Sunday night was a major TV night at my house in the 60’s. Sullivan was on, so was Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. But it all kicked off with Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom at 6:00.
Long before Steve Irwin, that snake guy, or Animal Planet, Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler (later Stan Brock) served up a delicious half hour of wildlife footage. They went to Africa, Antarctica, the Arctic, South America, North America, and Asia. They waded through swamps, trekked across plains, rode across savannas, and went undersea. Their adventures were interrupted periodically with commercials from you know who.
It was great stuff for a kid to watch. I don’t think I missed an episode from 1963 through the early 70’s.
Perkins was Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo director who started a local TV show in TV’s infancy: 1945. By 1949, he had a new show called Zoo Parade, which NBC took on the next year. Zoo Parade lasted eight years, and featured Perkins highlighting various inhabitant’s of Lincoln Park.
In 1968, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom debuted on NBC. Perkins, who by then had taken over directing the St. Louis Zoo, envisioned an animal show depicting the creatures in their native surroundings. It was an instant hit.
Marlin was no dummy. Johnny Carson used to poke fun at him, delivering in a deadpan voice: “While Jim is wrestling the 20 foot long anaconda, I’ll just mix myself another martini . . .”
I recall other shows in the early 70’s that might follow an animal around long enough for you to get attached to it, then show it getting killed by a lion or some other predator. That’s what I loved about Wild Kingdom. If it showed a cute critter, it might also show a near miss that the creature would invariably survive.
The funniest twenty-something minutes of TV you’ll ever see is a “close call” episode that was shown in 1985. I only saw it once, and I still remember tears streaming down my face from laughter as Marlin, Jim, and Stan were nearly done in by a variety of creatures including rhinos, a big anaconda, and, funniest of all, huge lumbering elephant seals. Of course, Marlin was seriously narrating their harrowing adventures with no trace of humor.
But I knew I could laugh without guilt. Like the creatures they filmed, I knew the three would survive intact.