LOS ANGELES — Friday night, mid-1990s, the suburbs of Houston, Texas: my mom and I get in her car, a run-down red Ford station wagon that will become mine at the age of sixteen. We drive to a run-down strip mall and park in front of our favorite (cheapest) local video store, where flimsy plastic containers, filled with hours of entertainment, line bookshelf after bookshelf, promising a night of Hollywood magic amidst the generalized dysphoria of my adolescent latchkey kid lifestyle and my mother’s constant worrying over work. All part of a typical night at the local video store — a once omnipresent, now near-extinct hallmark of the 1990s, when video had only recently killed the radio star.
Fast-forward to the present, where the sentiment of “Netflix and chill” has killed just about everything else, an attitude that could soon change for some Angelenos if Vidiots, an iconic alternative video store founded in 1985 by local legends and die-hard cinephiles Patty Polinger and Cathy Tauber, has anything to do with it. Once nestled in the heart of Santa Monica, Vidiots had to close its doors in the face of rising rents and a changing local neighborhood in 2017, but is now planning for a grand relaunch in 2020 at the historic Eagle Theatre on Eagle Rock Boulevard.
Of course, the big bad wolf of the analog entertainment world isn’t going away: streaming media, and the generalized shift in the public’s attitude towards media consumption that came with it. Streaming services promise the consumer total ease and control, including effortless bingeing, rewinding and re-watching (remember: Blockbuster movies had to be returned in a matter of days) all from the comfort of your home.
But Maggie Mackay, director of the Vidiots Foundation, believes streaming, while not the enemy, can never replace everything that is still special about the brick-and-mortar video store. During our meeting at a coffee shop just down the street from Vidiots soon-to-be location, she stressed that “algorithms can’t replace people, especially when it comes to making personal recommendations and talking about art and culture.”
The site of the Vidiots’ new home has its own long history. Originally conceived of as a vaudeville stage named the Yosemite Theatre in 1929, it quickly transitioned into a silent movie cinema house known as the Eagle Theatre, which then made a segue way into sound. The space spent a few years in the ’70s as a member of the infamous adult movie chain, the Pussycat Theaters, and was subsequently reborn as a series of churches, the most recent of which played host to a large, recognizable “Stop Suffering” sign, still on display, though the space has been for lease since May of this year.
The new Vidiots will continue its traditional role as a video rental store, host to its 50,000-plus DVD, BluRay, and VHS collection, that encompasses many rare titles, including, as Mackay puts it, “everything from work by master filmmakers like John Waters that never made it to a digital format to a documentary about the first gay prom in America.” Vidiots also has plans to restore the 200-seat Eagle Theatre to its original role as an independent cinema house and create a second on-site screening room that will host a variety of community-driven programs, workshops, and events.
As of now, Vidiots is in a period of fundraising and, even between brick-and-mortars, is actively programming events, the next of which takes place later this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. For the event, Polinger and Tauber will screen and discuss Stop Making Sense, a concert film featuring the Talking Heads at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre, whose energetic, humanist ethos influenced Vidiots.
Over its 35-year run, the Vidiots has had a colorful legacy. Besides hosting wild parties for cult filmmakers such as Russ Meyer and Les Blank, Vidiots’ friend and fan base is the stuff of legends. It has gained a devoted following not only from Angelenos but cinephiles everywhere, due to its ongoing commitment to archiving and screening everything from Steven Spielberg and Kathryn Bigelow’s mainstream blockbusters to avant-garde art videos by Annie Sprinkle and Eric Bogosian. In the words of director Jason Reitman, whose donated 35mm projection system will be used in the new location, “Los Angeles should have more movie theaters, not fewer, and Vidiots has come to give all us punch drunk film lovers another place to call home where we can roam the racks.”
Cut back to the ’90s and chimes ring as my mother and I walk through our local video store’s doors. I can still remember the soft, stained carpeting that lined its floors, the worn-down cardboard movie boxes with exposed paper edges, the secret thrill that rushed through me when mom agreed to rent Muriel’s Wedding, not realizing it was rated R.
As is often the case with life, the experience becomes precious in hindsight, but more than nostalgia, what Vidiots and places like it offers us is an archive of who we are, where we come from, and what we can be. In the city that made Hollywood a symbol more than a physical location, no industry is more central to our sense of self than that of film and its history.
Vidiots will open in 2020 at the Eagle Theatre (4884 Eagle Rock Boulevard, Eagle Rock, Los Angeles). It is cohosting an event with the Alamo Drafthouse (700 W 7th St Ste. U240, Downtown, Los Angeles) for a screening of Stop Making Sense on November 25.