(Be sure not to miss the link at the very bottom of this post for a special video experience!)
Valentine's Day 1987 is a day I'll always remember. How do I remember that specific date, from when I was 7 years old? Why has February 14th 1987 remained stuck in my brain 34 years later? That's easy... that was the day my parents brought home our first ever VCR.
It seems crazy to explain to my kids now, or anyone born anytime beyond the 1980s really, but the acquisition of a VCR was a big deal at the time. It opened up two worlds to families: the ability to watch a movie of your choice, at the time you choose it (and the ability to pause it midway through); but also the ability to record whatever you wanted off of TV. This was a huge difference maker to a 7-year old kid back in 1987 (and also to his movie-loving 37-year old Dad).
Prior to the wide-spread availability of VCRs, movies could only be seen at the theatre, or when they happened to come on TV. Now at the time, I remember we subscribed to First Choice Superchannel, which was a decent option - By the way, thanks to Retro Ontario they have some clips of the station's old graphics and ads, which I still remember. Here is one, for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fthipsQ2TvA. I remember always looked forward to reading through the new monthly program guide for what was on the schedule (I'd love to see one of those original guides again!).
But the idea of owning a VCR and owning movies, and being able to go to a store and pick just about any movie you wanted was an exciting prospect. Yet, in the mid-80s, it was still a pretty expensive proposition. My Mom was a stay-at-home Mom, and my Dad had a decent government job, but money was fairly tight for us growing up. A VCR was a major luxury.
However, on that fateful day in February 1987, the VCR arrived. With a few quick Google image searches, I was able to find a photo of the exact one we had! (Which we'd continue to use for the next dozen years or so).
|The RCA VMT-385!|
For kicks I took a quick keyword search through the Ottawa Citizen from around that time, and somewhat surprisingly found a couple stores selling that model in flyers that week: J.M. Saucier on Baseline Road in the Fisher Heights Plaza, and a place called Krazy Krazy Electronics and Furniture Warehouse (on Stafford Road in Nepean, and also on Industrial Avenue). I called my Mom with the ultimate memory test to see if she could recall where they'd bought the VCR, and she could not remember, nor did either store name ring a bell. She did confirm that it was a major purchase for the family though, recalling that it was more than $500. Here is part of the Saucier ad that week, which also shows the costs of TVs, camcorders and monitors at the same time:
|Ottawa Citizen, February 17, 1987|
Anyhow, it was a big day for our family, and instantly we became regulars at the three local places that rented videos: Video Knight on Wellington Street across from Carvers' Drug Store, the Winks gas bar on Richmond Road at Tweedsmuir, and the Quickie convenience store on Wellington at Carleton. From my memory, I recalled that for selection, quality, and convenience we'd go to Video Knight; for a cheaper price, we'd go to Winks; and for a small selection, but ultra-low price (under $1 per rental), we'd to to Quickie (they had some awful "B" and "C" movies at Quickie, but my Dad loved that 99 cent rental fee!)
Video Knight though was the place to go. And it was cool to have that experience of going in and seeing the long walls of colourful boxes lining the wall, and the tiny little tabs that would be there if the movie was in, and which you'd pull off to take to the counter to rent the movie. For a kid it was pretty exciting, that feeling of instant gratification of picking a movie, and being able to take it home and watch it right away. Or watching it a few times. Or pausing it mid-way through and going back to it. All novel concepts, and a pretty cool thing. Something my kids will never appreciate, as they've grown up being able to turn the TV on and have the choice of literally millions of movies and video clips built right into the TV basically. It's too easy.
I recently watched the two new-ish documentaries "Netflix Versus the World" and "The Last Blockbuster" (which also contributed to my inspiration to finally write an article on Video Knight and research the history of movie rentals) and they covered the story of how the video stores grew and then disappeared. I recommend both if you like this subject like I do.
Though this article is the story of Video Knight, I confess to not knowing much of the story, aside largely from my personal experience.
I can tell you that the store opened sometime between mid-1985 and early 1987 by Mike Renaud, who saw a need in Wellington Village.
|The front entrance to Video Knight in 1998|
But let's rewind just a little bit here... The video rental boom came in the early 1980s, just a few years after video cassettes became a new technology offered to consumers.
It was in the mid-1970s that rumours of video cassettes began to circulate. One of the first stories to appear in Canadian mainstream media was a story based around comments made by Knowlton Nash of the CBC, who spoke of how one day Canadians would "build personal libraries of video cassettes as it does with books and records."
|Ottawa Citizen, March 21, 1975|
The first demonstrations of video cassettes began as novelty items in the occasional bar or event, including notably the 1976 Conservative leadership convention when some candidates had rented VCRs and connected them to televisions to "provide a constant barrage of the campaign ads, interviews and other reports", with the Mulroney camp renting the hotel club room for the youth delegates where they could go "watch taped rock shows when the politics become too tedious."
|The Betamax arrives in Ottawa!|
Ottawa Citizen July 5, 1976
In 1976 Sony had released the Betamax videocassette player-recorder. Their advertising pushed that owners could record shows to keep. "Even if you’re not there, it records TV programs you don’t want to miss — builds a priceless videotape library in no time" promoted Sony. However, executives at Disney and Universal were concerned, arguing that people recording shows and movies were violating copyright laws, and sued Sony, alleging that Sony was liable for the copyright infringement its customers were partaking. The lower court sided with Sony, on appeal the appellate court agreed with the studios, but the case went to the Supreme Court, where Sony won, essentially saving the VCR, and forever changing copyright law. It took 8 years to figure out the mess, and by that time, Sony was in trouble anyways, as unfortunately for their business, they had emphasized quality over cost. The VHS system would prove cheaper, eventually conquering Beta in short order.
|Ottawa Citizen - November 11, 1978|
VHS arrives in Ottawa!
Typically, Canada was a bit behind their American counterpart in the absorption of new technology.
When movies on Beta and VHS first came out, they cost in the range of $65-$100 each! The studios calculated their prices based on how many times a video would be watched and by how many people (versus the cost of say a $5 ticket at the cinema). But this, along with the introductory prices of the players in the $1,500-$2,000 range, made it inaccessible to most people.
Though a limited client base existed for video ownership, some ingenious entrepreneurs thought of a a way around it - movie rentals. The $100 price tag was manageable when the movie could be rented out many times over. Conversely, VCR ownership became a reasonable proposition when movies (which in most cases would only be watched once or twice anyways) could be acquired for a couple of bucks, and then returned. It was a perfect solution, however the studios didn't see it that way. The studios sued the early video stores, but the courts sided on the side of the shops. The Copyright Act of 1976 - also known as the First Sale Doctrine - said that once the copyright owner sold a copy of their work, they cannot control what the user does with it afterwards (for instance libraries could lend books, and individuals were allowed to sell their old records - and movies). However, as it turned out for the studios, this would become huge for them. In fact, in just a short period of time, proceeds from the video rentals became their largest source of revenue.
So that was the story of the beginning of video rentals in the U.S. Canada, however, was a little behind. By 1980, it was still illegal to "rent" movies in Canada (tapes were issued with a "not for rental" sticker). Instead, the first rental stores to open were allowing "previewing" of movies. A $6 or $6.50 service charge was administered to someone who came into a store and took home a movie. If they chose to keep the tape, the $6 would come off the purchase price. Or they could return it, and "preview" another movie! Alternatively, some stores would sell an initial movie for $100, but then allow it to be exchanged for another tape within three days, with a service charge of $7 charged for the exchange. Stores were very nervous of copyright laws, and the early shops also had extensive agreements in place to ensure customers were not duplicating the tape or using it for commercial purposes.
So the boom was on, and Ottawa saw its first stores offering video rentals around the summer of 1980. I can't figure out through research which store was officially the first, as the whole movie rental thing seems to have been pretty underground. Certainly none were advertising before the summer of 1980,
By December of 1980, there were three stores in Ottawa where you could "rent" movies: Captain Video (281 Bank Street), Video Warehouse (2901 Riverside Drive), and Videoland (1154 Bank Street). Video Warehouse led the way with 900 available movies at the time, with the three stores charging in the range of $6-$7 each for a three-day rental.
|Captain Video's video "previewing" shelf at 281 Bank Street|
Ottawa Citizen, December 12, 1980
In May of 1981, Mooney's Bay TV and Stereo were charged by the RCMP on a complaint from the Motion Picture Association of America of renting movies. The owners pleaded guilty and were fined the maximum penalty of $300. The case was considered a test case by the RCMP, the first of its kind in Canada for movie rentals, who apparently hoped the owners would not plead guilty, so that it would force a review of the out of date Copyright Act.
I did a bit of digging but couldn't find when the Act was changed, but clearly the laws were clarified for the new video cassette technology, and it led to a massive craze across Canada starting in late 1981 or early 1982. A surge in production in VCRs (both VHS and Beta, as well as the upstarts but short-lived Videodiscs), an increase in the availability of blank cassettes for recording, and the wider availability of movies for purchase led the craze, which saw video stores established in virtually every neighbourhood across the country. In 1982 more than 175,000 VCRs were sold in Canada.
Shops were also able to offer VCRs for rental, further enabling more Canadians to try out the new technology, even if they couldn't afford the huge price tag to purchase one.
The next issue that arose was video piracy. Slick entrepreneurs with two VCRs discovered that they could make copies of VHS tapes, and sell the pirated tapes to the upstart rental shops (who were more than happy to purchase copies at a fraction of the full price). This was more trouble for the RCMP and the Copyright Act to figure out. Check out this clip (once again Knowlton Nash is the one to report on it!) from the CBC in 1982 talking about the video piracy: https://www.cbc.ca/archives/video-piracy-was-hardly-a-crime-in-1982-1.5263051.
By mid-1983, the Ottawa Citizen reported there were "more than 35 outlets in the Ottawa area" with video rentals, ranging from specialty shops to supermarkets! The chain stores like IGA that had gotten into the business were able to offer low prices, driving down the costs across the city. Thus many locations began offering annual memberships, which included a certain number of rentals, in order to compete. Captain Video on Bank Street offered a $80 annual fee which included 24 rentals. The Video Station had 7 locations in Ottawa, and offered a yearly membership for $50, which allowed for a $3/day rental (or $6.95 for the weekend), with non-members paying $8 for a 2-day rental and $9 weekend. At the Greenbank IGA, there was no membership fee, but video rentals were $3/day or $8/weekend, and a VCR could be rented for $12.95 overnight, which included two movies (or $35 for a weekend with three movies). Even Simpsons-Sears got in the rental business, further driving down the costs offering $1.88 movies during the summer and $9.95 overnight VCR rentals, for members.
In most cases, stores had to offer both Beta and VHS options, and the average store carried a total of 400 different titles, though the specialty stores such as Captain Video and Video Warehouse offered more than 1,000 movies. All the stores surveyed by the Citizen in July of 1983 responded that they had adult sections - including the supermarkets! Come rent your pornography while grabbing your milk and bread at the IGA!
By 1984, video rental shops filled an impressive six pages in the yellow pages!
Thus it was only a matter of time before Wellington Village got their store. Video Knight filled that void, opening as I mentioned above sometime between late 1985 and early 1987 at 1327 Wellington Street West. It was a long, thin shop, with I'd say barely 10 feet between the 2 walls. The shop has now been incorporated in to the store next door, which is now Massage Addict.
Unfortunately, attempts to locate Mike Renaud proved difficult, as that would have a been a great interview to add to this story. So my details on the early years are limited.
Video Knight didn't advertise. They didn't have to. They weren't competing for any business outside of the immediate neighbourhood, making them a fairly unique business in that regard. Every neighbourhood had a video rental store, and even if someone from outside the 'hood found themselves passing through Wellington Village and considered popping in to rent a movie, they'd then recall the need to drive back the next day to return the video, likely making it just too much of a hassle.
Thus in the entirety of the Ottawa Citizen pages during this period, there existed just ONE advertisement of Video Knight...that in early 1987 for the film Ruthless People.
|Ottawa Citizen, April 4, 1987|
From the limited research I was able to do, I discovered there were apparently three different owners: Mike Renaud (from opening until about 1991), Lucie Perron (short period only, 1991-1992ish), and then Spawn Gusdal (from 1993 to its close in 1998).
The shop stayed mostly the same over the years. I still remember when the Beta section was removed (which I recall was on your left when first entering the store), and when video games made their first appearance (also on your left, just above the radiator). My brother and I spent many summer vacations in the early '90s renting various SNES games a week at a time. I think we played the entire MegaMan series that way.
Here is a blurry photo (taken from a screenshot) of the old Video Knight rental slips, which may be familiar to those of you who used to rent videos as much as we did!
And here are a few photos of the video walls, taken just before its closing in 1998:
Finally, here is a photo of the length of the store just before its final day when the last of the stock was being sold off:
Video Knight closed, like so many of the local shops did, when Blockbuster came in and ran everyone out of business. They offered huge stores, cheaper rates, massive selection, and finally guaranteed availability of hugely popular new releases. When a movie like Titanic was released, a shop like Video Knight could afford to have only a handful of copies available; Blockbuster was able to put 100 or more in a store through rental sharing agreements with the distributors, giving a percentage of rental proceeds to the studios, rather than just paying outright for a certain number of copies.
Blockbuster of course went from top of the world to bankruptcy in epic fashion (see those documentaries mentioned above for more on that). Left in its wake are still a couple of shops in Ottawa that rent movies, most notably Hintonburg's Audiovideo Centre at 1097 Wellington West!
Video Knight's final day open was on Friday October 30th, 1998.
I've saved the best for last here... a couple of years ago, someone posted a photo to Lost Ottawa of the front of Video Knight. I contacted the poster, Jeff Connolly, and it turns out his photo was actually a screen capture from a lengthy video he and some friends took in the store during its final days. Not only that, but Jeff's video actually caught me and my girlfriend in the store buying two of the shelving units on the final day (which I kept through my University years for all my videos, CDs, etc.).
Anyways, I've put together a 5-minute video of clips from Jeff's video, showing Video Knight in its final state, no longer renting movies but selling off their stock. The best bits and pieces from the video show the inside of the store and some of its customers (including the line-up of movie buyers on the last day). The video clip has no audio, as the original tape was largely Jeff and his friends joking around so I removed the audio track, but still a great opportunity to flashback in time and walk into Video Knight and see the old familiar walls and shelves and faces. The final owner Spawn is seen in a few shots.
Again a huge thanks to Jeff Connolly for digitizing this, sharing it with me, and for making it possible to be shared on the Kitchissippi Museum!
View the Video Knight video on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjEXTzWOnwU
So thanks for reading and taking this trip back in time with me! I hope this was a fun piece of local nostalgia! I encourage anyone with memories of Video Knight to post a comment!