This Is the City . . .

Those words opened each episode of the 1967 remake of Dragnet. It was a remarkably successful venture, in the light of poor performance of other attempts to revive older shows.

I must confess that I have never seen an episode of the original 1950’s series. I have heard that the remake didn’t do it justice. If that’s the case, it must have been truly great, because Dragnet 1967 (and subsequent years) was pretty terrific itself.

Jack Webb was an actor whose style I would compare to the great Jack Nicholson. While Nicholson is truly one of the greatest actors Hollywood has seen, the fact is that his characters are all quite similar to one another. He plays Jack Nicholson.

Jack Webb did the same. His roles in films like Dark City and Sunset Boulevard were incarnations of Joe Friday.

Jack and Harry Morgan, his Dark City costar, had great chemistry on screen. Bill Gannon was a real swinging bachelor that Friday was always exhorting to get married and settle down. Humorous exchanges between them were interspersed with more serious stuff.

Friday and Gannon dealing with rebellious hippies

The shows that aired in the 60’s frequently had misbehaving hippies as their centerpieces. It’s hard not to bust out laughing as Friday and Gannon scold and lecture wasted flower power children decked out in tie-dye. One episode I recall had some handcuffed punk mouthing off to Joe. As he’s put in the wagon, Friday sends him off with “I’ll bet your mother had a loud bark!” Great stuff.

One thing you didn’t see Webb do was fire a gun. In real life, he hated them.

Jack also had a real rapport with and respect for the police. They were invariably portrayed as heroes whose occasional misdeeds were always due to good motives. I could see Webb having one of those “If you don’t like the cops, next time you need help call a hippie” bumper stickers on his police-edition LTD.

His deadpan acting style was much parodied, even by himself on the famous Johnny Carson spot about copping copper clappers. Nick at Night had fun with it too, showing that he was so restrained that he didn’t even move his arms as he walked.

Jack went on to produce some big TV hit series, the most successful being Adam-12 and Emergency! He was rarely seen on film after Dragnet ended its final 1970 season.

Here’s to Friday and Gannon. I sure hope Bill finally settled down.

They Called Him Flipper

On those not-often-enough vacation times, my wife and I always head to the same place: a warm, sunny, beautiful beach somewhere in Florida.

In 1968, my family took a vacation in the Sunshine State, and it was a huge thrill for an eight-year-old kid, especially when that kid was a devoted fan of Flipper. And I honestly believe that the fact that Florida keeps drawing me back year after year can be traced to the appeal that the television show and its non-human star first placed in my heart so many Saturday nights ago.

Flipper, the movie, was released in 1963, and starred Chuck Connors as Porter Ricks. I have no recollection of it whatsoever, but it must have made a significant splash (ugh, sorry) at the box office, because a sequel was released the next year called Flipper’s Big Adventure, this time staring Brian Kelly in the lead human role.

In the fall of 1964, on a Saturday night, Flipper the TV series debuted. My parents had a weekly ritual of heading to nearby Joplin, Missouri for a nice dinner out on that particular evening each week, leaving me in the care of my middle brother. Bill knew that whatever else went on that night, I HAD to see Flipper. And he was just young enough that I believe he got a kick out of it as well.

Of course, like many things that held our attention intently as kids, Flipper, the TV show, hasn’t aged as well as, say, The Twilight Zone. But that doesn’t affect one whit the wonderful memories that I experienced dreaming about warm, sunny Florida while watching the adventures of the Ricks family and their porpoisine friend. Don’t look now, but I believe that I’ve just invented a new adjective.

Flipper would delight in taking on sharks to protect his human friends. That bottle nose, every kid knew, was as powerful as Batman’s utility belt. And you could also tell what sort of mood Flipper was in by the sound of his voice. When he was happy, he made a joyful cry. But when he was unhappy, he would make a mournful squeal that I unfortunately couldn’t find online, but trust me, it filled a kid’s heart with dread and foreboding.

Flipper’s happy voice was actually a tweaked recording of a kookaburra, a noisy Aussie bird. The stock sound’s easy availability explains why that gopher in Caddyshack disconcertingly had the exact same cry, to the consternation of Flipper fans everywhere. What the heck was a rodent doing sounding like Flipper??

It turns out that “Flipper” was actually a number of dolphins. Like Lassie, females of the species were preferred. The reason was more docility, and also because male dolphins spend their days beating the crap out of each other. Most of them are visibly scarred as a result of their pugilistic habits. However, they never succeeded in training any of the females to perform Flipper’s signature tail walk, so a male was used for that particular performance each time.

Flipper the TV show was affiliated with the Miami Seaquarium, and I visited them during that 1968 vacation. Of course, they had performing dolphins, as well as a concrete Flipper out front for kids to be photographed upon. But I was confused that none of the real-life dolphins made the chattering sound that I heard repeatedly every Saturday night. Maybe they just weren’t happy.

Flipper could take on hurricanes, crooks, and sharks, but falling TV ratings were unfortunately more powerful than his stainless-steel-hard bottle nose. So in 1967, he swam off into the sunset.

But I wonder how many Boomers find themselves drawn to beautiful, sunny Florida as a result of seeds that were planted on Saturday nights of the 1960’s.

Then Came Bronson

The opening scene from Then Came Bronson

On June 26, 1969, a movie was released that was a gritty, druggy smash hit with both the critics and the public. Easy Rider was the talk of the nation. As Captain America and Billy captivated audiences, NBC execs noticed.

The rampant drug use, violence, and nudity of the original film would never fly on 1969 televisions (even though it is now shown practically uncut on AMC), but the idea of saying to heck with society and taking off on a motorcycle had already come to life as a TV movie that was aired on the network in March of that year. After Easy Rider’s success, Then came Bronson was greenlighted as a series.

Singer/actor Michael Parks played Jim Bronson as a rebel, but a polite, friendly, quiet one.

The show would open with a harried businessman driving a car expressing his envy of free spirit Bronson while sitting at a traffic light. A friendly exchange would take place, which, according to Wikipedia, went thusly:

* Driver: “Taking a trip?”
* Bronson: “What’s that?”
* Driver: “Taking a trip?”
* Bronson: “Yeah.”
* Driver: “Where to?”
* Bronson: “Oh, I don’t know. Wherever I end up, I guess.”
* Driver: “Pal, I wish I was you.”
* Bronson: “Really?”
* Driver: “Yeah.”
* Bronson: “Well, hang in there.”

That phrase, little heard before the show began airing, continues to be one of the most-often used in the English language.

MPC model of Bronson’s motorcycle

Then Came Bronson had a run of only a year, but its fans (which include Yours Truly) were rabid in their adoration. Bronson was a regular Joe who just got fed up with life after his buddy at the newspaper (none other than Martin Sheen in the film) committed suicide. So he did what any red-blooded American rebel would do: got himself a Hawg and hit the road.

Bronson’s red Sportster with the triangle logo on the gas tank continues to be imitated by fans over thirty five years after the show’s one-year run. See what I mean about rabid?

Parks singing talent also nailed him a Top Forty single in 1970: Long Lonesome Highway. The song peaked at #20, and I still can remember all of the lyrics, even though I haven’t heard it since I was a teenager.

Parks’ low-key, humble acting style endeared him to many, including myself. He continued a fairly successful career after Bronson was canceled in 1970, and eventually hooked up with Quentin Tarentino to get some primo roles in films like Kill Bill and Grindhouse. He passed on in 2017.

We Bronson fans feel like the axe fell way too soon on his TV show. Parks himself was a shining example of the good that comes to those who hang in there.

The Wizard of Oz on TV Every Year

Every year, this movie was shown on network television. It was a tradition in my home to watch it, one I look back on with a variety of emotions.

The primary feeling was TERROR! This movie scared the living daylights out of me. From the tornado scene (I lived in a town that was regularly nailed by twisters, I was scared to death of them) to the creepy trees with faces to the cackling witch to the ultimate terror: FLYING MONKEYS!

I don’t know what it was about those airborne apes that was so terrifying, but I had numerous nightmares about them. The depicted scene, where they are flying across that ominously darkening sky, was the one that frequently sent me running from the room to hide under my covers.

Of course, the Wizard of Oz being the truly great film that it was, it also compelled me to watch it and get frightened again year after year as it was broadcast annually, first on CBS, then on NBC from 1968 to 1975, then back to CBS again.

At presstime, the film is still shown annually on TNT, TCM, and TBS. But it no longer captures the public’s attention like it did in the 60’s, when we would talk about its next showing in school for weeks before the annual event, in the dead of winter.

Other movies were shown every year on network TV. Look for them in future columns. Today, the annual airing of a film that gets the most attention is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which, ironically, didn’t get much attention until the early 1990’s. Once again, it’s shown on a cable channel instead of a network that would allow you to see it via an antenna.

But in the 1960’s, the three Big Boys in broadcasting were NBC, ABC, and CBS. And whoever held the rights to the Wizard of Oz was guaranteed a very nice majority share on the night it was aired.

Geez, I still have nightmares about those blasted monkeys . . .

The Wild Wild West

If ever a TV show defined what was cool circa 1966, it was The Wild Wild West. from its unforgettable theme song to its intense animated opening (did he REALLY slug that woman??) to its futuristic gadgetry with a Victorian look (which I flashed back to the first time I saw The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), The Wild Wild West had it all.

It was also pretty darned violent for its time, hence my mother’s distress over the fact that I loved watching it.

But she didn’t deem it bad enough to forbid me, she would just make it clear that she didn’t approve.

But her tacit disapproval wasn’t enough to keep me from being tuned in on as many Friday nights as I could have control of the TV. The ones that I missed I eventually saw after school as it aired on the local station about 4:00 in the afternoon in the early 70’s.

The premise for The Wild Wild West was simple enough: James Bond-type gadgetry in 1870 or so. James West and Artemus Gordon were Secret Service agents in the hire of President Ulysses S Grant. Their job was to traverse the country in the world’s most luxurious train and take care of problems stirred up by various crazed geniuses, including the show’s repeating character, evil Dr. Miguelito Loveless.

The various mad inventors would come up with sundry doomsday devices that would be foiled by James West’s charm and bombs, guns and the like that were hidden in his clothing. Artemus Gordon would assist by becoming different personae, as he was a master of disguise.

Now what kid wouldn’t eat that up?

The show followed a cute trend that was shared by may others of the 60’s: consistent naming of the episodes. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. titled each episode “The (fill in the blank) Affair.” Rawhide used the “Incident (FITB)” format. For TWWW, it was “The Night of …”

The evil Dr. Loveless hatches up a plan

TWWW and Star Trek seemed to have the occasional parallel plotlines. One I remember in particular was the concept of speeding up your metabolism so much that the world around you appeared to be standing still. I don’t know the episode names, but on TWWW, Jim dropped a glass that hung in mid-air to demonstrate the unique condition. On Star Trek, humans in the animated state sounded like buzzing insects to normal people. In both cases, the concept was amazing. I’m surprised it hasn’t been explored more in the world of entertainment.

The luxurious train that the duo traveled on deserves some mention. The train cars itself were a static stage set, of course, but the engine has been around. The locomotive, a 4-4-0 named the Inyo, was built in 1875 by the Baldwin. It did service for the Virginia and Truckee Railroad in Nevada. It was purchased by Paramount Pictures in the 1930’s. Besides being used for TWWW, it also appeared in tons of westerns, including Union Pacific, Red River, and John Wayne’s Mclintock!. It also showed up in some other classics like Meet Me in St. Louis. Nowadays, it’s owned by the state of Nevada, and it’s still running.

Unfortunately, The Wild Wild West has slipped off of television, as far as I know. Buts its original episodes are out on DVD. And of course the Will Smith/Kevin Kline 1999 movie is out there as well, a decent flick, IMHO. And the theme song will live on forever. In fact, I find it impossible to get it out of my head!

The Twilight Zone

It is a special work of art indeed that is defined as timeless. Example: Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is a great work. However, it’s da Vinci’s Mona Lisa that continues to capture one’s attention, as that mysterious, enigmatic smile forces us to try to deduce what was behind it. A timeless work of art touches us in a fresh manner each time we view it.

In the world of television, the birth of a timeless series took place on the Friday night of October 2, 1959. That was the first officially aired episode of The Twilight Zone.

Writer Rod Serling, who must have had the single most dramatic voice ever bestowed on an individual, had sold a teleplay to CBS in 1957. It took a year before the episode was shown on Desilu Playhouse. The Time Element was a smash, and Serling was given the go-ahead to produce a series that followed the same premise of a weekly presentation of a dramatic short story.

The first thing that would grab you about The Twilight Zone was the opening sequence. That theme, actually a compilation by Bernard Herrmann (the orchestral section) and Marius Constant (the guitar), defied classification. Whatever music you would call it, by the time it faded out, you were ready to follow Serling on whatever strange, disturbing journey he would have for the week.

However, for most of us, the memories we have of watching The Twilight Zone didn’t involve Friday evenings. The show was syndicated and shown as reruns by local TV stations, then later by cable networks.

It’s not just ready availability that defines timelessness. The shows were shot in sharp black and white and permanently recorded for posterity, unlike many early series which exist only in the form of grainy kinescopes. Thus, we can view them in their original high quality.

But it’s the writing, the acting, and the sheer edginess of the episodes that makes watching them a must, some fifty years after they originally debuted.

A typical episode would involve a setup scene that might be taking place in Anytown, USA. But within a minute or two, you could tell that something just wasn’t right. There was a foreboding in the air, and Rod Serling’s voice would then give you the rundown of what was about to happen, followed by a commercial cutaway.

What followed next was frequently the product of Rod Serling’s imagination. He personally penned 92 of the series’ 156 episodes. Others were written by SF writers Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury, among other literary greats.

The episodes weren’t designed to make you relax. In fact, you were often kept on the edge of your seat as you waited for the flaws that were so apparent in the characters to cause things to come apart at the seams.

Or perhaps an episode might carry the theme of one voice of reason struggling to make others hear. Such was the case with “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” where mental patient William Shatner sees the gremlin trying to destroy the airplane he’s flying on, or “It’s a Good Life,” where Lost in Space’s Billy Mumy terrorizes a town with his mental powers, and Don Keefer’s character tries to convince the other adults that killing the child is the only thing that will save mankind.

The plot twists were legendary as well. Who can forget the removing of the facial bandages in “The Eye of the Beholder?” Everyone in the hospital room is horrified by the woman’s appearance. Yet, she is the only beautiful person in a world full of monstrous countenances!

One particularly strange episode I recall starred Carol Burnett and Jesse White, better known as the Maytag repairman. The show had a laughtrack! Even though a recent viewing on the SciFi channel had the laughtrack missing, this Wikipedia entry confirms that my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me.

The series was nearly done in by failure to locate a sponsor in fall 1962, which caused it to disappear from the schedule for a time. It showed up again in January 1963, but was finally canceled a year later.

The show was exhausting to Serling, who was writing less and less episodes. ABC expressed interest in taking the show over and heading its plots towards witches and warlocks, but Serling refused. He ended up selling his interest in the show to CBS. The lack of say that he and his heirs had contributed to revivals of the series in 1985 and 2002.

The revivals always paled in comparison to the original, even though they managed some limited success of their own.

After all, an image of the Mona Lisa on a t-shirt just isn’t the same as viewing the original at the Louvre.

The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show

“Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit outa my hat!”

It takes genius to create a cartoon show with humor on two completely separate levels. As a five-year-old kid, I was a huge fan of “moose and squirrel.” Then, when my own kids were about the same age, I watched a video of the old shows. I couldn’t believe the humor that was way over a kid’s head!

Just think for a minute how preposterous this show’s premise was: you have a flying squirrel and a dim-witted moose who are pursued by a couple of Pottslyvanians (who sounded like they were from Moscow). I never really learned what Boris and Natasha had against them. But Mr. Big and Fearless Leader insisted that they be eliminated. In between the show-long adventure, you would get snippets of wisdom from Aesop, Fractured Fairy Tales, Dudley-Do-Right, Mr. Know-It-All, and my favorites, Sherman and Mr. Peabody.

Sherman was the boy who was, er, not the sharpest crayon in the box. Fortunately, his dog was smart enough for the two of them. A dumb kid and a smart dog who traveled through time. Is that brilliant, or what?

The animation was absolutely horrible. Sometimes Boris’s mustache would disappear and reappear in the same episode. But that only added to the show’s appeal.

The show appeared in 1959, and there was a lot of Cold War humor for the grownups. Those were tense times, laughing at bumbling Russians must have helped.

It’s amazing how the show keeps showing up in modern-day culture. Who doesn’t have a character in their workplace known derisively as Mr. Know-It-All? And remember Back to the Future? The first person Marty McFly runs into in the past was Mr. Peabody! And the fact that so many of Matt Groening’s characters on The Simpsons and Futurama have J. as their middle initial is no coincidence. It’s Groening’s way of paying tribute to Jay Ward, the show’s creator.

One last bit of trivia: that familiar narrator’s voice was none other than William Conrad, Cannon himself!

Check out this site for more on Rocky and Bullwinkle.

The Red Skelton Show

Tuesday nights were for Red Skelton on CBS.

Red, one of a few Vaudeville veterans to make it on the small screen, was the mastermind behind many of variety TV’s most loved characters, including Klem Kadiddlehopper, San Fernando Red, the Mean Widdle Kid, and my favorites: Gertrude and Heathcliff, talking seagulls who would appear at the end of the show.

I have some of the early episodes on DVD, and they seem a bit corny now. But they were great stuff in the 60’s. Klem’s little skip in the air to the tune of a bucket being hit with a stick was always good fodder for laughs. And Red’s sad clown was a tender highlight of the show.

I’ve heard that Red was tough to work with, particularly if you were a writer. Such was the case with many TV and movie icons. But I grew up with him on every Tuesday night, and I thought he was the greatest.

The Newlywed Game

My mom. What a trip.

She didn’t like watching Johnny Carson or Dean Martin because of the suggestive jokes that they told. Yet, she never missed an episode of The Newlywed Game!

The Newlywed Game
, whose questions relied heavily on the word “whoopee,” was one of my mom’s favorite shows. Go figure.

It was one of mine, too. I had a pretty good idea of what “whoopee” was at the age of eight or so, when mom began watching it on a regular basis.

The Newlywed Game debuted in 1966, and ran on ABC until 1974. It was syndicated off and on from 1977 to 2000. Bob Eubanks hosted the show every year except 1984, when Dating Game host Jim Lange took over for a season.

The show got off to a good start, according to its Wikipedia entry:

When the show (created by Nick Nicholson and Roger Muir) premiered, it was scheduled against CBS’ Password. On the day of its first episode, CBS pre-empted Password for coverage of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s press conference on the Vietnam War. Many viewers expecting to see Password instead changed the channel to ABC, which had decided go ahead with the premiere of The Newlywed Game instead of the press conference; many of those viewers kept watching Newlywed instead of Password, and as a result, Password was canceled a year later.

One can’t picture the show without also picturing yard after yard of polyester in the form of leisure suits and great big ties. Numerous avocado green and harvest gold appliances were also given to couples. In fact, they were chosen exclusively for the winners!

Eubanks clearly enjoyed his job. I remember one night when he asked the couples what was the most recent Jewish food they had eaten. A black gentleman replied “Motzah balls” and Eubanks collapsed from camera vision in a fit of laughter. I laughed hard too. It was the man’s delivery that did it.

The Newlywed Game was the first game show to be bleeped, for good reason. Some of these couples just gave out too much information!

I recall an epiode when the ladies were asked what was the strangest article of clothing that their husbands had ever asked them to wear. One woman’s response was bleeped, followed by the audience roaring for at least a minute. The answer card read “a very unusual article of clothing.” I STILL wonder what it was.

Then, there was the infamous “in the butt” comment. Eubanks denied for years that a woman made that comment as a reply to the question “Where is the wierdest place you have ever gotten the urge to make whoopee?” But this YouTube recording proves that it did really happen at least once, in 1977. Eubanks himself presented that clip on an anniversary special of the show.

The Newlywed Game isn’t around any more, but I have lots of great memories of my mother guffawing out loud at comments that Johnny Carson or Dean Martin would never make.

The Munsters Vs. The Addams Family

Television took a macabre twist in 1964. It began with two series that sprang out of the gate on the same week in September, beginning a frantic two-year run which ended with both shows closing up shop within a month of each other in the spring of 1966.

However, that didn’t end the contest. Both series continue to live on in syndication, and feature films have also been inspired by the rival monster comedies.

The battle began back in the 1930’s, with a single-panel cartoon debuting in The New Yorker magazine called The Addams Family. Created by Charles Addams, it was a satirical look at well-to-do Americans. The Addams Family was wealthy, and also quite creepy.

It was a hit for the magazine, and thirty years later, The Addams Family was seen as a potential TV sitcom.

The Addams Family’s humor has been called “Grouchoesque,” with Gomez Addams frequently delivering snappy one-liners while constantly carrying a cigar. That’s no coincidence, as the show’s producer was Nat Perrin, who just happened to be Groucho Marx’s close friend. He was also a writer for many Marx Brothers films.

Thus, many have judged Addams Family humor to be superior of that of the rival Munsters.

However, it might be a bit like comparing oranges to apples. While the Addams were fabulously wealthy, the Munster clan were decidedly working-class. You could picture the Addams’ jetting off to Monte Carlo for a long weekend. On the other hand, Herman Munster was more likely to load the family up into his bad-butt Munstermobile and head to the drive-in, where anyone within sight would be horrified and frightened into a stampede.

Both series were broadcast in black and white for their durations, and both had their demises hastened by other series which were more popular largely because they were broadcast in color.

While John Astin and Fred Gwynne were the shows’ stars, by no means did they hog the camera. The appeal of both series was in the plethora of characters, including some that were imaginary. For instance, you never saw the Addams’ Kitty, you only heard a lion’s roar and observed frightened masses running away. Likewise, the Munsters kept a fire-breathing dragon which would only show glowing eyes and, of course, lots of fire.

While practically all of the characters had their own eccentricities (the exception being the deliberately straight role of Marilyn Munster), the most whacked, and thereby the most appealing, were Uncle Fester and Grandpa Munster.

The Munster’s car

Veteran comedy actor Jackie Coogan, who is fondly remembered as the kid in Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 film The Kid, played Fester, who had a penchant for causing explosions in the basement laboratory. He would generally steal any scene in which he appeared.

Grandpa Munster likewise was prone to basement lab explosions. He also possessed an acerbic wit, frequently aimed at his son-in-law. Again, he was a scene-stealer.

But the rich supply of family members (as well as the Addams’ servant, Lurch) made it impossible for anyone to dominate the limelight for long. Eddie Munster would get the occasional episode that concentrated on his character, as would the Addams’ hand-in-a-box known as Thing. BTW, Thing was portrayed by Ted Cassidy (Lurch) except for the occasional scene where Lurch and Thing appeared together, assistant director Jack Voglin becoming Thing in such cases.

By 1966, America had grown weary of black-and-white monster comedies. Batman, in living color, showed up in January of that year, putting an appropriate coffin nail in the two shows.

Since then, all three franchises have shown lots more life in the form of feature and TV movies. There was also The Munsters Today, which ran from 1988-1991 and actually lasted two episodes longer than its predecessor. For the life of me, I can’t remember it.

Who ultimately won the rivalry? I have to give the competitive edge to The Addams Family over The Munsters, at least as far as theme songs go. It’s way too much fun to join in by snapping one’s fingers.