“Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube! This tube is the Gospel, the ultimate revelation.”
– Howard Beale
ORIGINS OF RETRONTARIO
RETRONTARIO was created to celebrate the neglected corners of Ontario’s rich televisual history; to put back into circulation material which rightly or wrongly had fallen into a black hole and was for all intents and purposes, lost.
Our culture has long struggled with the question of which ephemeral items to keep and place in museums, and which to forget and discard. When it comes to a highly disposable medium like Television, the latter sentiment unfortunately tends to win out. Having spent a considerable amount of time in front of the Television whilst growing up, we at RETRONTARIO had amassed a large collection of “fuzzy memories” which had stayed with us through adulthood, and which we were eager to re-visit; Things like Captain High Liner, “This is CBC”, the theme song from DEAR AUNT AGNES, Astar the robot who could put his arms back on, the disco beat from WUTV Buffalo 29 bumpers, etc., etc. Sadly when we looked to quench this nostalgic thirst on YouTube in its early days, there were no such videos. Not only that, there was nothing online at all which spoke of that golden televisual time for those who grew up in Ontario. This was 2006.
The more we investigated, the more the depressing nature of the situation began to sink in; most of the ad agencies who created those memorable spots, as well as the Television channels who broadcast them, had long ago either destroyed or wiped their only copies. And who could blame them? Maintaining rooms full of heavy, antiquated and obsolete tape formats is expensive, and like any other business, if a profit line cannot be clearly established, something’s got to give.
The great equalizer to this grave injustice was the home recorded video tape. From the first commercial VCRs released in the mid-1970s right up to modern times, people have been using their VCRs to not only watch their favorite movies, but to record them as well. Or to time-shift a certain show or sporting event or concert, when it was on at a time they were not at home to watch it. Embedded within those home recorded tapes were not only our missing “fuzzy memories”, but literally thousands upon thousands more. Accidentally recorded, at the end of a tape, buried treasure. Someone stayed up watching the late movie, trying desperately to edit out the commercials, only to fall asleep on the couch and end up with a recording of the nightly news and channel sign-off!
Many people did edit out the commercial breaks or station identifications (1 blank Fuji brand VHS tape in 1985 cost $25!), but just as many did not. And those recorded signals sometimes ran the duration of the entire tape, so if you were lucky you could find an entire evening’s line-up from, say, CBC in 1982, commercials, idents, bumpers, promos, technical difficulties, et al. This is perhaps the closest we’ll ever get to re-living the common televisual experiences we have shared during the last few decades, and which paved the way for broadcast as it we know it today.
Not long after hitting a jackpot of early 1980s TV home recordings at a local garage sale, we began to venture out of our comfort zone of VHS and into the wild and wonderful world of Betamax. Our families had always been VHS, and we mostly knew Beta as some kind of excessive, 1980s cocaine-induced failure. Well, not only did Betamax tapes retain a much higher quality after all these years (albeit at the cost of a shorter running time), the time-frame of most home recorded tapes seemed to be late 1970s-late 1980s, which was exactly our sweet spot when it came to mainlining nostalgia.1 It seemed as if many Betamax users had simply admitted defeat, packed up their tapes, and moved onto VHS. Flash forward 25 years to when attics/basements are cleaned out, and these tapes were finding their way into garage sales or eBay.
Now the difficult part – finding more tapes. We began searching these tapes out in 2006, and each successive year has yielded less and less results; We imagine 2012 will be no different. And obviously there will come a time when this source has been exhausted. But in the meanwhile, keep your eyes peeled! VHS or Beta tapes are not junk, as many would believe (the number of times people have told us about dumping 100s of video tapes into the garbage is heartbreaking). These home recorded tapes could well contain an accidental recording of an important event, a news story, a snippet of an historic Hockey game, a shaving cream commercial starring someone who is now deceased and whose family would give anything to see it again, and on, and on. Even more importantly, these recordings illustrate a golden era of Ontario TV broadcasting that is almost Martian compared to what we see today.
In addition, there are many unsung heroes from the broadcasting days of yonder, and it is wonderful to be able to spotlight their talents and hear from their colleges or even in some cases, family members. Folks like Billy Van, Nina Keogh, Elwy Yost, Bill Bramah, John DeLazzer, Bob Warner, Mark Dailey, Sherry Miller, Don Lake, Nerene Virgin, Bill Cameron, PJ Phresh Phil, and the list goes on. We grew up with these people and there is a certain comfort in being able to revisit them with a few clicks of the mouse.
YOUTUBE & SOCIAL MEDIA
The greatest thing about undertaking this project in the mid to late 2000s was the ability via social networking to share the rare material we had found. It is a wonderful feeling to get a message from someone who had starred in a commercial uploaded to YouTube, thanking us for finding it so they can share it with their children. Or the many people who, like ourselves, had day dreamed of seeing these pieces of neglected TV history again; the nostalgia drug is as potent as any other, and washes you over with a warm, day-glow feeling. As trite as this may sound, it is a suitable antidote to some of the troubling issues we find ourselves afflicted with in these modern times; as argued by Fred Davis in his seminal work on the subject, “Nostalgia acts to restore, at least temporarily, a sense of sociohistoric continuity with respect to that which verged on being rendered discontinuous.”2 Who would have ever thought the opening credits of, say, TODAY’S SPECIAL could sooth an anxiety born out of discontinuity?
Since the RETRONTARIO YouTube channel was launched in 2008, the feedback has been sensational, from mentions in the Toronto Star, to the many kind people who have sent tapes or files of rare material for me to exhibit under the RETRONTARIO banner, to inspiring others to take up the mantle and pursue their own forms of video archeology.
As 2011 drew to a close, we at RETRONTARIO thought it wise to launch a website for several reasons. Mainly, we fear that with YouTube/Google changing their terms and conditions, YouTube channels with 1000s of copyrighted videos may not be long for this world. While we hope this to never happen, at least now we have a permanent home online. Secondly, there are an abundance of videos which cannot be uploaded to YouTube for various reasons, which will now be made available exclusively here. Finally, we do believe there is much work to be done in this field, and having a base of operations is the first step in what will surely be an ongoing project. Whether you yearn to revisit the Television landscape you grew up with, or wish to find out more about a broadcast personality or simply get a laugh out of watching this crazy old stuff, we invite you to help make RETRONTARIO a better place – the ultimate online museum of Ontario TV history, covering a wide array of Canadiana and even Cathode Ray heroics from Buffalo, Detroit and Vermont, plus ephemeral items from other formats. You can help by filling in the many missing pieces of information, or supplying tapes, or even donating to our cause. And of course, we are always open to requests and do our very best to find your lost fuzzy memories too!
1 Usage of course varies; Nostalgic 1990s kids certainly have it easier, but 2000s era kids might find it difficult in years to come searching for used PVRs.
2 Davis, Fred. Yearning For Yesterday: A Sociology Of Nostalgia.