Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Talking Movies with Rob's Dad (Part 2)

by Rob DiCristino
An oral history of E-Z Video, the Blockbuster that should have been.

Read Part 1 here!

Rob: So, tell me about when and why your dad opened the video stores and what it was like to work there.

Dad: When I got hired by your grandfather, it was because of computers. He was terrified of computers. But he had this Atari in the back of the store with the old 3 1/2 inch floppy discs, and he wanted me to use it to make inventories of all his movies. I ended up making lists for all his stores so that he could see what he had. This was a very exiting time, actually. We really thought we were going to be Blockbuster.

Rob: Can you put all this in context for me? When does this all start?

Dad: 1982. There was only one other video store in all of Philadelphia before he opened, a place called Video Tape Library. I remember going over to his house for a visit one night, and he’s in the kitchen with this huge machine that looked like a TV with a tape deck on top. He’s telling me about it, and it’s like someone speaking Greek: “You go to the store, you get the movie, and you put it in this machine, and you can watch it.” It went over my head, but a few months later, he and his business partner opened the first store.
Rob: They were contractors first, right?

Dad: They and my uncle Richie built houses. They went out to Johnstown [Pennsylvania] after a huge flood in the late ‘70s and replaced the old water heaters in the houses they were rebuilding. They saved up enough money from that to start a home construction business, but soon — this was around ’79 — the interest rates went up and no one was building houses. They wanted to invest in something, though, so, they invested in the video business. Six months later, they had a store here and a store in Delaware.

Rob: Did you join up then?

Dad: I was working at Burger King; I wasn’t even into movies and I had no idea about any of it. But I remember going over to his house one night and watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on video. It was cool. So he was like, “Why don’t you quit and work for me until you find out what you want to do?” So I did. The thing I really liked about the job was going to get the movies from the distributor and bringing them to the stores. We had six at that point, including one in Maryland.

Rob: Wait, six? I had no idea about any of this.

Dad: I would drive to all the stores, drop off the movies they were supposed to get, pick up broken stuff to get fixed, catalog everything I did, and print new lists for all the stores. It was fun. I remember they had these two lawyers who wanted them to franchise. In order to do that, though, they had to give up a lot of control, and I don’t think they could get that done. But it was really exciting. Again, we thought we would be what Blockbuster eventually became. At the time, though, I was more concerned about going home and learning guitar parts on new records. I wasn’t going to waste my time watching movies.

Rob: It’s fine. They’re just my feelings.

Dad: Long story short, things went bad. They got into a fight and broke up. The partner took all the stores south, so there was no real driving for me to do anymore, but your grandpop opened up a new store in Upper Darby and wanted me to run that. He had met this guy who wanted to open a pizza parlor, and he thought, “Maybe we can do a pizza-video thing! People come in and get a video and a pizza!” So we took over the old Pizza Hut and put the video store and pizza parlor next to each other.

Rob: That’s amazing.

Dad: Of course, this is around the time we hire [Rob’s Mom’s best friend] and, when we needed more people, she brought in your mom. They actually started out in the pizza parlor, I think. The problem with that place was that the owner was looking to put his son in business, but the son had no interest in the pizza parlor. We ended up running it, which we weren’t supposed to do, so we just consolidated everything into one big video store. Then my dad got tired of paying rent and built the store that you remember.

Rob: This is blowing my mind. Tell me about your cousin Danny, who started working there around then.
Dad: Danny watched everything. Mob movies, comedies, action. He always said, “You gotta watch this, you gotta watch that.” I saw so many movies that way. I distinctly remember him telling me that I had to watch Clerks. That one stands out. I never would have watched it if he hadn’t. I would keep a little list of titles he recommended so that I could answer questions when customers came in. The key was that, if I didn’t watch it, I had to get the story from Danny or else the customers would know I hadn’t seen it. I had to be very careful.

Rob: What kind of movies rented best?
Dad: Action. Action. Action. Anything with a gun and a girl in a tight top with big boobs was going out. Your grandpop always looked at the covers. “Get ten of those. Get five of these.” First Blood. RoboCop. Aliens. The Empire Strikes Back. We didn’t deal with a lot of female customers, mostly guys renting action. People would rent five at a time. The one cool thing was that older movies were coming to home video for the first time, so people were also coming in for stuff like Casablanca and The Sound of Music. You’d always have a group of people waiting for something older.

Rob: But mostly action.

Dad: Mostly action. If An Officer and a Gentleman and First Blood were coming out, it would be, “Get twenty First Bloods and two of the other one.”

Rob: I would have supported that decision.

Dad: The distribution stuff was more fun than managing, but I did get to see a lot of stuff because Danny told me to watch it. It was probably Danny who told me to watch The Untouchables. That movie stuck with me.

Rob: Let’s end with that. Why does The Untouchables stick with you?

Dad: It might have been your mom’s thing for DeNiro at first, but the scene that stuck with me was the one where they shoot the guy in the elevator and Costner runs to Capone’s hotel and they have that scene in the stairwell about going man-to-man. This is a treasury agent and the richest man in Chicago, but somehow they’re bringing this down to a street fight. It was simple. Capone says that, right? “Somebody steals from me, I’m gonna say you stole.” Eventually, I got the whole John Malone thing. I blew that up into thinking that’s how the world works: It’s not just the Chicago Way, it’s the Global Way. I get so excited by that scene where they go to the bank. “Everyone knows where the booze is. That’s not the problem. The problem is, who wants to cross Capone?” It takes away all the gamesmanship from The Godfather — which I love — but it boils it down to, “If you go after Capone, you have to go all the way.” That scene at the Canadian border? “Don’t let him clean himself up until he talks!” I love that.

Rob: It’s a great movie.
Dad: Your generation was way more exposed to the reality of all this than mine was, but that movie helped me see what was really going on in the world. To me, it gave everything a political philosophy. Not that I’m thrilled about that particular philosophy, but.

Rob: What is that philosophy?

Dad: Powerful men trying to get more power and trying to eliminate everyone else. Good and evil. Power corrupts. The good cannot comprehend the evil until they have to go that far, which turns them evil. It’s like Ness says, “I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right!” One boss goes down, another takes their place…

[Author’s note: Rob and his dad discuss politics, philosophy, and moral relativism long into the night. But that’s….another story.]