I Assure You We’re Open

The cover from my short film called The Last Laugh.

I dropped out of college to try to pull myself together. I finished Safely Home and was working on the next script, but was living with my parents and didn’t have a job. It was time to get back to normal, whatever that was.

When I was sixteen, I worked at a local pharmacy called Rann Drugs. They had a very small video section, but it was the main reason I worked there. Months after Tony’s death, I came across a help wanted ad for a local store named All Star Video, owned by Sam Dilisio. Since I already had some video store experience, it seemed like a perfect fit.

I applied for the job sporting a mullet and leather jacket, but they hired me on the spot. I started with a couple nights a week and before I knew it, I was Sam's assistant manager. I was surrounded by movies all day long. For me, it was the best job ever.

This was an “old school” video store. While it sometimes got very busy, customers usually came in one or two at a time, so I often walked out into the aisles and helped them choose a movie. Sam let me decide which movies to order and how many copies of each to bring in. Sam had to approve, but for the most part, he went with my suggestions, and I convinced him to stock many independent films that he normally wouldn’t have carried.

I even made a special copy of The Wizard of Oz that replaced the film's audio with Pink Floyd's album Dark Side of the Moon. This alternate experience of watching the film was known as Dark Side of the Rainbow. I designed a cover and it was offered as a free rental.

Since I opened the store every morning, I had a key, which came in handy late at night. Sometimes I brought dates to the video store in the middle of the night to pick out a movie. It was like a scene right out of the movie True Romance. Of course, I asked Sam’s permission first.

Sam eventually went on to produce my feature film The Good Life, but first starred in two of my short films for a class at Temple University. Our first collaboration was called The Video Store Nightmare, shot with a Bolex 16mm camera on black and white film with no sound. I wasn’t able to cut and splice film yet, so the editing was done completely in-camera. This meant I had to film each shot in order and in one take. I was constantly moving lights around. It was tricky, but I found a way to make the final product look like it was edited.  

There wasn’t much of a story for The Video Store Nightmare. Sam falls asleep at the counter while a customer comes in and starts throwing Nightmare on Elm Street movies out of the adult room. We used a plastic gun as a prop. After screening it in class, I added music from the band Faith No More so that it wasn't a silent film when showing it to friends and family.

Our second project, The Last Laugh, was based on an incident that actually happened to Sam. I’ll never forget when he ran into the video store with his hands on his head. He was out of breath and in a state of panic and kept asking me if I saw a guy. Without giving specifics, he just kept asking me if I saw anything. Sam’s wife was trailing behind asking questions, but he quickly left the store and she followed. It turned out that Sam was robbed, but not in the traditional way. He was the victim of a flim-flam artist who was hitting local florists and card shops with the scam.

The incidents appeared in the newspaper and Sam gave me the details of how the scam unfolded. I thought it would make an interesting short film, so I turned it into a project for a computerized editing class. It was called The Last Laugh and was an exact depiction of how it happened to Sam. He even played the role of the victim himself, so it was more of a re-enactment. I played the role of the scam artist.

Since it was edited on a computer in the mid-nineties, the technology was in the very early stages and the quality of the video was poor and pixelated. Still, I was very proud of our work and received an "A" for the film and also for the class. Weeks later, I created a custom VHS label and box art and made two copies available as a "free rental" at All Star Video. I quickly learned that everyone likes "free" things and both copies were checked out by hundreds of customers. We received lots of positive feedback and it was the first opportunity I ever had to show my work to the public. The Last Laugh was featured in a local newspaper and directed readers to the free rental at the video store. Hundreds more watched it.

About a year later, my next short film, Dad Never Did Like Cats, was also offered as a free rental at the video store. It was based on the story my aunt Rita wrote from earlier in this book. The film starred Dan, Liz and Elisabeth Emery. Years later, I edited the film with brand new narration from Rita along with music that didn't violate any copyrights.

Shortly after I started working at All Star Video, a film called Clerks was released. Written and directed by Kevin Smith, this film inspired me in several ways. It was a low budget breakthrough from an unknown director with his friends as the main stars and depicted the life of a video store clerk. Kevin Smith interacted with fans through his website and message board at www.viewaskew.com and often answered questions. He even responded to a couple of my comments including one where I accused him of being jealous of director Chris Columbus. He took offense, so I replied that at least he will remember me someday. He said, “Yeah, as the idiot who accused me of being jealous of Chris (censored) Columbus.” My user name on the View Askew message board was Mopak. Kevin, if you ever read this, I apologize…again.

I met many people working at that video store and made lots of friends that I still stay in touch with. This type of video store was one of the last of its kind in our area. Unfortunately, Blockbuster Video came into town and carried hundreds of copies of the new releases, something the smaller video stores could not do. It was impossible to compete. Sadly, All Star Video closed its doors in 1997. 

Who would have thought that karma would come back to get Blockbuster Video? They eventually went out of business with the arrival of online streaming and Netflix. Currently, there are no video stores in my area. There are self serve kiosks such as Redbox, but I suspect those won't last much longer either.

I often think of All Star Video and how the store helped me get through a very difficult time in my life.

Here’s an interesting short documentary about the death of video stores: