Video Kong the First [The Ballad of Kong Pt. 5]

[Stop! Have you read Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3 or Pt. 4? Well, you should...]

After the summer of 1977 and the couple of summers that followed, where I saw it regularly a couple of times a year, I only ran into King Kong sporadically after that. Odd televised airings of the movie on Saturday afternoons or late night here and there. But with the addition of cable television to my life, I would search constantly for a viewing of the movie, and finally captured the great beast on videotape when I recorded a WTBS airing. This tape became like unto a holy object for me for the next few years, as poor a quality as it happened to be, and I cherished it wholeheartedly. That is, I did until 1985.

I had started out working in the Hallmark warehouse of a news agency in Alaska (or rather, the news agency in Alaska, and in a moment of superlative marketing clarity, such a business happened to be named the Alaska News Agency). Actually, I worked for the Book Cache, a chain of stores that were owned by the same people who owned ANA (and which would eventually, through a morass of corporate gobbledygook which I don't wish to go into any further than I have, sadly go the way of the dodo). Hallmark held a large presence in the bookstores, but I had recently been swept into a new position: that of the Hardback Returns Manager. The title was B.S. though; since there was only one person in the department for 98% of the time, it wasn't really a management position, unless you count the sometime rather unruly stacks of books, which required supreme management on my part.

While I still worked in the Hallmark warehouse, we had started carrying two series of cheap VHS tape lines. The first line was from a company called Outlet Book Company, who then and now specialized in bargain books. I did not know it at the time, but the movies were what is known as public domain titles, ranging from Chaney's Phantom of the Opera to Lugosi and the Ritz Brothers in The Gorilla to Joan Crawford in Rain to Charles Laughton in The Beachcomber. The quality proved to be sometimes substandard, but such is the way with public domain movies. You get what you don't pay for... the tapes were cheap because the movies were cheap. The boxes looked all the same, and comprised of oversized plastic shells that popped loud when you unstuck the plastic from each side. The design of the covers only showed titles on the front and descriptions with a brief cast listing on the back, and were gray and generic.

The second installment of movies, a few months later, came from another bargain book specialty company called Crown, which, while I didn't know it then, actually owned Outlet. (And eventually, Random House would purchase Crown, and thus Outlet, and make it a subsidiary in 1988.) So, really, this was a line within a line. Once again, the movies were still public domain, but at least had actual pictures from the movie on the cover, and had morphed into the size and shape that nearly all VHS tapes had taken on by that point: little video rectangles, compact and neat. The boxes were not quite as generic as the Outlet ones, thanks to the covers having a variety of colors, though the pictures used on them were in black and white. It looks pretty silly now, but I actually found the somewhat "pop art" aesthetic pleasing to the eye.

Many of the titles were the same as with the initial Outlet batch, but there were some surprises: Walk in the Sun stood out for me. Best of all on this go-around though, there was not only a few early English Hitchcock thrillers, none of which I had seen yet, but also a copy of Godzilla vs. Megalon (without Belushi, I was sad to discover, but dubbed in English... though since I saw it initially on TV this way, it was not a problem).

We had some success with these runs of videos, and the decision was made to venture into carrying a larger selection of videotapes in our stores. When the studios started concentrating on retail sales of videotapes, moving beyond the rental market, there were no Best Buy or Suncoast-type stores yet in our state. The rental stores were slow to pick up on the first-run sales market, but we dove into it wholeheartedly at our stores. We made most of our sales on first release titles like when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial first came out on video. We would several hundreds of copies of those titles in a very short amount of time. But at some of our bigger stores, we carried around a hundred titles or so (not counting local Alaskan videos), finding out which movie titles sold regularly, and restocked them from our warehouse. 

As a side gig to my regular work, because I was the movie buff in the building, I was given control over the warehouse stock for a period. I would eventually become the buyer, along with audiocassettes, in a very short time. While she didn't want me to go crazy, I was given almost free rein by my boss to order whatever I felt we should carry. This was all around 1985. And RKO had just released King Kong onto video.

Of course, apart from getting my own copy, I just had to carry King Kong in our stores. When Paramount released a handful of Godzilla titles like Monster Zero and its ilk, I convinced my boss that we should carry them as an experiment. (They ending up selling pretty well for a couple of years.) But Kong was a no-brainer. We had to carry it. It was a bonafide, acclaimed classic and there was a lot of publicity about its release. Beyond wanting to get one for myself, I wanted the whole world to have access to getting their own copy, and felt strongly we should be selling it. 

The videocassette was proclaimed on the cover as the "Original Studio Edition," put out under RKO's "Film Classics Series," and was led with the famous shot of Kong on top of the Empire State Building facing the onslaught of the biplanes. On the back was the shot of Kong about to charge through the gates of the Skull Island wall. I don't know how many copies we sold, but we ended up carrying multiple editions of King Kong throughout the handful of years that I ran the video line for the Book Cache stores. Whatever changes in taste or preference our customers had in that time, I always made sure to keep the mighty Kong in stock. Kong wasn't cheap at first either. I think it leveled out around $19.95 eventually, but our initial retail price was around $39.95. At least, that is the price I recall from when we first carried it. And the price I paid... before my employee discount that is.

The important thing, though, is that I finally had a copy of Kong of my own that wasn't recorded at an atrociously fast speed, and that was supposedly duplicated from the finest archival print that could be found at the time. And I cherished that copy of King Kong for about...oh...a year.

[To be continued in Part 6 here...]

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