Restoring Its Former Glory: Part II

Back in December, Mattucci was looking for copies of the 1973 Finals for the upcoming 40th anniversary. He turned to a private collector known in the television industry to have a vast archive of master tapes, everything from sitcoms to sporting events. The collector said that he had a copy of Game 5, although it wasn’t a master. Instead, it was a home recording on Cartrivision.

“Cartri-what?” Mattucci remembered saying, a response typical of most who’ve never heard of the antiquated recording device that debuted three years before the Sony Betamax. “What does that even mean?”

Essentially the first VCR, Cartrivision debuted in 1972 and a handful were sold before its manufacturer, Cartridge Television, went out of business some 18 months later. Among Cartrivision’s pioneering qualities was the ability to record up to 114 minutes of TV on a single cartridge. It did this by using extremely thin tape, stacking the reels vertically in the cartridge instead of side by side, and employing a crude form of video compression technology, a trait that would prove surprisingly vital to the restoration process.

The 40-year-old cassettes were as damaged as they were rare. The edges of the half-inch tape were wrinkled and deterioration had caused the tape itself to become soft and sticky, a condition known as binder hydrolysis or “sticky-shed syndrome.” Tapes with sticky-shed can jam during playback, stretching the tape and possibly breaking it. Not only did the tapes need to be cleaned, but in order to transfer the video to a digital format, they needed to be played in a working Cartrivision machine. “Good luck finding one” was what the collector told Mattucci.

“The odds were stacked against us on many levels,” Mattucci said. “Like a conveyor belt of things had to happen in order for this game to be broadcast. And if one of those things didn’t fall into place, the whole process would have stopped. There was no guarantee of success at all. In fact, it was more likely that this wasn’t going to happen. But because of the magnitude of the game, how could we not give it a chance?”

When Mattucci first approached DuArt with the project, Schechter wanted nothing to do with it. “‘Take it elsewhere,’ I told him,” Schechter recalled. “I knew the effort it would take. I didn’t own a Cartrivision machine and probably would never see a Cartrivision tape again. It wasn’t worth my time.”

Mattucci tried another postproduction house, in Philadelphia, and a guy in Portland, Oregon, who claimed to have a working Cartrivision machine. Neither could get the tapes to play. Meanwhile, Schechter never abandoned the Cartrivision project completely. To know him even for a few minutes, it’s apparent that he’s obsessive about his work and doesn’t take defeat — even if it is self-imposed — comfortably.

Unbeknownst to Mattucci, Schechter bought a Cartrivision machine online from an electronics enthusiast in Ohio named Tim Thompson, who had amassed a huge collection of Cartrivision products, from machines still in their boxes to cassettes, spare parts, and even service manuals.

Despite the “new in the box” promise from Thompson, Schechter said the machine he received was completely nonfunctional. Mechanically, every ounce of it had to be taken apart. Moving parts had to be cleaned and lubricated. Rubber that had disintegrated needed to be replaced. Chips and transistors were bad. Circuit boards had to be rebuilt. Harnesses and wires had to be repaired. Some replacement parts he could find; others he fabricated from scratch. Refurbishing the machine would take four months.

In February, with the 40th anniversary commemoration two months away, Mattucci was running out of time.

“Now I’m thinking that this isn’t happening,” Mattucci said. “I was out of options. So just for the heck of it, I called DuArt back. This time, it was like night and day. Maurice said, ‘Guess what, we’re going to do this,’ and I was blown away.”

Upon receiving the tapes, their condition was worse than Schechter had imagined. “I saw the damage that the two other people did to the tapes,” he said. “They didn’t have the expertise to know how to deal with material that is deteriorated. Wrinkles, fluting on the edges, major deterioration spots … You see that when a tape is basically dead. These tapes were teetering on the edge of not being able to be salvaged at all.”