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.

The Little Network that Couldn’t

In television’s early days, the various players among the networks weren’t clearly defined as to who would be successful and who wouldn’t. The giants, NBC and CBS, were pretty much assured of success, since they had access to hordes of familiar radio talents. Things weren’t so clear-cut for fledgling ABC, which had begun business in 1943. They didn’t have the dedicated listener base that the big boys had.

Enter a fourth entity, one that I, and perhaps you, had never heard of before today: the DuMont Television Network.

DuMont Laboratories was founded in 1931 by Dr. Allen B. DuMont. He and his staff were responsible for lots of early technical innovations, including the first all-electronic consumer television set in 1938. The company’s television sets soon became the state of the art.

DuMont set up an experimental station in New York that year, and kept broadcasting throughout WWII, when CBS and NBC pulled the plugs on their similar installations.

The experimental station eventually became WABD, DuMont’s initials. He needed money, and cut a deal with Paramount Pictures for a 40% share of his network in exchange for $400,000. While it solved his cash flow problem, it ultimately doomed the little network that couldn’t.

When you’re small, and you don’t have radio talent to build on, you have to be innovative. DuMont Television certainly filled that bill. By 1949, they had three stations, in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. They set out to fill their programming time by ignoring the way the big boys were doing it.

For instance, DuMont had few programs like Texaco Star Theater or the Colgate Comedy Hour. Allen by and large refused to give sponsors such power, which they frequently used by insisting programming be tweaked to suit them. Instead, he sold commercial time to many different advertisers, to give his writers maximum creative control.

DuMont also didn’t deliver kinescopes to affiliates in different time zones, to be shown after the original east coast showing, or force them to have their own regional networks. Instead, he hooked up his later midwest affiliates via cable, so they were able to show programming live.

This technical innovation cost lots of money. So there wasn’t a whole lot left over for developing shows. But the little network accomplished an impressive collection of shows and talent nonetheless.

There was Mary Kay and Johnny, a comedy which was the first to dare to show a married couple in the same bed. Poor Lucy and Ricky were still in twin beds years later. And there was Gillette’s Cavalcade of Stars (one of DuMont’s few shows run by a single sponsor), which was hosted by newly discovered Jackie Gleason. And there was Captain Video, a wildly popular kids’ science fiction show that was short on set enhancements but long on encouraging kids to use their imaginations.

DuMont’s affiliation with Paramount stung them when they tried to get two more station licenses in Boston and Cleveland. A gotcha in FCC regulations nixed the deal, due to the fact that two Paramount stations existed. The FCC limited licenses at the time to five per network, and considered the Paramount stations (actually DuMont competitors) to be DuMont-owned as well.

Another coffin nail was a 1948 FCC freeze on licenses, due to a flood of applications. When they finally did allow new applications for stations in 1952, it was very difficult to obtain any VHF licenses. Thus, many new DuMont affiliates were forced to use the new UHF band, which would not become freely accessible until the mid 1960’s, due to the FCC not requiring televisions to have UHF tuners until then.

DuMont held on as long as they could, but finally went under on August 4, 1956.

So here’s to the little network that might have been as familiar to us as NBC, CBS, or ABC, but which was doomed by bad fortune, a bad business decision, and governmental red tape.

The Late, Great Variety Show, Part 2

As we entered the 70’s, variety shows were stronger than ever. The Flip Wilson Show was one of my mom’s favorites. It was interesting that high-voltage Flip Wilson could host a show that my very conservative mother found entertaining. How conservative? She refused to watch Dean Martin or Johnny Carson because of their suggestive jokes.

The 70’s became known as the decade of disco, but variety shows also hit their peak then. For instance, among the celebrities hosting them that decade were the Carpenters, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Glen Campbell, the Captain and Tenille, Donny and Marie Osmond, Olivia Newton-John, Bobby Darin, Lynda Carter, Mac Davis, and Sha-Na-Na, among many others.

Indeed, it seemed that the natural progression after initially becoming a celebrity, or perhaps after seeing your star status begin to flicker just a bit, was to land a variety show.

As the 70’s drew to a close, the variety show was still a tried and true format. Barbara Mandrell, who was country when country wasn’t cool, had a hot series that began in 1980. It was followed by similar offerings by Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, and Dolly Parton. But when Dolly was introduced in 1987, it was the end of an era. The variety show had died a sudden death during the Brat Pack era of the 80’s.

What the heck happened, anyway? Why would a format that had proven successful since TV’s infancy, indeed, since RADIO’s infancy, suddenly go belly-up?

Some blame MTV. According to that theory, the ready availability of music videos simply caused audiences to lose interest in watching variety shows that gave their viewers intermittent musical interludes.

I don’t buy that. My own take is that cable TV in general was the culprit. A variety show was a hodgepodge of entertainment in a neat one-hour package. It was a must when there were three channels to watch on television. But when WTBS and ESPN showed up on people’s cable packages in the late 70’s, it was the initial death knell for variety shows. Within ten years, we could watch anything we wanted 24 hours a day. Network TV shows became much more focused in a desperate attempt to hold on to their audiences. Thus, today, primetime network TV is largely ignored by those who aren’t into crime dramas, medical dramas, or reality TV. Even sitcoms have nosedived in their numbers.

But go back to our youth, when the Big Three networks reigned supreme, and you could count on finding a variety show on any channel any night of the week.

The Late, Great Variety Show, Part 1

Don’t look now, but I have uncovered yet another phenomenon that was as common as the cold when we were kids, but which has disappeared as completely as 29-cent-a-gallon gasoline: the classic TV variety show.

We took variety shows for granted when we were growing up. If we weren’t watching Jackie Gleason, we were watching Red Skelton. But there were some that NOBODY missed: Sullivan and Dean Martin, of course, as well as Uncle Miltie and Your Show of Shows (for those old enough to remember the 50’s).

But, like so many things we took for granted, the TV schedule full of variety shows has passed from the scene.

Sullivan had a unique approach to variety. He would basically reproduce vaudeville. Thus, his shows would feature comedians and singers alongside circus acts. But most variety shows followed a different premise: lots of music interspersed with comedy.

Thus, most variety show hosts were comedic by nature. Sonny and Cher were singers, but their comedy came naturally with their barbs at each other. Carol Burnett was an actress who became more famous for her comedy thanks to hosting her own venerable variety show for an amazing eleven-year run.

Some variety shows used comedy sparingly. Lawrence Welk’s show was mostly musical (and a big hit among our grandfathers and grandmothers). Andy Williams’ show was mostly singing, ergo not one of my favorites. Julie Andrews had a show in the early 70’s that was all musical, as I recall.

But the ones I loved had lots of laughs. The Jackie Gleason I remember wasn’t Ralph Kramden standing in his black-and-white kitchen. No, he was the one who would say “How sweet it is” and “awa-aa-ay we go!” Interestingly, Gleason’s variety show work actually predated the Honeymooners. He had one of the DuMont network’s biggest hits beginning in 1950, Cavalcade of Stars. By the 60’s, he was back to hosting a show that my parents loved. I have snapshot memories of Crazy Guggenheim, the June Taylor Dancers, and of Gleason singing “A Man’s Home Is His Castle.”

Tune in tomorrow for more memories of the late, great variety show.

The Invaders

Space ship seen in The Invaders

For a mere season and a half, a truly great show appeared on ABC. The years it ran were 1967 and 68, when I was in the second and third grades. But the short time this show ran didn’t detract from the fact that it was the unanimous favorite science fiction show on TV among my friends and classmates, beating out the more famous Lost in Space and even Star Trek!

The Invaders was based on the premise that aliens were among us in the form of humans. They weren’t REALLY humans, though. For one thing, they didn’t have a pulse. For another, they didn’t bleed (that would require blood, also missing). And many of them had a deformed little finger.

So in other words, they would do a perfect job of mimicking the human body, but they just couldn’t manage to get that pinky right.

It reminds me of something my high school art teacher once said: the mark of a great artist is the ability to effectively draw human hands.

The Invaders was a Quinn Martin production. That meant each episode had a prologue, four acts, and an epilogue. That was Martin’s trademark for all his 60’s and 70’s shows.

The Invaders took the approach of implied action, much like the X Files would many years later. You never saw the aliens in their natural state, but you caught little glimpses behind car windows and such.

The show also laid the ground for the paranoia that would accompany each episode of The X Files. Architect David Vincent, who uncovered the invaders’ plot to take over the earth, had a difficult time convincing fellow humans of the aliens’ conspiracy. Many thought he was crazy, and he could never be sure if the humans he was trying to convince might be one of . . . them.

The eerie opening theme and spoken intro set the stage for each week’s struggle against those dastardly invaders. It was edge-of-your-seat suspense, and it was really pretty strong quality stuff for its time.

Alas, The Invaders just never caught on with the demographic that TV execs demand, hence its short life. But I’ll guarantee you that it was a major hit with the majority of second and third grade boys at Nichols Elementary in Miami, Oklahoma.