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Daniel Rubin: It's all there on the tape, but lost without his magic

Joe Pagano has been anchored in the Great Northeast for the last half-century, but from there he's seen the world - most of it through the same 15-inch screen:

Joe Pagano has been anchored in the Great Northeast for the last half-century, but from there he's seen the world - most of it through the same 15-inch screen:

Handheld video of the Beach Boys fooling around in an apartment.

A fiddling contest at the Smithsonian featuring Grandpa Jones from Hee-Haw.

Old R. Buckminster Fuller lectures. TV footage of Philadelphia broadcast pioneer Bill Webber. The Grateful Dead in the studio, circa 1969, tuning up and turning on.

Every other day a package arrives at Pagano's doorstep - containing precious memories trapped inside bands of dark, magnetic oxide because they were recorded on video using out-of-date formats.

Pagano owns the Obsolete Tape Transfer Service, a name that would seem at home in a Stephen Millhauser novel. Pagano specializes in more than two dozen extinct media: Sony Betamax and EIAJ. Sanyo V-Cord. Akai quarter-inch. Quasar. IVC.

For 20 years he's signed for deliveries of small and giant metal reels, thick black, blue and gray plastic cartridges - all shapes and sizes and shrouded in mystery.

First, there's the stuff he can't talk about; he does a lot of jobs for the military, the nuclear industry, corporations, and law enforcement agencies. (He has a story about remastering an old crime scene that authorities credit with keeping a creep behind bars.)

Then there's all the tape that arrives with well-lawyered agreements. An example is the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert from around 1971, which he digitalized for the latter's Shakey Pictures.

A stub from the check signed by Neil and Pegi Young is affixed to Pagano's wall.

The other element of mystery is deeper. The senders often have no idea what's on the tapes; they just trust it's something special.

So when Pagano unlocks the secrets through his remastering station, he's often impressed by what he sees.

"We got this phone call from London," Pagano, 53, says in a measured voice that brooks no hint of surprise. "This fellow thought what he had might be valuable. The BBC had referred him. He said he had a tape that was found in the trash. It wasn't labeled. He thought it was of some band."

Pagano and his associate, Terry Hammond, 48, rolled the concert footage, and it wasn't of just any band.

"As soon as they started to sing, I said, 'That's Deep Purple!' " They were playing "Hush," their first hit, from 1968.

His recollection is of lots of hair and metal.

Pagano and Hammond don't handle film, so they won't burn your backyard birthday parties onto DVD. They don't do audio, either - unless it's a special job, like the one a few years ago when a disabled Vietnam vet sent about two dozen reels of tape he and his parents had exchanged when he was in country.

"I'm playing them back, listening to him in a field, under fire, talking about how he was pretty scared about what was happening around him," Pagano recalls. "Other days he'd be upbeat.

"The other side was his parents: 'Everything's fine at home. We're repaneling the rec room.' "

The soldier relies on a wheelchair now, having lost the use of his legs when he stepped on a land mine, Pagano says.

Another tape showed a contestant winning her prize on the The Dating Game, a TV show that ran from 1965-73. That prize was a date with an officer who was on leave from Vietnam. The woman who sent the video had gone on more dates and married the officer.

"She had a daughter by this man," Pagano says. "Shortly after, he went back overseas and was killed. She wanted to show the child how her parents met."

Pagano, a tan and nattily dressed man, has been fiddling with electronics since he was 12 in Fox Chase and picked something busted from the trash.

"I was better at taking things apart than putting them together," he says. He got better, though, and went to electronics school, then started out repairing TVs, radios, and video machines.

Now he considers himself an archivist, meaning his job is not to change the product by boosting the color or sweetening the sound. "It's history we're preserving," he says.

Half his jobs are for private clients, for whom transfers run between $30 and $65. "They call up and ask, 'What's on the tape?'

" 'It's your Uncle Albert performing Fiddler on the Roof again.'

"I've seen every rendition of Fiddler on the Roof there is."