What they didn't tell you in 'The Aviator'
Anyone who has caught the new movie "The Aviator" about Howard Hughes knows that he was just slightly eccentric. Not only did he build a monstrous airplane out of wood and invent several other things aerodynamic (not the least of which was a bra that made Jane Russell's bust look like a pair of prop spinners on a P-38) but, way back in 1969, he and I conducted what I believe was the first commercial experiment for Video-On- Demand (VOD). Scorsese left this very important episode out of the movie, so here are the details.
Back then, I was in the Air Force, stationed at a small radar site just north of Las Vegas. Our site commander, knowing that new enlistees made something like, oh, twenty-three cents an hour or so, allowed us to hold down second jobs. I had a First Class Radiotelephone License (the fabled "First Phone"), so rather than bus tables at the local Big Boy, I was able to land an overnight master control shift at KLAS-TV.
KLAS was (and still is) the CBS affiliate in Las Vegas and was one of only four TV stations that served the then medium-sized town of 180,000. At the time, it was also one of the very few stations that stayed on the air all night, every night, a fact that led to our VOD experiment.
Before going further, though, the story has to be put in the context of the time. VOD was unheard of in 1969 for the very good reason that cable itself was essentially non-existent.
In fact, cable systems back then were called CATV, or "Community Antenna TV" systems, since they simply redistributed, via coax cables, off-air signals from a master antenna system, to mostly rural communities. No Ted Turner, No HBO; No $80 cable bills; just NBC, CBS, ABC and a smattering of independent stations.
Similarly, there were very fewhome VCRs. In fact, the Ampex VR-2000 videotape machines we ran at KLAS were 2,000 pound behemoths (the origination of the model number, perhaps?) that cost north of $100,000 each (in 1969 dollars, no less!). Video On Demand? TV in small and medium markets in the 60's was much closer to "Video On Occasion."
So, against this backdrop, Howard Hughes skulked into Vegas late one night from L.A. He had been buying up stuff in the Vegas Valley for a while, and the rumor at the time was that he wanted to build a monorail connecting L.A. to Vegas to bring in the weekend gamblers. (No kidding... a 280 mile monorail. DisneyWorld on steroids.)
That, of course, never happened, but along the way he bought several hotel/casinos, an airport, a few hundred square miles of Nevada desert, and KLAS. Already deep into hermit mode, he barricaded himself on the ninth floor of the Desert Inn Hotel and, if the stories are to be believed, set about dramatically improving the profits of the Kleenex and Lysol companies, while watching "The Price is Right" on his very own TV station.
After a while though, I guess his penchant for micro-management and B-movies got the better of him, and so, Howard and I crossed paths. Well, to be truthful, "crossed paths" is a stretch. It was more of a three-degrees-of-separation thing: me, talking to a guy who talked to a guy who talked to a Mormon guy who passed notes written on sterilized paper under a locked door. I never actually saw The Fingernails or anything, but I got about as close as any outsider could get.
In any event, Howard liked B-movies (mostly with airplanes and lots of prop spinners in them) and wanted to see them (the movies and the spinners) when he wanted to see them. How to do that in 1969? Well, owning a TV station was a good way to start.
So it was that early in my overnight dubbing/master control career, I got a call. I was into reel two (remember, this was in the day of film projectors and multiplexers) of some black and white yawner at 3 a.m. or so, when the MC phone rang. I answered and some bigwig at Hughes Nevada Operations started quizzing me about movie titles and times. I read the info off the program log, he hung up, and I went back to dubbing the latest Pocket Fisherman commercial onto the spot reel for the next day.
It turns out, though, that the late night wake up calls started happening frequently. So often, in fact, that I quickly learned to recognize the voice and have the information at the ready... until one particular night at around midnight. That night, after asking for the schedule, the voice told me that in fact, no, I wasn't going to air "Red Sky at Morning", (36 years later, I still remember the title) at 4 a.m., but was going to air "Sugarfoot" instead.
Well, fine, except that we didn't actually have any episodes of Sugarfoot in house (this being a short lived Warner Brothers western series, produced around the time of "Cheyenne," "Surf Side Six" and several others cranked out for ABC in the 50's and 60's).
Now, this small detail might have stopped lesser men, but not the guy who practically invented cleavage!
The disembodied voice over the line told me to hold tight and wait. He would call back and tell me what to do. When he finally did call back, he told me the print would be delivered before 4 a.m. and to air it then. Sure enough, at around 3:30 or so, the MC doorbell rang!
Now, typically, this would have been a bit unsettling, since the station was pretty close to the service entrance of a bar that attracted all sorts of zombies looking for Golden Nugget fifty cent shrimp cocktail coupons in the dumpster. But that night, being forewarned, I opened the door and found a cab driver.
I did, he gave me a film case, and left, narrowly missing a coupon zombie on his way out of the lot. Of course, in the case was a print of Sugarfoot.
Now, Real Money can accomplish a lot, but to pull this off? Well, Hughes had owned the RKO movie studio for years, so I suppose his people knew Warner people and someone called someone, etc., etc., down the chain until they got to some poor schlub who got up in the middle of the night, went to wherever they kept the highly prized prints of Sugarfoot, and got an episode. Perfect, if Hughes had still lived in L.A., but we were in Vegas, and the monorail idea had been shelved in favor of owning everything else in the state.
As it happened, Hughes at the time owned a regional air carrier, called Hughes Air West. So, the bigwig had merely pulled some very expensive levers and had an Air West DC-9 shuttle a print from LAX back to Vegas. Was it a scheduled flight, or did he fly an empty plane 550 miles round trip just to get a film? I never found out, but I do know that I was threading up Sugarfoot at 3:45 or so, while Howard Hughes kicked back to watch it up in the Ninth Floor Isolation Ward.
And so, there you are: Video-On- Demand!
In the end, this operation was so simple that it became a frequent event. Most times, we had the films in house (you can be sure we ended up with every Sugarfoot episode in existence), but every once in a while, the Ninth Floor would request some bizarre title, the Hughes fulfillment machine would spool up, and I'd be chatting with a cab driver at 3 a.m. In fact, it got so frequent that we finally went to a "To Be Announced" listing in the TV Guide every night between Midnight and 6 a.m.
This went on for a year or so, until I got reassigned in the Air Force and had to quit, while Howard departed Vegas in the middle of the night for Nicaragua (where there wasn't much TV of any kind, so presumably instead of watching that he just watched his fingernails grow). But, there it is: the story that was left out of the movie. Way back in 1969 B.C. (Before Cable), Howard Hughes, locked away on the ninth floor of the Desert Inn, and I, a 21 year-old graveyard master control operator, invented Video On Demand. But I've got to go now... I think Scorsese's calling.
What they didn't tell you in 'The Aviator'