Dan Creskoff was hired as a clerk at the South Street TLA Video location back in 1992. He has managed both the Spring Garden and Locust Street locations since then, the former of which closed in 2008 while the latter is currently in the process of shutting its doors.
In the first of a two-part interview, Dan explains the TLA Video aesthetic, recounts customers and employees both good and bad, and reveals what it took to become one of the TLA elite. It’s worth noting that Dan hired me as a clerk at the Spring Garden Street store back in 2002 and I took over management duties from him when he left for Locust Street in 2007.
CINEDELPHIA: You went to Temple for film, right?
DAN CRESKOFF: Yes, Temple for film. I was interested in production, but towards the end of school I quickly became very disillusioned with it all. I saw how much money you need, how many people you have to know, how it’s not really about talent…so I became disillusioned.
While I was at Temple I started working at Spruce Street Video. That was 1988, I worked there for a couple of years. Then I was a projectionist at the Temple Cinematheque, Temple had a repertory theater downtown at 1619 Walnut Street, it had two screening rooms. That was a great job, I got to see a ton of movies I wouldn’t have gotten to see otherwise. When they closed I worked at the Ritz for a little while and then a friend of mine told me that TLA was hiring. So in 1992 I was hired as a clerk at the South Street store, worked there for about a year and then one of my best friends, Rich Mulhearn, was working as the manager of the Spring Garden Street store and the opener was leaving there. At that time the South Street store’s managers were lifers, Ann Yarabinee and Kenny [Bowen], there was just no way to move up there. So Rich asked me to come to the Spring Garden Street store, which I did and I ended up taking his job when he moved to the office.
C: So you became manager of the Spring Garden Street store in the mid-90s?
DC: Yeah, ’94 or ’95.
C: When you joined the TLA in 1992 did the stores already have a reputation as a source for alternative cinema?
DC: Yeah, they were definitely known as the arty store with all the foreign films and they were already a pretty big entity. My ties actually go back further with TLA to when I was in high school and I used to come down and go to the theater. I remember the first double-feature I saw there was Liquid Sky and The Hunger, pretty awesome. I fell in love with the place after that and saw a bunch of films there in the 80s.
C: What are some films that you feel embody the TLA aesthetic? When I think of TLA I think of things like Eraserhead or Pink Flamingos…
DC: John Waters, all the way. The punk rock movies like X: The Unheard Music, which I saw at the TLA Theater. I’d never heard X before so that turned me onto them. Blue Velvet played there when it first opened. I brought ten people with me to see Eraserhead there when I was in college, nine people were pissed off at me when we left, they were so mad. So really the offbeat, cult stuff from that time that was hard to find before the internet. It was the one spot that specialized in getting these movies and making them available, the theater and the video stores. The first TLA Video store was above this craft shop right next to the theater on South Street so I went there a couple of times to get the punk rock movies that I couldn’t get. I remember hearing stories about how TLA would go to Japan and get these movies that weren’t released in the US yet and they would bring them back and make them available.
C: Speaking of things that weren’t available, you’ve seen a few changes in home viewing formats over the years. When you started at South Street did you have laserdiscs?
DC: I’m pretty sure that TLA never had laserdiscs for rental, but we’d do special orders for people.
C: So it was all VHS.
DC: All VHS with 50 cent rewind fees, which always went to the employees. One of my jobs was to splice the broken tapes using my mad skills that I learned at Temple cutting actual film. Everything I learned at Temple is out the window now since it’s all done on computers. The internet has really made a lot of stuff available, before you had to really search things out, obscure bands or movies, you had to search all these little holes in Philly or New York to find this stuff. And now you can get almost everything.
C: Were you skeptical of the DVD format when it was introduced?
DC: I was a little. I remember the first time TLA got a portable DVD player that we rented out and they let us bring it home to check it out. We were impressed, but at the same time we were like “No one is gonna replace their system and buy all their movies again.” You couldn’t deny how much better the picture was, but there was that question of whether people were going to re-buy everything. And now we know that they did.
C: Two times over at this point.
DC: I know. Some people are doing it on Blu-ray, but I don’t see it going very far.
C: What stories immediately come to mind when you look back on your experiences at TLA?
DC: Well, we had a lot of great customers, but at the same time there were a whole bunch of completely nutty customers. There are a lot of stories. There was the time that the guy walked in with dog crap all over his foot and walked all the way up to the counter and said “Do you have a bathroom? I just stepped in dog shit.” And to go along with the scatological theme, someone else walked into VID 1 [South Street] and he walked up to the counter shaking and asked “Do you have a bathroom?” And we were like “Well, it’s really not for customers.” And he stopped shaking and said “Never mind.” So we let him go back and clean himself off.
DC: There are fun memories also. I have great memories of Janet and [Randall] “Tex” Cobb coming in and telling stories for hours. There are a lot of stories I could tell that I didn’t experience directly and a lot that are too gross to tell like the guy who was masturbating in the front window of the Locust Street store. There were lots of crazies up at Vid 5 [Spring Garden Street, pictured], there was a halfway house/mental institute right near there and they used to come in all of the time. There was wig lady, cigarette guy…
C: I remember one homeless-type who came in and passed out in the adult room and we had to close it off until an ambulance came to pick him up. And then he came in the next night and I was like “Sir, you can’t be in here, you passed out here last night.” And he was like “Ok, yeah, yeah, I remember that, yeah” as if it was a distant memory.
DC: There was another customer who used to come in on every form of intoxication he could be on. He’d throw joints and pills on the counter. One time he lay down in the corner.
C: So you were a manager for most of your TLA career. I think that most TLA employees have a reputation for being well-informed yet…quirky?
DC: Quirky, that’s a good word.
C: Was that a requirement of the job?
DC: Not so much.
C: We should mention that you were required to pass a quiz in order to work at TLA.
DC: Right. To work at TLA you had to pass a quiz where we’d throw out a director’s name and you’d name three movies by them and hopefully impress us with many more. That quiz, which used to be really hard and necessary to get the job, became less hard and less necessary over the years, people didn’t seem to know as much. John Sayles used to always be on the quiz and me and Dean [Galanis] used to lament that no one seemed to know who John Sayles was, no one could name one movie by him.
C: I remember when I passed the John Sayles test.
DC: All right! Most people couldn’t name one. Even Alfred Hitchcock, people wouldn’t know anything by him.
C: So you wouldn’t even consider employees who couldn’t pass the test?
DC: In the old days they had to know movies. Over the years it did wane a little when I hired people who didn’t pass the film quiz. In one respect it was good to do no matter what since you’d learn what that person’s forte was. Maybe they knew foreign films or film noir or Hollywood classics. Someone may know Japanese movies, but not know Woody Allen. So you got to at least know what they liked and what they did know. There were very few people who didn’t know anything about movies that worked there.
DC: Well, back in the day, even when I was at Spruce Street and I had friends at TLA, the employees were definitely different than they are now. There was one girl who was downright mean to customers and eventually they let her go…there was definitely more surliness back then, there’s still a little. If you want to rent the worst movie in the world then I wouldn’t hold that against you. Some of our favorite movies are terrible. I love Shakes the Clown. Can you make fun of me? Sure, go ahead. Most people think of us as snobs and there’s a degree of it, but not much is held against you as a customer.
C: Have you ever regretted hiring anyone?
DC: Oh yeah, several people. The store tended to be predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon. So I always tried as much as I could to diversify and not have it be all white men. One time I hired this one kid who was young, but seemed really energetic about the job and a good guy. We do have a probationary period where you can be dismissed at any point within the first three months, it just gives us a little leeway if the new employees don’t work out or clash personality-wise with the rest of the staff.
C: That family dynamic at the stores was always very important.
DC: It’s a very tight-knit group. You’re in a tight spot behind the counter for a long period of time and it’s a tough thing to deal with when somebody really irks you.
So everyone liked this guy, but after three weeks he couldn’t return a movie. He couldn’t rent a movie, he couldn’t return a movie, he just couldn’t do it. After three weeks! It takes most people about one week to learn the whole system.
C: Right, it’s just a bar code scan and a key stroke.
DC: Yeah. And he would do weird things like take all of the movies out of the drop box and take them into the back hallway and we’d be like “Where are you going? The computers are out here!” He was the most incompetent person I’ve ever hired.
There were a couple other people that turned out to be a little too crazy. I recall this one woman that I hired that nobody liked, I had to get rid of her after a month once everyone at the store had complained about her.
C: Is it difficult for you to let people go?
DC: I loathe firing people. I’ve fired very few people because of that. I’ve had to fire people I liked, it’s such a close-knit group at the stores…firing people is the worst feeling in the world.
Check back tomorrow for part two of my interview with Dan in which we discuss a video clerk’s pet peeves, homeless porn thieves, and intercompany romance.
Author: Eric Bresler
Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.