kid. Frankly, it’s pretty annoying. 2) At one point both Cody men dress both themselves and their horses up in skeleton costumes in order to scare the thieves.

It’s those skeleton costumes that lend a horror flair to The Vanishing Riders, so it fits the theme of this DVD fine, but for as much as I love B-Westerns, the kid-friendly nature of the flick drags this one down for me.


A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays is a pretty consistent collection of horror and science fiction-tinged B-Westerns. The overall theme of the set is just so neat that you (well, I) can’t help but love it. Radio Ranch, Tombstone Canyon and Riders of the Whistling Skull are terrific and worth the price of admission alone, Sky Bandits and Saddle Mountain Roundup are fun, solid inclusions, and Ghost Patrol, Gun Packer and The Vanishing Riders, while not up to the level of the other movies in the collection (in my opinion), are if nothing else watchable examples of the B-Western genre and the matinee vibes said genre exemplifies.

Aside from the few noted and unfortunate racial stereotypes that were products of their time, it’s a pretty easygoing set; for fans of B-Westerns, vintage horror and/or science fiction, or all three, it’s not a bad choice. It appears this compilation is out of print, or at least, Amazon currently has no new copies for sale, but methinks it’s worth hunting down; it certainly stands out from the numerous other budget DVD compilations that have hit the shelves over the years!

Big Chuck & Lil’ John Promotional Flying Disc (Circa-1993)

Look chief, when I said back in February that I wanted to spotlight more Cleveland television memorabilia, I wasn’t lying. I certainly like seeing original broadcasts, or obtaining promotional photos, or finding vintage print ads, but here’s my hidden secret: one of my great passions in this hobby is collecting the, as I have deemed it, “solid memorabilia.” That is, mugs and glassware, pins, shirts, hats, or anything randomly emblazoned with the names/stations/logos of Northeast Ohio broadcasting. For whatever reason, I place these types of items in a different mental category than I do paper ware and video tape. So there.

Today’s subject fits my weird “solid memorabilia” ideal and new decree that I spotlight such on my stupid dumb blog to a tee, because this, this is legit. Dig this: it’s a vintage (from somewhere in the early-1990s) promotional flying disc for WJW TV-8’s The Big Chuck & Lil’ John Show. Yep, the iconic late night horror hosts/comedy duo of everlasting Northeast Ohio fame had their own promotional toy. Neato! As you can see, it features their classic caricatures and the old school WJW logo, all printed on a flashy green disc. Rest assured, this is exactly the kind of memorabilia I’m always on the lookout for!

I’m not totally positive on when it’s from, mainly because I don’t know how long they were pitching these. They were definitely pushing them in 1993, and thus that’s the “circa” date I’m going with, but I’m unaware of when they were first produced for sure, nor do I know when they stopped making them. So yeah, circa-1993.

I’m also not completely sure as to how the common dude-on-da-street could obtain these. I’d imagine they were sold regularly, probably at personal appearances and maybe at stores around town, but don’t quote me on any of that; it’s merely a guess on my part. I do know that they were given out as prizes for correct trivia answers on their show. That is, to studio audience members lucky enough to be called on and lucky enough to have a satisfactory answer to a given question, not to mention lucky enough to be in attendance at a show taping in the first place. If these flying discs were uniquely given out as show prizes, well, that’s just plain cool, and not something easily obtainable, either then or now, I’d assume.

Also, it’s important to note that it’s not a “Frisbee,” but a “flying disc.” Y’see, “Frisbee” is a Wham-O product and a trademarked name, but like “Band-Aid,” it’s often used to describe all similar products. But no, this is technically speaking a “flying disc.”

There were actually two of these discs out at the same time: a large (standard-size) disc, pink in color, and a smaller green one. The smaller variant is what you’re seeing above; I haven’t picked up the big one yet, mainly because I’m at the mercy of what comes up for sale and enters my line of vision. Plus, you know, there’s that whole scraping-together-enough-money thing, too.

The reason for the two different sizes? Well, obviously the big one signified Big Chuck, and the small one signified Lil’ John! That’s actually a pretty great gimmick, one that fits the duo perfectly.

So, not a long post, but then, there’s only so much I can say about a 25 (?) year old flying disc. Oh, and happy St. Patrick’s Day, by the way; the disc is green, so it works here, right?

Return of the 1975 RCA AU-097Y Portable TV! (Plus a Look at XENOPHOBE for the Atari 2600!)

Sometimes I have a problem where I’ve got more than enough stuff that I could write about, but, frankly, can’t really decide on any one subject. Such was my problem recently, as I looked at the boxes of VHS tapes, stacks of DVDs and mounds of old electronics around me, yet continued to be at a loss. I couldn’t get fired up over anything. Then, my eyes fell upon my beloved RCA AU-097Y portable TV from 1975, which I wrote about waaaay back in 2013 – in the early months of this very site! I have always loved the extreme 1970s-ness of this TV, but even so, that alone wasn’t enough to bring it back for a return-appearance on my stupid dumb blog. So what warranted a quick picture-taking session?

The latter years of the Atari 2600, that’s what! (This post is more for fun than anything. Plus, I haven’t written anything for November yet and constantly fear that y’all will abandon me.)

Now, I can play Atari 2600 (or if you want to get technical, Atari 7800) pretty much any time I please. I have one constantly at the ready in my “office” (ha!), and while I don’t play video games a whole lot, I do occasionally need to, as the ads used to say, reach reach reach for Atari. This doesn’t normally require usage of a 42 (!) year old TV, however. So, why did it now? Xenophobe, that’s why!

The picture to the right says it all: Midway’s 1987 split-screen arcade game was given the 2600 treatment, the title-screen of which you’re seeing right here. Xenophobe has long been one of my favorites on the console, which is funny, since I’m not big on the arcade version or most of the higher-end ports (the Lynx adaption wasn’t bad). I guess in the 2600’s case, “less is more,” though. While the more advanced versions retained much of the comical, cartoon-like atmosphere of the coin-op, the 2600’s weaker graphic and sonic capabilities meant only the ‘meat’ of Xenophobe was retained. It comes off quieter, more desolate, which for a game originally inspired by the Alien films, I think serves the 2600 port well. Plus, the fact a game this advanced even made it to the 2600 at all, in an extremely playable form no less, is purty derned impressive.

Here’s the deal: This 2600 port was indeed released in the U.S., at the insanely late date of 1990 (actually, this AtariAge thread says it didn’t ship until Spring 1991!!), which means there were/are NTSC copies out there, but for the longest time, they were pretty rare. I mean, by 1990/1991, the 16-bit era of video games had dawned; who would have thought they’d still be releasing games for a console introduced in 1977 in an age where the Sega Genesis had been unleashed?! It’s true – the Atari 2600 wasn’t officially discontinued until January 1, 1992. This wasn’t a one-off release, either; there were a slew of new 2600 games released in the wake of the infamous 1983 video game crash, after Nintendo totally revived the industry. Many of these newer 2600 titles were, and are, super-impressive, featuring NES-like formats and gameplay and graphics that many just wouldn’t think possible on the 2600.

Xenophobe is one such game, but by the time it saw release in the U.S., the market for the 2600 was all but dead. Overseas though, there was still some life left in the beast, the result being that you could find PAL copies of many of these hard-to-find US titles for a fraction of the cost. And that’s where my RCA TV comes in.

As you may imagine, games in the PAL format from that era aren’t generally known to run correctly in the U.S. Colors will be off, and more drastically, the screen can roll, rendering the game unplayable. However, by using an old school CRT TV with the capability to adjust the vertical hold, you can stabilize the screen to normal, and if you’re using a black & white set, as I did here, why, the mismatched colors don’t even matter! Cool winnins!

I own a (as I was assured by the seller) sealed NTSC copy of Xenophobe, which I had to pay real money for back in 2001 or 2002, but my loose copy is PAL. I’ve had a hankerin’ for some 2600 Xenophobe lately, so, well, you can deduce how we got where we are right now.

(By the way, the prices for NTSC Xenophobe, as well as other late-era releases, have fallen drastically in the years since I nabbed my sealed one; a ton of new old stock U.S. copies were uncovered in Venezuela some years back and made available to the masses, which means that what once were mega-rare titles are now surprisingly common, and affordable, via online sales. I’ve got several of these, another Xenophobe included, winging their way towards me as we speak.)

To make Atari happen on the RCA, I had to kick things way old school. Yep, via screws and an ancient RF switchbox – the kind you had to slide a switch to TV or game when you wanted to enjoy either. That’s what you’re seeing to your left here. Nothing unusual about it; this is how video game consoles were hooked up back in the day! On the RCA, there’s no other way.

Actually, it’s kind of a kick to hook a system up to a TV this way. You know, I grew up plugging things into the RF port, or via AVs, so it’s sorta neat to attach a console in such a wildly obsolete fashion. It feels very late-1970s/early-1980s appropriate, even if the Atari 7800 (which also plays 2600 games is thus my normative choice of Atari console) didn’t come out (nationally) until 1986, when this method had almost-certainly been widely-superseded by the RF/AV thing I just mentioned.

There are a bunch of contrasting eras at play here. You’ve got a black & white TV from 1975, displaying a game copyrighted 1990 and apparently released in 1991 and made for a console introduced in 1977, which in turn was being played on a console released in 1986 but included native backward-compatibility with that console introduced in 1977. Why, it’s enough to make your head swim!

So, back to Xenophobe. If for some reason you thought I had some kind of authority in the world of Atari (Hint: I don’t) and asked me to name my top 20 games for the 2600, Xenophobe would absolutely be on that list. Actually, it’d make my top 10. I love the game!

To your right is the opening scene of game play (I’d venture to guess that this is the only pic of the game being played on a black & white TV from 1975 on the internet – for the time being). Now, most people probably think of 2600 games as simple affairs, but Xenophobe is actually pretty expansive, comparable to many then-modern games. There are eight stations to visit throughout the game (though there’s no ending; it loops after the eighth), and stations that include different rooms, with some having multiple levels accessed via elevator. And as we saw above, it even features a legit title screen!

Graphically, the game really wows. Like any console, the longer it’s around, the more the programmers can get out of it.  Okay, sure, compared to the NES or 7800 (both of which had ports of Xenophobe), never mind the Sega Genesis (which didn’t), the graphics are extremely blocky, and gamers nowadays would probably laugh so hard at them that they’d spill whatever hyper-powered soft drink they had chosen for their all-night online gaming session. But given the system it’s on, Xenophobe is definitely impressive. Your character is rendered in multiple colors, the animation is (mostly) smooth, there are a variety of aliens to combat, and from outside appearances at least, the space stations are varied; I really liked all the gadgets and junk that adorned the walls of the areas you traversed, too. There’s even separate cut-scenes featuring your mother ship coming upon an infested station! Neato!

Musically, there’s some bits adapted from the arcade that don’t sound bad at all, and the sound effects are serviceable; there were certainly far worse to be found on the 2600.

The plot of the game involves several space stations that have been infested by alien beings (“Xenophobes,” as per the manual), and it’s up to you to clean ’em out! Yep, you beam on board each station, alone, and must systematically clear out a required number of aliens before you can be beamed back to your mother ship. (If you take too long, you’re beamed back aboard while the infested station self-destructs.) The aliens range from pods to tentacles to gigantic, dangerous beasts, and you’ve got several weapon choices scattered throughout the ships to help exterminate them.

Xenophobe‘s gimmick in the arcades was that the screen was split into three sections, allowing for three players going at the game simultaneously. For obvious reasons, the home editions generally cut that down to two, and as you can see, the 2600 followed suit; that bottom half is reserved for the second player – but not simultaneously! Yep, despite the split-screen, players must take turns, even though it’s still player one on the top, player two on the bottom. I get that having simultaneous game play like that might be too much for the ol’ 2600 to handle, but then why have the split-screen at all?

That bit of irritation aside, Xenophobe is pretty solid. The difficulty may be a little uneven; get the powerful “Poofer Gun” and you can basically cruise through what would otherwise be some pretty tough stages, stages that are a little insurmountable without it or a plentiful supply of grenades. Still, the mark of any good game is how often you (or at least I) keep coming back to it. Despite having not played the game in years, I indeed kept coming back for another round.

(By the way, it’s worth noting that the 2600 wasn’t the only “early” video game console to last as long as it did; the Intellivision, initially the 2600’s main rival, also enjoyed a revival and ultimate lifespan stretching into the late-1980s/early-1990s. However, the Inty never got Xenophobe, and thus Atari won yet again.)

So, aside from using an ancient CRT TV to get around the rolling screen issues, what did I learn playing Xenophobe this way? 1) I don’t mind playing in black & white. 2) There’s an odd sense of “coolness” playing the 2600/7800 in this fashion. It just looks neat. I hesitate to use the word “authenticity,” but there’s probably some of that in there, too. 3) TVs this old emit a smell that’s not particularly pleasant. I looked the phenomenon up, and while I forget the technical term now, it’s apparently normal. Doesn’t change the fact that I have a hypersensitive nose and that first night of play gave me, no joke, an ill-feeling. Subsequent plays were better; maybe the smell dissipated? Or maybe my nose just got used to it? I dunno.

Because this is just sort of a fun, dash-off post, I’m not sure how to end it. I played the Atari 2600 port of Xenophobe on an RCA TV from 1975, okay?

Actually, I do know how to end this post; I didn’t spend a long time playing it, because honestly I just wanted the picture seen here, but I did fire up another 2600 favorite, and this one was more period-appropriate: 1978’s Basketball!

When it comes to sports games, I’m not sure it gets more primitive than Basketball (that it’s right here, duh!), but man is it fun. It’s a one-on-one game, and you can play either the computer or another person. I didn’t this time around, but the two-player mode is where it’s at. Competitive in all the best ways. The graphics and sound are probably more in line with what people think when it comes to Atari, but the play is what counts, and Basketball has it to spare! Get it? “Spare!” Cause it’s…oh wait, I’m thinking of Bowling. That’s a favorite too, though.

So there you have it. I busted out the beloved 1975 RCA AU-097Y portable TV for a picture-taking session, and more importantly, several Xenophobe sessions. Nowadays, people like to mod their 2600’s for AV, HDMI, and so on and so forth. Play ’em on flatscreens and whatnot. Hey, nothing wrong with that. If I had the skills and the spare consoles, I’d take that plunge too. (Actually, I do have the spare consoles…but not the skills.) Still, sometimes you gotta kick it really old school, and I feel I have accomplished that arbitrary task exceedingly well.

Also, playing Xenophobe without the screen rolling like a madman is nice.

Movie Review: Wild Horse Phantom (1944)

“Hey, what’s goin’ on here?! A western movie review – in October?!

Yes, it’s true: Right in the heart of Halloween month, we’re looking at a 1940s poverty row western. But wait! Don’t go closing the tab just yet! This fits, trust me!

Back in the 1940s, Producers Releasing Corporation, or PRC for short, made movies with, erm, not a lot of money. They were, you know, a cheapie outfit – just one of the many poverty row studios that littered the cinematic landscape in that era. At the time, westerns of the budget variety were churned out nigh-continuously by these poverty row players; no joke, westerns were perhaps the preeminent “poverty row product.” So, it stands to reason there wound up being more than a few horse operas sporting the PRC branding. (See what I did there? “Branding!” Because it’s a…oh never mind.)

On that front, PRC had a long line of “Billy the Kid” B-Westerns, the first few with Bob Steele but the vast majority starring Buster Crabbe as the titular character. (Unlike the real-life outlaw, this Billy the Kid was a bit more of a heroic figure; this was matinee material, after all.) Crabbe was no small potatoes at the time, having portrayed Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and even Tarzan. Dude even made it to the Olympics – twice. Of course a studio would be all for him headlining an action-packed film series such as this! (Al “Fuzzy” St. John also starred in these as the comic sidekick, and truth be told, I had forgotten what a spaz his character could be.)

And that brings us to today’s subject, Wild Horse Phantom. Title cards to the left, yo. Released in 1944 (according to Wikipedia and its IMDb page, on October 28 – right before Halloween!), this entry falls, roughly, in the middle of the series – by which point “Billy the Kid” had become “Billy Carson.”

Now look, I really, really love B-Westerns; they’re some of my favorite movies to watch. BUT, I’ll never claim they could vary a whole lot. I mean, these were old west stories filmed on the cheap; how many plot lines could there be? Watch enough of these, and you start to see the same basic story lines repeated over and over, though when the action was good and the stars engaging, it didn’t really matter – bills that seemed to fit Crabbe pretty well, actually.

All that said, when you’ve got a long-running series such as this one, well, sometimes things had to be shaken up a bit, and that’s just what PRC did with Wild Horse Phantom – this is not your typical B-Western! The usage of “phantom” in the title isn’t really an indicator of horror-themes in a western (lotsa them used it), but make no mistake, our movie today has unmistakable horror movie undertones – and overtones! This one really breaks out of the mold, and it’s a lot of fun because of it. Read on!

The movie starts out normally enough: A fellow named Daggett, along with his gang, break out of prison. These guys were busted for robbing a bank, and, it turns out, the breakout has been orchestrated by Billy so he can trail them and recover the stolen money. (Along for the ride is another prisoner, an acquaintance of Billy and Fuzzy, who is unwittingly dragged with the gang; Daggett shoots him dead soon after. While it provides a moment for Fuzzy to grieve early on, it seems to be forgotten in fairly short order.)

At this point, I’d like to mention that this is a “modern day western,” meaning it was (ostensibly) set in the time it was produced. Sure, there’s still six-shootin’ and horses and whatnot, but there’s also then-modern automobiles present. When I was growing up and discovering B-Westerns on WAOH/WAX, I was always put off by these. To me, a western should be set in the old west; in the 1800s, maybe early-1900s tops. While I still prefer my westerns to adhere to my arbitrary standards, I will say I’ve softened on these “modern day” efforts – somehow the 1940s matinee charm is made all the more visible when then-modern accoutrements are present. Does that make any sense? No? Well, whatever.

Anyway, after that non-eyebrow-raising start, the setting get dark – literally. Billy and Fuzzy track Daggett’s gang to an old mine, where Daggett hid the stolen money before their incarceration. As seen here, our heroes skulk about in the dark (right), and eventually wind up spying on the gang as they futilely try to find the dinero. (Daggett can’t remember where exactly he hid it.) It’s at this point where things take a turn for the spooky; y’see, for all intents and purposes the mine here is the equivalent of a haunted house.

No joke – there’s mysterious, cackling laughs, provided by a “phantom” (our titular character, duh!) with a knife. This phantom seems to be on the side of good, even helping Billy and Fuzzy when they’re captured by the gang in surprisingly short order. Still, can you ever really trust a guy that runs around a dank mine and cackling? It’s gotta be a little unnerving, even if you are Buster Crabbe.

Eventually Billy makes it outside (while Fuzzy waits in the mine; more on that momentarily) and does a little investigating. The town in which the mine is located has been essentially wiped out by the aforementioned bank robbery, as the nefarious banker in charge is threatening to foreclose on everyone. You can probably see where things are going here. This moves the plot along, of course, but really, the best scenes are all in the mine. They really do manage to attain an aura of, I guess, an old dark house thriller – an intriguing and nice change of pace for a budget western!

Wild Horse Phantom probably can’t be deemed a ‘famous’ movie; B-Western fans might know of it, but it’s not like you’ll hear it spoken of in the same sentence as, say, Stagecoach. Still, there is one scene that almost has to come up when Wild Horse Phantom is mentioned, not only because it takes the horror elements of the film from a mostly-background presence to front and center, but also because it’s just so, well, PRC.

Because the scenes in the mine are, by necessity, dark, and the object in question was (almost) constantly in motion, capturing satisfactory screenshots was all but impossible here. I tried over and over, too. What you’re seeing to the left is The Devil Bat. Yes, that Devil Bat. As in The Devil Bat, the 1940 PRC horror flick starring Bela Lugosi. To showcase the hidden dangers of the mine, PRC reused the prop!

The scene: Fuzzy is wandering around the mine when he stumbles upon something lurking in the shadows, eyes glowing menacingly. That’s the top image on the left, and believe it or not, it manages to come across genuinely creepy!

The bat of course attacks Fuzzy, though the shots of him scuffling with it are incomprehensible in screencap-form, so the bottom image is the bat showing off its impressive wingspan. How does Fuzzy repel the creature? By biting it. (Don’t ask.)

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the bat doesn’t get much screen time. His scuffle with Fuzzy is it (though there’s a semi-related incident at the conclusion of the film that’s too dumb to not love). And why exactly is it there? Are we left to surmise that they just get that big in the mine by natural means? Or do we assume it’s one of Bela’s escaped experiments? Questions like this keep me up at night. No matter though, because the fact PRC reused the creature is just too awesome, and really sets Wild Horse Phantom apart from other B-Westerns.

As a whole, it’s a fun movie, and at under an hour (normal for these B-Westerns), it’s fast-paced by necessity. Granted, the breeziness of the film doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for further fleshing out of the story. For example, there’s what seems to be a love interest here, except the whole plot point just kinda peters out and goes nowhere after the initial germ of the idea. Plus, there’s that whole giant bat thing, too.

Still, B-Westerns weren’t high art, and they weren’t meant to be. This was matinee entertainment for the kids, not a serious horse opera. There’s perhaps no better evidence of that than Wild Horse Phantom, a movie that mixes the western, horror, and comedy genres far more adeptly than it should be able to. I really liked it! It’s harmless 1940 poverty row cinema, with plenty of action and, for our purposes today, horror to make it fit during the Halloween season. It’s not the kind of movie that would come to mind first for sure, but it’s a nice, unexpected option if you’re looking for some offbeat entertainment for your Halloween party.

Wild Horse Phantom gets your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter’s full-approval, and as we all know, my full-approval is of tantamount importance. Check it out!

(By the way, where’d I get this movie? This copy comes from Mill Creek’s 20 movie DVD set dedicated to the Billy the Kid series; however, as I haven’t been able to fully devour the entire collection yet, I’m labeling this as a “movie review” instead of my usual “DVD review,” as notating it the latter implies, to me anyway, a review of the whole set – something I can’t satisfactorily do yet. I take solace in the fact that anyone reading probably doesn’t care about trivial matters like this.)