Right now I’m sitting in front of my television. I have a freshly-prepared digital video disc in my DVD player. And all I need to do is press PLAY on my remote control.
And every single emotion, every single memory that was trapped in a 34-year-old time capsule … is about to be released. The time capsule has been unlocked. Now it’s time to view the contents.
February 17, 2015. One of my Facebook friends, George Sweeney, was in the Capital District and wanted to organize a small get-together for his high school classmates. I’ve been FB friends with George for about a couple of years now, and I asked if he would mind if I joined them. He said that would be fine.
I met George and his high school friends – for them, it was like a nice little mini-reunion. Which is awesome. And although George and I knew each other – and I also knew one of his friends Mary, who plays on a local trivia team called The Summit – the rest of the friends greeted me with smiles and that uncertain look of did-I-go-to-school-with-you-but-I’m-not-sure-but-I-don’t-want-to-look-like-a-fool-if-I-don’t-remember-you…
“It’s okay,” I said to those who asked. “We didn’t go to school together. I’m a Facebook friend of George’s.”
“Maybe you dated someone in our school?” one of the women asked.
“Don’t think so,” I replied. “Our schools only crossed paths once.”
“Where did you go to school?” was her next question.
“Street Academy, in Albany,” was the response.
“Oh,” was the next awkward sound. And at that moment, she recalled WHY our paths only crossed once.
See, I didn’t mention at the top of this post that the mini-high-school reunion were from the members of Keveny Memorial Academy in Cohoes. Yep. Keveny was one of the three schools (Albany Academy and St. Mary’s of Hoosick Falls) that my inner-city alma mater defeated back in 1981 on Answers Please, the WRGB high school quiz show of a generation past. George Sweeney was actually on the Keveny team that day. And after the initial awkwardness of my introductions passed with George’s friends, we all had a good time and talked about many things, school-related and non-school related.
“Chuck,” George said, “I want you to meet my friend Steve. He was the alternate on our Answers Please team.”
Steve and I shook hands. We all commented about that tiny minute-short news clip – the only surviving footage I have ever found of my high school’s three-week-undefeated run on the show.
And as we talked, Steve said something to me. Something that, in my wildest dreams and craziest fantasies, I never thought would actually come true.
“I have that full episode on videotape.”
Let that sink in for a couple of moments. Because it took me more than a couple of moments to process that sentence.
Back in the day, to save production costs, the videotapes that contained each episode of Answers Please were erased or “wiped” so that WRGB could reuse the tape for new episodes. Doctor Who fans, you know my pain. The only time anybody was able to save an episode was if they had a VCR at the time and taped the show off the air, commercials and all. As for us, well, this was 1981 and none of us at Street Academy had VCR’s. Heck, Street Academy didn’t even have a dedicated audio-visual department.
And the only thing I ever found in WRGB’s archives was that tiny news clip. Any other proof of our triumphs came from old Times Union newspaper clippings (from when we beat Albany Academy 145-105) and some photographs that one of my teachers took the day we clobbered St. Mary’s of Hoosick Falls 150-60. Oh yeah, and I still have the championship trophy in my possession – that same trophy I saved after Street Academy – later Harriet Gibbons High School – was shuttered by the Albany City School District in 2010.
Steve and I talked some more. He said he had to look for the tape, it was part of his father’s collection of videotapes – apparently his father worked in the audio-visual department for both Keveny Academy AND Lansingburgh High School. I gave Steve my phone number and personal e-mail.
And on the way home from Brown’s Brewing, I thought about what just happened. Is this possible? Is there any chance in the world that, nearly 35 years later, one of the three times my high school appeared on WRGB’s quiz show might still exist in a tangible, viewable, full-length format?
Now I wait. I have to hope that Steve finds the tape. And I can’t think about anything else right now.
Friday, February 20, 2015. Television night. Just some casual catching-up on some shows I’ve missed over time. Hmm, I wonder if Parker Schnabel can find enough thawed Yukon ground to reach his 2,000-oz gold goal. I wonder if Tony Beets will get that ancient gold dredge working again. I wonder if the Hoffman crew –
RING RING RING
My cell phone’s ringing. Now who could be calling me so late in the evening? Caller ID says it’s a local call.
“Hi Chuck, it’s Steve, we met at Brown’s Brewing the other night.”
And all at once, like a siren, the only thing flashing in my mind was, “Did you find the tape. Did you find the tape. Please, in the name of all that’s holy in our universe, please tell me you – ”
“Hey, I found the tape.”
At that moment in my existence, Lynda Carter could have walked into the room in her full Wonder Woman costume, wrapped her golden lasso around my waist and commanded me to tell the truth about all the naughty things I could do with her if I had the chance, and I would have said, “Not now, Lynda, I’m on the phone, this is important.”
February 21, 2015. Saturday morning. I met Steve for breakfast at Bob’s Diner in Watervliet. He handed me the tape, which was in a black clamshell plastic case. The tape’s case was 10″x 7″, with a 1 1/2″ thickness. Yep, it was definitely larger than a standard VHS tape.
And on the side of the clamshell box… the details of the tape’s contents.
“I don’t know if you’ll be able to find someone who can duplicate this tape,” he said. “But I wish you all the luck in the world.”
Forget luck. I’m going to get this tape duplicated if I have to build the damn video duplication machine myself.
Okay. First I have to figure out WHAT TYPE OF TAPE this is. And after a few Google searches, I determined that the cartridge was something called a U-Matic ¾” tape. This was the format used in the 1970’s and 1980’s by schools, by production companies, and by broadcasters. This was the precursor to VHS and Betamax formatted tapes.
So now I needed to locate some company that could duplicate yesterday’s technology with today’s equipment. And a Google online search came up with several out-of-state companies that could duplicate the tape’s contents to either a DVD or on a digital format that can reside on a thumb drive.
Um… no. I have to find a place that can do it locally. I have to exhaust all my 518 area code options. I don’t want this tape leaving the Capital District. I’m already gun-shy from sending a roll of film to Rocky Mountain Film Lab FIVE YEARS AGO which still hasn’t been processed. And that was for a roll of film to which I had no emotional attachment. Not letting that happen EVER AGAIN. No freakin’ way.
More phone calls. I tried the local television stations, I tried local production companies, I tried whatever Google search might bear fruit. And the responses were the same depressing responses.
“Sorry, we got rid of our ¾” tape machine last year.”
“Sorry, our machine broke and it wasn’t cost-effective for us to get it repaired.”
“Sorry, we digitized all our ¾” library years ago. And right now we’re trying to digitize all our old Beta tapes.”
One more try. A place called Photo Video Productions on Union Street in Schenectady.
“Hi, I have what appears to be a ¾” U-Matic videotape cartridge, is there any way you can transfer its contents to a DVD?”
“Sure we can.”
Rats. Another no. Well, I guess I have to send the tape off to – hey, wait a second, hit the rewind button – ot ffo epat eht dnes ot evah i sseug i ,lleW .on rehtonA .staR – did he just say what I think he just said?
“You can bring the tape over, we’ll digitize it to DVD for you.”
At that moment in my existence, Debra Winger could have shown up at my doorstep, asking if I wanted to re-enact with her the steamiest scenes from a double-feature of Urban Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman, and I would have said, “Not right now, Debra, I’m busy.”
More questions. Turnaround time – acceptable. Cost – acceptable. Location – parking available. I can do this.
Tuesday, February 24. Drop-off day. I brought the cartridge to Photo Video Productions’ offices on Union Street in Schenectady. They open at 10:00 a.m. I’m in the parking lot at 9:30 a.m. Don’t judge me, how many of you waited outside the Apple Store for the newest iPhone?
And as I’m waiting in the parking lot, I’m going over all the possibilities of what could go wrong. U-Matic videotape cartridges aren’t designed to last forever. If this tape was stored improperly, the tape could actually adhere to itself on the reels. It’s something called “Sticky Shed Syndrome,” and if you’re a broadcast engineer or a music producer that worked with analogue tape, you know those words “Sticky Shed Syndrome” can give you palpitations. To cure “Sticky Shed Syndrome,” a technician would have to dip the tape in a chemical bath to loosen the tape apart. Then, after the chemical bath, there would be once chance – ONLY ONE CHANCE – to get the tape’s contents.
Believe me, I’m as nervous as hell about what’s on this tape. And condition of the tape is only ONE of my worries. What if this tape is blank? What if it somehow got demagnetized or degaussed over time? What if the wrong tape is in the box?
I’m this close. So close to that moment, that pivot-point in my life where my high school shocked the Capital District and upended three mighty schools in three consecutive weeks. Even if I never see any footage from the other two games… there’s still a tiny, tiny possibility that the contents on this tape have survived.
A technician greeted me at the door and took the cartridge from my hands. “Three-quarter tape,” he instantly noted. “And it looks like it’s in very good condition, too. Just one thing we have to take care of right now.”
And with that, he flipped the tape over and removed a bright red plastic plug from the cartridge’s underside.
“Once this plug is removed, this tape can’t be overwritten.”
Nice to know.
We talked for a few moments about the contents of this tape, and the fact that for years, WRGB produced several different in-house entertainment programs – shows like TV Tournament Time and Pick-A-Show and Teenage Barn and Student Spectrum –
“Oh yeah, Student Spectrum,” the technician noted. “I used to teach audio-visual at Shenendehowa, and any time WRGB couldn’t get a student team for their Student Spectrum newscasts, they would call me and say, ‘Hey, Mohonasen didn’t send any kids today, help!’ and I would have four kids on a bus from Shen down to Schenectady to tape the student newscast.”
He looked over the tape again. “Give us a couple of days. We’ll take good care of this for you.”
Wednesday, February 25. I received a phone call.
“Hi Chuck, this is Photo Video Productions in Schenectady.”
“Please tell me you have good news.”
“Well… yes we do.”
“The tape survived?”
“There were a few tiny drop-outs, but nothing that won’t be noticeable. I will tell you, though, the tape was very close to deteriorating, so it’s good that you brought the tape in for us to transfer.”
“You’ve got the tape transferred?”
“Yes we do.”
“And it’s on a DVD now?”
“Yes it is.”
“And it’s the game show from the past?”
“Yes it is.”
“The whole game show?”
“Yes it is.”
At that moment in my existence, Margot Robbie could have shown up in her flight attendant outfit from the Pan Am television series of a couple of years ago, and asked if I wanted to re-enact scenes with her from the great American novel Coffee, Tea or Me?, and I would have said, “Not now, Margot, I’m busy. Go hang out with Lynda and Debra for a while.”
The tape survived. The episode survived.
I looked at my watch. There wasn’t enough time to get to Schenectady to pick up the DVD before Photo Video closed for the day. I asked if I could pick up the tape the next day; at which time I would pay for the DVD and the tape transfer. They agreed. “See you tomorrow, Mr. Miller.”
And as the phone conversation ended… I thought once more. It’s not a fantasy. It’s not a dream. It’s a dream come true.
Holy freakin’ Philo T. Farnsworth meets E.F.W. Alexanderson, I’m going to see that Answers Please episode for the first time in nearly 35 years. Not just a tiny news clip, but the whole freakin’ contest!!
Thursday, February 26. I’m sitting in the parking lot at Photo Video Productions in Schenectady. And I’m thinking back to my life 34 years ago.
I was living with an aunt and uncle, due to my unwillingness to live with either set of my toxic parents. And I was out of school for at least a year because my aunt and uncle thought that I should be a live-in babysitter and extra welfare check for them. I was at what might have been the lowest point in my life. I wasn’t a person. I was a marginalized indentured servant, held by manacles of bloodline and obligation.
And going to Street Academy, an alternate high school on Clinton Avenue in Arbor Hill, saved my life and my soul. I attended school with friends and equals. My teachers helped educate me and motivate me. They convinced me that I could become more. “Never settle for just good enough,” my favorite teacher, Bonnie Diefendorf, told me. It’s the words and that message that have carried me every single day.
In fact, that last Monday in February in 1981, I went with one of my English / literature teachers, Peter Balint, to watch a taping of Answers Please live at the WRGB studios. We watched as Cooperstown High School won their third game in a row – a 300-0 pounding over some school that probably closed when the radio reported three snowflakes in the sky – which meant that Street Academy, as an alternate replacement whenever a school retires undefeated after three games – would play that next Monday night against Albany Academy.
On the way back home from the WRGB studios, Peter drove by the Albany Academy campus. From the car, he pointed out the various buildings and structures on the Academy grounds. I saw the impeccably manicured grounds, I saw the athletic buildings.
“Chuck,” he asked me, “do you really think that you have a chance against what this school represents?”
I thought for a second. “Why wouldn’t we?” I responded. “It’s our turn to shine.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” he smiled. “You can do this. All of you can do this.”
Three Answers Please wins later… and we weren’t just that school in Arbor Hill that the Albany City School District used as a dumping ground for whatever students they gave up on. Not any more. Now we were high school students that were ready to shock the world and stake our claims.
It’s why I named my current bar trivia championship team Street Academy. The school saved my life. It will always be a part of me. And I will never forget the positive influence of its existence, or its motto of “Knowledge / Freedom / Brotherhood.” Never forget.
The time for daydreams has ended. I walk into the Photo Video Productions office. The contents of the vintage videotape have been transferred to DVD. I purchase the DVD, and the DVD and the original source tape are returned to me.
The only way I’ll truly know if this is the original episode is that I remember that WRGB used the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Fire On High” as the theme music for Answers Please. If you’ve never heard “Fire On High,” here’s a clip of the original recording.
And for the first time in nearly three and a half decades…
As I press the PLAY button on my home DVD player… with 34 years of anticipation…
I see this. Complete with the theme music from ELO’s “Fire On High.”
Yes. It’s the entire episode of Answers Please that aired on March 15, 1981. After an early couple of flubbed questions on my part, Keveny jumped out to an early 35-0 lead.
Okay, you got spotted a 35-point lead, Keveny. It’s time to move the chains.
And oh my Lord did we move those chains. We nailed six consecutive toss-up questions to claim a first-half lead, and in the video you can see Keveny’s team captain Matt Maron just getting more and more frustrated every time we beat them to the buzzer. And in the second half, Starkeema Lloyd, Frieda Tillman, Candy Williams and I just put the pedal to the metal and roared away. Four consecutive correct toss-up questions to start the second half before Keveny could even get back on the board.
And I have to say this. After watching this tape with fresh eyes, I can say for certainty that Keveny was a much stronger squad than we imagined. They could have come back on those bonus questions, but we wouldn’t let them. I mean, at one point in the video, near the end of the second half, I’m getting ready to answer a question about the words that are found on every U.S. coin, and Keveny buzzes in right as I’m saying the answer. I didn’t realize I could pull off a death stare. Wow.
And then, near the end, Starkeema Lloyd nails a toss-up question that gives us more bonus questions… yeah. We got this. Final score, Street Academy 185, Keveny Academy 105.
As the episode ended, the television cameras panned to the crowd – unlike the first game, in which Albany Academy had six chartered buses full of fans and we had barely a dozen in the audience, the crowd between Street Academy and Keveny was more balanced. And I saw faces I hadn’t seen in ages – classmates, teachers, friends. Those who are still with us, and those who have been called to glory.
Wow. I watch the episode again. Right now, all my emotions are bouncing around like atoms in a particle accelerator. And I remembered how dorky I looked back then. Man, I didn’t just have acne. I had super-zit-craters-of-the-moon acne; hell, if there was a pizza that was missing five pepperonis, apparently those pepperonis were on my chin. And you can see that I’m holding my right hand over my left wrist throughout the telecast. There was a reason for that.
Maybe someday, maybe tomorrow or ten years from now, or three days after I pass away … one of the other two Answers Please episodes with the Street Academy High School championship trivia team might surface. Maybe someone recorded those episodes and kept them on a shelf and forgot about them. It’s happened here. Maybe it happened again somehow or somewhere.
But as far as I’m concerned right now, I never thought I’d see this footage. Not in my lifetime. Not ever. And here it is. The time capsule has been opened and experienced.
March 1, 2015. I’m at the First Presbyterian Church on State Street in Albany. My fellow blog buddy Roger Green announced on his blog that there would be a performance of ‘The Gospel According to the Beatles,” as performed by the youth members of the church.
As I read Roger’s blog, I noticed that the orchestra would be conducted by Christian Diefendorf. I know that name.
I’ve already sent copies of the Answers Please episode to various people – several of my Street Academy teachers, to several of the Keveny Academy players, a copy to WRGB for its archives. I had one more copy to distribute.
Before the performance, I asked to speak with Christian Diefendorf. And I gave him a copy of the DVD. See, three and a half decades ago, he was in the audience that night, along with his mother, as we won against Keveny that night.
After the church performance – which was quite good in and of itself – I congratulated Christian on the concert. He pointed to a little girl nearby. “There’s Bonnie,” he said.
Yes. I could see the resemblance in Christian’s daughter to his mother – English and literature teacher Bonnie Diefendorf. The teacher at Street Academy who encouraged me to never settle for “just good enough.”
As you can imagine, I was happy to make sure he received a copy of the DVD as well. Because for every person who thought that it was just Chuck Miller versus everybody on that show, I will tell you right now that we won as a team. And that team wasn’t limited to the four students at the dais. It was every teacher, every classmate, every mother and father and sister and brother and daughter and son who encouraged us to achieve and to never give up.
And now for a gracious and generous amount of thanks. Thanks to Photo Video Productions of Schenectady, who did a great job in getting the original U-Matic cartridge recording converted to a DVD format. Thanks also to Steve Veselka, Jr., who still had the tape, and to his father – Steve Veselka, Sr. – who had the foresight to record this episode and save it for nearly 35 years. Thanks to my classmates and teachers and administrators, all of whom gave us the strength and will-power to take on the world and prove we were worthy of the challenge.
What a wonderful feeling to see this footage once again.
A totally wonderful feeling.