Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A matter of platter

Winnipeg brothers big fans, collectors of long-obsolete home-theatre technology

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Blaine Martin (left), his dad Byron (centre) and brother Brent collect LaserDiscs.Some rare LaserDisc box sets can go for hundreds of dollars.

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Blaine Martin (left), his dad Byron (centre) and brother Brent collect LaserDiscs.Some rare LaserDisc box sets can go for hundreds of dollars.

Brothers Blaine and Brent Martin have been in the real estate biz for 20-plus years. They've sold upwards of 3,000 homes, and toured clients through 10 times that number. Despite those stats, neither sibling can recall a house where the residents owned a LaserDisc player.

"And believe me, if somebody had one, we'd notice," Brent says.

He's not kidding; while the majority of home-theatre buffs keep pace with the latest technology, Blaine and Brent are stuck in a video time warp.

Every chance they get, the two plop themselves down with a bowl of popcorn and watch their favourite flicks on LaserDisc -- a playback format that was first introduced to consumers 35 years ago before heading to that big, electronics junk-pile in the sky in 2000.

Before we continue, a brief tutorial might be in order: at first glance, a LaserDisc, or LD, seems to be a cross between a vinyl album and a DVD. Like DVDs, the playing surface of LDs is all happy shiny. But like LP records, LaserDiscs are 30 centimetres in diameter. And also like albums, information on LDs is spread over two sides. Early players even required viewers to get up partway through a film and physically flip the disc over in order to enjoy the rest of the show.

Although the quality of LaserDiscs was vastly superior to VHS tapes -- LaserDiscs were the first format to boast features like supplementary material, commentaries and alternate soundtracks -- they never caught on with the public the way tapes did, primarily because of cost. In 1978, individual LDs (Jaws was the first film released on LaserDisc) started at about $30, while even low-end players commanded $400.

Ten years ago, Brent, a "big music guy," was shopping for used records at Sound Exchange on Portage Ave. At one point the owner, a friend of his, said, "You like neat stuff, right? Get a load of this." In his arms were a slew of LaserDisc concert films featuring classic rock bands from the '60s and '70s.

"I was like, 'Whoa, is that ever cool,'" says Brent, who took about three seconds to say "deal" after he heard the price: $100 for 10 discs and a second-hand player to watch them on.

As soon as he got home, Brent called Blaine and asked him to come over and help hook up his new toy. Then the pair sat back with a couple of cold ones and began watching 25 x 5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones.

Five minutes in they looked at each other and said, "Wow."

Days later, the Martins took to the Internet to see what titles were available on sites like eBay. Over 1,600 LaserDiscs and eight players later, they're still shopping.

"The collection is split between three homes -- mine, Brent's and my dad's," Blaine explains, noting he bought his father, Byron Martin, a player -- along with 50 John Wayne movies -- for Christmas one year. "We're pretty relaxed about things; if one of them comes over to my house and spots something they want to watch, they can have it. We don't worry too much about who has whose copy of Raiders."

The brothers' taste runs the gamut. But if there's one genre that rules the Martin roost, it's sci-fi. The guys own every episode of the original Star Trek series -- that's 39 discs right there -- as well as all seven seasons, 92 discs in total, of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

"We got the majority of our collection about five or six years ago, when the economy in the States was really bad," Blaine says. "Movies that sell for $30, $40 and $50 nowadays -- we were picking them up for $2 or $3 a piece."

Compare those prices to the most expensive LaserDisc currently on sale at DaDon's Rare Laserdiscs, an online store that stocks some 40,000 discs, and sells to LD devotees all over the world.

For the princely sum of $1,294.57, you can order a copy of Golden Age of Looney Tunes, a box-set of classic cartoons starring Bugs Bunny and the gang.

"Like most things, price depends on rarity and condition," says DaDon's owner Mark Astengo, when reached at home in Blaine, Wash. "Japanese pressings tend to go for a bit more. Not only were the Japanese (manufacturers) more meticulous in regards to video transfers, they did a better job of sound, the jackets were thicker -- they just did a really class job."

Astengo became one of the planet's pre-eminent LaserDisc dealers by accident; 10 years ago he was hunting for a copy of Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The only version he could find was on LaserDisc.

"My whole life I've gone from one crazy thing to another; before I knew it, I had bought thousands of these things."

The notion of a retail shop came along one night when Astengo was sitting around with some friends. One of his buddies was teasing him about how much money he was "wasting" on discs.

"I told him, 'I've made money at everything I've ever done,' so I started the store the next day just for fun. I haven't looked back since," he says, noting his volume now comes primarily from estate sales or collectors who are downsizing.

A lot of people contact Astengo for the same reason he started collecting: because they can't find a particular movie anywhere else. (At last count, there were about 4,000 films that came out on LaserDisc that haven't been released on DVD or Blu-ray, Astengo says.)

A couple of years ago Astengo got a call from a well-known movie director. The director, whom Astengo won't name for confidentiality reasons, was headed to a film festival and was frantically looking for a copy of one of his old films.

"I had two in stock and he bought both; I FedExed one to his office and the other to where he was going to be staying at the festival," Astengo says.

"It is very rare nowadays to have anyone ask about or comment on LaserDiscs," says Ed Goosen of Brian Reimer Audio on St. Mary's Road. "They were never really all that popular to begin with (and) no new players have been available for purchase for almost 10 years now."

Goosen says the Martin brothers are the only people in Winnipeg he is aware of who collect discs, "which is almost surprising because those big discs and full-size artwork are definitely cool."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2013 E3

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