Laser discs, the forgotten video format buried under the onslaught of videocassette recorders in the late 1970s, are back. And Rickey's Video Club in Annapolis has them.
The club began renting the discs recently at the request of customers and became the only outlet for them in the county. Laserland in White Marsh is the club's closest competitor. Nationally, Blockbuster Video test-marketed the format unsuccessfully a few years back.
"I think they probably gave up too soon. I think it's going to dowell for us," said Ethel Ralphs, video club manager at Rickey's. Sheexplained that the independent club strives to attract customers whoare neglected by the larger chain video stores by providing a wider selection of smaller titles, like foreign films.
Laser discs, favored for years by movie aficionados because of their 60 percent sharper picture and superior sound, lost the competition with VCRs because LD players could not record from television.
LDs are gaining popularity among the general public, as the price of a basic player has dropped to about $400, about the same price as a top-of-the-line VCR. In addition, most units, dubbed "combi-players," can play CDs and other laser formats.
Many discs offer special features unavailable on cassette, such as additional footage edited from a film's theatrical release or interviews with directors and stars. A large number are presented in the "letterbox" format, which maintains a film's theatrical dimensions on the television screen. The discs, like CDs, are also more durable than cassette tapes, which eventually wear out from friction.
"For anyone who's really into movies, it's the way to go," said Michael Wall, a salesman at Rickey's.
Rickey's began selling LDs and their players almost a year ago. Healthy sales and the cheaperprice of LDs -- averaging $30, as compared with $93 for a videocassette -- convinced the club manager that rentals would be profitable.
"Because of the cost, our videotapes have to rent three times (as often) as the laser discs," Ralphs said, adding that she hopes the availability of rental laser discs will boost the sales of LD players.
In 1976, Rickey's pioneered the rental of videotapes in the county,and hopes for a similar success with laser discs. The club has stocked about 100 of the most recent movie titles on LD, including "The Rocketeer," "Jungle Fever," and "Thelma & Louise," and will continue adding titles as they are released.
Videocassettes, however, will continue to constitute most of Rickey's rental business, because only afew households are equipped with laser disc players. Industry reports indicate that only 1 percent to 3 percent of American homes have laser disc players.
Currently, there are half as many movie titles available on laser disc as videotape, but Wall foresees the gradual growth of the format.
"We're going to be selling more and more," he said.
Ralphs and Wall agree that laser discs will eventually complement videocassettes, as discs become a bigger part of the market.
"I think it will do to video what CDs did to audio. The CD player doesn't eliminate the cassette deck," Ralphs said. "You still can't tape your soaps (on laser disc)."