The first VCR

It all started when the Miami Dolphins played the Pittsburgh Steelers on a Monday night game. My dad lugged the GE box into the family room after another late night at work, placing it gingerly atop the TV set.

“This … is a personal video recording system,” he announced, as if unveiling the Mona Lisa for the first time.

“Looks like a toaster,” I replied, realizing immediately this was the wrong thing to say.

He spent the next hour setting it up, and I knew better than to complain about how much of the game I was missing. It did look like our toaster. Boxy with faux wood paneling, it matched every other item we owned. Our TVs were all wood paneled, as were our rooms, our cabinets, and even our station wagon. You would have thought my dad was the set designer for The Brady Bunch.

It wasn’t until my dad showed me what it could do that I sat back in amazement. He showed me the parts of the game I’d missed while he was setting it up. It dawned on me: We could watch shows that aired when we weren’t home! I couldn’t have been more assured of its magical properties had it sprouted wings and a wand.

He slapped my hand away before I could get my mitts on the precious remote control that came with it. “You haven’t read the manual.”

This was my father’s stock demand: You want to use the new waffle iron? Read the manual first. You want to drive the car? Read the manual. So I appeased him, leafing through the manual until he left the room. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that if he let me experiment while he was out of the room, he could blame me when anything went wrong at any point in the future.

My dad’s master plan for the VCR included my Uncle Chuck in Florida, who would send us his old tapes to get us started. A few weeks after the VCR entered our lives, Angie Dickinson followed. Naked. She was accompanied by about 40 other movies in a box (thereafter referred to as The Box) that would provide the Walshes entertainment for years to come. More importantly, it’s hard to convey how momentous it was to have R- rated movies available in a 12-year-old’s own home (unlike today, where the Internet serves up 24-hour sex like a Pez dispenser). This delivery ushered in an unprecedented age of enlightenment as movies like Animal House, Stripes and Caddyshack became a part of our daily language. Small movies like Local Heroes and Chariots of Fire became favorites to this day. And then there were two chestnuts that turned my dad’s boys into men: Personal Best and Dressed to Kill.

Personal Best starred a young Mariel Hemingway as an Olympic hopeful who engages in a series of sexually suggestive stuff while … well, I can’t say I ever finished the movie. I’m pretty sure she was training for the Olympics or something. One scene darn near wore out the heads on our first VCR. What Animal House only hinted at, Personal Best shouted.

Dressed to Kill was a popular selection because of the shower scene in the opening credits. Angie Dickinson must have been really dirty because she was really having a go at it. Again, I couldn’t tell you what the movie was about, but when we had the team over for spaghetti meals before swim meets or soccer games, this was the most requested movie … until about the four-minute mark. Then we’d put in Caddyshack.

Until the arrival of The Box, sex education in the Walsh household was limited to the occasional JC Penny catalog (these days, my wife gets unsolicited catalogs that would have sent my adolescent heart into arrhythmia). My parents, whose idea of explaining sex was taking us to the library and telling us to “look it up,” were probably grateful to be let off the hook.

Today, I could fit every movie from The Box onto my iPhone without taking up even half the space, but there is a power in old technology. I haven’t seen Angie in the shower in more than 30 years, and I probably never will: She belongs on that battered video tape with the label peeling off one edge. No new operating system or tablet will ever replace the wonder of that first VCR for me, even if they are water-resistant.


You can read more at and contact him a [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

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