The Not-So-Goodfellas: The Curious Case of Mafia-Made VHS Bootlegs!
By Greg Hanson
It all started a few months ago at a tape swap in NYC. Scanning over stacks of tapes, I noticed one - Time Barbarians, the Academy slip - and picked it up. It had been on my list and it was $3. I looked it over and noticed something was off. I have a lot of Academy slips and they all have a certain texture, a certain feel. When I slid the cover off and looked at the tape, I noticed it had a big, black square label. I have only ever seen Academy slips with printing directly on the tape shell. Oh dang… a bootleg. A nice-looking one, and seemingly from a video store… so maybe it wasn't? I hemmed and hawed for a few moments until a friend, whose name has been redacted to protect their safety, gave me a little insight.
It was a mob bootleg.
Growing up in an Italian-American family, I'm no stranger to wannabe-mafioso types. There are stories that circle in my Mom's family that tell of a certain rifle that was hidden by my Grandfather to cover up a mob hit. Surely, it must have been intense, if not a bit embellished. But this? This was much more nefarious. The mafia had been in on the game. The VHS game.
My friend leaned in and told me that when he was working at a New York City video store in the 90s, every so often a couple of dudes in sharp suits would show up with a list similar to a distributor catalog featuring new titles. They had everything. But where a legit tape through a distro would be $20 a pop, the mob would sell them direct to video stores for $5 or so.
This was the racket.
Upon returning to my apartment after the swap with this new information, I combed through my stacks of tapes in search of more. They were easy to find. I had long questioned the authenticity of some of these cheapo-looking copies that typically ended up in my collection via thrift stores. But I, like many collectors, saw a trusty "Monte's Video" or other such stickers affixed to the side of a tape and thought, “Well, that it must be a legit, if not a particularly well-made, copy.” It could be a late-run copy, no?
Well, firstly, the mob boot's card stock is often one that feels like other late-run or sell through tapes you'd find at a porn store but perhaps even another step down. The printing is often blurry and/or off-center. The colors are muddy or wrong. Additionally, a lot of labels are either generic or they have squared off edges where they should be rounded or some even have rounded edges that just aren’t quite perfect.
I found this fascinating. I reached out to other friends, hoping for more information. I talked to two friends who both worked at a legendary now-defunct video store here in the city. One reported having seen mafioso types doing business in the store at various points. The other friend, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said that the store never bought anything from the Italian mob, per se, but they did get their bootlegs from a company that had very scant information on their invoices. They apparently moved around a lot. Intriguing...
Meanwhile, that friend had once had an eastern European type asking to buy studio screeners for large sums of money. When he rebuked, the man left. A few days later, while walking home through the East Village, my friend noticed a car with tinted windows following him. At some point he stopped and the car stopped, the window rolled down very slowly, revealing the same man offering, again, to make my friend rich... My friend very kindly rebuffed, but he never forgot...
While at home during this present quarantine, I have received two separate mob boots from two different sources, both in trade. The first was obvious and a bummer. But it had an interesting element and a development to the story. On the tape's face label, there was a small stamp. This particular stamp was a small blue swirl, resembling a tiny tornado. It appeared to be about half the size of a dime and looked like a stamp you might buy at the school store in the 90s.
The second tape, which arrived roughly a month later, was harder to discern. It looked better, but still not right. Looking at other copies of the same tape, there was certainly a difference. But the real tipoff is that this one also had a small stamp on its top label. This one was red and kind of looked like an old, gothic-type “X” with a smaller “T” and “W” affixed to the top and bottom. Imagine that.
What could this mean? Could it be an underground collector marking-system, slightly less intrusive than scrawling "LEONARD" in Sharpie on their wares? Possibly, but both of these tapes had been ostensibly purchased directly from video stores - or so say their owners. Could it be an internal test for rental stores who feared their "Star Time Video" stickers could easily be covered by the dastardly "2nd Ave Liquor and Movies" only to be passed off as a competitor’s tapes? Well, I posit it's even more dastardly than that! What if these simple stamps are colors? Markings saying that the LoPiccolo Family made this copy of Flesh Gordon 2. While the Genaro Family made this particular copy of Chrome Soldiers. Could be! Who's to say it's not?! Either way, it’s a hell of a think piece.
Ultimately, we may never know. This is an evolving story. Please check back for further details in the future.
If you have any information on this purported mob boot phenomenon, or would like to leave an anonymous tip, drop us a line by writing to TheButcher[at]LunchmeatVHS[dot]com. *NOTE* We don’t got no rewind witness protection program!
Greg Hanson is one of the powerful peeps at VIDEO HIGH – a podcast supplying you with a curriculum of offbeat cinema! Check them out at VideoHigh.fm, on Instagram, and listen on Spotify and iTunes. Class is now in session, VHSchoolmates!