At 92, a Bandit to Hollywood but a Hero to Soldiers
MASSAPEQUA, N.Y. — One of the world’s most prolific bootleggers of Hollywood DVDs loves his morning farina.
He has spent eight years churning out hundreds of thousands of copies of “The Hangover,” “Gran Torino” and other first-run movies from his small Long Island apartment to ship overseas.
"Big Hy” — his handle among many loyal customers — would almost certainly be cast as Hollywood Enemy No. 1 but for a few details. He is actually Hyman Strachman, a 92-year-old, 5-foot-5 World War IIveteran trying to stay busy after the death of his wife. And he has sent every one of his copied DVDs, almost 4,000 boxes of them to date, free to American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the United States military presence in those regionsdwindling, Big Hy Strachman will live on in many soldiers’ hearts as one of the war’s more shadowy heroes.
“It’s not the right thing to do, but I did it,” Mr. Strachman said, acknowledging that his actions violated copyright law.
“If I were younger,” he added, “maybe I’d be spending time in the hoosegow.”
Capt. Bryan Curran, who recently returned from Afghanistan, estimated that from 2008 to 2010, Mr. Strachman sent more than 2,000 DVDs to his outfits there.
“You’re shocked because your initial image is of some back-alley Eastern European bootlegger — not an old Jewish guy on Long Island,” Captain Curran said. “He would time them with the movie’s release — whenever a new movie was just in theaters, we knew Big Hy would be sending us some. I saw ‘The Transformers’ before it hit the States.”
Jenna Gordon, a specialist in the Army Reserve, said she had handed out even more of Mr. Strachman’s DVDs last year as a medic with the 883rd Medical Company east of Kandahar City, where soldiers would gather for movie nights around personal computers, with mortar blasting in the background. Some knew only that the discs came from some dude named Big Hy; others knew not even that.
“It was pretty big stuff — it’s reconnecting you to everything you miss,” she said. “We’d tell people to take a bunch and pass them on.”
White-haired, slightly hunched and speaking in his Depression-era Brooklyn brogue (think Casey Stengel after six years of Hebrew school), Mr. Strachman explained in a recent interview that his 60-hour-a-week venture was winding down. “It’s all over anyways — they’re all coming home in the near future,” he said of the troops.
As he spoke, he was busy preparing some packages, filled with 84 discs of “The Artist,” “Moneyball” and other popular films, many of them barely out of theaters, to a platoon in Afghanistan.
As for his brazen violation of domestic copyright laws, Mr. Strachman nodded guiltily but pointed to his walls, which are strewed with seven huge American flags, dozens of appreciative letters, and snapshots of soldiers holding up their beloved DVDs.
“Every time I got back an emotional e-mail or letter, I sent them another box,” he said, adding that he had never accepted any money for the movies or been told by any authorities to stop.
“I thought maybe because I’m an old-timer,” he said.
In February, Mr. Strachman duplicated and shipped 1,100 movies. (“A slow month,” he said.) He has not kept an official count but estimates that he topped 80,000 discs a year during his heyday in 2007 and 2008, making his total more than 300,000 since he began in 2004. Postage of about $11 a box, and the blank discs themselves, would suggest a personal outlay of over $30,000.
Born in Brooklyn in 1920 to immigrants from Poland, Mr. Strachman left high school during the Depression to work for his family’s window and shade store in Manhattan. He became a stockbroker on Wall Street — “When there were no computers, you had to use your noodle” — before retiring in the early 1990s.
After Mr. Strachman’s wife of more than half a century, Harriet, died in 2003, he discovered a Web site that collected soldiers’ requests for care packages. He noted a consistent plea for movie DVDs and wound up passing his sleepless nights replicating not only the films, but also a feeling of military comradeship that he had not experienced since his own service in the Pacific during World War II.
“I wouldn’t say it kept him alive, but it definitely brought back his joie de vivre,” said Mr. Strachman’s son, Arthur, a tax accountant in New York.
Mr. Strachman has never ripped a movie from a store-bought DVD and does not even know how; rather, he bought bootlegged discs for $5 in Penn Station before finding a dealer closer to home, at his local barbershop. Those discs were either recordings made illegally in theaters or studio cuts that had been leaked.
Originally, Mr. Strachman would use his desktop computer to copy the movies one tedious disc at a time. (“It was moyda,” he groaned.) So he got his hands on a $400 professional duplicator that made seven copies at once, grew his fingernails long to better separate the blank discs, and began copying hundreds a day.
Last month, in black grandpa shoes and blue suspenders that hoisted his trousers up to his sternum, Mr. Strachman and his spindly hands steered a master copy of “The Artist” into the machine, fed the seven other bays with blanks, and pressed “Record.” Six minutes later, in went “The King’s Speech.” Then “Moneyball.”
He eventually stuffed the maximum of 84 discs (12 titles, 7 each) into a United States Postal Service fixed-rate box, secured it with several yards of packing tape and scrawled out a packing slip for the Massapequa Park post office. The contraband, which he said could take up to three months to arrive, was addressed to an Army chaplain.
“Chaplains don’t sell them, and they fan out,” Mr. Strachman said. “The distribution is great.”
The movie studios are less enthusiastic. Although the most costly piracy now takes place online through file-sharing Web sites, the illegal duplication of copyright DVDs — usually by organized crime in Eastern Europe and China, not by retirees in their 90s in the American suburbs — still siphons billions of dollars out of the industry every year. And while Mr. Strachman’s movies were given to soldiers as a form of charity, studios do send military bases reel-to-reel films, which are much harder to copy, and projectors for the troops overseas.
Howard Gantman, a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America, said he did not believe its member studios were aware of Mr. Strachman’s operation. His sole comment dripped with the difficulty of going after a 92-year-old widower supporting the troops.
“We are grateful that the entertainment we produce can bring some enjoyment to them while they are away from home,” Mr. Gantman said.
Careful to minimize his malfeasance, Mr. Strachman said he had kept no copies for himself and had destroyed every master disc soon after the new releases came in.
Before long, the sole evidence of his operation will be on his walls and on a little bookshelf, next to his cholesterol-control pills and a few envelopes of farina, where seven three-ring binders overflow with letters and pictures, most addressed to “Big Hy,” from appreciative soldiers.
“Our downtime is spent watching movies as we clean our weapons,” one handwritten note said.
Another accompanied a flag from a combat mission over Afghanistan: “I can think of no one more deserving than you, and no one who understands what this flag stands for and means to our veterans.”
The fun will stop soon, Mr. Strachman said. “I’m not sure who’s going to be left over there anymore,” he said, happier for the soldiers’ return than for his need to find another hobby.
And with that the duplicator beeped, spitting out seven more copies of “The Artist.”
Mr. Strachman scooped them out of their trays, put a rubber band around them and inserted the stack into a box, perhaps his very last.