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.

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