The living room of the condo Rick Klein and his wife share in Downers Grove belongs in a catalog: tastefully matched furniture in muted tones, a wedding album tucked away neatly underneath the coffee table, framed prints of Van Gogh's Sunflowers and The Starry Night on the wall. But a third print, an illustration of a creature half-angel, half-butterfly with the word "Life" above it, looks slightly out of place, and strangely familiar. "You recognize that?" Klein asks. "Ever watch Three's Company? That's the same picture they have on their wall."
And that's not all. In a corner of the room sits a large pile of videotapes and a wood-paneled Betamax machine—the kind with dials that click when you turn them. Not far away is a bin full of DVDs, nearly 200 of them, all meticulously labeled: "WGN Channel 9—Sunday Matinee—Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon—Sunday, February 1st, 1981"; "WSNS-TV Channel 44—Chicago White Sox Vs. Milwaukee Brewers—Wednesday, July 30, 1980."
"That's really rare," Klein says, pulling out the DVD of the White Sox game. "It's only the last hour, it's not the whole game. I've traded that and even given it to people, because it's Chicago TV, and the White Sox, and it's got Harry Caray doing the seventh-inning stretch. And Channel 44, they're a Spanish station now. They stopped covering the Sox in like '81 or something, so it's pretty rare to have a game off of TV with the original commercials—even an hour of it."
Klein's been collecting tapes of old television broadcasts off and on since he was a teenager. Sporting events, children's programs, commercials, nightly station sign-offs, station-ID "bumpers," nothing's too mundane for his taste. Now 32, he's spent the last year posting his favorite finds on his own You Tube channel, Fuzzy Memories (youtube.com/fuzzymemoriestv). He's uploaded more than 500 short clips so far, most of them less than a minute long, but that represents just a small portion of the hundreds of hours of footage in his collection.
Back in high school, Klein worked off and on for a couple years at the Museum of Broadcast Communications. "Being a collector, that's like the mecca," he says. One day at work he ran across a tape of clips from Son of Svengoolie—a favorite from his childhood—and couldn't resist making a copy for himself. Soon he started trading for ever-rarer footage with collectors he met at the museum. "This one guy gave me some early Channel 44 stuff from like 1980—it's some of the most prized stuff I have. And Super Cartoon Sunrise on Channel 32; it played stuff like Woody Woodpecker and Popeye, but it had its own theme song, its own announcer, and it really got you excited for the cartoons."
For Klein, the cancellation of Son of Svengoolie marked the end of TV's golden era. "Nineteen eighty-six was the year that Fox took over Channel 32. TV changed pretty quickly after that," he says. The show—an offshoot of the original Svengoolie from the early 70s, with Rich Koz replacing Jerry Bishop as the host—had been produced at the station for seven years, and had aired in far-off cities like Boston and San Francisco. But when Fox took over, Klein says, "they decided he wasn't suitable for a national network. Because he's too local, too goofy, too whatever. So you lose some of that local flavor, you know?"
Klein pops in a DVD, grabs the remote, and sits down on the edge of a chair. "Now here's the opening to the ABC Sunday Night Movie," he says. "This was the earlier version that they ran all through the late 70s. They finally changed it to a new opening in late '81." Bright yellow stars fade into the background as the title bursts forth in a flash. Tonight's movie is Convoy, starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw.
Like any collector, Klein is always digging. He scours garage sales and thrift stores, trolls eBay, and places ads in the local papers and online. Some weeks he comes up empty-handed; others, he might bring home more than 50 tapes. As time consuming as it can be to sift through everything that crosses his path, sometimes Klein can tell a tape's potential just by picking it up: if the plastic feels too light, he knows it's too new. Anything of interest gets shipped off to a friend in Arizona, who transfers it to DVD.
Klein is always on the lookout for entire programs with all the commercials intact, but they can be difficult to find. Because videotapes were so expensive when they were first introduced, people tended to use the same tape over and over again and cut out the commercials to save space. "You've gotta have the whole thing," Klein said. "The beauty of it is to replicate the experience of watching it when it was live, so you've gotta have the program and all the breaks, too."
Some of the allure is sentimental. "One thing that just personally stuck with me a lot—I don't know if you remember, but in November of 1983 ABC showed this movie that was really big. It was called The Day After, and it was the story of what happens when a nuclear attack comes to America," he says. "I was nine years old at the time. It was really kind of scary for me, for a young kid. So many people can relate to that, nuclear annihilation and everything. But I thought it would be neat, since I remember that event so strongly, to find the original recording of when they showed that movie that night for local TV. I've gotten close—I found a copy that was taped here, but it doesn't have the commercials. Then I have a copy from a station in Toledo that has all the commercials, the whole thing, but it's a little different because it's not Chicago commercials. Some of the national commercials are the same, though."
Klein shuffles through his DVDs until he finds just the thing to follow the original opening of the ABC Sunday Night Movie: the updated opening of the ABC Sunday Night Movie. "So this is Moonraker, November 22, 1981," he says. "I think the quality is a little messed up at the beginning." The original videotape was clearly on its last legs: the announcer's voice warbles and the picture goes in and out. A few seconds later a star-shaped tunnel zooms into view as distorted white lines scroll across the screen. "They call this the 'star tunnel' opening," Klein says. "Do you remember this at all?"v