Sky King

As I have repeatedly stated, I feel like 1959 was the best possible year in which to be born. However, I was born too late to enjoy a television show that had a truly rabid following among Boomer kids who were around to watch it from 1951-1959.

The show was Sky King, and it inspired a significant percentage of its viewers to pursue careers in aviation, or at least to obtain the status of private pilots.

The show starred Kirby Grant as the star character, Sky King. Gloria Winters played his beautiful niece, Penny King, no slouch as a pilot herself.

The show’s premise was simple, as were all of those of the era: Sky King would save lives, track down criminals, or help out the downtrodden of various flavors within a thirty minute slot every Saturday morning.

The show was a success on radio, as were so many of the TV shows from the 50’s. It originally aired on Sunday afternoons, but was rerun on Saturday mornings, and eventually landed there permanently.

My oldest brother was a big fan, and, largely because of this TV show, landed a career in aviation himself. He flew C-130’s during the Vietnam war, and flew jets for Fed Ex until his retirement.

It would be interesting to know how many other professional pilots out there were also Sky King fans.

Skyler King flew two planes during the course of the series, both named “Songbird.” The first was a Cessna T-50 “Bamboo Bomber.” It was a wood-and-fabric classic beauty which was designed for training WWII pilots. The second was a Cessna 310B, a state-of-the-art twin engine plane first produced in 1953. Aerial filming was done from another 310B, both to match the flying characteristics of the primary plane, and also to provide a backup aircraft for ground and low-level flying scenes.

Sky King lived on a ranch in Arizona with a landing strip that rolled right up to his spacious house. Storylines were kept simple. In fact, many have said you could have substituted horses and cowboys for planes and pilots. But there’s certainly nothing wrong with simplicity.

The show was extreme high-tech for the Eisenhower era. Bad guys were foiled with the help of two-way radio and expert piloting. It’s not difficult to see how kids watching on little black and white TV screens would be hooked.

Sky King himself was an old-fashioned straight shooter who would take responsibility for his occasional mistakes by explaining his humanness to Penny. She would understand, of course, and all would be well by the end of the episode.

Sky flew his last flight in March, 1959. I was born a few months later. But even though I never saw an episode, I was indirectly affected by riding on countless airliners flown by fans of the series who decided that they would be pilots when they grew up.

Here’s a brief clip of the show opening.

Sea Hunt

The routine was set in stone. I would get out of school at 3:30. By the time I got home, I was in front of the TV in plenty of time to watch Sea Hunt. And watch it I did, rerun after rerun.

There was something compelling about a show that was largely filmed underwater. Even now, I can’t resist series like Blue Planet. But in 1966, before Jacques Cousteau’s specials were around, we got our underwater fix by watching Mike Nelson getting into and out of various fixes.

The show, syndicated from the start, was filmed from 1958 to 1961. It continued to be syndicated throughout the mid-to-late 60’s.

Lloyd Bridges was an environmentalist who made a plea to protect the world’s oceans at the end of every episode. In fact, he left the show because the producers intended to make plots more about getting bad guys and less about environmental issues.

What I remember is that Nelson was always getting his air lines cut. That’s bad news when you’re down a hundred feet. I also remember that divers (never Nelson, who knew better) were constantly getting the bends from surfacing too quickly.

Another episode I recall showed a torn flipper floating in the water from a diver who was eaten by, of all things, a killer whale! I’m surprised that Bridges would let that situation sneak into a plot.

We used to have a great time imitating Nelson as we “swam” around the schoolyard at recess.

The show also served as a career springboard for guest stars like Leonard Nimoy, Larry Hagman, Jack Nicholson, and of course Bridges sons Beau and Jeff.

Here’s to Lloyd Bridges, who entertained and made a young generation environmentally aware at the same time.

Scott McCloud, Space Angel

Scotts magical ship

Film animation has certainly had its ups and downs over the years. My all time favorite animated scene is when the clocks all strike the hour at once in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. Man, those little wooden people moving around on their little tracks on the clocks, it was some amazing, hand-drawn stuff.

At the other end of the scale is my subject of today’s column: Scott McCloud, Space Angel.

Scott McCloud, and another popular kid’s cartoon called Clutch Cargo, used a technology called Syncro-Vox. It allowed a still image to show moving, REAL human lips. It was kind of strange, but compelling. And it still is when you see it used today.

It also allowed for some mega-cheap animations. After all, if those perfect human lips were moving so naturally, you could REALLY cut back on the number of frames you needed to hand-draw.

I was a little surprised to learn of the low-quality animations, comprised largely of cameras panning over static images, that comprised Scott McCloud, Space Angel. The reason I say that is because it was my absolutely favorite cartoon when I was five or six years old.

We had a local afternoon cartoon show on KOAM TV, channel 7 out of Pittsburg, Kansas. I don’t remember much about it except the fact that it only showed Scott McCloud and Clutch Cargo cartoons. Clutch was fun, but I was passionate about Scott McCloud.

You see, Scott traveled in the most perfect fictional space ship I ever saw. The Star Wars X-Wings? Pshaw! Scott could have easily kicked their butts with his ship, depicted above.

I must have drawn that ship at least 10,000 times doodling in class, right up to my senior year. In fact, if you were to ask me to quickly draw a ship right now, it would likely look pretty much like the Space Angel’s perfect ride.

I guess the powers that be as far as animation is concerned learned long ago that quality, at least on TV, doesn’t really matter. It was the storylines that Space Angel took that hooked young Ron Enderland. Hence, today we have smash hits like The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and others that use animation that pales when compared to that of Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and other Disney classics. But they still rake in huge bucks.

Of course, computer animation makes the whole point moot. We’re now used to seeing immaculately produced Pixar flicks that look lifelike.

But Scott McCloud and Clutch Cargo showed that you could hook youngsters, for life, in my case, with crappy animation, good writing, and slightly strange moving lips.

Saturday Morning Cartoons

1964 comic book ad advertising CBS’s Saturday morning cartoons

We learned early to appreciate the weekends when we were kids. Even before we were old enough to be subjected to the drudgery of going to school five days a week, we lived for Saturday morning cartoons.

I think it’s probably safe to say that every US household with kids and a television set was tuned into cartoons every Saturday morning. You would wake up, turn the set on, and go make yourself a bowl of cereal. Then, for the next four hours, you were planted in front of that screen, accompanied by the likes of Bugs Bunny, Heckle and Jeckle, Superman, Mighty Mouse, Astro Boy, Tennessee Tuxedo, Underdog, and many, many more.

And advertisers knew that the way to reach our demographic was to place their commercials on that Saturday morning slot. Thus, we were all subjected to the same commercials over and over that are permanently stuck in our minds even now.

Heckle and Jeckel

Every kid had a routine of what shows to watch. VCR’s and DVR’s were many years in the future. You had to have your favorite show on in front of you at the time of broadcast to see it. That meant channel flipping as each episode ended and you favorite started on another network.

I learned early to appreciate the shows from the 50’s. I noticed that toons like Heckle and Jeckle, Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, and other oldies were much better drawn than the Hanna-Barbera and Filmation offerings.

However, that didn’t keep me from watching Huckleberry Hound, Secret Squirrel, King Leonardo, and other more recent offerings of the era.

Oh, how politically incorrect those shows were. The villages required to raise kids today would never stand for the violent shenanigans that went on as Wile E. Coyote would attempt to dispatch the innocent Road Runner, or Mighty Mouse would swoop in and punch some bad guy into next week, or Elmer Fudd’s relentless pursuit of Bugs Bunny with (horror of horrors) a GUN!

Huckleberry Hound

One of the earliest attempts to keep Bugs from blowing up Elmer with bombs was made by Peggy Charren, who founded Action for Children’s Television in 1968. Though strongly against censorship, she was quoted as saying “Violent television teaches children that violence is the solution to problems, that violent behavior can be fun and funny, that criminals and police make up a larger percentage of the population than they really do, and that violent behavior is practiced by heroes as well as by villains.”

Whatever. My friends and I were subjected to a steady stream of make-believe conflicts, and I don’t know of a single one of us who went to prison because of emulating Quick-Draw McGraw.

Today, of course, Saturday morning cartoons are a thing of the past. What’s the point, when cable channels broadcast cartoons 24/7? Why would a kid get up early to watch something that he can see any time?

But we who were around in the 50’s and 60’s can remember when the high point of the week began at about 7:00 Saturday morning.


So what could television be capable of in 1977, anyway?

The one-eyed monster had gone from an expensive luxury for the wealthy thirty years earlier to a ubiquitous part of practically every American home. It captivated a huge portion of the nation’s population every night with fare that ranged from good to horrible.

But could the idiot box make a moral statement? Could it present history as viewed through the eyes of its oppressed, and change the way modern society did business?

Well, there was only one way to find out.

In January of the year that I graduated from high school, Roots began airing in an unprecedented eight-consecutive-night run. ABC had no idea what to expect from the public. The series would depict unprecedented cruelty, violence, and innuendo. But there was nothing titillating about it. It was a serious story that ended up hooking the nation and keeping it glued to their sets for an entire week.

Alex Haley wrote his book in 1976, and it was a smash. ABC immediately cut a deal to make it into a miniseries.

The concept of the miniseries was itself relatively new. In 1976, Rich man, Poor Man was a hit, although it was broadcast on a weekly basis. The idea of showing one series over consecutive nights was revolutionary.

After all, who was home to watch TV every night? The VCR was an expensive toy that most households did not yet own. Would viewers lose interest if they missed an episode? Would anyone bother to keep up with something that took eight days to play out?

Indeed, ABC execs worried that the historical drama about slavery’s cruelty would be a ratings disaster.

Instead, history was made. Each night, record numbers of viewers tuned in to see the saga of Alex Haley’s ancestors. I recall that Roots was all anyone in school could talk about. It was the same with the entire nation.

The series stretched what censors would allow. But it was necessary in order to present the gritty tale that Haley told. After all, we’re talking about humans being owned by other humans, being transported across a wide ocean in nearly unbearable conditions, and being punished with physical torture when they made mistakes in the eyes of their owners. Sugar-coating was out of the question.

One of the things that made Roots successful was its cast. An unknown named LeVar Burton stole the show as the young Kunta Kinte. John Amos showed that he was capable of more than being a sitcom actor. Other towering talents that shone included Lou Gosett, Jr., Cicely Tyson, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, Maya Angelou, Chuck Connors, Ed Asner, and many more. Even O.J. Simpson showed up, back when we all loved him.

The storyline was gripping, too. We anguished with Kunta Kinte when he was captured by slavehunters. We ached when he was punished for running away by the partial amputation of his foot. We wept when Chicken George missed gaining his freedom by losing a cockfight. We felt the rage when family members were separated by mere economic decisions to sell some of them off. We mourned elderly Chicken George’s death in a fire.

We cared deeply about these people, and they became our family members too, even if we happened to be WASP’s with European roots of our own.

The series was rerun the next year, and Roots II also did very well when it was televised.

I would like to think that Roots removed a lot of racial prejudice from those who watched it. That would be its ultimate accomplishment.

Room 222

Wednesday nights were for a great lineup of clever sitcoms around 1970. One of these was Room 222.

Room 222 was Pete Dixon’s classroom where he taught American History. His students loved his easy-going style. It was also a place where nobody ever graduated.

Shows about schoolteachers have always faced the challenge of what to do with actors who play students that audiences like. Some have followed the students as they “move on” to new grades and new teachers. Room 222 just chose to have the same students stick around year after year. It lasted just 4 1/2 seasons, so I guess it was believable enough.

In researching the show, I was impressed at the list of names of actors who played students “just passing through.” They include Teri Garr, Cindy Williams, Rob Reiner, Richard Dreyfuss, Mark Hamill, and Chuck Norris.

The show had one undeniable highlight for any male viewers of even as young as ten years old: Karen Valentine in various sweaters.

Karen defined “perky” long before Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Aniston, or Meg Ryan. She was a beautiful lady, and I hope she’s living a happy life somewhere. Nobody will ever look better in a turtleneck.

Greek actor Michael Constantine played Jewish principal Seymour Kaufman. It was great to see him playing a real Greek recently in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He still looks young.

Meet the Flintstones

So, how does one tastefully cash in on a show that was canceled after only 39 episodes, but which had proven immensely popular after its demise?

That was the quandary faced by execs of the perennially-third-ranked ABC network in 1960. The Honeymooners was dropped by CBS after slipping from #2 to a still-respectable #19 in the Nielsens. But the now-more-popular-than-ever series lived on in regular sketches on Jackie Gleason’s variety show.

ABC smelled gold, but how to cash in without being too obvious?

The answer lie in a groundbreaking series: The Flintstones. The half-hour show, first aired in 1960, would be the first cartoon aimed at an adult audience. It would also be the first animated series to carry a single plotline for the entire episode. And it would also prove to be the hit series that ABC was looking for.

Most people didn’t even realize they were watching a show that was pretty much based on The Honeymooners. ABC managed to accomplish the perfect cash-in.

And, as could be expected, the cartoon series was as big a hit with the kids as it was for its intended adult audience. ABC probably foresaw that, as it had begun airing The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, another hit with all ages, the year before.

Fred Flintstone was a blue-collar of prehistoric times. He was into bowling, hanging out at the lodge, and having a smoke (more on that in just a bit). Mechanization involved animals. Brontosauri performed as cranes to lift heavy objects. Miniature wooly mammoths vacuumed up dirt from the floor. And noisy birds honked like horns if you gave their tails a yank.

The voice of Fred was provided by Alan Reed. Reed was a veteran voice-actor, and also had character roles on many sitcoms of the 60’s. Wilma and Pebbles were voiced by Jean Vander Pyl, who also provided the voice of Rosie the Robot for The Jetsons. She, too, was a character actor in many sitcoms of the era. Barney was played by the great Mel Blanc, who also handled Dino’s jabbering. And Betty was performed by Bea Benaderet, who also voiced Tweety Bird’s owner for Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes. Of course, in real life she was familiar as the star of Petticoat Junction. And let’s not forget her role as Jethro’s mother on The Beverly Hillbillies. Back to the subject of the column, Harvey Korman had a semi-regular role as the voice of space alien The Great Gazoo.

Part of the appeal of The Flintstones was that the stories, like those of The Honeymooners, were ones the average working stiff could relate to. Getting the boss off of your back. Winning the bowling tournament. Taking a chance on risky business ventures. That could be anyone, not just a stone-age dweller who propels his car with his feet.

Celebrities were regular visitors. Anne-Margrock, Cary Granite, Stony Curtis, and many others would pop into the scene from time to time, voiced by their obvious real-life counterparts.

One of the show’s early sponsors was Winston cigarettes, and Fred and Barney were actually featured in a sixty-second spot that received lots of airplay early in the 60’s. It can be seen here, as well as a short ad which appeared at the show’s signoff.

The cigarette sponsorship was dropped in 1963 due to another groundbreaking moment in the show: Wilma’s pregnancy with Pebbles. Still another cutting edge plotline that was explored was Barney and Betty’s inability to conceive, resulting in the eventual adoption of Bamm-Bamm.

The theme song, which was recognized in the great John Hughes film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles as being recognizable by practically every person in the world, didn’t actually appear until season 3. The tune was composed by Hoyt Curtin, and the lyrics were written by Hanna and Barbera, who produced the show. Other hit tunes were frequently performed on the show by the original artists, although the voice actors themselves were also known to belt one out from time to time.

The show’s episodes were rebroadcast in several series afterwards, and the original series has now found a permanent home on cartoon cable networks. A live-action movie was released to middling reviews in 1994, and a live-action show was held at Universal Studios for a few years after the movie’s release.

Like many of us, the show just keeps going and going.

Local Kid Shows

Roger Neer entertaining kids on KOAM TVs Fun Club

In the 1960’s, there was no such thing as Nickleodeon. There wasn’t even a Children’s Television Workshop. Bert and Ernie were off into the future. Kids needed entertainment! What would be done?

Well, you select a personable member of the local TV station staff who gets along well with children, you scarf up some cheap Loony Tunes shorts, set up some benches and a painted plywood backdrop, and make a kid’s show.

In my area, there was KOAM’s Fun Club. It was the ultimate. One child in my neighborhood made it on, and we all viewed him with new respect after having gotten the privilege of being driven 30 miles to Pittsburg, Kansas by his parents and appearing on REAL TELEVISION!

The Fun Club was conducted by KOAM newscaster Roger Neer. He was assisted by Slim Andrews, a local talent who had amassed a pretty impressive movie resume’ in westerns. He was the Forty-Niner, appearing in cowboy garb and playing tunes as a one-man-band. His kazoo is what I remember most vividly. Eventually, he took over the show himself after Roger moved on, hopefully to bigger and better things.

The show would feature cartoons, interviews with bashful youngsters, puppets, and song-and-dance.

I’ll bet any of you who remember JFK also recall at least one show like this!

I’m not sure when the Fun Club sailed off into the sunset. Cable networks changed everything, and local shows like this are a rarity. But in the 1960’s, no Saturday afternoon was complete without watching Roger and the Forty-Niner on channel 7.

Leave It to Beaver

The only good thing about TV
Is shows like ‘Leave it to Beaver’ –Neil Young, “Grandpa’s Interview”

Two different generations of Boomers remember this show two different ways: For the older set, it was a Saturday night offering. For us youngsters, it was on every day after school. But one thing was for sure: we all watched it.

Leave It to Beaver was a simply brilliant, understated sitcom. It used real-life situations and made us laugh at them. And it did so under the constraints of very strict censorship. After all, husbands and wives were given twin beds to sleep in. The thought of them being in the same sack was out of the question.

What do you do under these conditions? You create a great show that depends on excellent writing and acting. 90% of the sitcoms that followed could have learned something from this.

Part of Beaver’s appeal was his genuineness. He was absolutely average. He got average grades, lived in an average home (for the time. Most housewives don’t wear pearls to dust the furniture these days). He was naive, and his buddies were always getting him into trouble. But he always survived and learned something in the process.

The rest of the cast was equally as perfect. Wally had just a little more common sense than Beaver, as older brothers should. But he would get drug into trouble himself periodically, usually at the hands of Eddie Haskell.

We all work with Haskell clones: they berate management and company policy away from the eyes of bosses, and instantly turn into fawning suckups when their superiors walk in. Ward and June were wise to Eddie, but unfortunately, managers tend to fall for the Haskell treatment.

I always got a kick out of the relationship between Lumpy Rutherford and his dad, Fred. Clarence was an underachiever, and no amount of yelling from Fred seemed to have any effect on him. One of my all-time favorite episodes was the one where Beaver and Wally wanted to get back at Lumpy, a bully in the early days. So they laid barrel hoops out in his yard one night (Ward’s idea, surprisingly enough) and began taunting him to come out. Fred and his wife were bewildered at the yelling outside. When Wally hollered “Hey, meathead!” Fred’s wife said “I think they want you, dear.” Of course, Fred trips on the barrel hoops, and Wally and the Beave are in dutch yet again.

The show enjoyed a six-year run, even though it was dropped by CBS after the first season. ABC ran it the rest of the way. As Beaver entered puberty, his deepening voice and loss of childhood cuteness meant it was time for things to come to an end.

My kids grew up watching the reruns, just like I did. The show is just as timeless today as it was in the 60’s


CBS faced a dilemma in 1971. Sure, they were the top-rated network. Sure, they were making untold millions in advertising revenue. But their audience was old enough to remember WWII, many even recalling the hard times of the Great Depression. CBS execs would have preferred a younger demographic. So they did what any clueless bunch of corporate clods would do: they unceremoniously dumped a batch of well-performing shows because their audience was too old.

The victims of what became known as “the rural purge” included The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Sullivan, and a relative newcomer called Hee-Haw.

Hee-Haw was a variety show that had a distinct country flavor. Hosted by Buck Owens and Roy Clark at the peak of their popularity in 1969, it was kind of like Laugh-In set in a cornfield. It was also a hit.

But, of course, seeing how the target audience wasn’t precisely 24.879 years old, the show had to go. But Hee-Haw‘s producers felt like they had a winner, and offered the intact show to any stations that would like to syndicate it.

The result was phenomenal. Not only was it grabbed up by stations all over the country (including decidedly non-rural L.A. and New York City), but it remained on the air for another 22 years. Not bad fora show deemed by CBS to be not worth keeping.

Hee-Haw was a montage of acts that became very memorable to its fans. Some people became fans despite themselves, sneering at a corny, countrified variety show until they saw enough episodes to get hooked themselves.

A group that never lost their animosity was the critics as a whole. They didn’t like the clean, simple humor. They didn’t like the the country music, which was years from being popularly embraced itself. And, horror of horrors, the Politically Correct among them decried the perpetuations of stereotypes.

Oh well, we simple, homespun, unsophisticated fans all over the country tuned in anyway.

Among the acts that we came to know like a a comfortable old pair of shoes was KORN News (performed by Canadian Don Harron as Charlie Farquharson); Pickin’ and Grinnin’; Gloom, Despair and Agony On Me; The Fence (somebody would tell a bad joke and get smacked in the wazoo by the fence); Hey Grandpa! What’s for supper? (Grandpa Jones would then recite a short poem describing a calorie-loaded Southern dinner); and, of course, my favorite: Samples Sales.

Samples was a former stock car driver who garnered a novelty hit in 1966 at the age of forty by telling a story about a really, really big fish. A local Georgia celebrity, he was added to the cast and his bumbling misdelivery of lines became an audience favorite years before Andy Kauffman.

One I recall was when he asked Buck Owens “How come some women are called amazin’?” Buck’s reply, delivered through unsuccessfully stifled laughter was “That’s because so many of them are named Gracie! You know, (singing) Amazin’ Gracie, how sweet thou art . . .”

Samples was supposed to say “Amazon,” not “amazin’.”

The beautiful Hee-Haw gals added to the festivities, including Barbi Benton, Misty Rowe, Lisa Todd, Gunilla Hutton, and many others. In addition, Grand Ole Opry queen Minnie Pearle, comedienne Roni Stoneman (who frequently played a nagging wife), and telephone-operator-gogo-dancer-turned-comedienne Lulu Roman rounded out the female cast.

And let’s not forget Stringbean, whose life took a tragic twist. One of his gigs was playing a scarecrow with a cawing crow on his shoulder in the Cornfield segment. After his death, the now silent crow remained as a memorial.

The show probably stayed on too long. Many of the original female leads had to deal with aging issues after twenty years. So did the males, for that matter. Plus, Buck Owens, half of the starring cast, split in 1986. A disastrous attempt to reinvent the show as more appealing to younger audiences was made late in the game. It didn’t go over well, particularly with long-term fans.

But when a Boomer pours himself a good glass of bourbon and puts his feet up and recalls pleasant memories of the past, one of them is surely Hee-Haw, even if he once watched it from a Brooklyn tenement.