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That’s Why It’s Called Hooterville

07.17.16 - Petticoat JunctionThere’s something you notice while watching the first season of Petticoat Junction. The Bradley girls (except for the one whose father produced the show) experience a remarkable upper-body expansion.

The Bradley girls (Riley, Woodell, Henning) in the first episode of the season.

The Bradley girls (Riley, Woodell, Henning) in the first episode of the season.

In the first episode (“Spur Line to Shady Rest,” 9/24/63), Billie Jo (Jeannine Riley) and Bobbie Jo Bradley (Pat Woodell) have perfectly pleasing figures. But over the course of the season, a captivating curvature is underway.

The ballooning bosom phenomenon is most apparent in Jeannine Riley, whose role on the show expands in tandem with her bra size. But before long, Pat Woodell is busting out as well. Was there a competitive bra-stuffing campaign underway? Or had the girls’ figures been craftily confined in the early going, gradually giving way to their full unbound glory as the year went on?

The DVD release for that season includes commentaries from castmates Woodell and Linda Henning, but their chatter is limited to gushing praise for each other and nostalgia for the time they spent on the show. Left unsaid is why Jeannine Riley left after the second season, how well they all got along, and why those very feminine dimensions seemed to grow over time. But maybe it’s all my imagination anyway.

All eyes are on Jeannine Riley in the last episode of the season.

All eyes are on Jeannine Riley in the last episode of the season.

I didn’t have high hopes for Petticoat Junction. I’m too young to remember its original run, and I never saw it in syndication. But I found it to be a pleasant little show, for the first dozen or so episodes at least. Afterward, the freshness is about gone and it becomes a pretty generic sitcom.  But you do get to see old pros like Bea Benederet, Edgar Buchanan and Charles Lane on a regular basis, and the theme music is one of my very favorite TV tunes of all time. There are a good handful of memorable episodes, like “Bobbie Jo and the Beatnik” (1/7/64, with Dennis Hopper), and every now and then a touch of sweetness emerges and overcomes the sitcom tropes and the canned laughtrack. The Christmas episode (“Cannonball Christmas,” 12/24/63) is a good example.

In later seasons, Billie Jo and Bobbie Jo would be played by Meredith MacRae and Lori Saunders, charming actresses who became big fan favorites. But my own favorite of the Bradley girls remains Pat Woodell, who left the show after the second season, looking for an elusive singing career. That didn’t really work out, but I have to admire her courage in walking away from Hollywood to pursue a dream, and it’s easy to admire someone this beautiful and appealing anyway. She passed away last September.

Also from the last episode of the season: Pat Woodell stands out.

Also from the last episode of the season: Pat Woodell stands out.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2016 in 1960s Shows

 

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Where Are All Those Episodes of DRAGNET?

07.10.16 - DragnetA lot of us grew up watching the 1967-1970 revival of Dragnet, either first-run or in syndication. It’s known informally as “the color Dragnet,” to differentiate it from the black-and-white original, which aired from 1951 to 1959. Both incarnations were NBC shows. (Radio buffs will scowl and remind you that the true original Dragnet was the radio series, and they’re right, but let’s stick to TV.)

“The color Dragnet” is a pretty good show overall. Episodes from the first one-and-a-half seasons are often terrific. The third season falls into a rut of showcasing tedious police administrative procedurals, but the show recovers somewhat afterward. And of course, even if a particular episode isn’t anything special, you still get to enjoy Jack Webb’s performance as Sgt. Joe Friday, with that voice of his and the way he delivers his lines.

So yes, it’s a pretty good show, but what’s really good is the black-and-white original Dragnet. It’s got a very film-noir feel to it, full of dark nights, heavy shadows, staccato dialogue, fedoras, overcoats, dangerous losers and cynical dames. The Sgt. Friday of these years is lean, terse and somewhat haunted. He can relax a little bit while bantering with sidekick Frank Smith (Ben Alexander), but soon it’s right back to the exhausting grunt work of a police detective: following up on leads, dealing with dullard civilians and surly punks, and piecing together a case, one clue at a time. And the cases are often very grim. There are rapists and violent psychotics on Dragnet, even child molesters. Many episodes in the early years recycled the superb radio scripts of James Moser, which lost none of their impact in the transition. There’s stark, dramatic lighting and unusual overhead camera shots. It’s very compelling television.

Dragnet was one of the few hit radio dramas to become even bigger on TV, placing in the Top Ten throughout most of its first six seasons (not surprisingly, it was especially popular in its home base of Los Angeles). A Warner Bros. movie version was also a hit, arriving pretty much right at the peak of Dragnetmania in late 1954.

Things began unraveling three years later. Maybe audiences felt the show was getting a bit stale. Certainly, Webb himself was getting a little winded by this time. Besides starring in every episode, he was producing and directing them as well, while developing other film and TV projects on the side. In spite of a very strong lead-in (Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, the most popular Thursday show of that 1957-58 season), Dragnet’s ratings began falling steadily. It was beaten in its timeslot by ABC’s The Real McCoys, prompting a move to Tuesdays the following season. But even more viewers were lost, and Webb turned in his badge. Dragnet was over, at least in prime time, but the show was already a staple of the syndication market, and would remain so well into the 1960s, under the title Badge 714. Oversaturation is as good an explanation for the show’s demise as any, but it should be noted that by the time these later seasons were produced, the well of old James Moser radio scripts had run dry.

Given Dragnet’s popularity and prestige, why hasn’t it been given an official DVD release? Unlike the fabled anthology shows of the era that were aired live, Dragnet was shot on 35mm film. So why doesn’t someone just transfer it to video?

That’s a question I’ve been asking for years, and I’ve been given different answers. I’ve heard that it’s a simple matter of no one having gotten around to it yet, but that’s ridiculous.07.10.16 - Jack Webb

Dozens of Dragnet episodes never had their copyrights renewed, and some people believe that’s why no one’s produced an official DVD release— after all, why spend a lot of money restoring public domain shows for DVD when anyone could legally copy your work and sell it themselves? But official releases of the early seasons of One Step Beyond and The Beverly Hillbillies have come out— material that’s largely public domain— so why can’t that be done with Dragnet?

Michael J. Hayde, in his book My Name is Friday (2001), says that “the negatives have been placed in storage,” but if so, nobody seems to be able to find them. I’ve heard that one of the more prominent video labels has tried to do a comprehensive release of the show, but that the project blew up on the launch pad when very little quality material could be obtained.

The bitter truth is that most of Dragnet is missing. Like Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight, it’s simply lost, possibly forever. Many of you will scoff at that notion, since people like to think that every movie and show ever produced is resting patiently on a shelf somewhere. That’s just not the case.

In 1953, Jack Webb and two partners sold the Dragnet franchise to MCA, the company whose Revue subsidiary was a prodigious producer of prime-time TV material. Revue’s stuff was filmed at Universal’s movie studio, and in the course of time MCA gobbled up Universal as well. Today the amalgamation is known as NBCUniversal.

For years, there’s been some confusion about what this means for Dragnet. Universal has a very spotty record when it comes to preserving the camera negatives of its vintage TV material. Timeless has released many of these shows on DVD— everything from M Squad to State Trooper to Medic— which had to be mastered from 16mm collector prints rather than the far-superior original elements, because no one at Universal can seem to find them. In case after case, Universal has retained the rights, but not the negatives. (In this case, Universal also forgot to renew the copyrights on dozens of episodes.)

There are a number of explanations for why this is so. Simple incompetence is one. The sheer size of the company’s holdings is another. And accidents do happen. Vault fires have destroyed more material than incompetence ever did, and Universal had a devastating one as recently as 2008, though the 35mm elements for Dragnet seem to have gone missing well before then.

The suggestion has been offered that Jack Webb’s estate must be sitting on them. But Webb and his Mark VII Productions sold the early Dragnet material to MCA, as noted. The later seasons were produced as a work for hire, and neither Webb nor Mark VII ever had those originals.

Is there a chance that the Webb estate has copies? Dupe negatives, maybe?

Webb did indeed maintain a film vault, and he did hold original camera elements for other shows he produced. Unfortunately, he disposed of the contents of that vault, for tax and insurance reasons, around 1976. The late film historian Robert Birchard was just out of college at the time, and had the unhappy assignment of overseeing that destruction. Lost were the original 35mm elements for the Mark VII shows Noah’s Ark (1956-57) and Pete Kelly’s Blues (1959), along with a set of 16mm Dragnet episodes, among other things. All of those prints are now long gone.

Webb works through lunch with assistant director Sam Roman, October 30, 1953.

Webb works through lunch with assistant director Sam Roman, October 30, 1953.

How about other 16mm prints? This is a real puzzler for me. Considering how successfully Badge 714 played in syndication, the collectors’ market ought to be swimming in those prints. But it isn’t. In thirty years of collecting 16mm, I can’t remember ever seeing a single episode advertised in The Big Reel or Film Collectors World. Why are they so rare? I have no idea, but about the time the 1967 “color Dragnet” appeared, Badge 714 was pulled from syndication to prevent oversaturation. This likely prevented a lot of prints from slipping into collectors’ hands in the first place.

They’re not completely gone, of course. A few dozen episodes are available on YouTube and the DVD collectors’ market, transferred from stray 16mm prints. (Wikipedia says there are 52 episodes in circulation, but I’ve got 64 myself and I’m sure there are at least a few more out there.) That’s a fair sample, but considering there were 267 episodes produced, the survival ratio is pretty miserable for such an iconic series.

In terms of image quality, some of these 64 look very good, but a great many circulate only as copies-of-copies-of-copies, so if you’re shopping around, lower your expectations accordingly. One edition I like is a five-disc, 25-episode set released in 2004 by Madacy, easy to find on Amazon and eBay. For diehard collectors, a much larger set is available from Randy Narramore (randyn (((at))) earthlink (((dot))) net). I’ve bought this set and others from Randy in the past. He’s reputable and his prices are very fair, but unavoidably the image quality in the Dragnet set varies from beautiful to blecch.

A show as popular, compelling and influential as Dragnet deserves better, but unfortunately this is as good as it’ll ever get. I hope to be proven wrong.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2016 in 1950s Shows

 

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The Ten Least-Convincing Aliens of LOST IN SPACE

06.26.16 - Lost in SpaceIrwin Allen’s 1960s sci-fi shows tended to start out pretty well, with imaginative scripts, impressive sets and lots of action. But before long, things would start falling apart.

Lost in Space has always been the most popular of his shows. While it was never a big hit in the ratings, it lasted for three seasons and pulled better numbers than the far more respected Star Trek. Afterward, it did well in syndication throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. That’s probably due to the casting (usually a weak area for Allen): Billy Mumy as the likeable boy hero with whom young viewers could identify, Jonathan Harris as his mincing adult sidekick, and a big friendly robot. (Even CBS chief William Paley, who hated the show, liked the robot.)

The concept was solid (it’s essentially The Swiss Family Robinson in space), and early episodes offer some imaginative adventures. But even during its first season, when the show was definitely at its best, there are some real clunker episodes. By the middle of the third season, almost every episode is just completely stupid, as if the producer had decreed that every script had to be tailored for an audience of eight-year-olds. Although the budget increased substantially, much of that went to pay salaries, leaving the show looking nearly as low-rent as Space Patrol had a generation earlier.

Nothing illustrates its decline better than the various aliens and space monsters encountered along the way. Again, during the first season these can look pretty good. But toward the end, they’re just laughably bad. Here are my picks for the ten absolute worst-looking aliens on Lost in Space.

10. Episode 3:20: “Fugitives in Space,” 1/31/68

10. Episode 3:20: “Fugitives in Space,” 1/31/68

9. Episode 3:19, “The Promised Planet,” 1/24/68

9. Episode 3:19, “The Promised Planet,” 1/24/68

8. Episode 1:12, “The Raft,” 12/1/65

8. Episode 1:12, “The Raft,” 12/1/65

7. Episode 3:16, “Target: Earth,” 1/3/68

7. Episode 3:16, “Target: Earth,” 1/3/68

6. Episode 2:04, “The Forbidden World,” 10/5/66

6. Episode 2:04, “The Forbidden World,” 10/5/66

5. Episode 3:14, “Castles in Space,” 12/20/67

5. Episode 3:14, “Castles in Space,” 12/20/67

4. Episode 3:22, “The Flaming Planet,” 2/21/68

4. Episode 3:22, “The Flaming Planet,” 2/21/68

3. Episode 3:12, “A Day at the Zoo,” 11/29/67

3. Episode 3:12, “A Day at the Zoo,” 11/29/67

2. Episode 2:17, “The Questing Beast,” 1/11/67

2. Episode 2:17, “The Questing Beast,” 1/11/67

1. Episode 3:23, “The Great Vegetable Rebellion,” 2/28/68

1. Episode 3:23, “The Great Vegetable Rebellion,” 2/28/68

 

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Hot tip for collectors: As we all know, a lot of vintage TV shows have never been officially released on DVD. But that doesn’t mean they’re unavailable. Some wonderful stuff circulates on the collectors’ market. For many years, my friend Steve Russo has made a lot of rare material available to collectors, and he’s now offering a special selection at sale prices. Email him at steverussovideo ((at)) msn ((dot)) com and he’ll send you the list. Of course, keep in mind that none of these shows have been digitally transferred from 35mm camera negatives, but Steve is proud of the quality he’s been able to obtain. I can already vouch for his Make Room for Daddy and Colgate Comedy Hour releases, and I plan on placing another order myself. There’s a lot of good stuff there. Grab it while you can.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2016 in 1960s Shows

 

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“With Tonight’s Guests… Bette Davis and the Who!”

06.19.16 - Tony Orlando and Dawn

You’d probably never expect to see Ronald Reagan on the same stage with the Jackson Five. But during the golden age of the TV variety show, it was fine to book two performers from opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum. Incongruous couplings happened all the time. Sometimes they’d appear together and sometimes separately, but the following list proves that when it comes to variety shows, expect the unexpected—

 

Jackie Robinson and Bela Lugosi (Texaco Star Theater, 9/27/49)

Frank Sinatra and Lon Chaney Jr. (Texaco Star Theater, 11/28/50)

Jane Russell and Jerry Lee Lewis (The Steve Allen Show, 8/11/57)

Liberace and Lou Costello (The Steve Allen Show, 8/18/57)

Errol Flynn and Don Adams (The Steve Allen Show, 12/1/57)

Lenny Bruce and the Three Stooges (The Steve Allen Show, 4/5/59)

Nat King Cole and Rin Tin Tin  (Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, 10/21/59)

Jimmy Durante and Ray Charles  (Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, 2/22/61)

Sophia Loren and Mel Brooks (The Steve Allen Show, 11/29/61)

Tallulah Bankhead and the Beach Boys (The Andy Williams Show, 5/2/66)

Elvis Presley and Charles Laughton (The Ed Sullivan Show, 9/9/56)

Lana Turner and the Electric Prunes (The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, 4/16/67)

Bette Davis and the Who (The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour, 9/17/67)

Arthur Godfrey and the Bee Gees (The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, 2/4/68)

Kate Smith and Jefferson Airplane (The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, 11/10/68)

John Wayne and O. J. Simpson (The Bob Hope Special, 11/27/68)

Sid Caesar and the Grateful Dead (Playboy After Dark, 1/18/69)

Lucille Ball and George Carlin (The Carol Burnett Show, 11/24/69)

Ronald Reagan and the Jackson 5 (The Sonny and Cher Show, 9/15/72)

Kate Smith and Chuck Norris (The Donny and Marie Osmond Show, 11/16/75)

Roy Rogers and Sherman Hemsley (Tony Orlando and Dawn, 2/25/76)

Abe Vigoda and the Bay City Rollers (The Tony Orlando and Dawn Rainbow Hour, 12/7/76)

Buddy Hackett and ABBA (Dick Clark’s Live Wednesday, 11/15/78)

 
 

Slap Leather!

06.12.16 - GunsmokeVintage TV westerns tend to be violent. Really violent. And considering all the gun violence that rages across the network frontier, it was inevitable that a government official would step in and demand that everybody lay down their firearms. That’s what happens in a Gunsmoke I saw recently (2:25, “Bureaucrat,” March 1957). Marshal Dillon is ordered by a visiting supervisor from Washington to make Dodge City a gun-free zone. The idea is to eliminate the shooting deaths which are a weekly feature of this show.

So far, the script doesn’t care whether you see this as a common-sense step toward public safety, or as an assault on the Second Amendment. The citizens of Dodge see it as a means of being rendered helpless to defend themselves against the sort of people who don’t obey gun laws (or any other laws). I won’t bury you in plot details but in the end, the experiment in gun control is dropped after failing completely.

The script was based on a Gunsmoke radio play by John Meston, offering a muscular defense of frontier justice along with a swat at government intrusion. A lot of these early Gunsmokes are steeped in the grim insecurity of the Cold War, when the threat of sudden death on a massive scale was a very real danger. From that danger come these masculine studies in keeping the wolf from civilization’s door.

If this episode had been from the late-‘60s, written by someone from the Rod Serling – Sterling Silliphant School of Earnest Social Commentary, we’d probably see Dodge City’s loudest gun rights advocate accidentally shoot his own little girl to death. Or maybe he’d lead an angry mob to gun down an Indian suspect (who turns out to be innocent), as the wise old government bureaucrat sighs. Personally, if I have to choose, I prefer the Meston approach, but the level of violence would be about the same either way.

I’m not sure that you can have a really compelling western series without violence. Dramatically, threatened or implied violence can be more effective than the real thing. For example, take this episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive (1:15, “Rawhide Breed,” December 1958), one even grittier than usual for this two-fisted series. Steve McQueen’s bounty hunter character is stranded in the Arizona desert with a companion. Hostile Apaches are scattered everywhere, and the sanctuary of an Army fort is many miles away. McQueen and friend are traveling on foot. They’ll die if they don’t find water. They manage to capture a young Apache, and McQueen tries to intimidate him into revealing the location of the nearest water hole.

Any other show would have the hero shout at the Indian, or appeal to his sense of mercy. But this is Wanted: Dead or Alive, so McQueen threatens to slice the Apache’s nose off.

A scriptwriter from the Serling-Silliphant School would now have McQueen be overwhelmed by remorse for resorting to such a brutal display: “Look what I’ve become! The savage one is me!” He’d recoil in shame and drop to his knees, whereupon the unexpectedly kindly Indian would point out the water hole, and both would drink together.06.12.16 - Wanted Dead Or Alive

But this is a Samuel Peeples script, the product of an earlier era. McQueen never does slice off the truculent Apache’s nose (imagine getting that past Standards and Practices!). He drops the knife with a sigh of resignation— not over his own violent impulses, but because the threat doesn’t work. The first moment McQueen is distracted, the Apache runs away. Soon there are encounters with other Apaches, all of whom are gunned down just before they can kill our protagonists.

There’s no attempt to explain why the Apaches are out for blood. They’re just there to move the action along. Is that bad? Is it lazy writing? Not necessarily. Westerns exist in a universe in which violence spurs action, and actions spur violence. If we can accept those ground rules in Game of Thrones, we can certainly accept them in a ‘50s western. (Admittedly, I’d probably feel differently about this episode if I were of Apache descent.)

The paradox about westerns is that if you take out the violence, all you have left is a travelogue, whereas too much violence reduces your story to a Punch-and-Judy show of monotonous gunfire and men endlessly wincing and falling over. You have to strike the right balance. The producers of Rawhide liked to tackle character studies in which complex people confront their inner demons in a parched landscape, but viewers would write in and complain that they weren’t seeing enough killing (or cattle). Similarly, Chuck Connors recalled how the fans felt a little cheated whenever The Rifleman was able to resolve the week’s conflict without resorting to his awesome rapid-firing rifle.

Some observers would crown the HBO series Deadwood as the greatest TV western of all, and if ever there was an adult western, it’s this one. You get a good measure of historical authenticity, and complex characters whose personalities are revealed slowly over time. Nobody’s purely good or bad, and every relationship includes a degree of conflict. There’s violence to be sure, but primarily there’s misery, a grueling unpleasantness that makes this the least fun western ever. (Its most memorable episode is all about a guy trying to pass a kidney stone, an hour of agony for character and viewer alike.)

Is it art? Maybe. But I guess it’s art that I can get along without. It’s not the level of violence that gets oppressive, but the ugliness and the ennui. There are unforgettable things in Deadwood, but I lost interest in the show. It spends so much time gazing into its own filthy navel that it stopped entertaining me and I drifted away in the middle of the third season.

For the most part, I have even less interest in the antiseptic old kiddie westerns like The Roy Rogers Show and The Gene Autry Show. The dopey sidekicks are incredibly annoying, and the stories tend to be uninspired. I need a western with a little more meat on its bones than that. But there are juvenile westerns worth watching, especially if you really, really like dogs (The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin), horses (Fury, The Adventures of Champion) or trains (Casey Jones).

There are also women’s westerns. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman is the most conspicuous example, but I’d add Here Come the Brides and Little House on the Prairie to that category and maybe The Big Valley too. The Virginian crosses into that territory pretty frequently as well. There’s nothing wrong with this sub-genre, but it just doesn’t appeal to me and I’m not sure why. There are plenty of shows I like that explore love, relationships and family life. But I don’t want that stuff to crowd out the shoot-outs and the saloon fights, so we’re right back to the dilemma of striking the right balance.

The level of violence isn’t really a concern, at least as long as my young son isn’t watching it with me. I want whatever level of violence the story needs.

For me, the perfect TV western will have the advantages of brevity, authentic location shooting, plenty of action, a hero I can admire, and plots that are complex enough to be intellectually stimulating without sagging under the weight of extraneous detail. Gunsmoke comes close, but it’s too frequently formulaic (stranger comes to town —> conflict ensues —> someone gets killed).

06.12.16 - Have GunA few sentimental favorites aside, a clear winner emerges. It’s Have Gun – Will Travel. It avoids the genre’s fatal extremes: the simple-minded shoot-‘em-up horse operas of the classical tradition, and the tiresome brooding, self-absorbed anti-heroes of the modern. Violence is only used for dramatic impact; it’s there as often as the story requires it, but no more. It’s got Richard Boone and that perfect voice of his.

The show doesn’t preach at me. It isn’t trying to save the world. It’s entertaining without ever being silly. It’s intelligent enough to be compelling without being ponderous. It’s got the authentic western scenery, and at 25 minutes an episode, it moves.

Usually the bad guy gets blown away in the end. Sometimes he only gets exposed, shamed and shunned, which can be just as well. Whatever works.

There are episodes here and there in which Paladin describes how his gun was hand-crafted to his exact specifications to ensure perfect balance. That describes the show itself… perfect balance.

 

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Most Memorable Moments

06.05.16 - CHiPs 2

When you watch a lot of vintage TV in a sleepy trance long past your bedtime, you find that certain moments make a strong impression— moments that poke the imagination or stir an old memory. These were the five most memorable moments from the eighty-odd vintage shows I watched last month.

It plays better when you can hear the crunching metal.

It plays better when you can hear the crunching metal.

Elephant Squashes a Police CarCHiPs (1:10, “Highway Robbery,” December 1977) – This series ran out of gas long before it left the air, but a lot of weird things pop up in the early episodes. In this one, a circus guy is transporting an elephant on the freeway, which gets loose and lumbers around until it’s finally caught— but not before it caves in the hood of a police car by sitting on it.

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Molly MusicThe Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (1:01, “Here’s Why Cosmetics Should Come in Unbreakable Bottles,” May 1987) – This NBC “dramedy” was a big favorite of mine in the late ‘80s, but I hadn’t seen so much as a clip in the last quarter-century. Because of music clearance issues, it’s never had an official DVD release and it may never get one. I went ahead and bought a set on the bootleg market, fully aware that it would consist of second- or third-generation VHS dubs. Someday I’ll write up a guide to vintage TV bootlegs, or just a review of this particular show. But for now, I’ll just say that it was magical to pop the first disc into the machine and hear the Molly Dodd theme music again after all those years. It’s lilting but jazzy, a little like the Jeeves and Wooster theme (See? I do watch more than just westerns and cop shows). I was surprised to find that I remembered the tune completely, along with the visual vignettes that accompany it. Funny how much you remember without realizing it.

Ah, Molly. I never forgot you.

Ah, Molly. I never forgot you.

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The Beast of Big Ghost BasinCheyenne (2:14, “Big Ghost Basin,” March 1957) – This was definitely an offbeat episode of the Warner Bros. western, really more of a mystery story. A bloodthirsty beast has been attacking people in the middle of the night out in Big Ghost Basin. Nearly everyone who’s encountered it has been crushed to death by it, so no one really knows who (or what) the beast is. It can’t be a bear, because it leaves no claw marks.

While watching this, I was apprehensive that the monster would turn out to be something stupid, like a rustler in a costume or something. But I was hopeful that it would be a cool-looking Sasquatch-like creature. After all, Warner Bros. had some money to spend, and Cheyenne was the studio’s top TV attraction at the time. The suspense builds as the episode slowly reaches its climax. Cheyenne hides out in the Basin with his rifle, ready to stop the monster’s killing spree. He confronts the beast, and kills it with multiple rifle blasts just as it’s about to charge.

That's one savage rug.

That’s one savage rug.

So what does the monster turn out to be? A bear. What? Wait a minute— why doesn’t it have any claws, then? Because this bear, we’re told, had been caught in a forest fire, which burned off his claws and made him really mean. Are they kidding? I stayed up past midnight for this? And when we get to see the thing, it’s nothing but a guy draped in a bearskin rug (funny how the fire burned off his claws but not his fur).

This episode wasn’t the worst thing I watched all month— that prize goes to The Hitchhiker (5:07, “The Miracle of Alice Ames,” July 1989)— but after that great build-up, it was the most disappointing.

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Ponch’s Hot DateCHiPs – The same episode I mentioned above had a remarkable conclusion. Remarkably creepy, that is. Our Highway Patrolman hero Ponch has spent the whole episode lusting after the hot billboard model whose portrait appears in suntan lotion ads all over town. He can’t stop talking about how much he’d love to go out with her, and we can guess what’s running through his imagination. Well, by a wacky coincidence, Ponch’s supervisor is friends with her family. He sets up a blind date.

Blind dates can be awkward.

Blind dates can be awkward.

When Ponch shows up at the girl’s house with a bouquet of roses, he meets her and beholds the same familiar face, that of a 25-year-old woman. But— surprise! She’s got the body of a ten-year-old girl. How old is she? “Fifteen… on my next birthday,” she smiles, taking Ponch’s arm and cozying up to him. (The very odd-looking actress is Wendy Fredericks, in her only known role apart from a failed pilot.) She’s wearing a little pair of shorts and knee socks.

Ponch’s patrolmen pals, his supervisor, and even the girl’s father are all on hand with big grins on their faces. What’s even creepier is that they’re holding cocktails and smoking cigars, as if they’re eager to watch what happens next. That’s where the episode ends.

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Dan Tanna’s DriveVega$ (1:01, “Centerfold,” September 1978) – The great supporting cast includes Morey Amsterdam, Tony Curtis, Abe Vigoda and Vic Tayback, but the really remarkable moment in this show had nothing to do with them, and almost nothing to do with the plot. Never mind the details, but it’s sort of a side-plot, involving the hero’s efforts to find a missing lion (yes, in Las Vegas). Eventually he does, and we’re treated to shots of star Robert Urich driving down the Strip in an open convertible with a live lion in the passenger seat. No process shots, no rear-projection (and no stagehand wearing a lion-skin rug, either); it’s real, surreal, and pure Aaron Spelling. That’s showmanship!

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Have lion, will travel.

Have lion, will travel.

Honor roll: I watched more than eighty episodes of vintage TV last month, and these were the five I liked best:

Lawman (2:35, “The Swamper,” June 1960)

Adam-12 (4:11, “Assassination,” December 1971)

Dallas (7:30, “End Game,” May 1984)

Jake and the Fatman (1:06, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” October 1987)

Frasier (2:07, “The Candidate,” November 1984)

06.05.16 - CHiPs elephant 2

 

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Review: THE RED SKELTON SHOW, Season One

05.29.16 - Red Skelton 1The legacy of a great television comedian follows a three-step path. While your show is still in production, you’re loved. You’re a star. Everything you do generates goodwill. Then, after your show has had its run, you ease into the second stage: you’re respected. People remember you, your show has probably gone into syndication and/or home video. Maybe you’ve receded into the background somewhat, but you’re still a presence. You’re still a familiar figure in popular culture.

But eventually comes the third step: you’re forgotten. This usually takes a while to happen, and it arrives quietly, like falling leaves in autumn. Your fans have become senior citizens. Some of them remember you, some don’t. Your show isn’t seen much anymore. The youngest couple of generations don’t know you at all.

This dynamic has played itself out many times in television’s brief history: George Gobel, Bill Dana, Don Adams, Joey Bishop, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, etc. If TV’s silver-plated names seem to be more prone to this syndrome than the gold-plated names, that’s only because there are relatively few gold-plated talents in comedy. But it happens sooner or later to everyone, and it happened to Red Skelton.

05.29.16 - Red Skelton 2The Red Skelton Show was a staple of network television for twenty solid years. It went off the air in 1971, and ever since then his fame has slowly, quietly diminished— not because his stuff is no longer funny, but because it’s no longer easy to find, and… well, because of that three-step syndrome.

His specialty was sketch comedy (preferably for live audiences), and television was the perfect medium for him. Throughout those twenty seasons, it placed in Nielsen’s Top Ten nine times. But the culture changed swiftly in the late 1960s. The young and the urban now had the spotlight to themselves. The networks were suddenly so eager to court the Pepsi Generation that they’d scrap anything and anyone whose main appeal lay outside that demographic. That included Skelton. His show had been a Tuesday-night staple (seventh in the ratings), when CBS abruptly cancelled it. He moved to NBC but was denied his traditional timeslot; his show was cut from an hour to thirty minutes, and its format was changed. The ratings suffered, and rather than repair the damage, NBC closed it down.

Saturation re-broadcasts in the syndication market have kept a lot of old TV shows alive. But unlike I love Lucy or The Honeymooners‘ “Classic 39,” Skelton’s show typically wasn’t shot on film. It either went out live, or it was shot on videotape, which made it relatively unattractive for later syndication. Skelton owned the rights to his shows, and the experience of being pushed off the air by CBS and NBC permanently soured his enthusiasm for the medium. So, unlike Lucy, Red never did make it to syndication. Like the saying goes: out of sight, out of mind. My parents’ generation saw Red Skelton every week; mine never saw him at all.

A Bob Hope cameo appearance, 11/25/51.

A Bob Hope cameo appearance, 11/25/51.

I’m too young to remember when The Red Skelton Show was on the air, and it took me a long time to get around to giving Red a try. I didn’t know him. I’d always guessed that his material was basically the loud, broad, wacky kind of thing that Jerry Lewis did, and I’m not much of a Jerry Lewis fan.

But then I set those expectations aside and began watching some Skelton shows, and I found them to be really enjoyable. There’s slapstick, sure (and it works), but there’s also some standup comedy, pantomime and a dash of topical humor. What I enjoy most of all are his ad-libs, which are less cerebral than Fred Allen’s but just as funny, and executed perfectly. Any time a supporting player steps on his line, or a prop misbehaves, you can bet Red will instantly mark the event with a fast wisecrack, and that it’ll be both good-natured and hilarious. In fact, the ad-libs frequently draw the biggest laughs of the whole episode.

In the years since his death, his estate has allowed a broad sampling of The Red Skelton Show to be released on video. Timeless Media/Shout Factory has issued several DVD collections, all of which are still in print. They’re not bad, but they’re a hodgepodge: the shows are edited (sometimes heavily), they’re seldom in chronological order, you aren’t given the broadcast dates, and there’s often a giant “bug” in the lower right corner of the screen, to deter piracy. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still good stuff. It’s just not presented very well.

05.29.16 - Red Skelton 5But a couple of years ago, Timeless/Shout released a brand new set, and this time they really did it right. The Red Skelton Show: The Early Years, 1951-1955 presents 92 episodes (plus an unaired dress rehearsal for one of them), mastered from rare 16mm kinescopes from the comedian’s personal collection. Kinescopes can vary in image quality, but these all look great. You get the broadcast dates for each one (the earliest is dated 10/21/51 and the latest is from 3/8/55). At least three of the episodes have been available elsewhere, but not with this quality.

I’d like to focus on the show’s debut season. Twenty-seven of the episodes in the set are from Season One (October 1951 – June 1952). Skelton was a big hit this year, and the show has a lot of vitality to it. It was aired live, although each week’s offering includes a filmed “Skelton’s Scrapbook” sketch which always works in a plug for the sponsor’s product, Tide detergent. Early episodes this season include a musical segment with a nightclub or recording act (I was delighted to find that the guests one week were Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, my favorite cowboy harmony group.) The musical acts disappear about half-way through the season, though, which is odd considering Skelton’s mounting fatigue.

Incredibly, he was doing a weekly radio show, a live television show and a movie or two a year at this point. It’s no wonder that Season One’s later episodes are generally a notch or two below the quality of the earlier ones. But they’re all enjoyable.

05.29.16 - Red Skelton 4Skelton dropped the radio show and discontinued the live telecasts in Season Two, which made his schedule less exhausting. But doing the show on film came at a price: some of the old electricity was gone, and the canned laugh track had the effect of subduing the comedy rather than enhancing it. Ratings fell, Procter and Gamble pulled out, writers came and went. But Skelton soon recovered the lost ground; deciding to tape the show before a live audience was probably the key. Big guest stars began popping up from mid-1954 onward, and he seems to have made it his mission every week to reduce his flustered co-star to helpless hysterics. When he succeeds (and he often does), the results are television gold.

There are some beloved TV comedies of the 1950s that I watch (and enjoy) without actually cracking a smile. This isn’t one of them. Certainly, some episodes are better than others, but Skelton’s batting average is pretty high. There’s some laugh-out-loud comedy here.

The man obviously loved his work, and he’s a delight to watch. So yes, The Red Skelton Show is good stuff, and I recommend this collection.

 
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Posted by on May 29, 2016 in 1950s Shows

 

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The Face is Familiar

The Face is Familiar

Allen Jenkins – If you’ve seen a few of the wonderful Warner Bros. films of the 1930s, you’ve probably seen Allen Jenkins, since he pops up in literally dozens of them. Thanks to his nasal New York accent, he specialized in Damon Runyon-type characters, the sort of people you’d find in saloons, newsrooms and race tracks. He remained a busy character actor right up to his death in 1974. But after about 1952, most of his work was in television— everything from I Love Lucy to Playhouse 90 to (of course) Damon Runyon Theater. I was delighted to find him in this episode of Adam-12 (4:09, “Anniversary,” November 1971), but also sorry to see he’d been separated from a few teeth over the years.

05.22.16 - Allen Jenkins - early05.22.16 - Adam 12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carolyn Jones – A television immortal thanks to her role on The Addams Family (1964-1966), Carolyn Jones was a busy and far more versatile actress than she’s given credit for. That was especially true during the decade leading up to Morticia’s debut. You never know what Jones is going to look or sound like; if you spot her name in the credits and watch out for someone looking like Morticia Addams, there’s a good chance you’ll miss her altogether. Her climb up the ladder had been a fairly short one, and by the age of 25 she was playing leads in TV crime shows and anthology dramas, not to mention supporting roles in major movies. I can recommend a couple of her performances in particular— the sexy, reckless flirt on Wagon Train (1:03, “The John Cameron Story,” October 1957) and the cool con woman who passes bad checks all over town on State Trooper (1:02, “The Paperhanger of Pioche,” November 1956). She’s also great in this early role as a shooting suspect on the original Dragnet (3:31, “The Big Girl,” April 1954).

05.22.16 - Addams Family05.22.16 - Dragnet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jonathan Banks – Possibly the finest actor in contemporary television, Banks is best known for playing elderly tough guy Mike Ehrmantraut on a pair of outstanding shows (Seasons 2-5 of Breaking Bad and both seasons of the still-running Better Call Saul). The early years of his TV career were spent playing assorted thugs on dramas like Barnaby Jones and Lou Grant. Here’s how he looked in an excellent episode of Simon & Simon (1:12, “Matchmaker,” March 1982), in which he plays (you guessed it) a criminal.

05.22.16 - Jonathan Banks05.22.16 - Simon and Simon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brad Pitt – I guess he needs no introduction, but his career does stretch back farther than you might think. Brad Pitt’s first credited role was on Dallas, in which he played Randy, a kid who dates Charlie Wade, the step-daughter of two-fisted rancher Ray Krebbs. Randy was a recurring character during the show’s eleventh season. He eventually goes too far with Charlie, gets his butt kicked for it and is never seen again. The producers evidently recognized some potential in the 23-year-old actor, but they still let him go after just four fleeting appearances. If you’ve seen those final seasons of Dallas, you know the producers were making more than a few unfortunate decisions in those days. Anyway, here’s Pitt, knee-deep in the ‘Eighties as romantic Randy (11:14, “Daddy’s Little Darlin’, December 1987).

05.22.16 - Brad Pitt05.22.16 - Dallas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angela Cartwright – Very few child actors ever win a supporting role on a successful network show. Angela Cartwright got two of them, one right after the other: The Danny Thomas Show (1957-1964) and Lost in Space (1965-1968). But when young actors make the slow-motion leap from childhood to adulthood, their careers usually fall into the gaping crevasse in between. This didn’t quite happen to Cartwright, who landed a smattering of one-shot roles here and there, and even reprised her Danny Thomas role on Make Room for Granddaddy (1970-1971). But her acting career would never regain its momentum, despite being a talented and lovely young lady. Here she is at age 19, trying to avoid sniper fire on Adam-12 (4:11, “Assassination,” December 1971).

05.22.16 - Angela Cartwright05.22.16 - Adam 12 Cartwright

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2016 in Personalities

 

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Review: DARK SHADOWS, Summer 1968

05.15.16 - Dark Shadows 07

Personalities aside, Dark Shadows is as good (or bad) as the storyline it’s telling. Like chapters in an epic novel, the show’s narrative is apt to take an abrupt turn now and then. The most remarkable shift of all had come in the spring of 1967, when the sleepy Gothic soap suddenly added a vampire to its heretofore mundane cast of characters, saving the show from cancellation and making TV history.

Assuming you can accept the conventions of daytime drama— the low budgets, the cramped sets, the occasional boom mike dipping into the frame, the extended dialogue scenes and the relative scarcity of action— Dark Shadows was a riveting show for the next six months. But then the show took another narrative turn, taking a lengthy detour back to the year 1795 before returning to the modern day with new developments in the vampire story. And so it would go, for the rest of the show’s run. Every few months, it would sweep its characters and settings off the stage, re-invent itself, and then do it all over again, frequently with the same familiar actors playing new roles.

Producer Dan Curtis had a special enthusiasm for period pieces. The show would eventually swoop back to 1796, then forward to 1897, back to 1797, then up to the present day, back to the past, then to 1995, then backwards again, even exploring alternate universes in “parallel time.”

Most of the fans just wanted to see what the vampire, Barnabas Collins, was up to, and how he’d handle the latest supernatural threat to the Collins family. Instead, viewers were jerked from one tedious period piece to another, buried under a succession of ancillary characters and dull story developments. If Dark Shadows had a fatal flaw, it was a tendency to spend weeks or months bumping around in the corners of creative blind alleys before inching its way out again. The audience drifted away, and in the spring of 1971 the show was cancelled so swiftly that its final storyline was allowed only a perfunctory resolution.

But when the show is good, it’s a delight. Dark Shadows has a cult following fanatic enough to rival the Trekkies, and I guess I’m a member myself. If you love the show, you not only forgive the flubs and the technical glitches, you can’t get enough of them. The more melodramatic the dialogue, the better. And your favorite characters are always the ones larger than life.

At least for me, the cherry atop the sundae is the dynamism of certain actors on the show. This is a little hard to explain coherently, but I’ll try. If you’re an old movie buff, you may have seen performers like Lee Tracy and Tod Slaughter, guys who are so much fun to watch and listen to that you don’t care whether their performances are convincing, and you don’t care whether the plot is any good or not. The entertainment is in watching them do their stuff, and in listening to the relish with which they deliver their lines. Sometimes flamboyance is a lot more fun than realism.

Robert Rodan as Adam.

Robert Rodan as Adam.

It took me a long time to realize that this was the real draw of Dark Shadows, and the element I most enjoyed about the show. Lately I’ve been watching the episodes that aired in the summer of 1968, and while the storyline at this point is pretty good, the real treat is that nearly every one of my favorite Dark Shadows hams is in attendance during this period.

Missing is Dennis Patrick (one of the great unsung TV character actors), who wasn’t really part of the core Dark Shadows family. Patrick played charming villains and cunning sleazeballs on everything from Laramie to The Untouchables to Dallas, and the blackmailer he’d played on this show had been dispatched by Barnabas the previous year.

Jerry Lacy checks in with the low-key role of an attorney, but what you really want is another, far more arresting character he played previously on the show, the ruthless witch-hunter Reverend Trask. (Lacy’s roaring, scenery-chewing performance as Trask was the best thing about the sojourn to the year 1795 that had consumed five long months of the show beginning in November 1967.) By this point in the narrative, Trask too has been killed, but his ghost appears briefly.

Louis Edmonds.

Louis Edmonds.

Of the handful of actors who’d been with the series at its 1966 inception, the only really dynamic one was Louis Edmonds. Most of them had been shoved into the background when Dark Shadows became The Barnabas Collins Show, but Edmonds was too good to keep on the bench. He doesn’t have a great deal to do in these Summer 1968 episodes, but the show springs to life whenever he does appear.

His voice is impossible to capture in print, but it’s one of the greatest treasures of vintage television. It’s a low, rumbling voice with a heavy, formal Mid-Atlantic accent. You’d swear he was a British actor, perhaps trying to tone down his English accent to play his aristocratic American character, Roger Collins. But Edmonds wasn’t English at all; he’d been born and raised in Louisiana. His voice underwent a good deal of training as he learned his craft, but the accent was his own, and he claimed that everyone back home talked just like he did.

Roger Collins is haughty and pompous, frequently seen wearing an ascot and holing a glass of sherry, and the character isn’t necessarily an appealing one. But Edmonds plays that voice of his like a musical instrument, and when he speaks he has my full attention. When I really listen for it, I can sort of hear the Cajun origins of that accent, but maybe it’s just my imagination.

Thayer David was another member of the Dark Shadows acting fraternity, and here in the summer of ’68 he’s playing the stuffy but gentlemanly Professor Stokes. David had been a handsome man in his youth, but by the time he joined the cast at age 39, he’d put on a lot of weight, and his thick, dark lips droop in a way that isn’t very attractive. But those characteristics help make him a memorable character actor, and the quality of his voice really seals it.

Thayer David.

Thayer David.

Again we have an elegantly Mid-Atlantic accent, delivered with genteel formality. There’s also a dignified bearing which makes the character stand out from the rest of the cast, since there are a lot of overwrought people on this show.  David was versatile enough to portray eight different characters during its run (plus another couple in the two movies it spawned). My favorite of those is Count Petofi, a deliriously over-the-top character even by Dark Shadows standards, who wouldn’t appear until July 1969.

Needless to say, the heart of the show is Barnabas Collins, and the appeal of Barnabas is the dynamism of Jonathan Frid’s performance. Frid was a good actor, with a long resume of stage work in the US, England and his native Canada. I find his acting style on Dark Shadows a bit theatrical, which is a good thing. It makes him stand out, and if you’re going to put an 18th-Century vampire in the middle of your aristocratic modern-day soap opera, he needs to stand out. Frid tends to project when he speaks, and with elegant precision, clearly enunciating every syllable.

Physically Frid is thin, sallow and pale, so it’s not such a stretch to believe that he sleeps in a coffin. His hands are oddly huge, but he doesn’t physically dominate the screen— and with that voice, he doesn’t need to. He can be commanding, soothing, courtly or menacing, and his voice does most of the heavy lifting.

The public’s fascination for Barnabas Collins meant that Frid had a lot of pages of dialogue to memorize every night, which was challenging for the actor. Cue cards were always just out of camera range, but Frid was nearsighted and Barnabas Collins didn’t wear glasses. One thing you notice right away is how frequently he looks offstage (with varying degrees of alarm in his eyes), searching for a cue to his next line.

Jonathan Frid.

Jonathan Frid.

Frid is also the king of flubs on the show. Each day’s episode was performed from start to finish live-on-tape, and a mistake had to be awfully severe to prompt an interruption in the process. Editing the videotape in this era was next to impossible, so a lot of outrageous bloopers went out over the air: stagehands can be glimpsed, props fall crashing to the floor, cameras wobble during tracking shots, stone pillars shudder when bumped by an actor, etc.

Virtually the entire cast stumbles through a line of dialogue now and then, but Frid is particularly prone to mistakes. For example, just in the span of three weeks that summer, he offers the following:

“No point in trying to prevent that something that cannot happen.” (Episode 583)

“Well, because if you were to conduct the experiment… Who… How can I… um… fit into that… You’d be giving the life force!” (Episode 584)

“You know what to do, Mag… Vicki… um, uh… You know what to do now, Julia!” (Episode 585)

“We should not have let her… him go to her.” (Episode 597)

“Let’s hope that we suspect isn’t true: that Adam and his mate haven’t left.” (Episode 600)

But hey! The guy was basically performing five new plays every week, with very little rehearsal, and he had to carry much of the dialogue himself. He does a great job under the circumstances, and the bloopers add a lot to the show’s charm. If we can overlook a blown line on Playhouse 90, we can do the same for Dark Shadows.

Frid truly is the star, and his charisma elbows the show’s shortcomings out of the way. No matter how good or how dank the current storyline might be, when Frid is on hand, the show is compelling. I love his dramatic bearing, that velvety voice, and the way he uses it. But there’s someone I like even better.

Humbert Allen Astredo.

Humbert Allen Astredo.

In June 1968, the show presented a new character, Nicholas Blair. The writers were coy about spelling out exactly who and what Blair is, but it emerges over time that he’s a warlock: a supernatural agent of Satan himself with the power to hypnotize anyone into eternal enslavement. He can summon evil spirits and even raise the dead. Throughout that summer, the storyline is centered on Adam, a Frankenstein’s monster who’s been created using the life force of Barnabas himself (a transformation that happily cures Barnabas of vampirism). But the hulking Adam becomes progressively more violent, lonesome and deranged, ultimately threatening to murder the entire Collins family unless a mate is created for him. Nicholas Blair sees this sort of dark science as the perfect means by which to rule the world.

Clearly, this wasn’t a role that just anyone could play. Producer Curtis came up with the perfect, I mean perfect, man for the job: Humbert Allen Astredo.

That sounds like a bad pseudonym, but it really was his name. And I find his performance in this role to be the most dynamic of the entire series. He seldom has a scene with Jonathan Frid, but Astredo owns the stage no matter who he shares it with.

Like Frid, his speech is clipped and precise. Unlike Frid, he rattles off paragraphs of dialogue quickly and accurately. Best of all is his appearance: dapper but in a style not quite of this world, most often seen in a formal, light green suit, complete with hat and gloves. He has dark hair and pointy sideburns, and his eyes are gleaming black holes. He smiles often but like a shark, with an abundance of perfectly even, tiny teeth. He’s courtly and genial, but you know he’s always up to something, always manipulative and devious. There’s a subtle evil behind everything he says and does.05.15.16 - Dark Shadows 04

Nicholas Blair is the perfect villain. Astredo is so eerily perfect for the role that I’m tempted to claim that he wasn’t cast for it, he was summoned for it from the misty candle smoke at a black mass. But now I’m getting carried away. In reality, Astredo was a witty Broadway veteran and sailing enthusiast, known by his friends as “Bud.” Sadly, he passed away in February of this year.

I haven’t mentioned any of the show’s women, and that’s because there just isn’t much to say about them. For the most part they’re not very interesting, even in the show’s early months, when it was a fairly conventional soap about a young governess working for an aristocratic family in an old mansion.

Playing that character, Alexandra Moltke dominates the first several hundred episodes of the series. (Producer Curtis was out of his mind to entrust the leading role of his new soap opera to a young, inexperienced actress, but she worked out just fine.) ‘Forties film star Joan Bennett is also a significant presence in the early going, typically seen wringing her hands and scowling into the camera. Frankly, despite all her experience, the rest of the cast acts rings around her. There are other women on the show, of course. But for the most part I find them dull, unattractive and annoying. There’s very little romantic chemistry or sex appeal in Dark Shadows, even when the narrative requires some.

05.15.16 - Dark Shadows 08  You don’t have to be gay to love Dark Shadows, but maybe it helps. Most of the actors were gay (certainly most of the interesting ones were), and it’s hard to ignore the recurring theme of distraught men with a secret. Barnabas is far more sensitive than cunning. He never refers to himself as a vampire, instead speaking vaguely of “my affliction” or “what I am” while looking away with downcast eyes. Men who become vampires on Dark Shadows never come out and admit it— instead, they wrestle with that identity, struggling and failing to contain impulses they can’t control. After giving in, they’re overcome with self-loathing. You could almost say that the male vampires of Dark Shadows spend their days in the closet rather than the coffin, and in that respect the show is very much a product of the pre-Stonewall era.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. It would have been easy for the show to just follow the conventions of Dracula, but those are usually avoided. Part horror show, part Gothic romance, part character study and part family drama, Dark Shadows is always unique. It always goes its own way.

Now, you can say that Dark Shadows is a silly comic book of a show, and you’d be right. You could also say that it’s an imaginative, unpredictable circus, frequently delightful and always larger than life. You’d be right on that score as well. But whatever it is, as long as there are guys like Edmonds, Frid and Astredo in it…. I’m watching!

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2016 in 1960s Shows

 

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Adventures in Film Collecting

05.08.16 - CansLong before home video, film buffs were collecting their favorite movies on 8mm or 16mm film. From the 1920s onward, various dealers popped up to offer little tin projectors and murky-looking prints of old cartoons and silent comedies.

The variety and the quality got much better over the years, and by the 1960s-70s, film collecting was almost mainstream. Millions of middle-class families owned a reasonably good projector, a shoebox full of home movies, and maybe a few cartoons or “old-time” movies to keep the kids interested.

I got into the hobby myself at age 11 in 1976, buying Super 8mm prints of silent movies from the legendary Blackhawk Films. My mania for vintage TV didn’t emerge until many years later.

By then, film collecting had gone through a near-death experience. Around 1980 a spike in the price of silver drove prices sky-high, and many collectors drifted away to video discs and VHS machines. We die-hards carried on, buying and selling our prints through ads in collector papers like The Big Reel and Film Collectors World.

Brand-new film prints became harder to find. But by then, there were tens of thousands— in fact, probably hundreds of thousands of prints in circulation. All of us found some real treasures over the years.

The lair of a typical film collector.

The lair of a typical film collector.

Among film buffs, there’s a very common bias against anything produced for television. The golden age of Hollywood has a mystique that television has never been able to share. The typical film collector might specialize in silent comedies, or in talkie B-westerns or whatever. But relatively few collectors have much interest in vintage television, even though the TV stuff can be just as entertaining and fascinating as the movies, if not more so.

I have an old friend from the San Diego area who shared some of his collecting adventures for this blog. He’s one of the few film buffs I know who never considered television to be second-class entertainment. He prefers to remain anonymous, so we’ll just call him “George Lugner” (a name producer Mark Goodson once used when he guested on his own show, I’ve Got a Secret).

The stories you are about to hear are true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent… and the not-so-innocent.

………………………………………………………………………

Q: How and when did you get into film collecting?

Lugner: I bought my first Super 8mm prints about 1968. In those days, you could go to Sears and buy little condensations of 1950s science fiction movies, so it was easy. Besides classic comedy, my focus has always been on horror, science fiction and fantasy. I made the jump to 16mm in 1972 or ’73— the quality was so much better with 16mm, but 16mm was a lot more expensive— and a year or two after that, I began collecting my all-time favorite TV show, The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves. Harley Jeske had Superman dupes for fifty or sixty bucks each. Then I started networking with other film collectors, they connected me with their contacts, and I was on my way.

Q: How many of those Supermans did you have by the time I met you, in 1981 or ’82?

Lugner: Twenty of thirty. It took a lot of time, and a lot of looking, but eventually I got them all. And along the way, I was upgrading. If I had a dupe of an episode and an original came along, I’d buy the original and sell off the dupe.

Q: I met you at Sean Rock’s house in San Diego. He was a big film buff. Besides having theater chairs and a huge outdoor screen in his backyard, he’d turned his living room into a screening room, with a separate projection booth. I’d never seen TV shows on film, projected onto a screen, until then. The difference between seeing them that way, versus on a little TV set between commercial breaks, was like night and day.

Lugner: Some of the prints we showed were mine. But Sean and his crowd were mostly into movies. I’d put a terrific first-season episode of Superman on the screen and the room would almost empty out.

Q: They’d all salivate over a two-reel short subject. But a 25-minute movie made for TV? Forget it.

Lugner: Right.

Q: I still got to see a few great TV things on the big screen there. I remember a good one was an episode of a 1950s anthology show, and it had Bert Lahr and Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz in it.

Lugner: Right, Bert Lahr discovers a gold mine in the New York City subway system and Hamilton plays his wife. I don’t remember what series that was from. (Editor’s note: It was a very obscure show, Rendezvous (1:12, “A Very Fine Deal,” December 6, 1958).)

The murderous wax figures of "The New Exhibit." That one in the middle gave me a few sleepless nights.

The murderous wax figures of “The New Exhibit.” That one in the middle gave me a few sleepless nights.

Q: One of you guys brought in a print of the first hour-long Twilight Zone I’d ever seen (4:13, “The New Exhibit,” April 4, 1963). I remember being very creeped out by it, seeing it in the dark on the big screen in Sean’s living room. To this day, it’s the only Twilight Zone that ever really got to me.

Lugner: That was mine, another print that I picked up and then traded away— or sold away. I also showed another one of those at Sean’s, “He’s Alive” with Dennis Hopper.

Q: Tell me about other TV show prints that passed through your hands over the years. I was mainly into silent movies in those days, but I remember you had stray episodes of shows I’d never heard of then, like M Squad.

Lugner: Most of it was things I didn’t necessarily want to keep forever, but I’d grab it to watch, and re-sell. I had the Three Stooges on Ed Wynn, an original (1:25, March 11, 1950). I had pilots for Get Smart— the 25-minute syndicated version, and the unaired 30-minute pilot.

Q: I still remember when you ran that for us at your parents’ place. I’m not a huge Get Smart fan, but that pilot was great.

Lugner: I had pilots for Land of the Giants, Lost in Space (with and without Dr. Smith)… all of this is out on Blu-Ray now, but in those days it was all unseen and forgotten. I had the Batman pilot. I had a gorgeous print of the Star Trek “Trouble with Tribbles,” which I ran at one of the early comic conventions for a standing-room-only crowd. None of them had ever seen the original Star Trek up on a movie screen, and it went over like gangbusters, people laughing and applauding and enjoying it all together as one big audience. That sort of thing eventually stopped. They stopped using collector prints at shows like that.

05.08.16 - Korla PanditQ: I remember you had those little fillers with Korla Pandit playing the organ.

Lugner: Yeah, those all ran fifteen minutes or so. They were made so that TV stations would have something to fill out the hour with, when a movie ran short. They couldn’t just run commercials for ten or fifteen minutes straight, so they’d run these Korla Pandit things. At one time I had thirty or forty. I think I still have a couple of them. Those came from a collector whose niece was selling them off really cheap.

Q: I remember watching those with you in your parents’ garage. He kept looking up from his keyboard with a mysterious smile and then looking down again.

Lugner: At one time I had this reel that was nothing but openings, closings and commercials from The Abbott and Costello Show, where they were pushing Chunky candy bars. I knew a guy who really collected Abbott and Costello, so I called him and let him know it was available. I asked for $500, and instantly he says “Sold!” I felt great. Then he tells me he would’ve offered me two grand for it.

Q: I don’t think the DVDs of that show have the original closings on them.

Lugner: No. Once I had an episode of The Felony Squad with Russell Johnson in it. He played an arsonist (2:26, “The Human Target,” March 18, 1968). I knew that he was going to be appearing at a convention that was coming up, so I film-chained it and made a VHS copy. I gave it to him and he was ecstatic, which was nice.

Q: How about kinescopes? Did you ever run across very many of those?

Lugner: Now and then. I probably had some one-of-a-kind kinescopes to shows you’ll never see again. One had Dick York from Bewitched, one of those shows they did live on the air. I think it was a cop show. There was one shot where there’s a guy on a gurney, and they wheel him in and they bump the wall, which shakes like it’s about to fall over. I’m trying to remember the title. (Editor’s note: This may have been Eye on New York (“Night of the Auk,” December 1, 1956).) I had a couple Colgate Comedy Hours with commercials. I had a Jackie Gleason Show with a live Honeymooners sketch in it, and commercials of Jackie pushing products.

Q: Tell me about that package of Felix the Cat cartoons. Somewhere around 1985 or 1986 you suddenly had a ton of Felix cartoons from the 1920s, which had been released to television in the ‘50s. I bought a bunch of those from you.

Lugner: Well, there was a guy named Mack Plummer, who’s still around. He called me one time and offered me complete runs of three or four shows I wanted: every episode of each. I said okay and wrote him a check. He came back saying there was a delay and that he needed more money. I wrote another check. He never did come up with the prints. What happened was, he was involved in a video store that was in trouble and he spent my money trying to save this store. So I started talking mail fraud if he couldn’t make good on what he owed me, or at least make an effort. In the end I was only able to get this package of Felix cartoons. In the ‘50s someone turned up these silent Felixes, and slapped soundtracks on them: just tinkly piano music and occasionally a guy going “Me-wowwww,” you know. And independent stations would run them. I had about fifty of them. A few were still silent for some reason, and there were some duplicates here and there.

Q: There are a lot of eccentric collectors and dealers. You told me about this one guy who’s a major TV collector and his house is full of stacks of boxes of film reels, including stuff he’d get in the mail and then never open.

Lugner: He’s still around. He’s ticked off every person he’s ever come in contact with. He was involved in one of the annual film conventions until he alienated everybody there. When I met him, he was living with his elderly mother, who couldn’t have been sweeter, and he would talk down to her. After she died, he inherited the house and it became the dumping ground for his film collection. Film everywhere. In his room was just a cot, a table with rewinds, and big racks of films. He used to make good money selling trailers and clips to things like Entertainment Tonight, but when the internet came in, it killed off that business.

Q: Wow.

Lugner: There was another guy who’d rent films from Universal 16. He’d keep the prints and mail back a box with bricks in it. He never got in trouble for it; he’d just play dumb.

Q: There were guys who’d get film prints from TV stations.

Lugner: Well, until around twenty years ago, anytime you saw a movie or a syndication TV show on your local station, you were seeing a 16mm film print. A station would lease a package of prints of old movies (or they’d lease an old TV series) for five years, with an option to renew. If the station didn’t want to pay to renew that lease, they could either destroy the films and mail in a form, saying the films were destroyed… or they could box up all those prints and mail them back to Bonded. Well, if you’re some guy working at the TV station, you know it’s a lot easier to just carry the prints out to the dumpster and be done with it.

I'm sure they lock the dumpsters now.

I’m sure they lock the dumpsters now.

Q: I remember hearing about a collector who found an entire run of I Love Lucy in a dumpster, and loaded up his car with Lucys.

Lugner: Yeah, there was a guy in L.A. who’d drive over to Channel 11 and check their dumpster every week on the day before trash day. Eventually he hit the jackpot and there was a whole run of I Love Lucy, still in the yellow Viacom cans. Another time, Channel 51 in San Diego threw out their entire film collection. My friends Matt and Ross were working close to the station, and they heard about it, so they went over there on their lunch break and just loaded up their cars.

Q: I remember that.

Lugner: And the equipment got junked too. These expensive machines that would run the films and send them out over the air…. they were just sitting there in the rain. The real heartbreaker was Channel 6. I knew they had a ton of film, and I knew that eventually it would all go in the trash. And I knew a guy who worked there. I’d call him every few months to touch base and let him know I’d make it worth his while, if he’d tell me when it was time to dump the prints. And then one day they threw out all the prints, and the guy never told me.

Q: And throughout all of these years, you were steadily working on your Adventures of Superman collection.

Lugner: I was looking for episodes from the mid-’70s all the way until the mid-‘90s. I finally got every one of them, all 104 episodes.

Q: I remember a lot of them had the original bumpers at the commercial breaks— “The Adventures of Superman will continue in just a moment!”

Lugner: The down side of collecting on film is that the color can start to go red. You can pick up scratches. The print can turn vinegar. When I discovered that some of the color prints were just beginning to turn warm, I began selling them off. I got as much money for the bad ones as I did for the good ones. I don’t have many Supermans left now.

Q: And besides all the episodes, you had pilots for Superboy and Superpup.

05.08.16 - Stamp Day for Superman.Lugner: My prize was “Stamp Day for Superman,” which was a special short made by the government where Superman tells everybody to buy savings bonds. Dupes were all over the place, but I wanted an original. Finally I met a guy who had one, which he’d personally bought direct from the U.S. Treasury for about two hundred dollars. (There was a time when you could buy things like that from the Treasury, like Abbott and Costello pitching savings bonds.) It was almost pristine mint. I’ve never found another original. So that was my prize. I even sent it to a film lab to have it coated, to treat it. But then the print couldn’t breathe, and it turned vinegar. Finally the vinegar was so bad that it couldn’t be projected anymore. But I kept it for another two or three years anyway! Finally I threw it out and didn’t look back. All of that took the wind out of my sails as far as film collecting went. That was about 2007.

Q: I’ve sold 99% of my 16mm. It’s still the golden age of collecting, but video just makes way more sense than film.

Lugner: There’s still no substitute for the way film looks, projected on a big screen. But yeah.

Q: Tell me about the “Warehouse O’ Film.” I’ve been hearing about that place for years, but only in bits and pieces.

Lugner: Jay Masterson had this warehouse. I knew collectors who shopped there, but they kept it a secret from me. It was the promised land for film collectors. Finally I happened to meet the guy at the Ray Courts show. (Editor’s note: this was the forerunner of the Hollywood collectors’ shows, at which dealers sell their goods and yesteryear’s celebrities sell signed photos.) He handed me a flyer and I went up there the next week.

Q: When and where was this?

Lugner: Mid-‘80s. In Burbank, he had a warehouse. Just big gorilla racks, piled floor to ceiling with pallets of film. Boxes of film everyplace. New lab prints. Well, nearly new. Everything was priced very reasonably. Movies, cartoons, TV— cartoons were five dollars each— he just wanted to get things out of there and he had new stuff arriving on a regular basis.

Q: He had complete runs of various TV series?

Lugner: Maybe every TV series you’d see in syndication was there. He had TV shows for about twenty bucks in the box, but Supermans were fifty. Most of the color prints looked pristine because Warners had done some restoration on those. Some of the Batmans he sold were red but they were in good shape otherwise. He had original Bilkos, still in their boxes, and over time I bought about fifty of them. F Troop… you name it. Bryce Schwab would buy complete runs of Batman, Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, The Green Hornet and so on. Mint low-fades.

Q: But how did Jay get all of this film in the first place?

Lugner: He got them from Bonded Film Services. They originally came from the studios— the labs— and they’d go out to TV stations. Then when the leases expired, the stations would either destroy them (or toss them out and say they were destroyed), or they’d get sent back to Bonded.

Q: But how did Jay get them?

Lugner: If the prints came back to Bonded and they were considered too old to keep in circulation, Bonded didn’t want them anymore. It would embarrass the stations to run something with a splice or a scratch in it, so Bonded figured that when the print had gone through the equipment so many times, its working life was over and it needed to be retired. Now there’s a trace amount of silver in film. That’s where Jay comes in. He would pick up a load of film, sign something saying he was going to reclaim the silver, and now he’s got all these prints.

Q: I see.

Lugner: I think he told me he was paying them about $1.10 per fifty pounds of film. So officially, his warehouse is full of stuff for silver reclamation. But if you come in and you’ve got cash in your pocket, he’ll make you a deal.

Q: Now I get it.

Lugner: He was a great guy. Most of the collectors called him Jabba, like Jabba the Hutt, because he weighed about four hundred pounds. He’d sit behind his desk, give orders to a couple of Mexican guys working for him, and they’d go pull prints for you. But if he knew you were looking for something in particular, he’d tell you he had it, and then he’d charge you twice as much for it. But it would still be cheap. Behind his desk was what he called the “gems.” For example, mint Star Treks for fifty bucks each, which I would later on sell for $200 or $300 each.

Q: And you made a living selling film prints, basically.

Lugner: This was before the internet. If I knew then what I know now, I’d have borrowed every nickel I could find and I’d have bought as much stuff as I could get, which would have been a lot! Film collecting is mostly on the internet now. The big collectors are on eBay— there’s a big Bewitched collector. There’s a Lucy collector, who’s sold almost all of his prints by now…

Q: So whatever happened to the “Warehouse O’ Film”?

Lugner: The Northridge earthquake hit and damaged the warehouse. He said “Screw it,” closed up shop, moved to Vegas and died on his toilet. Like Elvis.

The Lost in Space pilot. Penny knows that a little picture tube can't compare to the big screen.

The Lost in Space pilot. Penny knows that a little picture tube can’t compare to the big screen.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2016 in 1950s Shows, 1960s Shows

 

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