Within the Hip Hop DJ world of the 80’s there has always been a mystery surrounding the origins of “bootleg” Breakbeat records, who was behind these mysterious pressings on the Octopus label which eventually became the Ultimate Breaks & Beats series and featured what some would consider rare and hard to obtain cuts that DJs searched far and wide for. Later we find out that its founders were the legendary Breakbeat Lenny and his partner Breakbeat Lou. The same parallel’s of “bootlegging” these records to young ghetto kids from New York City existed in a similar industry which sold rare Kung Fu movies “bootlegged” onto VHS to some of those same Hip Hop kids that also enjoyed weekend trips to New York’s 42nd Street in Times Square back in the late 70’s and 80’s. This video company would be known as “SB Video” and just like the Ultimate Breaks & Beats series, SB Video would be responsible for reintroducing to an already familiar fan base as well as introducing to an entirely new group of people that would eventually become fans and sometimes fanatics of the Kung Fu movie genre so dominated by the legendary Shaw Brothers. These SB Videotapes were not only sold in specialty shops in NYC such as the legendary 43rd Chamber which was essentially the meeting place for fans and collectors alike to buy, trade, discuss and sometimes brag on owning hard to get movies but also copycat companies would eventually sprout up and sell worldwide by mail order ads placed in issues of Inside Kung Fu Magazine.
Our next guest is none other than Johnnyray Gasca, founder of the SB Video label and who so easily got his hands on these movies, made copies and supplied the world it’s fix of Shaw Brothers Kung Fu films that hadn’t been seen since their initial run in the theaters or on New York’s WNEW Channel 5 Drive-In Movie. As we come full circle and conclude our “Diggin Kung Fu” segment (for now at least), we find that Mr. Gasca has deep roots within the Hip Hop culture and knowing one of it’s pioneers who was also a big fan and collector of Kung Fu films on VHS, Whiz Kid (R.I.P) (producer of Soul Sonic Force’s MC G.L.O.B.E “Play That Beat” on Tommy Boy Records). The connection between these Kung Fu films and Hip Hop are rarely talked about so it’s with honor that we’ve had the chance to interview Johnnyray to connect more of these dots.
Skeme: You’ve been around the Martial Arts genre along time, what were some of the earliest ones you remember seeing and at which theaters?
Johnnyray: My stepfather took my mother and I to the movies when he first began dating her and one of the common places he took her was 42nd Street Times Square. Those of us from New York called it “The Deuce” which was short for Forty-deuce. The Deuce contained nine theaters on one block playing double and triple feature kung fu movies. My introduction to the Deuce began as early as 1973 when I was in fact, only 3 years old I remember seeing Enter the Dragon but only remembering the “hand man” afterward. I more clearly remember seeing The Exorcist at that time because my mother kept yanking on my arm. Since this early age I grew up constantly going to the Deuce to see movies, most of which were kung fu movies and most of those were the Shaw Brothers produced films.
The first ones that would be ingrained into me were Five Masters of Shaolin and Shaolin Challenges Ninja (aka Challenge of the Ninja). Because of my age being approximately five years younger than most of the old-school cats, my introduction (at the very impressionable age of 10 years old) was to mostly Shaw Brother films and specifically those of the latter 70s whereas most of my contemporaries were introduced to the genre by Bruce Lee. Although Enter the Dragon actually was my first martial arts film, I was too young to remember it enough for it to have a profound effect on me.
Skeme: Can you explain the feeling of sitting in the theaters at a young age and watching these movies?
Johnyray: Watching those films had me in a trance. As far back as I can remember the feeling has always been the same till this day — like hearing a great song, my soul just gets caught in the rhythm of a great fight scene. And just as a seasoned musician learns to appreciate all music, over time I learned, accepted and got hooked on the rhythm of all martial arts films, even the ones I didn’t care for much growing up. Today I treasure even those crappy Taiwan productions. LOL
Skeme: World Northal was the official distribution company for many of the films during that time. Can you give us some brief history on the company.
Johnnyray: They were a distribution company that would secure theatrical and television rights to films and they handled several movie packages that included Shaw Brothers titles. I can’t really give an accurate history of the World Northal Company since most of what I know of it has been told to me by others and I have not verified any of it but I can tell you of my personal dealings with them. They had two offices near the Deuce, one office was their main distribution office where if you visited there you would have seen a few framed posters hanging on the walls, nothing outside the ordinary standard production office realm. Their second office was a more secluded place five blocks up from the Deuce and on the fifth or sixth floor of a small building between 7th Avenue and Broadway, it is here where history is most connected to World Northal. It is here that they panned-and-scanned the films for TV presentation and where they kept their masters on 3/4-inch tapes.
Skeme: How did the idea to start SB Video first come about and how did you go about securing titles that were otherwise owned by and property of World Northal Distribution.
Johnnyray: The SB Video label I started is a long and layered tale but every time I’ve come across some article that mentions those “bootleg” Shaw Brothers VHS tapes that circulated in New York City the information given isn’t even close to the truth. The most commonly speculated rumor is that some (perhaps disgruntled) employee stole the prints from World Northal and secretly released them on video and that’s not even close to the truth. What follows is a detailed account of all the variables that occurred during the period from 1985 to 1990. Backing up a bit, I moved from the Bronx, New York to Miami, Florida in the spring of 1981, I was 11 years old and unbeknownst to me Shaw Brothers movies would begin their television run in New York under the banner of Drive-IN Theater on Channel 5. This Black Belt theater package would extend to several other states but never spread to Florida. Meanwhile, I was in Florida telling my other pre-teen friends the tales of the Shaw Brothers films I had seen previously on the Deuce. A year after being in Florida I encountered a device known as a VCR, I had never seen such a thing or even heard of it but I fell in love with it instantly. I worked half the year of 1982 as a pizza delivery boy to save up the $650 to buy my first VCR. In the spring of 1984 I visited my grandparents back in New York which led to a visit to an uncle who lived in Brooklyn. I was 14 at the time and while at his projects I got into a fight with another teenager there. At the start of the fight I caught the other kid with a spinning back kick and knocked him down. He got right back up and of course was being extra cautious not to let me get close again. One of his friends began yelling, “Do the Channel 5 on him” and his other friends then started telling him the same thing, I figured this was some street move that had come out while I was in Florida and so I was very cautious of this Channel 5 move. We clashed again and the fight went to the ground as most kids fights do. My uncle broke it up and as we walked up the stairs I asked him what was the “Channel 5” move and he explained that it wasn’t a move that they were referring to the kung fu movies that come on TV every Saturday. He said that when I kicked the kid it prompted the others to say that in regards to the Channel 5 Kung Fu movies so in other words the kids were yelling “kung fu him back.” When my uncle said that kung fu movies played every Saturday at 3pm that really jarred me. When I began to inquire about certain movies — Master Killer, Challenge of the Ninja, Five Masters of Death — one by one he confirmed that they had indeed played on Channel 5. I had goosebumps because not only were Shaw Brothers movies playing on TV, but as an owner of a VCR I could RECORD them! I immediately returned to Miami with the intention to get my stuff, by now consisting of two VCRs (my second being a Hi-Fi Stereo one) and get back to New York ASAP. When I returned two months later I also had something else with me, a video camera. It was still rare that anyone I knew had a VCR in 1984 and no one I knew had a video camera. This would come in to play soon after my return to New York. I arrived back in New York in August of ’84 and that weekend the first movie I recorded from Channel 5 was none other than The Five Deadly Venoms, I was mesmerized not only to be watching it on TV but to be recording it crystal clear in Hi-fi, I had never been more happier in my life up to that moment. I wrote Channel 5 requesting which upcoming titles would be playing and they wrote me back with a list and dates for the next six months including titles such as Unbeatable Dragon, The Destroyers, Killer Army, Super Ninjas and even The Deadly Mantis, I couldn’t believe that I would be getting all these films.
During this same period I of course returned to the Deuce, this time armed with a video camera and when I walked out of those theaters I took those movies home with me. The one title my uncle said hadn’t played on TV was Mad Monkey Kung Fu so I anxiously awaited for it to play on the Deuce. I Didn’t have to wait long as it was a frequent title to play in theaters and the day I videotaped it was one of the highlights of my life. Because the film had played on the Deuce so frequently it was one of the few films to be replaced because the print was so warn. Thus, the one I recorded was a recently replaced print and it came out perfect. By 1985 more mom-and-pop video shops were beginning to open around New York, but the biggest video store around was a two-storied behemoth called World Video in midtown NYC. It was here that I first got the notion to release Kung Fu movies on video. One day I happened to go inside and check out their martial arts section, it was there that I ran into two other martial arts movie fans and I was surprised to hear them talking about these films down to the detail of naming the directors. Up to that point I truly believed that I was the only one who knew these movies in that way so I struck up a conversation with them and the topic soon came up of wishing the Shaw Brothers films were on video. They both had VCRs and had been recording the movies from Channel 5 as well so I told them I had Mad Monkey Kung Fu expecting them to flip out but they both casually stated that they had the movie already. I was the one surprised to hear that since it wasn’t on video but they told me they got it in Chinatown along with many other Shaw Brothers films. I became good friends with them and when I did eventually see their copies of Shaw Brothers films they were barely watchable. Incidentally, one of these great souls was the famed Whiz Kid of the classic Hip Hop track “Play that Beat Mr. D.J” (R.I.P.) and the other friend was a Filipino gentleman named Bojie who had friends in the main World Northal office that would give him artwork and posters. It was from this connect that I found out the location of the second building. I went there one afternoon and the first thing I did was to befriend the elevator man, an elderly black gentleman who was not only a martial arts fan but had been getting copies from the “master room” for years as gifts from the two who panned-and-scanned films there. Gaining his confidence he eventually took me to the floor where I could knock on the door for myself. The man who opened the door was John Keoh (his boss was Larry Bensky) both names that I had seen at the start of the Shaw Brothers films I had been recording from TV. I never did get to meet Larry Bensky but I did befriend John Keoh. It was a rather small office with two sides to it, one was where the films were ran through a large film processing machine that made marks where the film should be panned or cut to cover the widescreen ratio. The other side of the office looked like a cozy living room where a VHS deck sat atop a 3/4-inch deck and John would let me sit in here and record VHS copies direct from the 3/4 masters. These were the same quality as John and Larry would give to the elevator man.
The time is now the summer of 1985 and I’m getting World Northal Shaw Brother films from three sources: TV (edited and TV-friendly versions), the elevator man, and John Keoh from the master room. I started bringing my 8mm video recorder and making my copies from the 3/4 masters directly to 8mm, a format that was much clearer than VHS. By the fall of ’85 I released my first three titles under the banner of SB Video which were Five Fingers of Death, Five Deadly Venoms, and Chinese Super Ninjas. Even the formation of the covers is a long story unto itself that unfortunately we don’t have the space to include here but here is a brief version. I had garnered connections with the two main managers who ran the nine theaters on the Deuce, one of them would let me borrow material from the storeroom that I would then use to make covers, this was long before Photoshop. To make an “official” cover back then one had to go through the extensive (and very expensive) process of shooting negatives and then resizing them and laying them out on a large table and then shooting a final negative which was the cover. To help me create the covers I partnered with a gentleman we shall call Ralph who was introduced to me by one of the ushers at one of the theaters. At this time I was known as the Video Kid and had a lot of connections to various video stores and theaters. VHS movies were very expensive at the time and while VCRs were uncommon no one I knew had two, allowing them to rent and copy a movie. So I made most of my connections by simply copying movies for people, the term piracy wasn’t even being used then. These connections got me into virtually any movie theater for free, up to any projection booth with no hassle, allowed on closed balconies (where I would often have my video camera on a tripod recording some movie), free video rentals from any shop and access to the posters and artwork used on the Deuce so that I could make my own covers.
It was in the offices of Ralph that I met a nefarious character named George Tan (although he called himself that, “Tan” is actually not his real name). GT is the greatest example of one’s reputation preceding him. From then until even today, the name George Tan continues to pop up and ALWAYS with some grim associated with it, some wrong doing he has engaged in etc. He lives overseas in the shadows as he would be hurt if he appeared in the U.S. and many other places. Back in late 1985 GT was friends with Ralph who asked me if GT could help me with the distribution of the SB titles. I declined because I had a very distinct way that I was distributing them and extremely careful of the title selection I was rolling out to build up the label. Plus, I was dealing with a lot of friends and a lot of credit being extended to me to initiate the very expensive process of releasing the movies on video. Around the corner from the Deuce there was a video store named Family video, I had arranged with the owner to have a showcase in there displaying my SB Video titles and the word that the SB movies were finally on video spread very quickly which led to my making deals with sub-distributors who were requesting orders of a hundred pieces a title (a common number for “test” orders back then). I had to use professional duplicators to fill those orders and I still couldn’t fill the orders fast enough. And they were retailing for $69.95! (I sold them for $29.95 to sub-distributors who bought bulk.) Among my second batch of titles was Return to the Master Killer which GT had a print of the same film that was not panned and scanned and slightly scoped which I really liked because I was already favoring widescreen from the way I filmed movies on the Deuce. So he offered to put his title up for release among my titles and I could throw him a percentage, he was also offering artwork of which a lot he had acquired from overseas. So I let him contribute at that point but only to a limited extent and then later on he came up with a few other Shaw Titles from Pal VHS sources overseas but the conversion process caused a lot of quality loss so I didn’t use them. For nearly a year I distributed the SB titles without incident until I had my first conflict with none other than GT who had continually been trying to make deals and inject himself into the business side of my SB Video label. All his deals were about the money while I cared most about the titles and their quality and exact roll-out to build the rep of the label. GT wanted to release any SB title and even films that weren’t Shaw but we could release under the same label regardless of the various quality. The final draw of my dealings with him came when I introduced him to John Keoh. I took him up to the office one afternoon then he went back on another occasion by himself and pitched John Keoh a project to write with him called The Black Ninja that was to star Tai Mak. I confronted him at the offices of Ralph who asked me not to fuck him up and I told him not to go up to the World Notthal offices again. Ralph was the one who was to produce the Black Ninja so he asked me to let it go. I explained to Ralph that the whole idea was a ruse that GT was using as an excuse to be up in the World Northal office and get access to the SB titles. Ralph asked GT straight and of course GT denied that so the agreement was made that I wouldn’t prevent GT from going up to meet John Keoh for their script sessions on the condition that GT wouldn’t get any titles from John. Regardless of whether GT did get any titles on the sneak, he was not allowed to release any on video.
The only reason I include this GT parasite is that his following actions later spread to many false assumptions and rumors. Before the demise of World Northal due to bankruptcy, they had acquired a new batch of Shaw Brother titles which included Disciples of the 36th Chamber, My Young Auntie, and The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter. The first of these to complete the panning and scanning process was 8 Diagram, special attention was paid to the panning process as the word was that this was a modern classic. Both Larry Bensky and John Keoh didn’t even like kung fu movies but 8 Diagram was given special care and the next one to be panned in preparation for TV was My Young Auntie. Before that process could be completed World Northal would be closed down. But a lot would happen in those last days months leading up to that.
As soon as 8 Diagram was completed John Keoh let me have it. As I said, he was not a fan of these films so he was not aware of their being released on video and he had no idea I was releasing these titles on video. I covered up the beginning “Edited by” credit that listed John and Larry by overlaying a screen that said “Copyright SB Video” and in some cases listing any random year.
Because I had by now distributed so many SB units and many to sub-distributors, I had no way of keeping track of any units that might turn up in a store that weren’t mine. If someone used the same outlets that I did and released them using some of the same printing materials I was using, I wouldn’t know unless I checked the tape until 8 Diagram Pole Fighter. In 1987 I encountered a video store that had a copy of 8 Diagram Pole Fighter which I had only just released to a sub-distributor and that distributor had not yet released the title yet. I recognized the cover as mine but knew the title shouldn’t have hit any stores yet. I asked for the tape to be played in the store and immediately recognized the panning of World Northal AND my “Copyright SB Video” over the front credit of John Keoh, I also noticed that it was a generation downgraded so I knew this was not some title GT had gotten on his own from John Keoh. This title was in fact taken from MY source. I went directly to my duplicator who was handling the 8 Diagram title and demanded a clear accounting of all who had access to the duplication facility, it was then that I learned that GT had been coming by on occasion to “help out” at the facility. Meanwhile during those visits he had been copying my 3/4 masters to a set a 3/4 copies for himself, he would then have those copies dubbed by two different duplicators. I told Ralph about the situation and vowed to smash GT as soon as I got my hands on him. Ralph told him stay away from the office till he could calm me down but I had already put the word out and as soon as George turned up on the Deuce one of the ushers called me to tell me he was at a certain theater and that he would keep GT there as long as possible. I was at the Family video store around the corner so I dashed out to catch him and as I neared the theater I saw GT coming out and as soon as he spotted me he took off running down the Deuce. I chased him for a block and he ran for his life but I couldn’t leave the counter at Family Video for too long, so I turned back. That was the last time I ever saw GT. But certainly not the last I ever heard of him. GT had gotten some money from Ralph to shoot some footage for the Black Dragon featuring Tai Mak against some ninjas. The idea he had was to target the black audience with a low budget rip-off of the 8 Diagram Pole Fighter story by replacing the Yang Clan with a group of black ninjas. Ralph asked me to come in and review the footage and give him an honest opinion on it. It was terrible, with 8 Diagram moves being copied with ZERO filmmaking skills, Ralph immediately pulled the plug on the entire project.
Skeme: How many hours were you putting in “on the job” to make copies and how many nights / weeks was it until you had a complete catalog on VHS? Also once you had the catalog where were you making duplicated copies for the purpose of selling and how many VCR’s did you have working at that time?
Johnnyray: At the height of distribution – from the latter part of ’86 throughout ’87 – I was pulling ten to fifteen hour shifts in the duplication room where the common setup was a hundred VCRS at both sides of a room which would allow for two titles to run simultaneously while copied to a hundred units each.
Skeme: Your distribution network pretty much covered the entire New York area but where you thinking big and placing ads in Magazines at the early stage?
Johnnyray: I sold to sub-distributors (two large ones in New York) who in turn sold to several states outside New York City. I saw them reach as far as California but I can’t say I was any part of an exact plan. I had trouble keeping up with the orders I had in New York so I never placed ads to sell them in magazines but this GT guy did several months after I chased him away. He did this for a while under the label Dragon Video which would later lead to false notions that SB Video was somehow associated with Dragon video and that GT was behind both.
Skeme: Of course starting out things move slow, do you have an estimate of how many units you moved during the beginning and what was the number per week during it’s peek?
Johnnyray: I had no trouble with things taking off at all. I had originally started with taking a few titles to individual stores in the Bronx (Top Video were among my first buyers). My next plan was to hang large posters on the Deuce advertising the arrival of Shaw Brothers films on video but I never made it that far. As soon as I put up a showcase in Family Video around the corner from the Deuce they just took off and I was always playing catch up. I can’t honestly give an exact number because my abilities to duplicate at times ran three facilities when I had enough orders. And then suddenly only one facility for a month while the other handled other clients. What I can tell you is that in 1987 I made over $90,000.
Skeme: What was your biggest market of sales as I’m sure New York generated a lot of money during that time but what other cities or countries were you getting orders from?
Johnnyray: I didn’t handle any out-of-state orders or out of country orders. I sold to people who at times were visiting New York but who knows where they were taking them. And of course I sold to people who were re-selling them so who knows to whom and how far.
Skeme: By this time things are really in motion and your moving product all throughout New York, what titles were really sought after and which titles didn’t sell as well? Or was everyone so Coo Coo for Cocoa Puff’s that anything with a Shaw Brothers title was bought?
Johnnyray: The particular titles that sold the most had to do with what the sub-distributors were vaguely familiar with. So when I started, one of the titles the subs were vaguely familiar with was Five Finger of Death and they would take slightly larger orders of those with Five Deadly Venoms being another one. What I was most careful to do was to release certain latter-70s (faster fighting) titles first as opposed to some of the earlier Chang Cheh (slower) titles. Ralph who was finding a lot of clients and was very much a partner wanted to throw all the Shaw’s I could get on video because he had orders waiting but I made sure to only release the best first especially the Venom Mob films. This really paid off after six months of getting started because initially the breeders were test orders but then it got to a point where the sub-distributors would just ask, “Is it a Shaw Brothers film?” Later GT would release several titles from Pal tapes overseas including movies that weren’t even Shaws but would use the SB logo on the box to capitalize on the label. I paused briefly and went to Los Angeles in late ’89 then returned in the summer of ’90 and heard that GT had been around and released some bogus titles under the SB label but when he heard I was back, he disappeared.
Skeme: Was there ever a time when you felt like your were doing something illegal or was it so early in the bootleg game that it didn’t even dawn on you.
Johnnyray: I actually had investigated the issue and KNEW I wasn’t doing anything illegal. There was no one in the states with rights to these films so I wasn’t infringing on anyone’s copyright. There was a Vista label that released some Shaw Titles but they came after I had already saturated the market with them and it wasn’t until the 1990’s that I first began to see “bootlegs” of US releases. The first I began to see of small stalls on the street and certain shops selling copies with poor quality covers and even poorer quality recordings. That is a book of a story unto itself but the fact is, there wasn’t anything illegal about what I was doing, especially not to the degree of criminal copyright infringement. Even today I still sell kung fu movies and stay away from US copyrighted releases especially those of the seven major film studios. No one else could care less.
Skeme: Within every industry people try to cut costs and the bootleggers begin getting bootlegged. I’ve been to many shops where they were cashing in and cutting the middle man out (meaning SB Video) and began dubbing 3rd, 4th and 5th generation copies to sell. At what point and year did you begin to notice a decline in sales and start seeing bootlegs begin to show up in stores?
Johnnyray: I didn’t follow a decline in this manner, I wanted to get into the film industry and had a few offers to do direct-to-video movies but back then if you started there you were categorized in that slot and rarely rose to do major studio films and the studios is what I wanted. However after Bloodsport and then Above the Law were released (and feeling that I could do way better) I decided to go to California and attempt to break into the studios, this was when I paused the first time. In California I visited a few studios and none wanted to do a “karate” movie back then. My adventure in California at that time is another long tale but what I experienced was that although the studios had no interest in doing a martial arts films the people I met were very kind and courteous to me. So I returned to New York on a mission to make as much money as possible and return to L.A. to live there until I could penetrate the studios. When I returned to NY in May of 1990 is when I first saw “bootlegs” of the SB titles I had released. These were actually pretty good imitations with the covers being high-quality knockoffs and I wondered if it was GT was behind them at first but then I began to see them turning up from several sources and was able to track them back to a few Arab-run pirating “labs.” By now there were a few that had turned up in NYC, these didn’t have distribution avenues through the sub-distributors so they really didn’t affect my sales. My sales had declined from the simple saturation of the market. While other bootleggers may have gotten in the arena, there were now more video stores than ever to accommodate them. For me, I simply had no new SB titles and the most important factor that contributed to my decline in sales was the lower cost of wholesale prices. Where I once sold SB titles for $29 to sub-distributors and $39 directly to stores, by 1990 I had to haggle to get $11 from sub-distributors (now only one major one in NY) and $15 when I sold directly to stores and the orders were fewer because they were already everywhere. Since I was planning to move to California, I didn’t care much to maintain the highest level pricing, I just wanted to make as much money as possible to take back to California with me so I started selling the SB titles as packaged deals for discounted prices to push the sub-distributors to take more units. I milked it for what is was worth for another year and also began traveling to video stores throughout the five boroughs of New York to sell whatever titles I could directly which turned out to be quite a lot more than I thought. That was my last run of the titles until 1991.
In October of ’91 I was involved in a shooting that ultimately sent me to prison in ’93 for three years. It was during this period that the higher quality SB titles that were mine and the slightly lesser quality versions circulated throughout New York until the mom and pops stores began closing a few years later with the onslaught of Blockbuster. Sometime during this period also began the emergence of the poorest quality copies of the SB titles sold by street vendors and in smaller stores including the 43rd Chamber which really got it’s fame by its proximity to the Deuce. It carried copies of my SB titles and also acquired tapes from other collectors.
Skeme: Tom Fardy started Venom Video in the mirror image of what SB Video started and began searching for other titles not carried by your company and was an important player in releasing of Shaw titles. He was also a frequenter of 43rd Chamber which was a major hub and a popular distribution center for these tapes. What made this store so important to the culture and it’s collectors?
Johnnyray: I really can’t speak much of the 43rd Chamber because it was not a place I frequented and I didn’t know my future good friend Tom Fardy at this time. When I came out of prison in February of ’96 I did get an opportunity to visit the 43rd Chamber, and it was actually during this visit that I first seen these (Tom Fardy) Venom Video covers. The collectors that I knew of that dealt with this shop didn’t particularly like the owner so they would deliberately sell him downgraded tapes of rare movies and even mess with the tracking at certain points during the recording so there wouldn’t be a perfect copy “out there.” I think the sense was that the Indian owner was not really a martial arts fan but a businessman out to make money off the tapes. I know that during my visit the guy there was not very friendly to me and I didn’t tell him who I was or my history with the copies that lined his shelves. It is my understanding that Tom Fardy knew the guys there better and could probably give a better perspective on that particular spot than I. But I never knew it to be a hot spot upon my release. No one I knew acquired movies from there and the collectors I did know that dealt with the place only sold movies to it. I first met Tom at a convention and had heard his name previously as I believe he heard mine and we hit it off greatly from the start. One of my fondest memories is Tom coming up to my place in the Bronx and my mom cooking for us. Unlike the other collectors who were hoarders and very possessive about their stuff, Tom was always generous and open (to those who earned it, I’m sure). This lack of great character was why I had often stayed out of that collector’s circle but now that I was planning to move to California, I deliberately made the effort to befriend as many as possible to exchange as many titles as possible because I knew that once I left New York it would be very hard to acquire these titles from afar.
Skeme: Outside of 43rd Chamber were there stores in other cities that you visited which had the same type of feel? I know in Philadelphia we had Universal Video and several other shops to get your fix.
Johnnyray: The only places I have visited outside New York have been Florida and California, both of which had no major shops to get ones Shaw Brothers fix. As for martial arts films in general, California had a few spots in Chinatown as late as the early 90s but soon afterward closed up.
Skeme: As a collector, are there any films or that you’re still looking for or do you have it all?
Johnnyray: I still hunt rare VHS originals that have been a bit difficult to re-encounter and I regret not getting an original when I had the chance. I need Crystal Fist from the Ocean Shores original, that was the clearest. I once had a (full screen) DVD of Cut-throat Struggle for An Imperial Treasure. I saw that there is a Mystery of Chess Boxing widescreen VHS that surfaced and I would love to get my hands on a good one of that so I can dub a nice English one of it. But for the most part, it is an incredible time in history when most of the greatest martial arts films ever made are available in perfect quality. Many are even surfacing on Blu-ray now including Shaw Brothers titles. Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Sammo Hung, and Jackie Chan are STILL making movies and Yuen Woo-ping is still pushing the boundaries of the genre as he has continually done for decades! Of course nothing will replicate that experience of going to the theater and seeing Lau Kar Leung line up aside Hsaio Ho in a monkey stance and feeling the entire theater go crazy in a thunderous cheer with foot-stomping excitement but I can still hear the crowd in my head when I watch these films.
Skeme: What are your top 5 Kung Fu films?
Johnnyray: It really is a matter of type more than a particular film. For example, Warriors Two, Prodigal Son, Magnificent Butcher, The Victim, The Odd Couple are all of a very similar type and your individual taste of which of these you think is better will have a lot to do with which you were exposed to first. So I put all of these in an individual slot. That being the case then, here are my top five TYPES, to separate one from the other would be merely splitting hairs.
1) Fearless, Fist of Legend, True Legend
2) The classics of Liu Chia Liang: Mad Monkey Kung Fu, Shaolin Challenges Ninja, 8 Diagram Pole, Shaolin Mantis, with other ones Pops worked on such Martial Arts of Shaolin and Fist of the White Lotus along with Liu Chia Yung’s Treasure Hunters which is also incredible and equally matched by the Kid From Kwangtung.
3) The classics of Sammo as listed already such as The Odd Couple, The Victim, etc., along with the more modern Pedicab Driver and Blade of Fury.
4) Would be split between the Venom Mob films (who fought more with incredible balletic routines than the kung fu of other Shaw titles) and those of independent flavor and similar to Mystery of Chess Boxing, 7 Grandmasters, Fearless Dragons, The Loot and The Deadly Challenger.
5) Would be the hard core Hong Kong modern ones such as Yes Madam!, Millionaire’s Express, Eastern Condors, Wheels on Meals and A Book of Heroes.
Any five of all these titles I would be content to spend the rest of my life on an island with.
Skeme: Are you still sitting on any old inventory of tapes, clamshells and inserts?
Johnnyray: I have a whole garage full of VHS originals which I am gradually transferring to digital for the titles that haven’t come out on DVD.
Skeme: Bonus Question: What was the ideal VHS brand that SB Video used for recording?
Johnnyray: At the time, the best deal I got on blanks were the Scotch tapes but only in the mid 80s did this matter much. By 1990 any blank VHS of the major brands was virtually equal.
Skeme: Bonus Question: You’re a true New Yorker and lover of Kung Fu flicks, but what’s this that I hear your first toys you owned were Technics 1200’s?
Johnnyray: In 1978 I finally acquired my Technics 1200s, I was 8 years old and cutting up the break section of Good Times. I grew up in New York at a time when the whole city played a song together, there weren’t many multiple radio stations so we were all tuned in to Paco and when a song played everyone was listening to it for blocks as far as the ear could hear. It went like this… a song would come on the radio, my mother would send me to the store, I’d walk out of our apartment while the song was playing, pick it up as I walked down the different floors and people had their doors open. I’d step outside and people had speakers at their window or on the fire escape (ghetto balconies you might say), playing the song. A car would go by jamming the song, a person would pass you with the big beatbox on his shoulder blasting the same song and when I got to the store the song was playing on inside there too. So without exaggeration when a song came on the whole city played it. As a result I was blessed to grow up very musically inclined, I still have two Technics 1200s til this today. Not my same original two but a pair I have had for decades. My favorite record to mix with of all time is the CD III MCs’ “Get Tough.” I went to the schoolyard jams and listened to the best DJ’s such as Charlie Chase. I remember seeing moves in a Kung Fu movie premiering on the Deuce and that very night break dancers were practicing them to incorporate them into their routines, a connection not ever mentioned in the history of break dancing and Hip Hop except for the Wu Tang. And of course you Skeme who is still kicking live today with a mix up of it all. It really is all one big chamber.
Peace and fun everybody.