In the Modern Age of Entertainment, we have — so far — sustained Three Distinct Eras of performance preservation. The First Era was Film. The Second Era was Magnetic Tape. The Third, and current, Era is Digital. The most cursed of all the Eras, is the misbegotten second — Magnetic Audiotape and Videotape — where performances were not actually preserved, they were only perpetuated to die!
First, here’s a bit of background on the setting for this story of our Eras of Preservation!
On March 6, 2016 I won the Internet as every Google search return for “David Boles” was related to content I created and it all took up the entire first page of the results! That was a hard-won, years-long, battle win that took a lot of planning and preparation — with several changes of methodology and behavior to win the want — and I preserved the delight of that day.
I also celebrated my Google search win all along my social mesh, and on Facebook, one of my distant cousins — sub-cousins? … I was never very good with familial hierarchies — got in touch and we started a conversation about history and how we remember and what we try to preserve and why.
One tough thing about creating the Prairie Voice Archive of my work on Boles.com was the hard realization that some performances in radio and television I’d done in the 1980s could never be recovered.
They were all gone forever because the method of preservation — magnetic tape — was a vile form of storage from the start, and it took up a lot of storage room, and the tape, when aged even a little bit, sometimes only weeks, tended to stick to itself and the iron coating would slough off in brown chunks.
As the weekly teenaged movie reviewer for the “Kidding Around” television show on KOLN/KGIN, channels 10 and 11, in Nebraska — my segment was called, David Boles’ “A Bolesful” — I’d been searching for any surviving copies of my movie reviews that might actually still exist in spite of the best attempts at the Second Era at ruining everything magnetic tape touched.
Two-inch AMPEX videotape was used to record my reviews — back then, in the mid-80s a single reel of tape was $200! — and while there are few machines today that can play 2″ videotape, I wondered if someone might have a VHS or Betamax copy of my reviews recorded on their home VCR when they saved the show at home.
I haven’t had any luck in finding those elusive tapes and the one original 2″ tape I thought I had is missing. It was either lost in Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Sandy, or in a recent home sale in the Midwest.
Here’s how I tried to explain the mess to my cousin while also celebrating me winning the Internet.
When 10/11 was sold, all the old videotapes were destroyed by the new owners — that was common in the 1980s because tapes were large and bulky and demanded extra off site storage. The sad part is that all the originals are gone. A generation of broadcast history is in a landfill. None of Leta Powell Drake’s shows were preserved. She pretty much lost all the work of her career at 10/11 over a 30-year span. Terribly sad. I used to have a 2″ videotape of one of my movie reviews on a giant spool, but I can’t find it, and as I understand it from Leta, the machine to play a 2″ videotape today does not exist except, perhaps, in the Museum of Broadcast History.
I was lucky I kept the raw tape for — “The Westborough Crusaders” a videotaped television series I wrote, directed, and produced — in hand all these years, and those shows still survive.
The Film Era is still going strong into Eras Two and Three! We can watch old movies from the 1920s as if they were made yesterday. “I Love Lucy” looks just as good today as the day it was made. Long Live Watershed!
The Live Stage — miss it in the moment and you’re in a deficit forever — is another Era unto itself. The whole idea of a live performance is that it can never be recovered again.
Now think of the 1980s shows you watch in rerun on TV today. They look terrible in an HD-world: “Golden Girls” and “Kate and Allie” and “Home Improvement” are all, basically, unwatchable now because the source recording for those shows was done on magnetic videotape, not film. Ugh! They look so old and pixelated and choppy — and videotape was used just to save a few bucks in production costs!
The Third Era of Digitization is a critical improvement over the Second Era. Instead of needing a warehouse to hold old videotapes, you can store a legion of shows on a single USB stick. If you’re creating content today, you’re in a fine world of pristine preservation generation-to-generation without any loss of quality in content — but it also makes you wonder if you should transfer your digital video work to film just to make sure it will last the next hundred years! Some say film is dead and gone, and while I may agree in analysis, in practice, film will be a diehard kill just because it wears so well in aesthetic and durability.
Unfortunately, my weekly “Unique Youth” radio interviews for KFOR/KFRX are also gone. I’m fortunate to have a single KFOR radio aircheck that was salvaged, but my interviews with genius students is vanished into the ether of magnetic reel-to-reel audiotape!
So, I’m trying to get the word out about finding copies of my old work — I had a friend in Junior High School who would wake up at 5:30am to tape my “Unique Youth” shows so he could listen to them later when he was awake. I need to track him down to see if he still happens to have those shows somewhere!
Not everything is salvageable or savable — but the choice is always in the evaluation — in the past, we may not have known what magnetically recorded stuff we wanted to keep, or if a project would later have more inherent value than we first thought, but the failure of magneto technology removed the possibility of retroactively determining something needed to be available later, and today, those ephemeral moments are vanquished.
As a sort of horrible, and cruel, footnote in history-beyond-the-self — as AIDS was viciously rising in America in the 1980s, Gay men were the hardest hit by the disease — and in cities and towns across America, entertainment productions were being written, created and preserved on audiotape and videotape by some of those male geniuses who eventually became ill and died; and so not only did we have an entire generation of male Artists and Thinkers and Creators wiped from the known universe in the dew of their lives, we also lost a lot of their recorded work due to the scourge of cheap magnetic audiotape and videotape that have now rotted away with the years, blowing dust into memory along the heavens, just like the very talents who created them.