CHRISTINA CHUN / CCHUN@STARBULLETIN.COM
Among Anthony McWhorter's television treasures is footage of Don Ho in a 1967 summer-replacement series called "Malibu U."
TV’s memory man
A fan of television history stops at nothing to keep old shows in top condition
As they say, rust never sleeps. Now apply that homily to iron-oxide particles aligned on a ribbon of stretchy plastic, the electrons of which have been altered by magnets to play back images and sound -- yep, we're talking videotape -- and the result is a slow fade waiting to happen.
When Anthony "AJ" McWhorter was a teenager, in the long-ago '80s, he was at a friend's house watching "The Munsters" and "Andy Griffith," those relics from the black-and-white '60s, and he noticed that the commercials were also grainy black-and-white homages to beer and cigarettes.
"Old stuff! Way before my time!" McWhorter recalls.
The shows, he says, were on VHS tape, and the friend had bought them from a mail-order catalogue. McWhorter was fascinated by this electromagnetic time warp, and so was created a hobby, a consuming passion that has grown into a sense of mission:
In a sound bite, AJ McWhorter saves television.
He has often become the only link between telecasts of the past and the scrap heap of memory. He scours collector magazines like Big Reel, haunts eBay and other online auctions, has become a familiar face at estate sales, all in an effort to keep rare and forgotten bits and bytes of video history from becoming history.
"Look at this!" he exclaims, holding up a videotape the size and weight of a brick. "It's from Jack Lord's estate sale! CBS had him hosting the Aloha Festival parade, and this is the only remaining tape!"
OK, it's not high art. McWhorter's specialty is the detritus of television history: network promos, commercials, one-offs and specials, breaking news and the odd bit of video reality.
The reusable nature of videotape became its greatest enemy. Networks and stations pinched pennies by erasing and re-recording, and so some broadcasts are lost forever.
But sometimes they turn up unexpectedly. The screen captures on this page are from a 1967 summer-replacement series called "Malibu U," and yep, that's Don Ho in one of his first network appearances. This tape was captured by a UCLA film class, hence the titles, but it also might be the only record made of this performance.
CHRISTINA CHUN / CCHUN@STARBULLETIN.COM
Anthony McWhorter built a hobby and then a business around old television tapes that capture the minutiae of our cultural history.
"When I moved to Hawaii about 10 years ago from Chicago, I naturally got interested in archiving Hawaiian video," said McWhorter, who's a stay-at-home dad and Web designer, in case you're wondering how he gets so much tube time. "The Holy Grail is Don Ho, because he was often on network shows and because his own daily network show was famously erased after it aired."
It used to take "weeks of correspondence" to track down old tapes, said McWhorter. "The Internet has changed all that. It's much quicker. Deals are done in a day, and you have to stay on top of it or you might miss something."
Thousands of tapes line his walls. Transferring them to digital format is helping cut the clutter, but McWhorter admits he's behind in his indexing. It's gotten to the point where he's making trades with Johnny Carson's producers to fill holes in their archive, and the networks contact him for promotional material when they release DVDs of TV shows. He also helped the Captain and Tennille rehab one of their TV specials shot in Hawaii.
"I'll wind up with thousands of feet of footage looking for a five-second promo," laughed McWhorter. "But then you'll see Toni Tennille in Hawaii promoting her special, and in the background is a Hawaii that doesn't exist anymore. Or a Tony Bennett special shot in Waikiki with Joey Heatherton! It's like history."
Another exciting find "was a bunch of Bruce Carter-hosted 'Let's Go Fishing' shows. I contacted (former co-hosts) Hari Kojima and Stan Wright and asked if there were any others and was told there weren't any. They were quite interested in what I had."
Legend has it that Carter had a "Let's Go Fishing" videotape bonfire when the show wrapped, but that might be an old fishwive's tale.
Older videotapes have held up surprisingly well, particularly the professional formats, like 2-inch quad and Beta, but VHS tapes aren't as sturdy, said McWhorter.
McWhorter is paid in cash or trade for his network dealings, but in case you're wondering why he doesn't crank out nostalgic DVDs of old TV, "you have to be very wary of copyright in commercial television," he explained. "And there are multiple levels of copyright. Even if you got permission to use the image, what about the performance, what about the music?
"What this is, basically, is a hobby that got out of control, so it had to become a business."