Cartivision And The Mystery Tapes


By George Steber





Cartrivision videotape recorders are not readily available today. In

fact they are getting downright rare. I am quite familiar with these

machines since I had acquired Cartrivision recorders way back in the

‘70s. One day I saw a plea for Cartrivision equipment from Luke Perry on

a UseNet group. It was fortuitous since I was about to dispose of my old

units and related material. I had already sent one recorder and a box of

blank Cartrivision tapes go to the landfill. On a whim, I decided to

email Luke. He was starting a web site devoted to Cartrivision and he

said he would like to have a unit to see how it worked. That was fine

with me. I was glad someone had an interest in these old relics. Luke

was the man. He, in effect, would become a Cartrivision historian. As

much as I liked the Cartrivision equipment I had to admit it was getting

quite finicky and I didn’t really use it much anymore. I had already

transferred all of my personal video recordings to miniDV and really

didn’t have much use for the recorders anymore. I did have a lot of

taped programs that I recorded off of the air, but none of them was

irreplaceable to me. So shipping the equipment to him sounded like a

good idea to me. By email, Luke and I proceeded to work out the details

of shipping him a unit and other material. I did mention to him that the

units I had were pretty pernickety and he might have some problems. That

was okay with him. I got off the first shipment of spare parts,

cassettes and paperwork soon thereafter. One unit would follow later on.



During this time Luke was still doing some searching on the Internet.

One day he informed me that the Kate Smith Commemorative Society was in

desperate need of help with some Cartrivision tapes. On a impulse, I

sent an email to Richard Hayes, KSCS, archivist to see what was

involved. He told me that they had acquired two Cartrivision tapes some

time back and they did not have the vaguest idea what was on them. He

did mention that it was alleged that Kate Smith had given these tapes to

some of her friends in California. I told him that I had some old

Cartivision units and might try looking at them and capturing what was

there, if anything. They were desperate to find out what was on the

tapes and agreed to send them to me at once. A real mystery was starting

to unfold. This is what he wrote….


/> Hello George,/




/> Bless you! We would like 2 60-minute CartriVision tapes transferred to/


/> VHS @ the SP speed. I can mail them to you via Priority Mail Friday or/


/> Saturday. Please give me your address. What will it cost us for 2 hours?/


/> Richard Hayes, KSCS archivist/


/ /


I emailed back to Richard with this comment…


/ /


/ /




/ /


/You should be aware that there are potential problems in transferring

the Cartrivision video to a VHS tape. There are likely to be a lot of

dropouts that cause noise in the picture. The tape may break due to age.

I can usually fix that but there may be a little video lost. My

equipment is old, 1972, about same age as the tape and may have

problems. So there are quite a few things that can go wrong. You should

be aware of this./


/ /


/I am a retired professor of engineering and only play with this stuff

as a hobby now. I was donating the equipment to a fellow (Luke Perry,

see his web site) for historical reasons when he told me of your plight.

I wouldn't recommend VHS for prime storage as it will have problems down

the road. I save everything in digital format (miniDV) to avoid

problems. In this case I would first transfer to miniDV, edit the video

and then make the VHS tape . /


/ /


/Pack the tapes carefully to avoid damage due to tape shift in

cartridge. If you have a Cartrivision tape retainer, use it. I'll try to

do my best but obviously I can't guarantee anything./


/ /




I got this email back from Richard:



/> Hello Dr. George,/




/> Thanks for the lengthy reply. You're the expert, so go ahead and make/


/> the mini-DVs, whatever they are. Do they play on DVD players? I realize/


/> there are inherent problems, and heaven knows what condition these tapes/


/> are in. We are really curious to know what's on them, as they were/


/> personally given by Kate Smith to her friends in California. If you are/


/> retired, you must remember who Kate was. I'm a retired high school/


/> biology teacher./




/> Richard/



I wrote to Richard and said the following:



/ “Regarding the Kate Smith tapes, I am curious about them too. The



/unit had the capability of recording from off the air or from a small



/and white, not color) video camera with sound. Thus if she recorded the



/herself they will be monochrome, and usually of poor quality since the



/did not record well in low light. I know as I had several of them. On the/


/other hand, Cartrivision offered pre-recorded tapes too on a variety of/


/subjects and perhaps they had one or two about her. Another possibility is/


/that she recorded (or had someone else record) her performance from

live TV/


/with the Cartrivision. Just a note about the Cartrivision tapes capacity./


/They could hold up to 90 minutes of material if fully loaded with tape,



/often times they were loaded with only 15 minutes of material. I had



/like that.” /



I got this email back from Richard:


/“Hi George,/


/ /


/Thanks for the further info. Now both of us are anxious to see what-all

s on these tapes. They both are in the cartridges. I understand that

inside are two reels, one on top of the other, and that there were

problems rewinding them. Anyway, I'm not touching them. /


/ Again, many thanks. Glad I caught you before you gave them to Luke Perry./


/ /





About a week later I received two Cartrivision tapes in the mail. Soon

the mystery would be solved, or would it? The tapes were in pretty bad

shape, just held together with some scotch tape. I carefully pulled off

the tape and opened the cartridges. There were a few broken plastic

pieces but the tape looked okay. I decided to repair the cartridges

before proceeding. I had some success and was ready for a test. I

decided to fast forward and then rewind the tape to get a good tape

pack. I was using my unit 2 but it failed to fast forward. It was the

weaker of my Cartivision units. So I tried unit 1 and got both a fast

forward and a rewind. I was having mechanical problems with #1 during

play so I went back to #2 to try to play. I warmed up the machine for 5

minutes while I connected my DV recorder to the video and audio. Then,

with great trepidation, I rotated the knob to play. The arms lifted and

the tape started to play. After a few more seconds I heard Doc

Severenson of the Tonight Show announcing that Kate Smith would be the

guest host for the evening. There was a lot of noise and tracking

problems with the picture but the sound was perfect. I kept recording

until I had the whole program from tape 1. The picture had cleared up a

lot after a few minutes. The mystery was solved!!!



I subsequently recovered the video from the second Cartrivision tape. It

was the balance of the Tonight show program. Then unit 2 started to fail

and would not play anymore as it could not pull the tape. I think there

is warping with the KS Cartridges and that caused the original problem

with it not being able to rewind. I fired up Unit 1 and repeated the

capture of both tapes. I thought I would be able to piece something

together from them. It turns out that #2 was seriously slipping and the

sound was way out of synch with the picture upon capture. This has a lot

to do with the firewire capture process too and is quite technical so I

won’t go into it now. Suffice it to say that I could fix up the audio in

Sound Forge and reattach it to the video for editing.



The video clips were transferred to my AMD Thunderbird for editing with

my DVRaptor. You get a great sense of relief when all of the clips are

finally transferred to the HD. Using Premiere there is a lot of repair

work on the video that can done. I used almost all the tools available.

Now all of the Tonight Show broadcast has been restored, even the

commercials. They are great fun to watch, some thirty years after the

broadcast. I asked Richard why they didn’t just go to NBC and use the

original videotape. Apparently back in those days NBC reused all the

tapes so most of those classic broadcasts have been lost forever. In

this case we were very lucky and just barely pulled one out of the fire.



GRS July 7, 2003