The news that the great Premiere Video store in Dallas is soon to be no more has made me both feel bad that I have not frequented it at all in the past couple of years (I hit it up to do some research when I first moved here from New York since my own DVD library hadn’t shipped here yet.), as well as think back about my own experiences working in video stores in L.A. when I was fresh in town and was about to begin the early attempts at an acting and filmmaking career.
One of my very first jobs was at the legendary Odyssey Video in North Hollywood. For awhile in the late 80s, that place was THE place to go to with one of the most comprehensive selections in order to rent films. I had a living room sofa staked out at my uncle’s place just a few blocks away, having just arrived from Florida. I filled out an application, and immediately was interviewed by Mark Hennessy, who would soon become one of my first and best friends in Los Angeles. He, more or less, hired me because I was a theatre kid that had a warehouse of movie knowledge in my head and California State Law pretty much required someone with my career ambitions to work in a video store at some point as they attempted to get their SAG card or sell their first script.
Among the staff there was a kid with muscles and rock n’ roll ambitions who had to deal with the fact that his name was Paul Newman, and a young actor named Doug Tobey, who had made a ton of money (by our modest standards) from being in RED DAWN, and subsequently spent it all, so he was back working at the Odyssey until he got his next movie or TV show, and various other young people doing time in the video store until they made it.
There was a reason those were great places to work at if you wanted a career in Hollywood, as you had every film imaginable – for free – to watch and study and discuss and immerse yourself into every single night. It was amazing to have all of those movies – classics to brand new releases – at your fingertips, and be involved in a daily conversation on film too.
So, here are a handful of memories…
HOW I GOT MY FIRST AGENT
Classic story: I’m working behind the counter one day and one of our regular customers, Danny Goldman, walks up to the counter with his videos. Danny was a noted character actor (He was the medical student that causes Gene Wilder to stab himself in the leg when pressed about the fact that his last name his “Frankenstein” in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.) who went on to become one of the biggest commercial talent agents in town. Anyway, on this day, as I’m checking Danny’s videos out to him, I’m trading jokes back-and-forth as I would do, when he stops and looks at me and asks, “Have you ever thought about being in commercials?” I gave him a “Duh.” look and said, “Only about 15 times today.” He nodded, wrote down a name and a phone number on one of his cards and said, “Call them, tell them I said they should see you.”
Anybody that knows anything understands that this is exactly how stars are made, right? Video stores were my generation’s Schwab’s Drug Store, after all. So, the quick of it was this: I call the agent, they tell me to come right in, sign me after I read for them, send me out on a commercial audition for Danny (a spot for Bealls department store), and I book the first thing I go out on. A little while later, they send me out on another audition for a Honda industrial film and not only do I book that one, but I’m cast as the lead (instead of the minor role I was sent in for) and I get my SAG card. Fairy tale beginnings for an aspiring actor. Ironically, while I did a handful of films, I would never book another commercial.
MAKING FUN OF RON PERLMAN
Working at a video store, there were two things that would aggravate the hell out of you: ONE, not rewinding your tapes before you brought them back in. And TWO, dropping off films after we had closed through the door’s mail slot. Just not cool. Of course, eventually, we (and everyone else) would just tack on additional fees for those crimes against movie-watching humanity, but at that time it was just a customer’s dick move.
Well, one night Ron Perlman, Ron HELLBOY Perlman, appears at the door a good 20 minutes after we had closed. We’re vacuuming, straightening up, balancing out the register totals, and he starts banging on the door, since he sees us inside. We tell him that we’re closed and he needs to come back tomorrow. Well, that wasn’t working for Ron. At that time, he was on a run as “The Beast” in the hit TV version of “Beauty and the Beast.” So he starts to put one of the videos through the mail slot and we tell him not to or he would get his membership suspended or something similarly devastating…and he gets pissed – royally pissed. The movie star “get out of jail free” card isn’t working and he’s frustrated and starts yelling at us and shaking the door like he’s going to tear it off the hinges. And then to add to the fun, Paul Newman, not a small guy himself, starts mocking him and his behavior doing some ape-like gestures on the other side of the glass door. Let’s just say that didn’t de-escalate the situation. While the rest of us literally hid behind the counter and behind the shelf aisles (so he couldn’t recognize us, in case he came in the next couple of days in beast-mode), Paul did what amounted to the Lucille Ball/Harpo Marx mirror routine with an insanely angry Ron Perlman until Ron stormed away. I think the rest of us went into employee witness protection program for about a month after that until we were convinced that enough time had passed for it to blow over.
THE TRACI LORDS SITUATION
At that time, porn was a HUGE part of the video rental business. Every store had an ever-growing section of the place relegated to the porn selections. And Traci Lords was one of the video-age pornography supernovas. Every new tape/movie of hers was a big deal to the porn-polloi. And then came the shocking revelation that she was underage. I mean, she sure didn’t look underage…
It was a big crisis at the Odyssey, as the store’s general manager had to go in after we had closed (like 2:00AM or something) and make sure that every single tape that she appeared in was pulled off the shelves. And there were A LOT. Afterwards, there was paranoia that someone on the crew had one or two tapes at home (because there were always some tapes that were unaccounted for due to breakage or theft or video Bermuda Triangle-style disappearances) and they were freaked that for some reason that lack of accountability would get them nailed on child pornography charges. Of course, that didn’t happen, but it was exciting for awhile.
THANKSGIVING AT ODYSSEY VIDEO
The store would rarely close for holidays because, naturally, people wanted to rent movies on holidays. So, those of us that were too poor to go home, or didn’t have our own families (so-to-speak) since we were all very young, or were just so poor that getting time and a half by working a holiday sounded like a good deal, meant that we would work shifts when most everyone else were not working.
One of those key holidays was Thanksgiving. And there was one in particular where we cleared out the entire back are behind the counter and brought in a turkey and other pot lucked food and basically just ate as we checked people and their movies out all day and night long. It was one of those moments that creates your sub-family apart from your blood-family. And that was ALWAYS a big deal
MY ROMANCE THAT NEVER HAPPENED WITH SHAWNEE SMITH
So the Odyssey was in North Hollywood and had a decent number of recognizable faces come through the doors from film and television land. It was still pretty low key because we were in the Valley, after all. But like Ron Perlman, we’d get out share of people that would cause other customers to turn their heads as they tried to nab that last copy of RAMBO or whatever was going to make their evening. And yes, we’d sometimes have the entertainment-land crushes, and mine was Shawnee Smith. Now, at that time she was pretty much known for her appearance in the Mark Harmon comedy, SUMMER SCHOOL, but she worked pretty consistently.
She always made a point of it to talk to me while she was in the store and I danced around the idea of asking her out, but convinced myself that there would be no chance whatsoever of that happening so never did. And then she was off to film THE BLOB remake, and she was never seen in the store again. Of course, the SAW films and a run on the “Becker” series with Ted Danson, among other things followed, so somehow she clearly managed to forge ahead and have great success despite missing out on the earth-shaking opportunity going out on a date with me would totally have been. We eventually did meet again at a genre convention I was doing PR for. They were doing a special SAW reunion, which included Shawnee and Cary Elwes, who I had worked on personal PR before, so it was a nice moment to catch up with both of them several years after first meeting and working with both. And no, I didn’t mention anything about that long ago crush, even though I could have used the title of one of Elwes’s films (THE CRUSH) as a segue, right?
In the next column, I’ll write about my time at the long since defunct Videotech on Sunset Blvd.