Run--VCR : Roll Your Own Videos Let Blossoming ‘Bosses’ Produce Closet Classics

Once upon a time, aspiring Fabians and Lulus could get a tinny recording of their own voices at the old-fashioned make-your-own-record booth.

Today Los Lobos and Madonna wanna-be’s can fulfill a more sophisticated fantasy: They can choose a tune, don a costume and either lip-sync or sing to a popular song as video technology preserves the whole experience. Rick Astley, Joan Jett and other MTV heartthrobs might not lose sleep over the results. But it’s not about fame, it’s about fun.

Charlie Gray, 48, opened Westwood’s first make-your-own-video parlor, Fun Trax, in April with partner Sherry Sturges, 38. Since then, they’ve found hundreds of would-be performers willing to spend about $30 to immortalize themselves on tape singing “Tutti Frutti,” “I Like Beer,” “Walk Like an Egyptian” or any of the tunes from Fun Trax’s library of more than 400 songs. In an average week, about 700 to 1,000 people come into the store; about 200 make videos.

A monitor in front of the studio broadcasts a sample loop of videos to pedestrians at Gayley and Kinross avenues. At any hour, there’s usually a group of people watching, fascinated, as an earnest young woman belts out Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love for You” almost right on key, or a bewigged Elvis impersonator does some grand mal pelvic thrusts worthy of “The Gong Show.”


On one recent night, the favorite performer of the street crowd was, by far, a Michael Jackson impersonator: about 4 years old and definitely not camera shy. Dressed in a zipper-laden leather jacket, he preened, spun and grabbed his crotch with authority as he performed to Jackson’s “Bad.”

“Something happens when the camera goes on and these people start to perform,” said Gray, manning the front desk on a busy Friday night. “It’s spooky at times. I don’t know what to make of it.”

Stu Haniff and Sam Toren, both 19-year-old UCLA sophomores, came in recently to record Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A."--"because we really love L.A., and we want to show it,” Haniff said.

The session went so well that they decided to do another video, to Debbie Gibson’s “Out of the Blue.” First, they supplied the vocals to a prerecorded instrumental track.

Next was a stop at a costume rack, where they tried on nylon punk wigs, psychedelic shirts, bandannas and other accessories. Haniff chose a purple highwayman’s jacket decorated with a silver lightning bolt, while Toren topped off his black jeans and Birkenstock sandals with a leopard-pattern jacket, Hawaiian shirt and red rhinestone belt.

The make-your-own-video parlor has three taping rooms, each with its own rock video mise en scene . The “beach room” has walls painted like the sky, with an old surfboard and plastic palm trees planted in AstroTurf for atmosphere. The “brick room” is a more urban setting, with fake-brick paneling decorated with graffiti.

Haniff and Toren picked the “concert room,” a plain black chamber with several non-functional musical instruments for verisimilitude. Toren grabbed a stringless electric guitar. Haniff stood behind an old Wurlitzer keyboard, and the pair lip-synced to their own voices on the playback as the cameras caught it all.

After it was over and the tape had been played in the store, both were delighted.

“We’re best friends. We’ve done a lot of crazy things,” Haniff said. “We’re going to send copies of this to our parents. They don’t live here, and this will give them a feel of what L.A. is like. And I’m going to send a copy to Debbie Gibson. I think she’d like it.”

Was it at all embarrassing? Or was it fun ?

Both men shook their heads.

“It was neat ,” Toren said.

“It’s addictive,” sighed Jim Sourlis, a UCLA psychology major who had stopped by Fun Trax to say hello to the employees, and now found himself looking over the song list. Sourlis, a New Jersey native, had recorded “six or seven” tapes in the last few months--all Bruce Springsteen tunes.

“They show ‘em in the window sometimes. I’ve had people walk up to me on campus and recognize me. It’s pretty embarrassing,” he said.

Meanwhile, a group of clean-cut young people--21 of them--had arrived to do a video en masse. All roommates in the Sigma Long dormitory at Biola College in La Mirada, they had driven into Westwood just to record “Twist and Shout.”

Gray said the Beatles, Cyndi Lauper, Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton are the most requested artists on the Fun Trax list. The selection ranges from oldies to rock, rap to country, show tunes to standards, with a few oddities along the way, like “Hava Nagila,” “Sukiyaki” and “I’m a Little Teapot.” A basic video costs $29.95; the audio recordings, $9.95. (The store pays a nickel royalty to song publishers each time a tune is used.)

Not all of the customers are college students. The youngest so far was 2 years old (she recorded “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”), while the oldest was 78. According to Gray, some celebrities have also stopped in: Johnny Mathis, Connie Stevens and “numerous people on soap operas.”

After careful deliberation, Sourlis picked a few songs and went into an audio booth to record them. “I’m gonna do ‘Every Breath You Take,’ but I’m gonna do it like Bruce,” he said, demonstrating with a few bars of the song. Unlike the hapless Elvis impersonator who entertained the sidewalk crowd, Sourlis did sound remarkably like Springsteen.

“Jim’s good,” one engineer said. “He’s one of the better people we’ve had come in.”

Meanwhile, the Biola College students had practiced “Twist and Shout” three times, finally becoming comfortable enough to record it. After the vocals were done, they descended on the costume racks, whooping and hollering.

One young man balanced a spiky black punk wig on his head, looked in the mirror, and laughed. It was a particularly incongruous touch with his neat sweater.

“It looks good. You should get your hair cut like that,” someone volunteered.

He looked worried. “My parents wouldn’t let me,” he said, as the Biolans crowded into the “concert room” to make their videotape. Roommates clustered around the door to watch.

Within 20 minutes, they had their finished product and were watching it on the monitor, squealing and laughing all the way. When it was over, Gray was swamped with requests for duplicates.

Though the notion of make-your-own-video parlors is several years old, the miniature studios haven’t quite taken root, Gray said. There’s a small one on the Universal Studios Tour, but the only other one that Gray was aware of in Southern California is in San Diego.

Business has been so good, however, that Fun Trax will soon upgrade its recording equipment and buy a Chroma-Key device, enabling the engineers to project various filmed backgrounds behind the performers. Gray and Sturges are developing a mobile Fun Trax--a sort of video bookmobile that can be hired for parties and special occasions.

Will make-your-own-video parlors ever be as ubiquitous as instant photo booths? Can the millions of people who sing in their cars be persuaded to dance around in silly costumes while a camera records the whole thing? Probably not. But for those who identified with Tom Cruise’s lip-sync fantasy in the film “Risky Business,” $30 may very well be a small price to pay to pretend to be a rock star.

Back in the “brick room,” Jim Sourlis listened to the playback of his last song. It was after midnight. He had recorded audio tracks to four songs, and was preparing to make a video to Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac.”