It’s hard to describe the video store phenomenon to somebody who missed it. To tell the story in the most boring possible way: There were so few places to rent movies in the Kansas City area in early 1980 that they didn’t even have their own section in the phonebook. By 1985, I counted about 50 to 70 locations in the yellow pages. By 1999, I counted well over 100 stores in the Kansas City area that rented videos.
Today, however, in late 2022, there are zero. There are still a few places where you can rent movies in Johnson County, but with the closing of two Family Video stores in 2021, there are now zero dedicated video rental stores in Johnson County.
Now, kids, if you want me to explain the phonebook, I’ll save that for another post. This post will simply be a history of video stores in Johnson County, Kansas, for the enjoyment and edification of those who were there and those who weren’t. It’s not a complete history, because that would be a task far too big for this blog. We’ll focus on one particular store for the most part, but hopefully it’s enough to give readers a sense of the wild wave that was the rise and fall of the video store era in one humble Kansas county.
The first record I could find of any place in the Kansas City area renting videos was an ad in the Kansas City Star classifieds from 1979 for “Video Exchange Club.” It was located in Kansas City, Missouri, but does not appear to have been a physical storefront. According to their ad, you would contact them to get a catalog, and if you were interested in renting tapes, you could pay $299 per year (approximately $1,200 in 2022 dollars) to rent regular and/or adult films on VHS or Beta, which – I believe – were sent to you in the mail.
In late April of 1980, Antin House of Video – which was primarily an electronics store and was located around 81st and Santa Fe in Overland Park – advertised that they now had a “movie club,” where you could pay to become a member, and then rent tapes from a selection of 800 (tapes, not titles) for $5 for five days. That’s about $18 for a five-day rental in 2022 money.
So in early 1980, VCR-owning Johnson Countians had those two options, but neither of those were truly “video stores” as we came to know them. No, the first true video store in Johnson County was none other than Hollywood at Home at 9063 Metcalf.
Richard Rostenberg graduated from the University of Missouri in 1972 with a degree in Accounting. He got a job at a small accounting firm and got a CPA, but his heart wasn’t really in the work – partially because he just didn’t like sitting down all day. A boss recommended that he try retail, and he ended up taking a job at Macy’s as an assistant buyer. He rose to buyer quickly, and loved the work. He traveled a lot for the job and – best of all – rarely had to sit down.
He worked at the Macy’s in the now-demolished Mission Shopping Center at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Roe Avenue and was in charge of all the soft goods as well as the TV and stereo department. Rostenberg told his boss, “I don’t know anything about TVs and stereos. Please don’t make me do that.” He chuckled. “And [my boss] said, ‘Well your office is next to there, so you’re going to do that.’”
Throughout 1979, Rostenberg watched the TV and stereo business, and one phenomenon in particular caught his eye. “For every fifteen TVs, basically, we were selling one VCR.” Customers would come in and pay $300 for a TV, and up to $1,500 for a VCR. He saw that people were very interested in “time-shifting,” where they could record a show while they were out and about and then watch it later. At the time, recording television was essentially the only reason people bought VCRs. “Dallas” was one show in particular that was popular with time-shifters, as it was must-see-TV yet it aired on Fridays when people wanted to go out. They got a VCR and their problem was solved.
Rostenberg sensed big potential in this VCR-owning demographic and booked a ticket to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. He returned determined to start a video store.
He thought about doing the store inside of an electronics store like Antin’s. He even talked to Sidney Antin at one point, but they both decided there was no reason to split the money when they could each just go into business on their own. Rostenberg didn’t want to be working for anybody anyways, so he and his wife Linda decided to open up their own store. They suspected that a location in relatively wealthy Johnson County would have a higher concentration of VCR-owners, and picked an 800 square-foot spot in the brand-new Loehmann’s Plaza on Metcalf.
They opened for business on April 26, 1980, with an estimated 300 to 350 titles to rent out, and… there was basically no business. Rostenberg recalled that most people hardly knew what a VCR or VHS tape were (only 2-percent of US homes had a VCR in 1980), and even VCR-owners didn’t really have an idea that you could go out and rent movies.
“We had ‘zero days,’ days when it was just nothing… very depressing.”
It was him, his wife, and one employee, and he wasn’t sure how long they could hold out with as little business as they were getting. Then something wonderful happened. On July 4th, the temperature rose to 100 degrees and stayed there. Summer kicked into gear, and Overland Park had two solid weeks of 100-degree days. All of the sudden, people discovered video rentals. Hollywood at Home made their break-even in July and August, and soon Rostenberg was confident he was going to be in business for a long time.
And that’s how Hollywood at Home became the first video store in the Kansas City area. No club to join, just come on in out of the heat and rent your tape.
By May, the Kansas City Star reported that there were six places to rent videos in Johnson County, with another set to open in June. Along with Hollywood at Home and Antin, Master Video, The Video Shop, and Continental Video Center (which claimed to have sold the Kansas City area’s first VCR in April of 1976) were all among the first, though some of those – if not all of them – appear to have been mainly electronics stores like Antin. The practice of renting tapes was so novel at the time that the reporter, Linda Rosewicz, actually consulted with the FBI to confirm that it was legal.
When I asked Rostenberg how he selected movies early on, he smiled and said, “Let’s just say that my big claim to fame – in my mind – is we had ten copies of ’10.’” (If you’ve seen the cover with Bo Derek running on the beach, you can guess why that would have been a hit.) He said that “Superman” was another big title in the early days, and that tracking the box office was generally a good indicator of what people would be wanting to rent six months down the road.
Hollywood at Home started with Beta and VHS, but quickly moved away from Beta. Rostenberg said that Beta customers were strangely picky and would come in looking for one specific title, and if you didn’t have it, they would just leave. VHS customers were more likely to browse and rent whatever was available.
The Kansas City Star reported that the area’s most commonly rented film by far was “10.” After that, “Superman,” “Norma Rae,” “The Muppet Movie,” “Tunnelvision,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “Jaws,” “The Godfather,” “Saturday Night Fever,” and “The Groove Tube” led the race, along with many X-rated movies. The cassettes cost the stores anywhere between $35 to $100, and it seems $5 was the average cost of a rental at most places.
Along with renting and selling tapes, Hollywood at Home also rented out VCRs for $35 to customers who didn’t yet own one but wanted to watch films at home. Another option was to have a “screen party” at the store for $50 where you could invite your friends and watch a movie or two in the store while Rostenberg and his wife Linda played host. It was common for stores to rent out VCRs, but Hollywood at Home was the only store I saw advertise anything like screen parties.
After a somewhat slow start in 1980, the Johnson County video rental industry really started to take off over the next few years. I found an article from 1981 that described “slow-motion” and “fast-forward” features to readers presumably unfamiliar with such exotic things, only to see an article from late 1984 saying that 16 million American households now had VCRs and at least 10,000 video retailers had opened across the United States. Sales of pre-recorded cassettes leapt from $200 million in 1982 to almost $2 billion in 1985.
Something to note is that by and large, the rental stores were the ones doing the buying in the 1980s. Early on, movie studios were very leery of putting their films on tape and selling them. They were afraid home video and the rental market would kill off the theatrical market, which was essentially their entire business back then. However, a few of the studios – 20th Century Fox in particular – were very eager to find new streams of revenue in the late 1970s. They started putting out a very limited selection of new and old titles on tape, but priced them very high ($85 in the early 1980s would be about $300 today) so that it wouldn’t eat into their theatrical business.
The high prices of the tapes created the reason for rental stores to exist, and some studios were less than thrilled about this work-around. Different studios tried different techniques of combatting the rental stores, and some got litigious. However, the first-sale doctrine within American copyright law (which allows for people to sell or rent copywritten materials that they have purchased like books, records, tapes, etc.) kept any lawsuits from moving forward successfully. This eventually led the frustrated studios to lobby for some legislation that would prevent people from renting out tapes, but even that was not to be, and Rostenberg tells me that this is where Johnson County video store owners played a pivotal role in the video rental industry on a national level.
Rostenberg said that when this legislation was up for discussion, a handful of people from the local chapter of the Video Software Dealers Association (a then-fledgling association that had grown out of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers and was comprised of video store owners around the country, and would eventually become a massive force in the entertainment industry) went to Kansas Senator Bob Dole’s office and made their pro-video-store case. Dole happened to be on the relevant Senate committee that was considering the law, and when it came up for a hearing, Dole didn’t show up. The legislation was tabled indefinitely.
“I believe that Johnson County video dealers have everything in the world to do with [tabling that legislation].” He says with pride. “That could have killed the whole thing, or made it very different at least.”
The studios came to terms with their defeat pretty quickly however. They weren’t making money every single time somebody watched a tape, but they were still making a lot of money.
Another angle to this story is that to some degree studios miscalculated audiences’ interest in watching the same movies repeatedly. To the extent that the prohibitively high prices for tapes was a strategy and not a mistake, it almost made sense for rental stores to exist because in the early 1980s the idea of a person buying any given movie to watch over and over and over again probably seemed unlikely. Price the tapes at $85, let rental stores buy them (often with a wholesale discount) and gradually make their money back, and everybody wins to varying degrees. But as VCRs popped up in more homes, the studios began to shift their thinking.
By the late 1980s, VCRs were in over two-thirds of American homes, and studios began to experiment with lower prices for titles they thought might be worth it. They were gambling, but their question was: Will it be better to keep the price of this tape high, and have it be a rental for most people, or is this a title that we should price lower to encourage direct-to-consumer purchasing? Titles like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Top Gun,” and – most notably – “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” all launched with lower-than-average prices to encourage people to buy them instead of renting them. When “Batman” came out on video in November of 1989, it could be had for anywhere from $16 to $25 at area retailers, and Warner Brothers shipped an initial 15 million copies. This all had the potential to put a bit of a squeeze on video rental stores, but Rostenberg wasn’t too worried. He told me that when “Raiders” launched, they sold between 800 to 1,000 copies for $40 each.
Video stores popped up all throughout Johnson County and thrived through the mid-1980s. However, as early as 1986 the Kansas City Star was reporting that – while still healthy – the industry appeared to be approaching a “glut.” Individual stores weren’t making as much money, and some of the smaller stores started closing down because of increased competition. The industry went from a point where – as Don Cahail, the owner of almost two dozen local Applause Video stores, told the Kansas City Star – “if you could walk and chew bubblegum at the same time, you could run a video store and make money” in the mid-1980s, to an extremely competitive industry by the decade’s end. That had more than a little to do with the arrival of Johnson County’s first Blockbuster in March of 1988, but first, the elephant in the room: Pornography!
In 1985, pornographic films accounted for about 13-percent of the video market (sales and rentals) nationwide according to the VSDA. Going by genre, only Adventure films and Science-Fiction films were more popular. Regular video stores (the ones that weren’t exclusively “adult”) generally had their adult films on display on higher shelves or off in nooks that were less likely to be seen by younger customers, and some had entirely separate rooms. My childhood video store (Polo Video in Leawood) had a doorless room in the back corner that you couldn’t see into because of the way a little makeshift hallway blocked your view. The felt letter board reading “ADULTS ONLY 21 & OVER” did catch my attention whenever I was there, but as a kid I was always too blissfully browsing through new releases and video games to care at all about what “adults only” were up to.
Hollywood at Home had a little raised room in the back that had some signs around it warning the underaged to stay out. Employees affectionately referred to it as the “smut hut,” and it was an important source of revenue over the years. Customers came and went and virtually nobody ever had a problem with it, until one fateful day in 1987 when the National Coalition Against Pornography (NCAP) came to town.
The NCAP was based in Cincinnati, funded by donations, and was focused on getting laws against obscene material (material that is not protected by the First Amendment because it has been found to be in special violation of community standards) enforced in various states and municipalities. They would look for places with favorable obscenity statutes already on the books and get to work. An article from 1991 described the success they’d had getting porn almost completely banned from St. Louis. Over several years, seized films were screened by various juries with no success until, finally, in 1989 they won a guilty verdict on nine obscenity charges in one case. Since the lines for obscenity aren’t clear, this verdict was apparently enough to drive pornography vendors out of business or out of city limits, and got other vendors to pull any potentially offending material off their shelves. In one case, a store-owner had tried to fight the group in court but gave up once the legal fees got too high ($400,000 in his case).
Locally, it started when several video stores in Kansas City, Missouri, received a letter from the Kansas City police chief asking them to review their shelves and ensure that they didn’t have any adult videos that were in violation of Missouri statutes. It wasn’t clear exactly where the official pressure was coming from, but on the citizen-side it was coming from the Kansas City chapter of the NCAP (KCCAP), which reportedly spent almost half a million dollars on a media campaign (“STOP: Stand Together Opposing Pornography”) in the area in 1987.
The leader of the KCCAP, Chris Cooper, wrote an editorial in the paper criticizing the availability of pornography and stated the main aim of the group’s STOP campaign was to have existing laws in Kansas and Missouri enforced. He claimed that (the Missouri laws, at least) were “approved by the US Supreme Court as being constitutionally valid.”
For their part, the Kansas City police didn’t seem very excited. They told the Kansas City Star that there were certain types of pornography that were already illegal, and they believed it would be tough to prosecute obscenity charges against other types of pornography without violating anybody’s constitutional rights.
Rostenberg countered KCCAP in two ways. First by forming People Against Obscenity (PAO), a group of video store owners who believed self-policing was the best way to go and created guidelines video stores could follow to ensure their stores were within community standards. The basic guidance was: don’t rent or sell illegal pornography, don’t let minors enter restricted sections of stores, prohibit employees who are minors from selling or renting adult films, and see that the majority of the films in your store are non-adult. This was already the common practice of virtually every store, but having it codified showed that the store owners were perfectly happy to stay within the law and community standards. Plus, stores in compliance received a nice little sticker to display in their shops.
Second, Rostenberg wrote an editorial rebutting Cooper’s. He said he valued his clients and community, and sincerely viewed his store as video store for the entire family, which meant providing entertainment for children and for adults. Hollywood at Home, he said, had a section for adults 21 and over, and that the age limit was strictly enforced. They possessed no illegal material, and they were discerning about any violent or pornographic material they did stock. They even honored the wishes of any parents who didn’t want their children renting violent tapes.
His piece made it clear that neither he nor his store were the wicked caricatures the coalition was trying to drive out of business, and he ended with what I consider to be a pretty bold throwing of the gauntlet, especially considering how these people fully intended to shut down his store: “Movies that have not been judged obscene by the courts are entitled to First Amendment protection. If others want to take exception to that they have to prosecute, movie title by movie title.” Or, in words I’ll borrow from a movie that would have been sitting on a shelf at any self-respecting video store: “Go ahead. Make my day.”
At the start, most store owners reported nervousness and confusion. An employee at one Applause Video said he had seen coalition members looking through his store for offending tapes. By October some area retailers said they had removed various sexually explicit tapes from their shelves. Even Rostenberg told the Kansas City Star that he reviewed Hollywood at Home’s collection and removed about 30 titles, “the ones I wouldn’t feel comfortable defending in court.” He also said he would like to be arrested so he could clear himself and fellow video dealers of wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, KCCAP sponsored a two-hour program about the dangers of pornography that aired on KSHB Channel 41, and Cooper said Rostenberg’s PAO was “a deception” meant to undermine the anti-pornography campaign. Rostenberg responded in another editorial accusing the Cincinnati group of using the Kansas City area as a test to see if they could ban all adult material, which he described as a “goal that is beyond the nation’s laws.” He said he had discussed the laws with Johnson County District Attorney Dennis Moore and also consulted with attorneys at the ACLU.
At one point, the KCCAP sent “cookie ladies” to Hollywood at Home to stand outside the store distributing cookies while encouraging men to eat cookies instead of looking at pornography. I asked Rostenberg, “Was that legal? Could you have asked them to leave?” He shrugged and, with a laugh, said, “It’s a cookie! I ate their cookies.”
Things went quiet for a little bit. A Kansas City Star follow-up at the end of 1988 said the anti-porn movement had mostly fizzled. Adult tapes were still available and still made up about 10-percent of the video store marketplace. Rostenberg told the paper he had removed a few other hyper-violent tapes, demonstrating his sincerity about wanting to fit into the community.
Then news surfaced that NCAP was still at it. After a failed attempt in February of 1989, the first grand jury in Johnson County in nearly twenty years convened on May 22, 1989. It was called in response to petitions filed by NCAP, which sought a decision on whether X-rated films in video stores were in violation of Kansas obscenity laws.
In Kansas, if you get enough signatures, you can summon a grand jury of fifteen randomly selected private citizens to investigate for criminal activities with the assistance of the district attorney and determine if there is enough evidence of a crime to hold a person for trial. They usually meet for three to six months, and can subpoena witnesses to testify at their closed-to-the-public meetings. By the end, at least twelve of the fifteen have to vote in favor of an indictment for it to lead to an arrest and trial.
At the start of the 1989 grand jury, Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison was quoted as saying that under the law, something is obscene when it depicts patently offensive, explicit sex acts and appeals to prurient interest, and also if a reasonable person would say that the material is without serious artistic, political, scientific, or educational value. He said that in this case the decision went to a grand jury because Johnson County government officials didn’t want to be the arbiters of what was and was not obscene and instead wanted guidance from the community.
Fun Fact: One of the judges working for Johnson County at the time was Judge Herbert W. Walton, who had been involved in the 1969 ruling that the Swedish film “I Am Curious (Yellow)” was obscene. It had played in an Overland Park theater and been challenged. After a trial, Judge Walton ordered that the print of the film be destroyed and forbid the movie from being screened again in Johnson County.
The 1989 grand jury was much more merciful. They met for 16 days and listened to testimony from law enforcement and human sexuality experts, and also watched portions of sexually explicit films. At the end of it all, they didn’t indict any video dealers for obscenity, but they did recommend that vendors permanently remove pornographic films “dealing with incest, sexual conduct with minors, bondage, torture, bestiality, rape, fetishes and those lacking significant storylines or plots.”
The attorney representing the local video dealers said that the recommendations would only result in about a 5-percent reduction in the X-rated inventory of most stores, and that they were pleased overall with the outcome. Cooper also told the press he was pleased with the outcome, but claimed the recommendation knocked out 95-percent of the stores’ adult inventories. He may have been trying to play up the win for his followers, but my good-faith assumption is that he felt the “lacking significant storylines or plots” guideline would wipe out most of the films. It did not.
Morrison said the next step was for law enforcement to send out letters to video stores that handled X-rated tapes and inform them about the ruling. Then they would have a grace period to remove offending tapes before violations would become criminal. First offenses could result in a misdemeanor charge with a maximum punishment of $2,500 and one year in jail, and repeat offenses escalated to felonies with maximum fines of $5,000 and five years in a state penitentiary.
This chapter of the Johnson County video store saga closed with an article in October of 1989 that followed a detective in the criminal intelligence unit of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department. He was the lone detective assigned to the video store beat, and twice made it clear to the reporter that this was just one of the many things he did for his job. He told the reporter that he generally only went to a video shop when there was a specific complaint, and that since June they only had two – both dealing more with how videos were displayed than with the content of the videos. He said that on the rare random check-in, he would examine the collections for films that either in title or in description appeared to violate the rules. If he found one, he would rent it and examine it, but so far that hadn’t been necessary. A brief epilogue: Rostenberg told me he really took the NCAP seriously and even went to two of their national conventions. In response to the wave of threats to free speech in the Kansas City area at the time, Rostenberg and a friend started the Kansas City Coalition Against Censorship, which later became the Free Speech Coalition. Throughout the 1990s they had an annual Culture Under Fire event, which showcased provocative films, music, poetry, and so forth. It gradually wound down, but he said it was a lot of fun while it lasted.
Alright, enough filth! Let’s get back to business!
By 1987, the average video rental in the Kansas City area cost about $2.00 per day. More people than ever were renting videos at more stores than ever, and prices declined as competition increased. If you were in Johnson County and you wanted to rent a movie, you could go to Antin House of Video, Applause Video, Continental Video Center, Hollywood at Home, Master Video, Movies at Home, The Movie House, National Video, Peaches Video, Video Biz, Video Corner, Video Exchange, Video Library, Videolane, most grocery stores, most drug stores, some gas stations… or any number of other places. Then Blockbuster Video stepped into the Johnson County scene, and things really heated up.
In 1988, Blockbuster was an aggressively expanding national chain that aimed to be the McDonald’s of the video rental industry. It started in Dallas in 1985 and thanks to some big investors quickly took the country by storm. The store would eventually have near-universal brand recognition and – at its peak in 2004 – almost 9,000 stores around the world.
The area’s first Blockbuster was at 8701 Metcalf Ave, and it opened in March of 1988 with about 10,000 tapes (not titles). It was half a mile down the street from Hollywood at Home, which by then had 10,200 tapes (between 6,000 to 8,000 titles). I have to imagine somebody at Blockbuster corporate had done their research and put a target on Hollywood at Home.
In describing the new Blockbuster store, one article said Blockbuster was different because, among other things, they had all of their videotapes on display on the floor. Customers would pick up their tape, housed in its own Blockbuster case, and bring it to the counter to rent. Many stores practiced what Rostenberg described a “closed system,” where the video cases or clear plastic slips with the collapsed or altered video case art were out on the floor, but all of the tapes were behind the counter or in a back room (or anywhere they would fit). Presumably this prevented theft or damage to the tapes and was easier to keep organized. Very early on, a lot of stores simply had catalogs customers could browse, then pick their film and rent it, but by 1982 or 1983 that was pretty rare. Anyhow, Hollywood at Home utilized the closed system, and plenty of stores I visited over the years did too, but I was told Video Library in Lenexa opened in 1985 with the tapes out on the shelves, and possibly even pioneered this technique, so I suspect this was marketing bluster from Blockbuster and no real claim to fame.
By the end of 1988, Blockbuster had nine metro area stores, 235 stores total across 33 states, and was opening four or five per week. Most of their growth at that time was the acquisition of existing stores and small, city-wide or regional chains. They were a force to be reckoned with, but when I asked Rostenberg about the competition he said that when Blockbuster opened up, his store really didn’t see much of a dip in business, and when they closed many years later, Hollywood at Home didn’t see much of an uptick. By 1988, Hollywood at Home had a much deeper collection of films and video games than Blockbuster would ever have, as well as adult films (which Blockbuster never carried), and thankfully there were enough VCRs in the area by then to keep everybody afloat.
As competitive as things were by the end of the 1980s, 90% of stores nationwide were still independent (as opposed to franchises or chains), and business was good for most of them. Industry research reported that tapes were breaking even more quickly than in previous years, and individual tapes were getting more rentals before being trashed or sold-as-used than ever before. By 1990, the VSDA estimated video sales and rentals were a $10.5 billion per year business and said 68% of US households had VCRs. That year brought two significant acquisitions that changed the Johnson County video store landscape. In May, the local chain Movies at Home sold their 10 VHS rental stores and one all-Beta store to a Belgium-based retailer called Super Club (which was purchased by – you guessed it – Blockbuster in 1993). The former owners said they didn’t expect to change their stores and would continue to be involved in running them. They said they made the sale with the hopes of having a partner with deeper pockets that would help them expand the business further.
Then in July, Blockbuster purchased Applause Video, then the Kansas City area’s largest chain with 22 stores. This took Blockbuster to 36 stores in the Kansas City area. At the time of the deal, the unflappable Richard Rostenberg told the Kansas City Star that he was happy about it. “Instead of competing against two, we’re only competing against one now.” He added that Hollywood at Home was having its best year yet.
Another competitor that was ruffling the feathers of at least some video dealers was Phar-Mor. They sold tapes for $10-12 below suggested retail and rented tapes for as much as $2 less than the average rental store: 69 cents per night. Nobody could figure out how they were staying afloat. Their margins were way too thin for any video store to be able to compete, but they also appeared to be taking huge losses. The article I read was humorous in retrospect, because Phar-Mor famously collapsed due to shady financial practices in the early 1990s and never recovered, closing their final stores in the early 2000s.
Probably the most significant thing in the history of Johnson County video stores – and possibly even the history of Johnson County itself – occurred on Saturday February 1st, 1992 when Marky Mark of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch appeared at the Movies at Home store at 95th and Antioch for an album signing. Residents still look at that day as the day Johnson County finally made it to the big leagues.
In 1995, Hollywood at Home celebrated their 15th year of business. An interview in the Kansas City Star detailed how they were continuing to thrive with annual sales of $500,000. Tapes were still their bread and butter, but around 1990 the store – which had expanded from 800 square-feet to 2,800 square-feet in the mid-1980s – had added a newsstand that had since grown to 2,000 publications and made up 20-percent of the store’s business. Rostenberg told me that at one point in the 1980s they’d had every Atari game that existed, but by the mid-1990s they had sold those off and were renting Sega and Nintendo titles. (Fun fact: Back in the 1980s, they had a Pac-Man competition at the store and a little kid won $5,000.)
Things were so good in 1995, in fact, that Hollywood at Home purchased a computer with “Clair V.” software on it. The program had people fill out a 10-minute survey and then gave them film recommendations. I chuckled reading about this the other day, picturing somebody standing there in 1995 for ten minutes filling out the quiz, but I know that if the computer had still been there when I started visiting the store in the 2000s, I would have used it.
Movie Gallery, another large national chain, entered the Kansas City area in 1996. Like Blockbuster, they were expanding rapidly by building new stores and acquiring old ones at that time. Polo Video in Leawood was among their acquisitions, as were most of the Movie Exchange and Flicks and Discs stores.
Hollywood Video – yet another large national chain – came to town that same year and had eight stores in the area by the end of 1997.
Almost every household (85 to 90-percent) had at least one VCR by the mid-to-late-1990s, and the nation had around 27,000 video stores. Video revenue was almost two-thirds of the movie business’s income, compared to theatrical revenue (which was about a quarter). Yet video hadn’t cannibalized theatrical like the studios feared it would in the early days. Surely it impacted the theatrical business to some extent, but the theatrical business was thriving too.
Unfortunately, the news wasn’t as rosy for video stores. By the end of 1996, sell-through spending was starting to surpass rental spending. The bright side here was that it brought down the average price of tapes quite a bit for video stores, so it was easier to reach a profit by renting them. The downside is that customers were buying most of their movies at places like Wal-Mart, not their video store. Rental stores were still doing very healthy business as a whole, but they were mostly shouldered out of sell-through business, and rental profits were spread very thin over a lot of stores. Then, in 1997, rental revenues fell 4.2-percent, their biggest (and possibly first) drop ever.
The industry brought down rental prices to compete for consumers’ entertainment dollars, and Blockbuster abandoned their one standard nationwide price and began to compete price-wise on a local basis. On top of that, the biggest chain stores began competing with each other by buying tons of copies of the biggest new releases so that customers would have no need to ever go to a competitor to get the newest film they were looking for. That was rough enough to make a profit on for the major chains, but buying 100 to 200 copies of the biggest new movie just wasn’t possible for the littler guys who saw their business further siphoned off by this practice.
That said, it was pretty cool as a customer. For a while, my Blockbuster had a deal where if they didn’t have a title they were “guaranteed” to have, you could get a coupon for a free rental of something else. I remember regularly checking to see if they were out of any of the guaranteed titles just so I could get the occasional free rental. (Don’t worry, they made plenty of money off of me otherwise.)
In July of 1999 Hollywood at Home reported that business was great. By then about half of their business was video-related, while books and magazines were about 35-percent, and cigars, cigarettes, and candy made up the remainder.
20 million VCRs sold that year, but a new format was gaining steam: DVD, which used discs instead of tapes and offered higher-quality picture and sound, plus (usually) some fun bonus features. DVD rentals and sales were starting to pick up as the millennium neared, and the format would lead to one last shot in the arm for rental stores in the early 2000s.
Also in 1999, a company called Netflix – a website, really – introduced monthly subscription plans for renting DVDs through the mail. I’m pretty sure the company quickly disappeared and was never heard from again, but I’ll have to check my notes before I start writing the next section.
Hollywood at Home celebrated its 20th anniversary in April of 2000 with Bo Ling’s cuisine, free nail buffing and chair massages, and of course an autograph signing with local girl and Penthouse “Pet of the Year 1997” Elizabeth Hilden. In an interview with the KC Star, Rostenberg admitted the rental industry was unpredictable, but speculated that the store would be in business for at least another five years.
A few years later, Robert Butler wrote a great piece on the still-thriving video store that had a lot of details that took me right back to the store in the days when I’d first discovered it. New releases were $4, but you got a $1 credit if you brought them back the next day. The older movies were four movies for $4 for four days, which was absolutely perfect for burgeoning movie buffs looking to kill a weekend.
I first found Hollywood at Home in 2003 or 2004, when I was calling every video store in the phonebook searching for a copy of “Confessions of an Opium Eater” starring Vincent Price. (Like everybody, I went through a big Vincent Price phase in high school.) Nobody had it because I don’t think it ever had a VHS release in the US and the DVD wasn’t out yet, but I caught Hollywood at Home’s Eric on the phone and he started talking to me about Hammer Horror and Amicus Productions. It was the first I’d heard about such things, and I had to know more, so I went out to visit the store. I can’t say that I specifically remember the first time I ever entered Hollywood at Home, but I do remember that any time I entered it, it just felt like Home to me. I could and did browse for hours, and always went home with 4-8 movies and maybe a magazine or two. I was there all the time. I brought my friends. I brought my dad. Sometimes the clerk actually knew who I was when I stepped up to the counter to rent. I just loved it.
Butler described how the clerks played movies on the in-store TVs instead of promo reels like the more corporate shops had. He relayed the following anecdote from a customer: “One time I came in here with one of my friends and one of the clerks was on the P.A. system doing a Marlon Brando imitation. I’ve never seen that at Blockbuster.” I never caught a Brando impression, but I do remember always being quite pleased when somebody was watching a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode on the TVs. You really sense you’re a part of something bigger than you when you chuckle at the same Tom Servo riff that gets a smile from the clerk and a snort from another customer.
Butler revealed that the store required all potential employees to take a 50-question movie quiz in 10 minutes and be evaluated for their movie knowledge. (Rostenberg gave me a copy of the quiz and I scored 45/50.) Turnover was extremely low at Hollywood at Home. Butler talked about how the store offered insurance benefits, a pension plan, profit-sharing, and – of course – free rentals. This was virtually unheard of for a video store (except for the free rentals part). “Whenever we go to conventions and Richard brings up the fact that we have a retirement plan and profit-sharing, the other video store owners look at him like he’s some kind of alien,” Steve Wolverton, then-employee, soon-to-be-owner told Butler.
And then there was the collection. I may be wrong, but I believe the only video collection in Johnson County that ever surpassed the depth and variety of Hollywood at Home’s was Video Library’s. Video Library was a massive independent store that had been around since 1985, and they truly had everything. Hollywood at Home had a much smaller space, but being in operation since 1980 and specifically selecting movie maniacs to curate the joint left them with a huge collection full of hard-to-find films. Rostenberg told Butler that they had a few regulars who would drive in from central Missouri or central Kansas, get a hotel room, and spend the weekend with a stack of movies they couldn’t find anywhere else.
After a busy but shaky late-1990s, the early-2000s started off happily enough for video stores. I found conflicting figures, but it appears that the video rental market hit a new height (its peak) in 2001, thanks in large part to a boost from DVD.
DVD launched in 1997 and took a little while to catch on. VHS was still the dominant rental format in 2001 when DVD players were only in about 2 million US households. That year VHS rentals were $7 billion and DVD rentals were $1.4 billion. However, by 2004, DVD players were in more than 50-percent of US households, and the rental figures had just about flipped: DVDs accounted for $5.75 billion in rentals and VHS tapes for $2.3 billion. Total rental revenue was down about $400 million from 2001, but DVD had caught on, and VHS was on its way out.
DVD spurred a rise in overall home video spending (renting combined with purchasing), but it presented a couple of challenges to the brick-and-mortar rental industry. First, with DVD people spent more money buying DVDs than they did renting them. Gone were the days of $80 new release VHS tapes that made it logical to rent films instead of buying them. By the time DVD was the dominant format, it was normal to find big new releases for $20 on release day and $5 bins for older titles at most major retailers. Second, the lightweight discs allowed for things like Netflix (rental discs in the mail) and Redbox (a company that rents disc from a vending machine and was founded in 2002) to be more economically feasible. It’s cheaper and easier to ship a disc than a VHS tape, and as those services caught on, they ate up consumer dollars that would have otherwise gone to video rental stores.
I’ll sum up this final phase of the video store story as succinctly as possible:
In 2005, Netflix had about 4 million subscribers.
In 2010, 18 million.
In 2015, 70 million.
And in 2020, they reported over 200 million subscribers.
The other factors we’ve touched on play a role, but Netflix’s growth is the short answer to, “Whatever happened to video stores?” Remember the “Layla” scene in “Goodfellas”? It was like that.
Anyways, you get the idea. Now for the longer version…
Most video stores, large and small rode out the mid-2000s fairly comfortably, but technology, consumer habits, and a recession had all of them on the ropes by the end of the decade.
To briefly tell the tale of the big dogs, let’s start in 2004. That year Viacom decided to divest itself of its controlling interest in Blockbuster, which had 9,000 stores globally (5,800 in the US) at the time – ultimately their peak. After that, Blockbuster attempted to purchase Hollywood Video (2,000 stores) for $700 million. Movie Gallery (2,700 stores) was mostly hanging out off to the side, and their strategy at the time was to keep the profitable stores they had in metro areas, close the unprofitable ones, and otherwise focus on rural areas that were too small to attract Blockbuster’s attention.
Blockbuster’s purchase of Hollywood Video stalled, partially due to the Federal Trade Commission not immediately approving the acquisition out of monopoly concerns. (The purchase would have given Blockbuster control of over 50-percent of rental stores, after all.) Then Movie Gallery swooped in and bought Hollywood Video in early 2005 for $850 million. At that time, the Kansas City area had 9 Hollywood Videos and 5 Movie Gallery stores.
I don’t quite understand why the chains were so eager to buy each other up, but Blockbuster (after declining to buy Netflix for $50 million in the year 2000) spent the mid-2000s trying to come up with ways to beat Netflix at its own game, first with discs through the mail and then with a variety of stabs at the streaming market (plus lowering prices and announcing “the end of late fees” in 2005). My guess is Blockbuster thought acquiring more storefronts would first eliminate a competitor and secondly better position them as a hybrid brick-and-mortar/discs-in-mail/streaming force that could compete with Netflix, but it was never completely clear to me what they were thinking long-term as I read contemporary articles and post-mortem histories of the company.
Anyhow, in 2006, Blockbuster floated out purchasing the struggling Movie Gallery, but didn’t end up doing it. In 2007, Movie Gallery closed its last two Kansas City area stores and went into bankruptcy restructuring in 2008. They emerged only to wind down the company in 2010 and sell their remaining Movie Gallery, Hollywood Video, and GameCrazy brands. I believe some stores survived for some time afterward, but as independent entities. To my knowledge, there are none that remain open anywhere.
In 2010, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. It was purchased by Dish Network in 2011. Then in 2013, Blockbuster announced plans to close its 300 remaining stores across the US and wound almost all of them down in early 2014. I couldn’t find the exact date that the last Blockbuster in Johnson County closed, but the last one I remember visiting in the area was (I think) the store at 6600 Johnson Drive in Mission. If you know of any that stayed open later, let me know in the comments.
A handful of Blockbusters continued operating independently while licensing the Blockbuster brand throughout the 2010s, and as of 2019 there is one Blockbuster left. It’s in Bend, Oregon, and there is actually a charming little documentary about it.
Whenever video store conversations pop up in various forums, I tend to find two camps of people. There are the people whose only video store experiences were at Blockbuster, and some of them say they miss the store and some of them say they’re glad the store is dead. (The bile of the latter camp isn’t entirely surprising considering that by some reports late fees made up 15-percent or more of Blockbuster’s revenue.) And then there are the people who are annoyed that the soulless corporate behemoth Blockbuster gets so much of the nostalgia spotlight, and they implore people to remember the independent shops and such.
All this to say: There can be a lot of negativity surrounding the memory of Blockbuster, but as somebody who went to chain stores regularly for years, there was plenty of fun to be had at your average Blockbuster (or Movie Gallery or Hollywood Video), and I’d like to conclude our discussion of that particular chain by remembering the store at 8900 W 95th St, where I once purchased a ridiculously sun-bleached used copy of “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure.”
I found an article from March of 2000 detailing that Blockbuster’s celebration of the release of “Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace” on home video. They said that the employees there dressed up like characters from the film, putting together their own elaborate costumes and makeup designs. Not only that, but on the Friday night after the tape was released, two employees dressed as Obi-Wan and Darth Maul put on a choreographed lightsaber battle complete with lights and fog.
The article said that in the past, that same group of employees had dressed up as Austin Powers and Felicity Shagwell, and once re-created the bow of the Titanic for when that film came out on VHS. That Blockbuster wasn’t representative of the whole chain by any means, but let us put aside our bitterness and remember what was good.
Around 2004 or 2005, Richard Rostenberg got sick. His illness left him exhausted and unable to work much more than 10 hours a week, and even that was pushing it. He decided it was time to sell, and his general manager Steve Wolverton stepped up to buy the store from him.
And Rostenberg? “Miracle of miracles, I got better after I sold the store,” he told me with a healthy chuckle when I interviewed him in October.
Steve became general manager of Hollywood at Home in 1996 after a several year stint at one of the nation’s most famous video stores. Originally from Excelsior Springs, MO, Steve fell in love with movies by watching them on television as a kid. He particularly loved weird movies, and was a fan of “The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film” by Michael Weldon (who he eventually befriended) and the “Psychotronic Video” magazine. There was an ad for Kim’s Video in New York City in the back of each Psychotronic magazine, and when Steve moved there in 1990, he applied for a job at the St Marks and 2nd Avenue location and actually got it, then quickly became a manager.
Kim’s Video was legendary for being one of the best video stores in the nation. It’s where people in the biz (show biz, that is) would go to get their movies if they were researching for a film they were making or something along those lines. It’s also a place where a lot of people who would go on to be famous worked. Among its famous alumni are Alex Ross Perry, Andrew WK, and Todd Phillips. In fact, Steve had to fire Todd Phillips from the store. And if he hadn’t, who knows, maybe we’d be living in some alternate reality where “Old School,” “The Hangover,” and “Joker” never came to be.
Anyways, Steve loved the job and got to know a lot of people in the New York film and video business, but unfortunately he was diagnosed with cancer and had to move home to recuperate. Once he had recovered, he applied to Hollywood at Home and got the job.
“We were more or less minting money… I mean, it was a great business back in the ‘90s,” he told me. The store’s overnight return drop was a slot in the front door where you slid the movie into a bin, and he said it was regularly overflowing with tapes when they arrived at the store in the morning.
Steve remembered the daily operations of the store with surprisingly good detail. They were open from 10am to 11pm seven days a week. Whoever opened the store arrived at 9:30 to get the overnight returns checked in and just generally get things ready for business. And once they opened, business was pretty steady, busier in the evenings and on weekends, and quieter during the weekdays. “You’d have time to watch movies and stuff. And frankly that’s why most of us worked at video stores, because you could watch movies while you were working,” he said with a laugh. “Plus you could take home all these movies for free.”
He told me that a long-time employee named Sue did most of the ordering, but “I’d always put in my two cents for obscure stuff that just came out. Richard would be like, ‘Is anybody going to rent this?’ and I’m like, ‘Maybe not, but we should have it.’”
When I asked him about competition with other stores he said he didn’t remember it being very competitive. He said that if they didn’t have a movie, he’d happily send people to other stores that did, particularly Video Library.
Steve bought the store in 2005, and the business was different from when he’d started in 1996. He estimated that pornographic movies and magazines were about 60-percent of their business by then, regular rentals were 20-percent, and non-adult magazines were the final 20. Everything went pretty smoothly for the first couple of years.
Then, in 2007, the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families delivered petitions to six Kansas City area county courthouses seeking grand jury investigations of 32 businesses for the promotion of obscenity. In Johnson County, Gringo Loco (Olathe), Movie Gallery (Olathe), Priscilla’s (Olathe), Video Library (Lenexa), Hollywood at Home (Overland Park), and a Spirit Halloween store were the targets.
This time the grand jury actually made indictments. Spirit Halloween had displayed adult costumes where minors could view them, and had their charges dropped by moving the costumes to a back section of the store. Gringo Loco was accused of selling an obscene DVD, and had their charges dropped after removing “Babysitter #18” from their shelves. Priscilla’s was accused of intending to sell various obscene devices and an obscene DVD, and I never found out what specifically happened with them or Movie Gallery. Hollywood at Home was accused of “unlawfully and knowingly or recklessly” possessing and intending to sell four obscene DVDs, and pled not guilty.
I couldn’t find any reporting on the outcome of their trial, so I asked Steve what happened. He said they hired a lawyer, it dragged on for six months or a year, and “it ended up costing us a few thousand dollars, but they ended up basically just kind of dropping everything.” He said the lawyer called him one day and said the group was dropping it because they felt like they’d made their point.
Hollywood at Home raised some money at the store to help with legal fees, but other than that and a new curtain to cover the adult section, the obscenity challenges didn’t affect the store much. However, they came at a bad time. 2008 brought the recession, and it was also the year that it became undeniable that Netflix, Redbox, and video-on-demand had caught up with the store. On top of that, the newsstand revenues that had helped them outlast several other area video stores had dropped off, and would continue to fall over the next few years. As Steve put it, “It was death by a thousand cuts.” Steve estimated that in the mid-1990s the store was bringing in roughly $500,000 to $600,000 per year, and that on some Friday nights they would make between $3,000 and $4,000. By 2013, they were bringing in about one quarter of that – enough to keep the store going, and that was it. And so, Steve decided to close the store.
“I probably kept the store open a year or so longer than I should have, but I just couldn’t bring myself to close it,” he said. “And when you’re the owner, you worry about where your employees are going to go. They’re not just employees, they’re friends. […] It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life.”
He said that the one bright spot in closing the store was all of the customers who came out to say farewell.
“We had so many great customers that had been coming there for years and years. They just came to us and said, ‘Oh we’re so sorry you’re closing, is there anything we can do?’ You know? ‘I started coming here when I was 8 years old with my parents, and I’ve been coming here for the last 20 years, and now I’m bringing my kids here.’ You know, it was tough, but it was just so nice, the outpouring of love and everything the last few months we were open.”
He said people came in every day during those final weeks to tell them they would miss the store. “And you know, honestly, I miss them too. I really do.”
Steve told me they had one guy who had been the store’s very first customer back in 1980, and was still coming in regularly in 2013. I’d only been going there for ten years at that point, but I visited several times in the final weeks to rent and buy movies while I still could. I even took home two shelves from the store and used them to display my movies (until they fell apart during a move about five years later). And I stopped in one last time on the night they closed, December 31st, 2013.
I was extremely disappointed to be losing the store, but it also felt like closing the book on one of the happiest parts of an entire era of my life. When I think about video stores, I think about all the movies that were just there for the taking, but I also think about the hours I spent walking the aisles with friends and family, chatting about whatever while trying to choose the evening’s entertainment. I think about the sleepovers that always involved pizza, Dr. Pepper, and a pile of tapes. I think about my parents tricking me into watching “Porky’s” by telling me they’d rented “Amelie.” I think about biking over to my Blockbuster practically every other night during my precious middle school and early high school summers to rent “Boogie Nights,” “IT,” “The Godfather,” “The Ice Cream Man,” or whatever caught my eye. I think about the guy in my driver’s ed class who let me borrow a tape he’d kept out way too long from Fine Arts Video in Mission: “Eraserhead.” I think about going to SRO Video over in Kansas City to see what else was out there in this crazy world of ours.
When the Family Video stores in Shawnee and Olathe closed in 2021, Johnson County was officially without a video store for the first time since Rostenberg had opened Hollywood at Home in 1980. You can still rent movies at Vintage Stock locations, Johnson County Library, and Redbox kiosks, but there aren’t any traditional video stores left. I’m not even aware of any in the Kansas City area. As more and more retail disappears in the Age of the Internet, I often find myself feeling claustrophobic. There just don’t seem to be as many places to go. I miss all the places. But I miss the video stores more than anything. As a film fan, a mediocre video store was a fun time. A good video store was like a well-curated museum that allowed you to take the art home. And a great video store was a work of art itself. It was simultaneously a little shrine to film and a gold mine where you would go and hunt for some undiscovered treasure to take home. Johnson County had a lot of video stores over the years, and Hollywood at Home was a truly great one.
I’d like to thank Richard Rostenberg and Steve Wolverton for participating in interviews for this blog post. I’d also like to thank the fine reporters from the Kansas City Star who made all my research possible. Thanks also to everybody out there who ever started a video store or worked in one.
If you enjoyed this post, keep an eye on this blog in the coming months, as I’m also trying to put together a (much shorter) piece on Lenexa’s Video Library (1985-2007).
I hope you enjoyed reading about Johnson County video stores. Feel free to leave a comment with your own video store memories.
-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library
2 responses to “Hollywood at Home: A History of Johnson County Video Stores”
I was involved in video distribution for 25 years including serving KC. I know many of the people and much covered in your deep dive. I commented to Richard R the one thing you missed was the revenue sharing/pay per transaction phase of the business. I don’t think he participated. He remains a close friend of 40 years. Thanks for your reporting and my walk down memory lane.
Thanks for the info! There was mention of that in the research, but it didn’t come up in the interview. Please feel free to share some of your favorite memories or any other interesting tidbits here!