Rick Klein’s obsession began when he was a teen. He came across an overlooked videocassette in his family’s Cicero home, stuck it into the VCR and found a 1983 episode of “The Bozo Show” in which he and his brother were in the audience.
But it wasn’t just the antics of the famous Chicago entertainer that enchanted him — it was the homespun production values, the clothes and hairstyles of the kids and, most of all, the commercials that played during breaks.
“I was just blown away by seeing stuff I had forgotten,” he said. “That’s one of the things that becomes so addictive. … You see something and remember. It’s just like a key going into a lock.”
Since then, Klein, a 46-year-old systems administrator who now lives in Lisle, has dug up thousands of other TV shows and clips captured on home video systems or squirreled away by television professionals, creating a nonprofit archive of local programming that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Klein has digitized many of his finds and put them on a YouTube channel he calls the Museum of Classic Chicago Television. There you can watch everything from a trippy 1968 Christmas special with puppeteer Bill Jackson to a 1982 community college interview of columnist Mike Royko in all his gruff, chain-smoking glory.
The channel also features kids’ shows like Bozo and Garfield Goose, news reports delivered by men with woolly sideburns and wide lapels, and commercials hawking everything from Ginsu knives to KISS action figures.
It’s the kind of stuff people might have watched with one eye when it first aired, but with time it has acquired historical value, not least because it’s rare: Mike Mashon, head of the moving image section at the Library of Congress, estimates only 1% of the millions of broadcast hours generated each year has survived.
“The cultural loss is staggering,” he said.
Klein, whose basement and rented storage unit are crammed with recordings in long-faded formats — ever seen reel-to-reel videotape? — said he feels a responsibility to capture as much as he can, knowing more is lost with each passing day.
“It’s like a little portal to the past,” he said. “This is exactly what was on your TV if you turned it on at that time. We all wish we could time travel. We can’t do that, but we can save an hour or two of live television and let you feel some kind of connection.”
In the early days of television, most shows were broadcast live. If a network or station wanted to preserve one, they’d use a kinescope — basically, a film camera pointed at a monitor.
But many stations threw their film away when videotape was widely adopted in the mid-1970s, a decision that meant “some 25 years … of American state and local history were destroyed,” according to a Library of Congress report.
The situation didn’t improve much with video. Stations adopted the medium partly because tapes could be reused; saving earlier programming wasn’t a priority.
“Broadcast is a machine that needs to be fed,” said Mark Quigley, John H. Mitchell television curator at the University of California Los Angeles Film and Television Archive. “A station’s main concern was to get the news on the air. Preservation was never really part of it.”
That’s where the home VCR entered the picture.
The machines were introduced in the 1960s and for more than a decade remained rare, ungainly and extremely expensive. Klein said the first Sony Betamax machine cost $2,495 in 1975 — the equivalent of $12,600 today.
But those who had them captured fleeting moments of Americana mixed into Sunday night movies and sitcoms — station logos that highlighted the era’s design sensibility, or commercials that illuminated sought-after products.
“These sorts of media bits and pieces, they tell us so much about what a culture values, what people are buying, how people relate to each other, even,” said Paul Booth, professor of media and cinema studies at DePaul University. “Because they are so ephemeral, they have a way of communicating what a time was like in a way no other (media) can.”
Klein focuses on TV before 1984, scouring eBay, Craigslist and other sources for tapes. One find came from the estate sale of a physician who recorded shows on U-matic tapes, normally found in TV studios of the 1970s. Another was a cache of 850 Betamax tapes one of Klein’s collaborators, Mike Stockinger, discovered online.
“(The person who owned them) was a fanatic about ‘I Dream of Jeannie,’” Stockinger, who lives in Evansville, Indiana, recalled. “He had every show 20 times or more, mostly with commercials. … There’s nothing more exciting than when you get those tapes and put them in your machine and see they’re exactly what you’re looking for.”
Though Klein has put thousands of clips online, he is wary of uploading some of his discoveries.
On a recent afternoon, he loaded his U-matic machine with a still-vibrant Donald Duck cartoon that aired in 1975, complete with commercials for Hi-C (“It’s the sensible drink!”) and the long-extinct Ford Granada. He said, though, that he probably wouldn’t make it public for fear of tangling with Disney.
“It’s probably going to be instantly blocked or flagged,” he said. “Money changes everything, of course.”
Copyright concerns have limited online access to old television programs. The Library of Congress, whose 1.7 million reels of film and videotape is the largest collection in the world, generally requires scholars to view its trove in person. Other archives have similar policies.
Still, countless old shows and commercials are on already on YouTube, and Quigley said the enthusiasts who upload them are performing “a great public service” that cautious, rule-bound archives can’t provide.
“Collectors can push the envelope a little more in getting stuff out there,” he said.
Klein has had disputes with WGN, the channel on which Bozo aired, and it has asked him to remove some clips. But they have reached a detente in recent years.
WGN programming specialist George Pappas said the station has chosen to overlook some Bozo videos on Klein’s site, while Klein alerted WGN to a Bozo episode in the archives of the University of Georgia, which received it as an entry for the 1971 Peabody Awards. The station ended up running a special on the episode, Pappas said.
“I respect his efforts and what he’s done, absolutely,” Pappas said. “Most of that stuff would be unseen without Rick’s involvement.”
While Klein and his colleagues have saved a huge amount of television, much of it now stored on a 50TB hard drive, some worry the long-term preservation of such content might still be in jeopardy.
Walter Podrazik, who teaches the history of television at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said media companies that hold the rights to long-dormant programs might become more proactive about exploiting them commercially, prompting them to crack down on people posting them online.
“I think there will be more aggressive protection of material seen as having value, and more and more material will be seen as having value,” he said.
Booth, meanwhile, said even today’s digital productions could vanish without a concerted effort to archive them.
“Unless someone is keeping a copy of something online and paying for the web storage space, there’s no reason to think any of this stuff will be around in 20 years,” he said. “I don’t think any sort of media like this sticks around unless someone deliberately does it.”
Klein’s concern, though, isn’t so much the future as the present. He feels as though he’s in a race to preserve old programs and commercials before the videocassettes that hold them are thrown into the trash or deteriorate so much they’re not viewable (if you have something you’d like to donate, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org).
He said the unexpected finds keep him motivated, not knowing exactly what might be there when the tape scrolls and the TV flickers to life.
“It’s unlimited potential when you know it’s old,” he said. “It could have anything.”