Before VCRs and Videotape

A somewhat lighter tale of how as kids, we attempted to record TV cartoons...and the mayhem that ensued...

I was sharing this story in another venue this week, and somebody said they thought it was the funniest thing they had read all week.  I dunno, but i was encouraged to share it here.

 Back when I was a kid, I read and collected Marvel Comics, including the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man.  I was thrilled when they came to Saturday morning cartoons on ABC, where they crudely animated some of the stories from the comics.  Of course, all the voices were different voice actors, and didn't match the characters in my head, but that was alright. We hung on every episode.

So, you can imaging my dismay when my mother announced that I was going to miss Saturday morning cartoons in favor of religious instruction classes at 10 a.m.  

Quickly wracking my brain for a way to salvage my private passion, I settled upon my family's new Ampex reel-to-reel recorder.  This state of the art machine had been won by my father in a sales contest when he won second prize for selling the most. (First prize had been a new color TV in 1967, but I didn't want one... the audio recorder seemed much more interesting to me. To my shock, THAT's what he won after all!  To my surprise, I had predicted it correctly!)

I set up one of the two microphones in front of our old Black and White television speaker in the combination sewing room/TV room that my folks had made out of a converted sun porch, and threaded the 7 1/2 reel of Ampex audio tape through the tape tension guides, across the heads, and into the take-up reel.

It worked well enough.  I would start the machine in record mode, shutting the glass doors to close off the room and go to class.  The tape would run out sometime after the first half hour show was finished, but a bit of the second half hour could be heard upon playback.  I imaged the action, based upon the strength of the voice actor's expressions and delivery.

One week later that year, our school music classes were giving an afternoon concert in the gym, and I volunteered to record the performance, and play it back for our class after the fact. (I had such vision... after all, I was by then, completely skilled at the operation of the machine.) The grateful teacher agreed, provided my father transported the machine, speakers and mikes to school in time.

All went well, until I decided that we could save tape by shutting it off between numbers. As kids shuffled up and down the stage, I would stop the record mode, and then restart as the next number was to begin.  It worked like a charm.  I was able to save enough tape to record the entire concert.

Proudly, I moved the machine back to our classroom after the concert was done, and began the playback of the quarter-track tape, having used two microphones to record the left and right channels from either side of the stage.  The recording was good, and accurately reproduced the performance.

When we got to the part where I paused the tape between number, there was a small whir-whip like noise as the tape came to a stop, then started again...but it wasn't offensive at all.  It was barely a blip between songs.  But the problem came when I had wisely decided it would be easier on the machine and my aging reel of tape if I completely stopped down and dropped out of record mode between songs.

To my horror and embarrassment, I discovered the record head was also the erase head, and took a second to re-energize whenever the tape was restarted.  As a result, on a blank tape, nothing would have been heard during the second or two between the songs.... but I had re-used my "play tape" that I had recorded Spider-man on week after week, and so, I was in for a shock...

Clearly between songs, the ringing voice of the actor portraying J Jonah Jameson (sort of a Perry White editor of the newspaper where Spider-man/Peter Parker was working) received a phone report of "A BEAR ON WALL STREET?"  As a kid, I didn't get the joke, but I knew exactly what it was from as the entire class burst out in laughter at the unexpected outburst.

The teacher was not amused.  My face turned beat red, and I attempted to apologize to her. But how do you explain all that I've just told you above in seconds before the next song started?

40 years later, I related this tale to other Spider-Man fans, and found that they knew EXACTLY which episode I was talking about, who the villain was, and why JJ had made this outburst.  A villain known as 'The Phantom" was robbing banks in Manhattan and using some wild animals set loose in the city as distractions.  So, the newspaper editor got a phone call about "A bear on Wall Street!" -Just a momentary throw away humorous line that had escaped the erasing function and remained.

I don't know... but, it seems funny in retrospect.  It's just one fond memory of my innocent childhood. Who knew that I would go into radio broadcasting, audio production and television as my career?

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