So this happened: While visiting one of the last Blockbusters in America, I had the opportunity to hold Russell Crowe’s “groin protector” (i.e., jockstrap), and it’s all thanks to comedian John Oliver (and Mr. Crowe himself).
Here’s the story:
First of all, yes, Blockbuster does still exist. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and has since closed most of its stores, but a handful remain open, including three in Alaska, where movie theaters are rare and high-speed internet, expensive. The stores are dwindling, however, closing one by one, so when the store in North Pole, Alaska, announced its closure earlier this year, John Oliver knew he had to do something.
Oliver, who hosts HBO’s Last Week Tonight, is known for pulling elaborate stunts on his shows. We watch him faithfully and perked up when, on his April 15 episode, he segued into a segment about Alaska’s Blockbusters. First he explained why video stores even exist in Alaska: “internet coverage is sparse, and without unlimited data, streaming has been expensive.”
He went on to say, however, that internet coverage is improving, and so the few remaining Alaskan Blockbusters are “under serious threat.” But he offered a solution. “If only there were a fun, movie-themed way for them to draw people in,” he said, then cited the example of Planet Hollywood, which displays a truly random array of items to attract customers to its restaurants. “The problem is,” he said,” there’s no way for a Blockbuster in Alaska to get memorabilia like that. Or, “and he paused, “is there?”
Enter Russell Crowe.
A few weeks earlier, Oliver had poked fun at Russell Crowe and the auction he was hosting, entitled, “The Art of Divorce,” in honor of his split from long-time spouse Danielle Spencer. The auction featured hundreds of items, including various artifacts from his movies—artwork, costume pieces, props, and even a rare, valuable violin that he learned to play for the film Master and Commander. So which object did John Oliver covet? A leather jockstrap, of course, the one that Crowe wore in the boxing movie Cinderella Man. After some “intense bidding,” his show purchased the artifact for $7,000, which was way over the expected selling price. They also snapped up the robe and shorts that Crowe wore in Cinderella Man, the sleeveless vest he sported while singing Broadway tunes in Les Miserables, and the hood that he wore in Robin Hood. In addition, the collection includes set chairs used by Crowe and Denzel Washington while filming American Gangster.
So what was Oliver’s plan for these items? Turns out he thought they’d be perfect in an Alaskan Blockbuster Video store. He announced on air that, if the manager of the Anchorage Blockbuster called the show within 48 hours, the memorabilia would be donated to his store. Manager Kevin Daymude, who’s obviously a good sport, accepted immediately, and a random assortment of Russell Crowe’s stuff made the long journey to Alaska.
Oh, hell yeah.
We’re Russell Crowe fans. My favorite movies are those in which he plays a tough but sensitive guy whose only soft spot is for the woman he loves (best examples: Proof of Life and L.A. Confidential). And of course Gladiator should be at the top of any Crowe fan’s list; it just rocks.
We also loved the fact that an Alaskan store was suddenly in the spotlight, and we knew we had to pay it a visit, not just to gawk at the leather groin apparatus but also to show our support. We weren’t going to rent any movies (we don’t even own a DVD player anymore), but it wouldn’t hurt to buy something from the store and also put the word out through our blog.
So the store received the memorabilia in early May, and Dale and I, along with our friend Jingyi, stopped by a few weeks ago. Like many residents of Alaska’s small towns, we frequently go to the “big city” of Anchorage to hit Costco and maybe take in a cultural event. A trip to Blockbuster certainly falls—loosely at least—under the category of “cultural event,” right?
We entered the store and immediately saw the memorabilia, which was displayed in glass cases at the entrance. A large, jovial man approached us. “Did you come to check out the Russell Crowe stuff?” he said. “It’s the jockstrap, right? Everybody wants to see the jockstrap.”
When I explained that we’d come from Seward and that we loved the bizarre, wonderful story behind this collection of memorabilia, he said, “So you want to talk to the manager about seeing the stuff up close? I’ll get him. Oh wait, I am the manager.” He then had one of his friendly employees open the display and remove the jockstrap. This was only the second time they’d taken it out since receiving it (we felt honored). The staff member invited us behind the rope and then handed me the mannequin. Blushing, I held Russell Crowe’s prized costume piece and giggled like a seven year old as Dale took pictures:
Our young friend Jingyi, on the other hand, handled the photo shoot with aplomb. (It should be noted that Jingyi had no idea who Russell Crowe was. Sigh.)
Kevin also encouraged us to sit in the set chairs, but they were rather high and unstable, and I envisioned myself toppling over and crashing into a display case, so I declined. Just seeing the items up close brought a satisfying end to this peculiar little field trip.
Here I am, modeling my newly purchased sweatshirt alongside the memorabilia:
Russell Crowe to the rescue
The story doesn’t end with John Oliver’s gift to Blockbuster.
After the auction, Russell Crowe responded with a gesture of his own, as Oliver revealed on his May 6 show. Crowe, who lives in Australia, donated the proceeds of the Last Week Tonight purchases to a worthy—if cringe-inducing—cause: koala bears with chlamydia. Sadly, many of these adorable animals have acquired the disease, and Russell Crowe donated funds to the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital to create a special ward for sick koalas.
The hospital put out a video of thanks starring none other than the spouse and children of the late Steve Irwin. Wife Terri said that many koalas have contracted chlamydia, which can lead to blindness, infertility, and even death. “Now we’re trialing a new vaccine,” she said, “and there is hope for the future. Thank you so much to Russell Crowe.” Daughter Bindi added, “Thanks to your auction, you are now saving literally thousands of koala lives.”
Then son Robert—who sounds and looks a lot like his dad, by the way—addressed John Oliver. “A plaque has been organized in your honor. Check it out.” The video then cut to the plaque, revealing that the new medical unit had been named the John Oliver Koala Chlamydia Ward in his honor.
It was the perfect response to Oliver’s crazy prank and matched his twisted sense of humor. He was so delighted that he just about lost it. “Well played, Russell Crowe,” he said on his show. “Well played indeed.”
But to be clear, this isn’t a joke. One of Australia’s most iconic animals is in trouble. Koala populations are on the decline, not just because of communicable disease but also because of declining habitat and attacks from dogs, among other things. The New York Times talks about these issues in an article entitled, “Everything You (and John Oliver) Need to Know About Koala Chlamydia.”
There is a way you can help, though; see the end of this post for more information.
Back to Blockbuster. I realized while doing research for this post that, when it comes to video stores, John Oliver’s zany stunt is just a side story. The fact is, people still care about Blockbuster Video. Folks are sentimental about the place. The Twitter feed The Last Blockbuster has hundreds of thousands of followers.* And in an interview featured on Last Week Tonight (see the link below), the employee who opened the display case for us said that, like us, many people stop by the store because it’s a novelty. They marvel at the rows of DVD’s and take selfies in front of the iconic Blockbuster sign. As Dale was out front taking pictures of the store, he was photo bombed by a guy in a passing Ford Explorer. With its decline and inevitable demise, Blockbuster has suddenly become hip.
And we get it. Dale and I grew up during the golden age of home video rentals, a little bit of magic in a plastic case. I was in middle school when my family got our first VCR, and it was glorious. I have so many memories of going to the video store, giddy with the prospect of bringing home new movies.
Of course, I also have memories of frustration—the frustration of looking forward to that new release, only to find when I arrived that it was unavailable, its place on the shelves empty, all copies rented. When that happened (and it happened often, didn’t it?) we were relegated to the second-run movies, or the older hits, or the dollar rentals. Oh, the bitterness, the acrid bile of disappointment and envy, the taste of spite in my mouth aimed at those lucky suckers who’d gotten to my movie before I did. (Yes, I’ve lived a privileged life.)
So I’ll admit that, when iTunes began streaming movies, we abandoned brick-and-mortar stores almost immediately. What can I say? The desire for instant gratification has always been my weakness.
But for what it’s worth, I’m glad that Blockbuster Video is still around. It represents a way of life that is fading, certainly, but still celebrated. I hope that the store on DeBarr Road in Anchorage has a long life, and that Kevin Daymude and his enthusiastic staff welcome many more gawkers and fans to this mecca of movies in a box.
How to help koalas
The Australia Zoo evolved from a small family business (Steve Irwin’s parents owned a wildlife park) to one of the largest zoos in the world, and its wildlife hospital is one of the busiest. The hospital supports a variety of animals, not just sick koalas. They get no government funding and depend on donations, so please consider joining us in giving to the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital. You’ll be supporting their mission of rehabilitation, conservation, and research. (Plus, the idea of blind koalas is just unbearable). In order to donate, go to their Adopt an Animal program. You have to register, but it’s worth it!
Videos from Last Week Tonight related to Blockbuster and koalas:
Here are the John Oliver videos related to the events we discuss in this blog post. If you’ve never seen the show, you should know that Oliver has a crude sense of humor and, since the show airs on HBO, the curse words fly.
Here’s the show in which he discusses Alaska’s Blockbusters and the memorabilia donation:
And the follow up, in which he talks about the koala ward:
Don’t expect the red carpet treatment…
Oh, and I’m thinking that we got really lucky when the manager of Blockbuster Video let us go behind the rope and get close to the memorabilia. It was the right time of day (early morning, no other customers), and we showed the right amount of enthusiasm (way too much, at least on my part), but he indicated that he doesn’t normally take the items out of their cases or let people near them. So if you do visit, don’t be disappointed if you have to admire the stuff from behind the rope!
A note about the Last Blockbuster
*Just FYI, the Last Blockbuster Twitter account is not actually associated with Blockbuster Video. No one knows for sure who puts it out, but—like my favorite video store candy the Junior Mint—the tweets are a perfect combination of sweetness and melancholy, a resigned acceptance that, while modern times may have left them behind, there’s still a reason for them to exist. The tweets are sublime, like Twitter haikus. Plus they’re funny as hell. Check them out.