Old Tape has Me Dancing in my Den

If you can’t name these artists, you’re probably too young to remember them–or what came before DVDs

Sammy! Liza! Frank! 

Once upon a time, everyone would know who I was talking about, the same folks who wouldn’t think it odd that I watched these once-beloved performers on a VHS tape last night. Yes, I still have a machine to play them.

Home-recorded off a PBS show in 1989, the tape featured Sammy Davis, Jr., Liza Minnelli, and Frank Sinatra. I didn’t even remember I had it until I got desperate for entertainment and started sorting old tapes.

I no longer wanted most of them. I threw away a bunch of homemade tapes and set aside some store-bought ones to give away, but this one I settled in to watch. 

I’m keeping this tape till I die. Oh wait. I don’t have to. The same show is online at https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443514/. You can buy it on eBay, and look, Amazon has the VHS tape for $40. Who knew this bootlegged tape might be worth something someday? 

From my late teens on, I had a major crush on Sammy Davis, Jr. Lord, this tiny black man could sing. And dance. And act. I saw him perform live at the old Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, California. I stayed up late to watch his short-lived talk show on a fuzzy black and white TV in the ‘70s. I bought every album he ever made–on vinyl–and sang along at the top of my lungs. 

One would think I’d be over it by now. I’m not. Last night, I was still blown away by Sammy’s voice and the way he threw himself into every song. I also noticed how skinny he was, how he smoked and coughed between songs. I knew he would die of throat cancer three years later. But I was still in love after all these years. 

Then came Liza, last seen in a wheelchair at the Academy Awards, barely able to speak, seeming confused. But here she is in all her spangled glory with a powerhouse voice that reminded us of her mother, Judy Garland, but also was pure Liza. I knew every word of her songs, too.

Frank was next. My mother told tales of teens going berserk over him in her day. Now, older and rounder, his voice not as smooth, he rode on past glory. He smoked and drank while he was singing, but still. This was Frank Sinatra

I knew they were all primadonnas. I knew Frank and Sammy were both dead and Liza was in bad shape. I knew they had sung the same songs, told the same jokes, and made the same moves hundreds of times, but it didn’t matter. They were entertainers, and I was entertained. 

Anyone glancing through my windows would have seen a 70–year-old woman singing and dancing and floating back to 1989 when she was young, curly haired and svelte, married to the man of her dreams, and doing well in her own singing and writing careers. To relieve those days for an hour was such a gift. 

I resorted to my dusty tapes because everything I find on TV or online these days turns me off. I’m tired of gore, cursing, shallow values, and mean-spiritedness, especially with all the tragedies happening in the world these days. And the music–it’s just not up to the standard of Sammy, Liza, and Frank. No “American Idol” can sing like this. Forget reality shows, game shows, and cop shows–give me some good singing and dancing, acting that goes down deep, or comedy that is really funny, not just trading insults. 

Maybe someday I’ll digitize my favorite tapes. Probably not. I can get most of the content online. Meanwhile, on rainy Sunday afternoons, you may find me pretending it’s still the olden days, singing from the Great American Songbook and dancing in my purple sneakers. Call it corny. Call me old. It makes me happy. 

Do you still have any VHS tapes or machines to play them on? What tapes will you save forever? Who were your old-time show-biz crushes? 

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