WWII Dramas All Over the TV Screen

There were a lot of WWII veterans in the US during the 60’s. Our fathers (and some of our mothers) who served in the war were now in their 30’s and 40’s. They were likely the single biggest demographic group out there, and the TV networks wanted their business.

WWII was a long, horrible, bloody, tragic blot on history. But the fact is that the US and its allies kicked the butts of those who would take over the world by force and rule with an iron hand.

Thus, our parents felt proud of what was accomplished, and the war was greatly romanticized in the eyes of the media. That meant that it was great fodder for TV.

Many a WWII drama was aired on the one-eyed monster during the 60’s. And we kids watched them along with our parents. Our fathers knew that the action had been greatly bowdlerized, but that didn’t stop them from tuning in anyway. And the success of the shows ensured that many a slightly cheesy half-hour episode would be churned out while the viewers continued to tune in.

Combat! was the most successful of the WWII dramas. It debuted in 1962 and ran for five seasons. It took an approach that was the most realistic of the bunch. War wasn’t glamorized. Instead, the characters were depicted as weary, shell-shocked individuals who felt an obligation to put the interests of army and country ahead of their own. They were disillusioned, to be sure, but felt compelled to keep plugging along anyway.

Scene from Combat!

The show was a hit, and may have lasted deeper into the Vietnam era had ABC not cheaped out on stars Vic Morrow and Rick Jason. They had signed five-year contracts, while other actors had opted for seven. Rather than renegotiating with the two, ABC chose to rewrite the series as Garrison’s Guerrillas, minus the characters of Saunders and Hanley. As you would expect from such cheapskate techniques, the replacement series was quite pale in comparison, and was gone after a single season.

You can read the autobiography of Rick Jason in its entirety at http://www.scrapbooksofmymind.com/. Pretty interesting stuff.

Two other WWII shows that populated 1960’s prime time were Twelve O’clock High and The Rat Patrol.

Twelve O’clock High was based on a successful 1949 movie starring Gregory Peck. The series debuted in fall 1964 and lasted three years. It started out in B&W, and was known for featuring actual combat footage. In 1967, it began to be broadcast in color, but only lasted halfway through the season.

What was impressive about the show was that a real B-17 was flown for many of the scenes! That wasn’t a cheap thing, and one of the signs that the show was heading downhill was the conspicuous reduced air time of the bomber during the last season, replaced with “patrols” of a P-51 Mustang, which was much cheaper to fly.

The Rat Patrol debuted in 1966. It started out in color, and featured the single most instantly recognizable jeep in the eyes of a 1960’s kid. It had this incredibly bonzer 50 caliber machine gun mounted in the back. The characters patrolled north Africa, making General Rommel’s life as miserable as possible, and sending many a clueless German soldier to the promised land.

The show lasted two years. 1968 marked a changed perception of war in general for the country, as kids were being shipped home in boxes from Vietnam in ever-increasing numbers, and Dan Rather’s reports were gritty in their depiction of the misery going on over there. The spreads in the various pictorial weeklies showed little girls getting burned with napalm, Buddhist monks going up in flames, and executions carried out with a bullet to the head.

People stopped tuning into war dramas, and the genre went away for a while.

Interest in WWII was rekindled in 1998 with the success of Saving Private Ryan, which led into HBO’s Band of Brothers a couple of years later. The movie and TV series depicted war in all its gritty realism, with grisly death shown uncompromisingly.

That was impossible for network TV series during the 60’s, of course. But the nightly news and weekly magazines of the era demonstrated that when war is shown in a largely uncensored state while it’s actually going on, it’s compelling. But what it’s not is good advertising for heroic war dramas on television.

One last observation: possibly, my mom harbored at least a little resentment to Germany and Japan over the war. While I was swiftly and decidedly punished for using ethnic terms that were still common in the 1960’s, she never seemed to have a problem with me referring to “Krauts” and “Japs” when I was playing army. Perhaps the free usage of the words by the patriotic press of the 40’s put them in a different category.

It’s Howdy Doody Time!

Howdy Doody broadcast its final episode on September 24, 1960. That means I have absolutely no recollection of ever seeing it. But there are a bunch of you Boomers out there who outrank me, age-wise, including my oldest brother. And you have spoken. And I have responded with today’s article about the original king of kid shows: Howdy Doody.

One of television’s first original shows, i.e. not a converted radio program (it barely qualifies. Read on), Howdy Doody first appeared in 1947. That means its original viewers were too old to be classified Baby Boomers! Oh well, so were the first users of yo-yos, Lincoln Logs, and erector sets.

But Howdy Doody is a very precious part of the memories of the more senior members of the Boomer generation. So, big kids, as I used to call you many years ago, today’s piece is for you.

Howdy Doody had a rather limited audience in its inception. After all, there were about 20,000 televisions in the entire United States when it debuted. But it was a hit among its fledgling audience, especially among the audience’s fledglings.

NBC New York radio affiliate WEAF had a hit show in 1947 called The Triple B Ranch. The three Bs stood for Big Brother Bob Smith, who spoke with the country bumpkin voice of a ranch hand and greeted the radio audience with, “Oh, ho, ho, howdy doody.” Martin Stone, Smith’s agent, suggested putting Howdy on television. He approached NBC television programming guru Warren Wade. NBC liked the idea. They launched Puppet Playhouse on 17 December 1947. A week later the name of the program was changed to The Howdy Doody Show.

Smith’s puppet stole the show, as well as its name.

The incarnation of Howdy Doody that appeared the first few episodes was a bumpkin, in keeping with Smith’s radio voice. A dispute over royalties and licensing led to his creator taking the original puppet with him and leaving. Howdy was reincarnated as the red-haired All-American boy, with a freckle for each state in the union. That would be 48.

The show was one of the first to be broadcast in color. September, 1955 was when the color broadcasts began, predating even the NBC peacock. It was also one of the first to be broadcast five days a week, and to be videotaped for later broadcast.

Besides Howdy and Bob, other characters included Clarabell the Clown (originally played by Captain Kangaroo himself), Chief Thunderthud (to whom surfers owe the term “kowabunga”), Princess Summerfall Winterspring, Mayor Phineas T. Bluster, Dilly Dally, and the strange creature known as Flub-a-Dub.

Clarabell was known as the silent, klutzy clown who would douse others with a seltzer bottle. He was perhaps the most loved character, after the show’s two stars, of course.

The show began a tradition that has extended through Bugs Bunny, Bullwinkle, right down to Sponge Bob Squarepants: the parents get just as hooked as the kids. Its early-evening timeslot ensured that elders would view the program.

But eventually, the show was moved to a weekly Saturday morning slot. And it stopped making money. With that, in September, 1960, it slid off into the sunset.

That final episode was immortalized by silent Clarabell speaking for the first time. I hereby post a quote from Wikipedia:

The episode was mostly a fond look back at all the highlights of the show’s past. Meanwhile, in the midst of it all, Clarabell has what he calls “a big surprise”. The rest of the cast attempt to find out the surprise throughout the entire show, with only Mayor Phineas T. Bluster succeeding, and promising to keep it a secret. Finally, in the closing moments, the surprise was disclosed through pantomime to Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody. “You mean…you can talk??” said Bob. “Why, golly…I can’t believe it!” Howdy Doody exclaimed. “You can talk?!” Bob asked again. Clarabell nodded. “Well”, Bob continued, gently shaking the clown’s shoulders, “Clarabell, this is your last chance! If you really can talk, prove it…let’s hear you say something!” A drumroll began as Clarabell faced the camera as it came in for an extreme closeup. His lips quivered as the drumroll continued. When it stopped, Clarabell simply said softly “Goodbye, kids”, and the picture faded to black. Lew Anderson’s (Clarabell’s) genuine tears upon delivering the only line Clarabell ever spoke in 13 years, made this one of the most poignant moments in television history. The recently discovered and restored color videotape of the final broadcast is now available commercially.

Wow. Amazing stuff. And I thought St. Elsewhere had a great closing episode.

Here’s to a show that broke ground in lots of ways, and that is a wonderful member of countless Baby Boomers’ memory banks.

Winky-Dink and You

Winky-Dink and You host Jack Barry doing his thing

The elder members of the Boomer have once again spoken. Today’s I Remember JFK memory is all about Winky-Dink and You, praised by, among others, uber-geek Bill Gates as an interactive kid’s show that turned the television into the world’s first multimedia device.

Winky-Dink began airing at 9:30 central time on Saturday mornings in 1953. Televisions were rare enough then that kids would often gather at a home that had one to see the adventures of the little star-headed adventurer wearing the plaid pants who needed YOUR help to get out of various fixes.

Winky-Dink featured Jack barry as Winky’s narrator, who would prompt kids at home to put their plastic Winky-Dink screen over the front of the boob tube and draw whatever it was that the hero needed to formulate an escape from whatever fix he had found himself in. Of course, the mere lack of a screen wouldn’t stop imaginative children from drawing directly on the glass with whatever writing implement was handy. Thus did many a parent learn that a fifty-cent investment in a Winky-Dink screen kit would greatly extend the life of a much more expensive television set.

Winky-Dink screen kit

To say that Winky-Dink had a passionate following would be an understatement. There are a wealth of memories all over the web from grown-up kids who assisted W-D in escaping tight spots by drawing bridges to get over rivers, parachutes to gently lower him to the ground, or ladders to crawl out of deep holes.

The reason for these vivid recollections is simple: the act of drawing on the screen helped plant the moment deeply into the child’s permanent memory. TV was new enough that the youngsters involved likely remembered life without it, and now, this recently-obtained incredible talking moving picture machine was inviting them to become part of the show!

That’s powerful stuff.

The interaction also involved decoding messages. Example: Horizontal lines would appear on the screen. Barry would direct kids at home to trace them out with the soft Winky-Dink crayons included in the kit. Later in the show, vertical lines would be shown. Once the kid traced them out, a secret message would appear.

Now, I ask you: is there anything on this planet more cool than that to a seven-year old kid?

Afterwards, the plastic screen would be peeled off of the television and wiped clean. Static electricity made for a very powerful “magnet” that held the sheet in place. It was all perfect for an interactive television experience.

Mr. Bungle joined Jack Barry on the show each week. Dayton Allen played the hapless assistant who would inadvertently screw things up. Allen was a familiar “face” of 1950’s and 60’s children’s television, playing the puppet voices of Phineas T. Bluster and Flub-a-Dub on Howdy Doody, He also voiced Deputy Dawg, Fearless Fly, and those mischievous magpies known as Heckle and Jeckle.

Winky-Dink and You rode high until it was canceled in April 1957. Host Jack Barry had gotten quite busy with other projects, including hosting the soon-to-be-infamous quiz show Twenty-One. Thus ended chapter one of Winky-Dink.

Chapter two began in 1969, with a syndicated version of the show that once again caused kits for interaction to be sold in dime stores all over the nation. The five-minute show was a minor hit until 1973. This time, the cause of its demise was more obvious: concerns about radiation possibly emanating from now-common color televisions.

Today, you can still purchase Winky-Dink (the latter incarnation) on DVD, including the screen kit, at this site. It’s a cheap 25 dollar investment in planting some seriously great memories into the minds of your grandchildren.

And great memories are what life is all about, right?

When TV Stations Signed Off at Midnight

Are you wide awake at 3:00 AM? Are you staring at the ceiling? Is reading a book too much work? No problem, there is always something on the idiot box.

Nowadays, practically every TV station is a 24/7 affair. Even local stations run all night, selling the wee hours of the morning to infomercial producers. You can ease your insomnia by watching a long sales pitch for a George Foreman grill, a diet plan that is guaranteed to make you look like an anorexic, or a mattress that heats up, adjusts for different firmness, and lets your dogs out when they need to go.

But go back to our childhood years, and you can remember when the station would shut off the lights shortly after Johnny Carson (my Tonight Show host, perhaps you recall Jack Paar, or even Steve Allen) would say goodnight.

The signoffs I remember would commence with an announcement by a member of the station personnel thanking me for watching, and letting me know that the broadcast day was now coming to a close. I was invited to tune in at 6:00 AM tomorrow morning for a local country music show (I guess C&W fans were early risers). Then, the National Anthem was played, followed by a video of a jet fighter flying through the clouds while a poem called “High Flight” was recited. The poem went like this:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Now don’t get me wrong. That is one seriously great poem. But what does it have to do with a station signing off?

Anyhow, the next thing you would see would be the Star Spangled Banner playing, followed by the Indian head test pattern, accompanied with a shrill, obnoxious shrieking sound.

Now THAT one I have figured out. It’s like when your company won’t leave and you flash the lights off and on to give them a nudge out the door. The shriek was telling you to turn the blasted TV off and go to bed like decent folks!

After a few minutes, the screen would turn to static, as the station shut the power to the transmitter off.

Color TV tuning bars

The next morning, about 5:45 AM, the color bar test pattern would appear. One of our three stations would announce what the colors were with a recorded voice every couple of minutes, so you could use your fine tuning, tint, and hue controls on your color TV to match them as well as your imagination would allow. After all, everybody knows what exact shade cyan is, right?

Anyhow, at about 5:57, the broadcast day would begin, with the playing of the National Anthem again, and some official-sounding announcements about power, frequency, and other technical data that was likely required by the FCC.

Tom Snyder goofed things up for local stations by beginning Tomorrow in 1973, a show that would extend signoff times by an hour for its NBC affiliates. Soon, other later-than-late shows appeared, and some stations decided to run all night, showing old movies and such in the off hours.

Cable changed everything, and in 1979, ESPN showed 24 hours of sports. Of course, some of the sports included badminton, spelling bees, and the immortal Australian Rules Football, but station signoffs dwindled faster than ever. Today, it’s rare that a station signs off.

The fact that we have 24/7 TV only adds to its place as an important part of our lives. I don’t see a whole lot good about that.

Maybe TNT could start signing off at midnight local time, with a reading of High Flight, of course. Hey, I think Law and Order rerun fans would survive.

Westerns on TV

Roy Rogers is riding tonight
Returning to our silver screen!
Comic book characters never grow old
Evergreen heroes whose stories are told
Oh the great sequined cowboy
Who sings of the plains
Of roundups, and rustlers, and home on the range!
Turn on the TV
Shut out the Light
Roy Rogers is riding tonight!

Thus sang Elton John on his 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Bernie Taupin, the writer of “Roy Rogers,” had fond memories of watching the golden western hero as a child, and so do most Boomers. Those old enough to recall the 50’s enjoyed his adventures on prime time TV, the rest of us got our weekday reruns.

The 1950’s, the first complete decade of TV, was wholly, totally, completely dominated by the genre of the western. In March, 1959, westerns held eight of the top ten spots of the Nielsen Ratings. Not only were there a multitude of series, but many low budget western films were aired to fill time that would otherwise be dead air, as the networks were not yet able to fill out schedules like they do today. No wonder that six shooters, holsters, spurs, and cowboy boots and hats were some of the largest selling toys of the era.

The Cisco Kid

The decade began with Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, and The Cisco Kid. Other shows that came along later during the Decade of the Western included Roy Rogers, Annie Oakley, Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Bronco, Johny Ringo, Tales of Wells Fargo, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, Maverick, The Restless Gun, Wanted Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Lawman, Rawhide, The Deputy, Laramie, The Rebel, and Bat Masterson. That’s an amazing collection of horse operas!

Three other western shows spawned in the 50’s deserve special mention. The first is Bonanza, which first aired on September 12, 1959. This show, a favorite of the Enderland household, lasted an impressive fourteen years, airing its last episode in 1973. The second is Gunsmoke, which ran from 1955 to 1975, an amazing twenty years. Somehow, Miss Kitty stayed foxy throughout the whole run. But the longest running western you probably forgot about was Death Valley Days. This show first aired in 1952, and lasted an astounding twenty-three years!

Syndicated during its entire run, the show had a number of formats. From 1952 to 1965, it followed the adventures of the Old Ranger, played by Stanley Andrews. Ronald Reagan took over as host in 65, stepping aside to run for governor of California. Robert Taylor took over, followed by Dale Robertson. Despite the fact that no new episodes were filmed after 1970, new footage was spliced in to create new shows. Merle Haggard narrated many of them.

The “new” episodes appeared under different show titles. These included Frontier Adventure, The Pioneers, Trails West, Western Star Theatre, and Call of the West.

Cast of The High Chaparral

What you’ll remember best was the main advertiser: Twenty Mule Team Borax. That venerable team of mules trudging along in the hot desert sun was a part of nearly every episode. Boraxo, a hand soap, was also hawked vigorously in between action shots.

But back to the decade which spawned the series, specifically my own recollections.

I never saw many of the series which failed to score in syndication. But I did watch a lot of Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Rifleman. These shows all did well in syndication, and were viewable by 60’s brats on the idiot box after school.

The western genre continued to ride high throughout the 60’s. The Virginian, The Big Valley, High Chaperral, Laredo, Daniel Boone (not technically a western, but come on!), and the offbeat The Wild Wild West all aired with varying degrees of success during the turbulent Decade of Change. But as the 70’s rolled on, the number of new westerns began to dwindle. Only one series debuted and ran longer than a single season, Alias Smith and Jones. Amazingly, a single western series was released in the 80’s: ABC’s Wildside. It died a quick six-episode death up against NBC’s must-see TV on Thursday night.

Westerns made a modest comeback in the 90’s. Lonesome Dove was a highly acclaimed miniseries that scored high on the Nielsens. The Young Riders (actually launched in 1989) had a good run, and so did Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

But the decade of the western was without a doubt the 50’s. It’s highly unlikely that they will ever dominate network television again, but then again, network television will never dominate again like it did before cable and the internet.

No problem. That’s what our memory banks are for.

Topo Gigio

One of the most popular search terms people use for this site is “popo gigo.” This proves two things. First of all the animated Italian mouse continues to have a worldwide following, and second, people have a hard time with his name!

Well, I’ll drop the term Popo Gigo two or three times into this article to help them find us. Indeed, in Japanese the mouse is properly known as Toppo Jijo and Topo Jijo. There, that should get Google involved in sending me more curious folks who remember a mouse with an Italian accent. Because, after all, I Remember JFK is THE source of all things nostalgia to the Baby Boomer generation, right? 😉

Topo Gigio was the creation of Italian animator Maria Perego. The stick-controlled foam rubber puppet was a big hit on Italian TV in the early 60’s, and Ed Sullivan’s staff got wind of the mouse’s popularity among children and adults. Thus Topo Gigio made his first appearance on April 14, 1963, just in time for me (as well as millions of other 60’s kids) to become an ardent fan.

Researching this piece opened my eyes up to a correction of something I had believed all my life: that Topo Gigio was French. That’s probably some sort of great insult to both cultures. I guess I just didn’t understand the subtle nuances between the Latin-based languages when I was five.

It was a team effort to make Topo Gigio come alive. According to a source I found in 2008:

The puppeteers moved Topo with their hands and three inch sticks. Maria Perego, Topo’s creator, moved Topo’s mouth and legs. Frederico Giolo moved Topo’s arms, while his wife Annabella controlled the puppets oversized ears. The man who gave Topo his voice was Peppino Mazullo (some sources have called him Giuseppe Mazullo), who provided it offstage.

If I recall correctly, Topo Gigio would make his appearances late in the show. He would appear in his nightclothes and parry with “Eddie” for a couple of minutes before telling him that he must go to sleep and dream. Many times, the object of his dreaming was his sweetheart, Rosie. Then Ed would give him a kiss and he would crawl into his little bed.

Such a ritual was very therapeutic for a kid who was terrified by the prospect of waking up shaking from a nightmare. Little Topo Gigio let me know that dreaming was, indeed, a wonderful thing, to be looked forward to. After he went to sleep, I was ready to do likewise.

The diminutive mouse was a regular fixture of the show right up until its final 1971 episode. He might have vanished at that point, and for the English-speaking world, an argument might have been made that he did indeed do just that.

But remember Topo Gigio was an Italian creation. And despite losing the weekly boost in popularity from “Eddie,” his creators continued to market the mouse to the rest of the world.

The result is that today, Topo Gigio has a huge following among the Spanish-speaking and Japanese-speaking world. Topo appears (as Toppo Jijo) in Japanese anime cartoons. So today, millions of Japanese children are planting memories of the very same mouse that we Boomers fell in love with way back in the 60’s, albeit in a completely different format.

He has also been the subject of record albums and videos released all over South America. Thus, the popularity of the product of Ms. Perego’s imagination has, in many ways, surpassed that of “Eddie” himself, whose show planted the mouse in our Boomer memories.

Here’s a Youtube video of Sullivan and Topo Gigio doing their thing.

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 . . .