There's a VHS tape labeled "Family" that sits in my parents' entertainment center. It was filmed in 1987, when my dad borrowed a 30-pound video camera recently purchased by the Springfield College Athletic Department in order to record basketball games and gymnastics meets. He was the Assistant Athletic Director, so was allowed to take this newfangled toy home for a weekend. It was larger than our dog, and had a gold plaque screwed to its dull grey side on which was etched "Property of the Springfield College Department of Athletics." As my dad lugged the awkward camera through the front door, looking like a member of the Channel 22 Eyewitness News Team, my sister and I, aged 8 and 12, leapt from the couch, our squeals mixing with dog barks and the banging of the screen door. We had a VCR and a Commodore 64, but this was a whole new technological adventure. Now we can be on TV!
As soon as the initial excitement wore off, we went to work on our scripts. All of us: me, Kim, Mom, and Dad. We decided that a Saturday Night Live
format would suit our creative vision best, and began brainstorming story arcs, characters, and musical numbers. We were going to be stars.
Because the camera was school property, only Dad was allowed to touch it. We watched, fascinated, as he set up the tripod, hoisted the camera onto his shoulder, then gingerly screwed it onto the mount for some steady-cam action. My mother, my sister, then busied ourselves with setting up the mis en scene
for our first skit: a scene in which I adopted a Mr. Roger-like demeanor and welcomed special guests, including my sister as Mrs. McFeeley, and her special delivery: the dog. My mother sang the theme song from behind the camera, where she functioned as the director of cinematography. "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day in the neighborhood..."--you know the rest.
The camera had to go back to the Athletic Department on Monday, so we had to pack all of our ideas into two days of a creative-binge and-purge session. The rest of the skits included a piano recital by my sister, a saxophone recital from me (cringe), a lesson in dog grooming starring my mother, the dog, a wire brush, and a pack of cigarettes, my dad (Ray) lip-synching to Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" wearing a sports jacket and a determined expression as my sister and I (the "Ray-ettes") danced behind him, a thrilling demonstration of my science project (a question-and-answer circuit box I had thrown together), and a highly embarrassing solo dance number to Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" by yours truly.
The "Family" tape was clearly a work of inspired genius, a synergy of genetic talent (think of the Wainwright/McGarrigle clan, or the Barrymores, or the Zappas) that had been festering for years with no outlet only to be unleashed all at once for our adoring public: ourselves. What was captured that weekend was not only an hour of material that could be used to extort four people for the rest of their lives, but also the fun that those four people had together, despite being related. I'm sure the Springfield College gymnastics meets were compelling, but I bet that our weekend with that camera was the most fun it ever saw.