The Munsters: Typical American Monster Family

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 Welcome back to the A to Z Bloggers Challenge. Thank you for reading–I appreciate having you here! Today we will discuss another monstrously popular 1960s family sitcom, The Munsters! The Munsters were one of many family monster shows aired in the sixties, but according to Butch Patrick’s Munsters.com, unlike other shows, the idea for The Munsters was first suggested to Universal Studios in the 1940s by Bob Clampett who envisioned the show as a series of cartoons. Americans were still obsessed with Westerns in the 1940s, though, and the show was rejected, but a similar project was suggested by the creators of the popular Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons–Allan Burns and Chris Hayward–in the 1960s when supernatural and science fiction shows were replacing the happy homemaker shows of the 1950s.

Universal executives continued to argue over whether or not the show should be a cartoon or live-action. The pilot was finally filmed by MCA Television in Live-Action for CBS, and the show was a hit.  The Munsters, filmed in black and white, was on the air for two years, from September 24, 1964 to May 12, 1966, but we all know that shows are not necessarily cancelled based on a lack of popularity. The Munsters are popular to this day. They still have many fans and a few websites dedicated completely to the show. So today, M is for The Munsters!

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The cast of The Munsters in a publicity photo taken in October of 1964. The photo shows Butch Patrick as Eddie Munster seated to the left; Fred Gwynne, who played Herman Munster seated on the chair; Beverly Owen, who played the family’s only “normal” member, oldest daughter Marilyn (she was later replaced by Pat Priest); and standing, Yvonne De Carlo as Lily Munster; and Al Lewis as Grandpa Munster. 

The Munsters was created as a satire, mocking the Leave it to Beaver-type family shows of the 1950s and the 1960s monster obsession in shows such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. The appeal of The Munsters, however, was quite similar to the appeal of another monster family show that ran at the same time: The Addams Family. Audiences loved The Munsters because this family of monsters view themselves as perfectly normal and the rest of the world as strange!

Meet the Munsters

There are five primary characters in the Munster family: Herman, the Frankenstein-look-alike, hardworking head of the household who clomps about their dark and creepy mansion in big black boots. Herman’s lovely, graceful wife, Lily, with her trademark streak of white highlighting her thick, black hair is the actual head of the household making all important family decisions. Lily’s character is strong, logical, and level-headed, while Herman tends to panic in stressful situations. She is also supposed to be a vampire.

MunstersFred Gwynne and Yvonne De Carlo as Herman and Lily Munster.  Trailer screenshot, 1964.

Herman and Lily have two children. Their oldest daughter, Marilyn, is sweet, compassionate, and as normal as normal can be under the circumstances. She is also the source of quite a few family conflict plots as her beauty tends to attract many young men who her Munster parents disapprove of, mainly because they are too normal, and her father is a bit overprotective of his only, and exceptionally lovely, daughter. Eddie is the youngest member of the family, a bit precocious for his age, who, like his father, tends to get into trouble because he spends too much time with his grandfather, who also lives with the family and creates quite a bit of havoc with his many grand ideas. Grandpa is also a vampire and Eddie is a werewolf.

The_Munsters_Butch_Patrick_1965Butch Patrick as Eddie Munster, the precocious baby of the family who hangs out with his grandpa. 

The episode plots for The Munsters generally involve the troubles that arise when Grandpa comes up with a new invention in his dungeon, or a money-making scheme (remember, this is a typical, middle-class, hardworking family), or some other great idea and he creeps about the house in his black cape trying to convince Eddie to assist, or Herman to go along with the idea. It was rather clever of the producers to cast Fred Gwynne as Herman and Al Lewis as Grandpa since the two had recently appeared together in the Emmy award-winning Car 54 Where Are You?, which ran from 1961 to 1963.

The Munster Mansion

Although the premise behind The Munsters was to have a bunch of monsters living like a typical middle-class family, the Munsters actually lived in a multi-level Victorian mansion with an address that became semi-famous with Munster fan clubs: 1313 Mockingbird Lane in Mockingbird Heights, California. The show was actually filmed at the Universal Studios, but the house used in the show was an actual house built in 1946 for the film So Goes My Love, according to an article on Wikipedia, which also states that the house can be seen as a backdrop in other shows filmed at Universal Studios, such as Leave it to Beaver.

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The Munster Mansion at Universal Studios.

Now for some bedtime trivia: There were rumors when I was a teenager that The Munsters was the first show that implied a married couple shared the same bed–yes youngsters it’s true, 1950s sitcoms showed couples in separate beds. I also believed the first couple shown in the same bed was Dick and Laura on the Dick Van Dyke Show, but apparently there was a series called Mary Kay and Johnny in 1947 that showed a married couple’s bed as a single bed. The first actors who were not actually married to each other in real life, but had one bed in their show, was Samantha and Darrin Stephens of Bewitched, which was discussed earlier on this blog.

The Munster Koach

Another misconception on my part–I always thought the Munsters only had one vehicle. A man named George Barris created two automobiles for The Munsters. The first one, The Munster Koach, was actually a, 18 foot long hot rod that was built out of a 1926 Ford Model T chassis with a hearse body. The vehicle cost $20,000 to build–a lot of money back then.

munsterkoachHerman Munster and the Munster Koach.

However, there was a second family vehicle. Barris also built a car called the DRAG-U-LA (clever!), which was a dragster made out of a real coffin. Grandpa used the DRAG-U-LA in a race to win back the Munster Koach when Herman lost it in another race in the episode “Hot Rod Herman,” which aired on May 27, 1965. (See what I mean? Always scheming!)

Mockingbird Lane

Mockingbird Lane, a semi-remake of The Munsters aired on October 26, 2012. The show was written and developed by Bryan Fuller who also created two of my favorite supernatural television serials, Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies. The show was created with the hopes of convincing NBC to pick it up as a regular series. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and only one episode was filmed.

Sources:

  • Decaro, Frank. “A Neighborhood Where Every day was Halloween.” Television. The New York Times. Published November 19. 2008. Accessed April 10, 2013. 
  • Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Patrick, Butch. “About The Munsters.” Butch Patrick Presents The Munsters.com.
  • The Munsters. Creators: Allan Burns, Chris Hayward. Perf. Fred Gwynne, Al Lewis, Yvonne De Carlo, Butch Patrick, Pat Priest, Beverly Owen. Columbia Broadcasting Systems and Kayro-Vue Productions. Running Time: 30 min.

Lost in Space: Classic Family Science Fiction

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Welcome to day twelve of the A to Z Bloggers Challenge! I hope you’re having fun! Today we’ll take a look at one of my favorite childhood television shows, which also happens to fit perfectly in the supernatural classic television serial category: Lost in Space! Lost in Space first aired on CBS on September 15, 1965. The last show was on September 11, 1968. The show never ranked in the Top 25. (I’m beginning to see a trend here. All of my favorite childhood shows, shows with fan clubs and followings, and pictures on lunch boxes never hit the Top 25! I think this may be because adults voted on the Top 25, or (gasp) the sponsors!)

Lost in Space, like so many of the early supernatural shows, was far from high-tech when it came to the show’s sets. In fact, they were often rather silly looking, but that’s okay because we didn’t watch the show for the set, we watched it for the plot, and this show had a great plot! Imagine your family traveling in a spaceship and becoming lost in space! Cool!

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This photo is from the pilot show for Lost in Space. The photo shows the Robinson family and the geologist who traveled with them being placed in suspended animation before beginning their space flight. Shown from left to right are: Angela Cartwright, Billy Mumy, Marta Kristen, June Lockhart, Guy Williams, and Mark Goddard.

The great Irwin Allen was the creator and Producer of Lost in Space. Allen is most famous for The Towering Inferno (1974) and the original The Poseidon Adventure, which was made in 1972 and earned him the title Master of Disaster. Allen won an Oscar for his equally famous documentary The Sea Around Us. In the early days of his career, though, Allen created numerous science fiction shows, including Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space. Lost in Space is considered by many to be his best science fiction work, mainly because they thought it was so funny! I just thought it was fun.

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 The robot and the villain, Dr. Zachary Smith, played by Jonathan Harris. Dr. Smith was written into the show at the last minute and not expected to stay on the show more than a few weeks, but the overwhelming amount of fan mail in his defense kept him on the show. This is a publicity photo used by Jonathan Harris to promote his role. 

However, here’s an interesting bit of trivia: Irwin Allen, the creator, believed he was making a serious show, but everyone else was under the impression it was supposed to be funny! According to John Javna’s Cult TV, the original plot consisted of the family and the geologist, but the story editor, Tony Wilson, suggested adding a robot and a villain, which created a comedic element. Allen Irwin and the show’s director, Don Richardson, met with the network executives to watch the pilot. While they were watching the film, the network executives suddenly started laughing hysterically. Irwin, who lacked a sense of humor, was furious and ready to stomp out of the room. Richardson claims he kicked Irwin under the table and whispered, “They’re buying it!” And he was correct, CBS bought the show.

The First Family to Journey Into Space

Well, first you need a spaceship. The original spaceship was called Gemini 12 in the pilot, but the pilot episode never aired because it was missing the villain and the robot. The spaceship was renamed for the first episode.

lost in spaceshipThe Jupiter 2 saucer-shaped space ship, which of course was created to resemble a classic UFO!

It is October 16, 1997 (this was approximately 30 years from the start of the show). The United States is about to make history as they prepare to launch the Jupiter 2, a saucer-shaped ship, into space with a carefully-chosen family on board who will begin a five 1/2 year journey to Alpha Centauri, a nearby star possessing the perfect conditions to sustain human life. There were two million volunteers for this mission, but the Robinson family was selected for the project, so you can assume they all have superior intelligence.

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Guy Williams and June Lockhart play Professor John Robinson and his wife, Maureen, in Lost in Space.

The Robinson family is headed by Professor John Robinson (Guy Williams), an astrophysicist and the father of the Robinson clan. Williams was a male model before the show, but his career took off when he was cast as Zorro in the 1957 Disney television series. His wife, Maureen, a biochemist, is played by June Lockhart, who starred in Lassie, Petticoat Junction, and many other popular television shows and films.

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Billy Mumy and Angela Cartwright who play Will and Penny Robinson in Lost in Space.  

The couple has three children: Judy (Mart Kristen); Penny (who, along with her sister, is one of my favorite childhood actresses, Angela Cartwright); and Will, an electronics whiz kid who is played by Billy Mumy, the young actor who appeared in one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, “It’s a Good Life,” a truly freaky show about a boy who terrifies everyone around him because he has the ability to make them disappear. By the time he was 11, Billy Mumy appeared in over 100 TV shows. He was definitely an asset to the show.

Marta_Kristen_Jonathan_Harris_Lost_in_Space_1966Marta Kristen plays the oldest Robinson child, Judy. She is shown here with Dr. Zachary Smith, played by Jonathan Harris, in a trailer screenshot taken in 1966. 

The military pilot of the Jupiter 2 is U.S. Space Corps Major Donald West (Mark Goddard). Although the ship is designed to fly itself, West is trained to take over in case any of the systems fail.  He is Dr. Smith’s foil, dedicated to protecting the family and eventually bringing them safely home. He has no patience for the evil Dr. Smith.

A bit more trivia: Actor Mark Goddard originally agreed to play Major Donald West in the pilot for Lost in Space, but he did not agree to do the show. He was uncomfortable acting in science fiction, but when the show sold, he was stuck. He later became a regular on the soap opera General Hospital.

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 Actor Wally Cox and Robot. Cox plays an alien who believes his planet is being invaded in an episode of Lost in Space. 

Contrary to popular belief, the robot is not named Robby. Robby was the robot in Forbidden Planet, and the two resemble each other, but the robot on Lost in Space has no name. He is a Class M-3 Model B9 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot with superhuman strength and built-in weaponry. He has human emotions–he laughs, becomes sad, is occasionally sarcastic, and can sing and play the guitar. He is played by Bob May in a costumed designed and created by Bob Stewart.

So, how Does a Family Become Lost in Space?

So, did the system fail? How did the family become lost in space? That’s where the villain comes into the story! There are (of course) other countries trying desperately to sabotage the project. Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris), who is a medical doctor and environmental control expert, is also a spy! That’s right folks, he is a secret agent! (I loved secret agent movies as much as I loved science fiction as a kid. Remember I Spy? Mission Impossible? The Man from U.N.C.L.E.? I thought the addition of a spy to the cast was perfect! But I digress–back to the story).

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 Jonathan Harris as Dr. Zachary Smith, the villain on Lost in Space.

The ship goes off course for two reasons. First, Dr. Smith reprograms the Jupiter 2 so it’s critical systems will be destroyed eight hours after the ship is launched. Second, Dr. Smith is accidentally trapped on board (No one said he was a good spy!) and his additional weight, in addition to the weight of his robot, an extra 200 pounds, throws the sensitive timing of the ship off course just enough to send it into a meteor storm. Finally, the robot goes on a rampage and the Robinson family is now hopelessly lost in space.

“Danger, Danger Will Robinson!”

I had to find a way to fit that quote into the post. It’s one of my favorites. I still use it. In fact, I used it often when teaching my five children how to drive, and when I used that line my children would look at me as if to say, “What on earth is she talking about?” but adults my age know (especially if they are teaching their children how to drive!) This is the phrase the robot uses when talking to young Will, warning him that Dr. Smith is creating even more chaos to place Will and his family in danger. He would also say “That does not compute,” a phrase my siblings and I often used on my poor mother.

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 Robot and Will. The Robot often warns Will that he is in danger from Dr. Smith by shouting “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!” One of my all-time favorite lines from a television show.

Dr. Smith’s role in this show is to place the Robinsons in danger. In fact, that’s pretty much all he does, which would seem to be rather boring for a man of his superior intelligence, but remember, he is a villain, and he enjoys what he does! In the later shows Dr. Smith’s villainous is less, um, villainy, but in the beginning he is one of the most dangerous men the Robinson family has ever encountered.

An Uncharacteristic act of Compassion

There is one moment in the show’s run where Dr. Smith displays a surprising amount of compassion. In the episode “The Time Merchant,” which aired on January 17, 1968, the last year of the show’s run, Dr. Smith finds a way to travel back in time to the day the ship is first launched, hoping to change his personal history by escaping from the ship before blast off.

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The evil Dr. Zachary Smith played by Jonathan Harris, spends pretty much all of his time devising ways to place the Robinson family in peril, but his devious plans are always thwarted. In one episode, however, “The Time Merchant,” Smith actually stops himself from harming the Robinson family. 

When Smith calculates the results of what will happen without his weight on board, he discovers that without him, the family will die when the ship collides with an uncharted asteroid and explodes. By this time in the show, Smith has become somewhat emotionally attached to the family, particularly young Will. Smith decides to reboard the ship and relive the experience exactly as he did the first time in order to save the lives of the Robinson family. It is a brilliant episode, in my opinion. It shows tremendous strength of character for Dr. Smith to make this decision as he is generally revealed to be a coward.

All Good Things Must Come to an end…

Lost in Space was nominated for an Emmy in 1966 for Cinematography and Special Photographic Effects. It was nominated again in 1968 for Achievement in Visual Arts & Makeup. Perhaps even more importantly, John F. Kennedy, Jr., declared it was his favorite childhood show!

lost in spaceThe cast of Lost in Space were preparing to shoot the fourth season when they were told the show was cancelled with explanation. 

 The cast was preparing to shoot the episodes for the 1968/1969 season when they were told the show was cancelled, and they were never told why it was cancelled. Wikipedia has an article online that speculates on some possible reasons, such as a high budget–the salaries of some of the actors were nearly doubled as the show increased in popularity. The show was also owned by 20th Century Fox, a company that suffered tremendous financial losses from the production cost ($44 million) of Cleopatra and the record-breaking salary ($1 million) of its star, Elizabeth Taylor. The show was also beginning to decline in ratings, which is surprising considering the extreme disappointment of its fans when it was cancelled.

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Trailer screenshot from the 1998 film Lost in Space

In 1998, Lost in Space was revived as a blockbuster film with a remarkable cast including Gary Oldman; William Hurt, Mimi Rogers; and Heather Graham. Some of the original cast members were also in the film, such as June Lockhart; Mark Goddard; Angela Cartwright, and Marta Kristen. Although the Internet Movie Database rated the film with a 4.9, I thought it was fantastic and was thrilled to see the show revived, even if it was for a one-time film.

Sources: 

  • Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Lost in Space. Creator Irwin Allen. Perf. Mark Goddard, Guy Williams, June Lockhart, Jonathan Harris, Marta Kristen, Billy Mumy, Angela Cartwright. 20th Century Television. Running Time: 60 min.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker

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Welcome to day eleven of the A to Z Bloggers Challenge! Thank you for reading! Today we’ll take a look at the 1970s short-run, but oh so fun news reporter, Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) who somehow managed to find every strange creature and event in Chicago for the Independent News Service in the supernatural television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

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Darren McGavin as Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Carl Kolchak investigates mysterious crimes. He is particularly drawn to crimes that have unlikely causes and appears to the local law enforcement to be a bit ridiculous because he insists on pursuing crimes that they believe are solved. Kolchak, however, is a careful investigator and always finds some piece of evidence pointing to the possibility that there is a supernatural cause for the event.

Kolchak’s character as a reporter is a bit cliched. He drives a sharp-looking yellow Mustang and is always dressed in the same wrinkled suit that looks like he sleeps in it. He wears a reporter’s hat and sometimes has a racing ticket or note in the band. He has a knack for getting the “exclusive” on a story as he is always shown with both his camera and cassette tape recorder, but he often has to try quite a few times throughout the show to catch the evidence he needs because he is so often shocked into dropping his camera or running for his life.

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Kolchak always solves the crime by exposing some supernatural cause of the crime,but his evidence mysteriously disappears. 

Once he manages to obtain the required evidence it inevitably disappears, along with some local official who is also involved in the story. Thus, the story remains unsolved and only Kolchak and the government know the truth–that the crime was committed by an alien, a zombie, a werewolf, or witch. Kolchak also encounters mummies; Satan; ghosts; the Headless Horseman; Jack the Ripper; a prehistoric man; Helen of Troy; and others that I can’t remember now, but they were certainly scary in 1974!

Quirky Characters

In addition to strange creatures, Kolchak was also forced to deal with some quirky characters on the show, both allies and enemies, or those who aren’t so helpful. In the not-so-helpful category we find Kolchak’s editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) resembles the cliched angry police lieutenant who is constantly arguing with Kolchak about his questionable investigative techniques. These arguments end with Vincenzo ranting about his blood pressure or stomach problems. Kolchak must also cope with the insults and harassment of Captain Mad Dog Siska (Keenan Wynn), the local police officer whose temper and lack of patience rivals that of Vincenzo. And of course, Kolchak has a competing reporter at INS who is his foil, his complete opposite. Ron Updyke (Jack Grinnage) does not wear the same suit every show. He is a sharp dresser who plays the French horn.

Keenan_Wynn_in_Annie_Get_Your_Gun_trailer

Keenan Wynn in a trailer screenshot from Annie Get Your Gun. Wynn plays Captain Mad Dog Siska in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, an irritable police captain who finds Carl Kolchak annoying. 

In the helpful category of characters we find another INS employee is Emily Cowles (Ruth McDevitt) who write the column “Miss Emily.” Emily is Kolchak’s ally. She believes in him, which doesn’t do much for his career as her job is to write puzzles and offer advice to the elderly, but they do have a strong relationship. Monique Mamelstein (Carol Ann Susi), an INS intern who got the job through her Uncle. She is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, but everyone believes the only reason she’s with the INS is her uncle. There is also Gordy “The Ghoul” Spangler (John Fiedler) who works at the morgue and assists Kolchak in finding some of the morbid pieces of evidence.

How the Show Began

Contrary to what one might think, Kolchak: The Night Stalker was not cancelled due to low ratings, but the usual nasty television politics. Kolchak was originally a character in a novel that remained unpublished until after the show was released.

Kolchak’s character influenced two made for TV films that were combined to create the television show: The Night Stalker, which aired in 1972 and also starred McGavin as a Las Vegas reporter tracking a vampire; and The Night Strangler, 1973, which again stars McGavin as a reporter stalking a chemist who kills women for their blood.

An Unhappy Star Brings a Quick end to Kolchak

Kolchak: The Night Stalker was cancelled after only one year. The series aired at 10 p.m. on Friday nights, which was bad timing for older teenagers interested in horror, but perfect for kids like me who would sneak out of bed after our parents were sleeping and watch late night TV. Darren McGavin was unhappy with the show, though. He was given a tremendous responsibility for the show including work as the show’s producer, work that he was not paid for and finally refused to continue, which brought the show to an end. Frankly, I think the politics in Hollywood are ridiculous. This show could have continued for years and built a huge fan following if they had aired it at a decent hour and given McGavin the support–and financial compensation–he required.

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Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak

However, this was not the end for Kolchak! Kolchak is occasionally seen on reruns on the Sci-Fi Channel and sometimes appears on the Chiller channel, as well. In 2005 the show was revived for a short time. It also spawned fiction books and a comic book. The show has numerous fan pages and fans frequently credit Kolchak: The Night Stalker with influencing the creator of The X-Files, Chris Carter. According to the Screen Spy blog, Walt Disney Productions plans to revive the character of Kolchak starring Johnny Depp, which would be so cool!

Source:

  • Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Creator: Jeffrey Grant Rice. Perf. Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Jack Grinnage. Universal TV Productions. Running Time: 51 min.

“A Hundred Yards Over the Rim.”: The Twilight Zone

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Welcome to day eight of the A to Z Bloggers Challenge! I’m having fun, and I hope you are, too, because today we’re taking a look at the 1961 Twilight Zone episode “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” starring Cliff Robertson where H stands for a Hundred Yards, which may seem trivial when the word stands alone, but when you are the one standing in the vast desert surrounded by sand and cactus without another person in sight, a hundred yards seems to go on forever.

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Cholla buds in the setting sun of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

This is one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes for many reasons. First, it takes place in New Mexico, where I now live and have lived in the past on numerous occasions. I love the high desert. It is a beautiful place with spacious skies, strange wind storms and a mystical feel that is difficult to explain, but it certainly is portrayed well in this episode.

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Sandy hilltop in the high desert of New Mexico near Albuquerque. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman. 

I also like this episode because it is a Western, and I love Westerns! I write about the American Old West in my blog Wild West History. As I walk through the desert with my dogs admiring the tall Cholla cactus trees with their masses of pink flowers and listening to the coyotes howling in the distance I often imagine what it would be like to be a pioneer traveling through this area in the 1800s, and this is the topic of “A Hundred Yard Over the Rim.” The story also deals with time travel, one of Rod Serling’s favorite topics, and mine, too, since I am constantly daydreaming about being a pioneer!

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Flowering Cholla tree in the New Mexico desert. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

I also like the title, which captures the emotion of this episode so perfectly. A hundred yards. It seems like such a short distance, but when you’re traveling in the desert everything seems so vast.

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New Mexico sandstorm. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Sometimes it feels as if you can see from Alaska to Mexico, and it all looks so familiar, and yet, different enough that if you walk too far away from your source of transportation you will easily become lost, especially if the spring winds are blowing and the sands are slamming into you like a wall. It is so very easy to get lost in the desert at any time of year, and this is what happens to Cliff Robertson in tonight’s episode, “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim.”

The Wagon Train

In “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” Cliff Robertson is Christian Horn, the leader of a wagon train. As the story opens, we see the train of wagons moving over the hot sand with mountains in the distance. The wagons stop. Robertson leaves the front of his wagon and walks around to the opening in the back of the canvas cover. to check with his wife. She is caring for their young son, who is extremely ill. The child has been sick for 11 days.

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Conestoga Wagon on the Oregon Trail. Photo by National Park Service. 

Robertson is wearing a dusty black overcoat and top hat and looks beyond exhausted, as well. He dampens a cloth with a bit of water and hands it to his wife, who looks frantic. “He just can’t take anymore, Christian,” she tells him, and she’s probably right, eleven days of fever in the 1800s is a long time, especially when traveling through the hot desert. Christian, however, tells her the boy will take more, just like the rest of them. He isn’t showing much sympathy, but perhaps he is trying to show strength, to help her prepare for what he believes will happen to the child.

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John Astin from Operation Petticoat, 1977. (Since we’re time traveling, I thought we’d take a leap forward, too!)

The other pioneers are climbing from their wagons. Another pioneer, Charlie, played by John Astin, stops to check on the child. Charlie tells Christian, or “Chris,” that the rest of the pioneers are concerned that they are in Apache country. In fact, that area of New Mexico was populated by a number of different Native American Indian tribes and Charlie is correct, they are in potential danger. The rest of the men have discussed turning back, trying to find a town to resupply and help the sick child. The men point out that they are nearly out of water and food, but Chris insists they must push forward. Christian’s wife, Martha Horn, played by Miranda Jones, agrees that they should turn around. She is frightened for their son.

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Cliff Robertson from an episode of The Outer Limits. 

Christian tells the men to bunch up the wagon. He is determined to find water. He nods his head forward and tells them he is headed for the rim, “Maybe a hundred yards over the rim I might find water, or a canyon.” Chris grabs his gun and heads for the rim, a hundred yards over the rim in search of salvation.

Rod Serling in the New Mexico Desert

Suddenly, Rod Serling appears beside one of the wagons in his suit and tie. I love his sudden appearances in the past. They feel so…supernatural! One minute your heart is breaking for this poor, sick boy in 1800s New Mexico and the next you are chatting with Rod Serling. You would think his appearance would break the suspension of disbelief of the audience, but this is a supernatural show, and the fact that he suddenly appears in the middle of any scene, at any time in history, fits with the theme.

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 Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone creator, director, and writer of many episodes,                                                                      including “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim.”  

 ”It is 1847 in New Mexico,” Serling explains.  ”A handful of men and women in search of a dream. Eleven months ago they started from Ohio and headed West. Someone told them about California, a land of riches and blue skies. After all this time, they’ve found neither. He has a dying son and a scared wife. Mr. Chris Horn, going a hundred yards over the rim to find water and sustenance, in a minute will enter the twilight zone.”

Suddenly, Nothing Looks the Same…

and this is the way it is in the twilight zone! Chris Horn walks over the rim and sees the foothills of the Sandia Mountains and a road, giant electrical towers that look like horrific beasts, houses. He runs back over the rim and the small train of wagons has disappeared. He shouts out for his friends and no one answers. He has no choice, but to move forward, over the rim, to the town, seeking help.

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The Sandia Mountains. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman. 

Chris Horn sees nothing but desert and mountains. He holds his rifle tight and stares at the nearby railroad tracks. “What’s going on here?” he shouts in confusion as he stumbles down the sand on the other side of the rim. He sees fences, posts, roads where moments before there was nothing but sand. A truck races past and nearly runs him over. He dives into a ditch, terrified, dusts himself off and starts running down the road.

He finds a sign. “Joe’s Airflite Cafe and Gas Station 1 Mile Ahead.” He continues down the road to the cafe, a typical Route 66 truck stop. He stares at the gas tanks, then notices a cowboy staring at him, laughing. “Did you see it?” he asks the cowboy, pointing toward the truck. “That monster that almost hit me?” The cowboy removes his sunglasses. “Do you mean the truck?” he asks. Chris is confused. He’s never heard of, or seen, a truck.

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A 1950s semi-trailer truck. 

Chris begins to explain to the stranger about the wagon train. He tells the man they are desperate for food and water. The man notices Chris accidentally shot himself in the hand when he fell to avoid the truck. He leads Chris inside and tells a woman behind the counter that Chris needs help. She is afraid of him, of the way he looks and is dressed, and his confusion. The man offers Chris a glass of water and the woman brings a first aid kit from the kitchen. The cowboy introduces himself as Joe (John Crawford) the cafe owner.

Joe comments on the rifle, “a real antique!” and reaches forward to take a look, but Chris pulls back–in the 1800s a man would never hand over his gun to a stranger. Joe’s wife, Mary Lou (played by Evans Evans, the second wife of director John Frankenheimer) gently removes the injured hand from the gun and tends to the wound. Chris asks about Indians and she laughs. “No, we don’t see them around here, at least not hostile ones,” she says, which is probably true as most Native American Indians in New Mexico were moved onto reservations in the late 1800s.

The Confused Pioneer

Cliff Robertson does a remarkable job of portraying Chris Horn, a man lost in time. Looking at his face you can feel his fear. He is confused, disoriented. He asks how long Joe and Mary Lou have been in the area and they tell him a couple of years, but Chris and the wagon train just moved through this same area and no one was there! As he listens to Joe explain how they bought the cafe he wanders over to the jukebox and stares in shock, then to the table. Joe follows him and asks where he is really from, and Chris tells him the truth–he’s from Ohio.

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Vintage juke box. Photo by Joe Mabel.

Then Joe mentions that there is a natural spring nearby and Chris is stunned–he knew there was water! Mary Lou hands Chris a glass of water and a handful of penicillin to help avoid infection. Chris asks where she found it and she tells him at the drugstore. Chris is beginning to realize there is hope for his family and the rest of the pioneers. Mary Lou tells him it is good for all kinds of sickness and Chris tells her his son is sick back in the wagon, then he turns around and sees a poster on the wall, a poster of the Old West, of a wagon train moving down the mountain. Then he notices the date: September, 1961. “How can that be?” he asks. “It’s 1847!” and Mary Lou drops the glass of water on the floor. Chris begins to panic. “Where am I?” he asks, and he starts to back toward the door.

And of Course, a Doctor’s Exam

In the next scene we see a doctor (Edward Platt) leaving the back room with his black bag. He sets down the bag and pours himself a cup of coffee. He tells Joe that Chris looks fine except for malnutrition. Joe is confused. How can Chris be fine? The doctor reminds Joe that he’s not a psychiatrist, but tells him Chris seems perfectly rational. The doctor tells Joe and Mary Lou that the fillings in Chris’s teeth are not modern, and they agree that Chris’s gun must be at least 100 years old. “He may be having a delusion of some kind,” the doctor agrees, “but it is so pure, the way he describes the wagons, and his son!” The doctor explains that Chris’s description of his son’s illness sounds like pneumonia, that the boy could be dying. The doctor decides to call the sheriff.

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Sheriff’s car. Photo by Youngwiseman. 

Just then, Chris walks out of the back room. He has a book in his hand. It’s an encyclopedia. He shows the book to Mary Lou and tells her he has found his son in the book. She reads it out loud. “Christian Horn, Jr., M.D. Famous for his early work in pioneering vaccine research. Born in Ohio in 1849, died in 1914. Chris Horn’s story matches the entry in the encyclopedia exactly!

“That’s my son, that’s Chris,” Christian Horn tells Joe and Mary Lou. “I may be crazy, or the world’s turned upside down, but I know I was put here for a reason,” Chris says. He takes the penicillin and places it in the pocket of his jacket. “Thank you,” he says. “You’ve been kind and gracious and I appreciate it.” He takes his rifle and tries to leave, but the doctor stops him. He tells Christian he has sent for the authorities. Joe tries to grab his gun.

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Bottle of pills. Photo by Ragesoss.

Chris ducks through the open doorway and starts running down the highway, back the way he came. The police are driving down the road. They see Chris and start after him, driving over the sand. Chris keeps running, running toward the rim. He falls and drops his gun and penicillin. He grabs the medication, turns around to face the police, turns back to the rim, stumbles over the top with the medication in his hand, then stops and stares. There before him is the wagon train, just as he left it.

He walks back to the top of the rim. He sees nothing but sand where the police were moments before. He looks at the bottle. He still has the pills. He looks at his hand–it has healed. He walks to the wagon and asks his wife where she went. Now she is confused. He tries to explain, but can’t. Instead, he hands her the bottle and tells her to give him two pills, that it will save his life.

“Short trip, Chris. Not much on the other side, was there,” Charley asks. “You’d be surprised,” Chris replies. “There’s a whole lot on the other side of that rim.”

The police drive Joe back to the cafe and tell him not to worry, that Chris doesn’t seem like a threat. Apparently he was with them in the car. Joe walks inside with the rifle and shows his wife. He tells her he picked it  up right where Chris dropped it. It is falling apart, as if it was lying in the desert for a hundred years. It falls apart in Joe’s hands. Mary Lou is still holding the encyclopedia. “Where did he come from?” she asks. “Wherever it was, I think he went back, he says

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Prairie Schooner wagon. Painting by Newbold Hough Trotter (1827-1898).

Once again, we are at the wagons with Chris Horn. “Let’s go boys,” he shouts to the rest of the pioneers. “There’s water up ahead, and we’re going to California!’ He looks back in the wagon where his child is now sitting on his wife’s lap. “And my boy has a whole lot to accomplish there,” he says.

And once again, we hear the voice of Rod Serling. “Mr. Christian Horn,” he says. “One of the hardy breed of men who headed West at a time when there were no highways or signs of civilization. Mr. Christian Horn and his family of pioneers, heading West after a brief visit through the twilight zone.”

Source:

  • “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim.” The Twilight Zone. Dir. Buzz Kulick. Writer Rod Serling. Perf. Cliff Robertson, John Astin, John Crawford, Evan Evans. First aired April 7, 1961. Columbia Broadcasting System. Running time: 25 min.

 

 

 

 

Bewitched: The Sexiest Nose Twitch on Television

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Welcome to day two of the A to Z Bloggers Challenge! Today we will be discussing the supernatural family show Bewitched starring Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stephens, the suburban housewife with the cutest nose twitch on television! Contrary to other supernatural television characters, Samantha was uncomfortable with her witchy abilities. She wanted the life of a traditional housewife with two children–a boy and a girl, of course–a station wagon, a dog, and a house in a quiet neighborhood where friends could stop by on occasion for a cup of tea and gossip. Instead of cleaning up after her children, Samantha was forced to use her supernatural abilities to clean up the messes created by her meddling mother, Endora, and other various nuisance relatives.

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Publicity photo of Elizabeth Montgomery. Montgomery played the lovely mother, housewife, and secret witch in the supernatural sitcom Bewitched, which of course was released in the magic year of 1968.

It’s not that Samantha is ashamed of her family or her supernatural ancestry. The problem is that her husband is a traditionalist, a corporate fanny-kisser, and Samantha, though she lives in the 1960s, prefers the happy homemaker image of the 1950s, which includes remaining faithful to her husband’s ideals, which include not cheating–and by cheating I do not mean infidelity.

The business ethics of Darrin Stephens include honesty, hard work, and acquiring wealth and achieving success only if it is earned. This list, of course, does not include the use of magic spells or nose twitches. Darrin is proud of his wife for her beauty and dedication to their family, but he is embarrassed by her family, and the fact that his daughter is a witch, and his son is a warlock.

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Dick York as Darrin Stephens and Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stephens in Bewitched.

When you think about it, although this sitcom was exceptionally popular–it ran from September of 1964 to July of 1972 and ranked in the Top 25 five times during its run–it was shocking sexist for the times. Samantha’s appeal is sexual–she is alluring, bewitching, enticing, charming, and although her husband often ends up looking like a fool in his efforts to prevent his wife from exposing her supernatural abilities, Samantha always remains calm, cool, and silky smooth.

The Cast of Bewitched

Samantha Stephens is played by Elizabeth Montgomery, daughter of actor Robert Montgomery. Robert Montgomery was nominated for two Oscars and believed to be the best dressed man in Hollywood, which may explain what appears to be an almost instinctive sex appeal in the performances of his daughter, Elizabeth–she had a great teacher. Elizabeth surprised her father when she enrolled in the Academy of Dramatic Arts, then shocked him again when he was told of her success with her first audition–Elizabeth had landed a role in the show Top Secret, and her father was the show’s star. Elizabeth met television producer William Asher and the two fell madly in love. The two searched for a script  for a show she could star in so they could spend more time together, and discovered Bewitched. Elizabeth designed her own costumes for the show, which were so popular that she eventually created her own clothing line.

Dick York

Dick York as Darrin Stephens in Bewitched. Dick York played the role from 1964 to 1969.

Dick York played Darrin Stephens in Bewitched, an executive with the New York advertising firm of McMann and Tate. York was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series. In short, he was hysterically funny! Unfortunately, he also had a degenerative spine injury and was forced to leave the show in 1969. He actually tore all the muscles in his back in 1959 while working on a film with Gary Cooper and never recovered. The pain was unbearable for York, and in 1969 he had a seizure on the set of Bewitched. He was taken to the hospital and never returned to the set. Bewitched continued with Dick Sargent playing the role of Darrin and the show’s ratings dropped immediately and drastically–apparently, the audience loved the wimpy character played by Dick York!

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Agnes Moorehead starred as Samantha’s mother, Endora, in Bewitched.

The Most Dangerous Mother-In-Law in Sitcom History

Samantha’s mother was clearly the greatest source of conflict in this family sitcom. She was more than a meddler, she was a witch in every sense of the word. She did not like her son-in-law and did everything she could to interfere in her daughter’s relationship, inspiring television historian John Javna to refer to her as “The most dangerous mother-in-law in sitcom history!” In fact, Agnes Moorehead was a bit uncomfortable with the role. She was 57 when Bewitched started filming with a 50 year successful acting career that began with the American Mercury Theater starring alongside Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton. She won an Emmy, was nominated for five Oscars, and appeared in over 100 films before Bewitched. The audience would never have guessed that she was uncomfortable with the role, though. Agnes Moorehead was a professional in every sense of the word and her performance as the meddling mother-in-law was outstanding.

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The Stephens family in 1971 screenshot for Bewitched. At this point, Dick Sargent had replaced Dick York as Darrin Stephens. Erin Murphy played young Tabitha and David Lawrence played Adam Stephens. Both children inherited their mother’s supernatural powers in the show.  

Bewitched is still believed to be one of the most popular supernatural sitcoms in television history. Although Elizabeth Montgomery had bit parts in films and television shows before Bewitched, this was the show that truly made her famous. The show also won three Emmys, a testament to its popularity. Samantha Stephens was the first “witch” to star in a television show. When Dick York left the show, his disappearance was also a first–it was the first time a lead character left a show without an explanation. Nevertheless, the show continued for three more years in spite of the drop in ratings, due primarily to the popularity of Elizabeth Montgomery.

Little Tabitha (Erin Murphy) also contributed to the show’s popularity. In fact, ABC gave Tabitha her own sitcom in 1977. Tabitha was played by Lisa Hartman who was an adult employed by a television station. The show only lasted a year.

When Tabitha first appeared on the show as a baby she was played by three sets of twins until the producers finally settled on the adorable Erin Murphy. The fans loved the name Tabitha, though. After her first appearance, thousands of babies were named in her honor in the US.

Sources: 

  • Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.

The Addams Family: The Dysfunctional Family Cult Classic

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Welcome to day one of the A to Z Blogger Challenge! Today’s topic is The Addam’s Family, the supernatural, happily dysfunctional family based on a classic cartoon from The New Yorker Magazine. The Addams Family ran on prime time television from 1964 to 1966, but remains a cult favorite for many reasons discussed below. The show was introduced at a time when the networks was inundated with quirky families, like The Munsters and Bewitched. According to Michael Winship, author of Television, the public was tired of the perfect families found in the 1950s sitcoms, so the networks responded with a monster explosion in the 60s. Though it only ran for two years, The Addams Family ranked #23 in the Top 25 Television Shows, but more importantly, it became a supernatural cult classic favorite. However, today, we will discuss this well-loved family because it’s one of my childhood favorites, and because…A is for Addams! 

Meet the Addams Family, their Family and Friends

One of the definitions of the word supernatural is “weird, unearthly, and beyond scientific understanding.” This is precisely what makes the Addams Family so charming. They are strange, goofy, and some members of the family are most definitely beyond scientific understanding. They have an octopus for a pet, and Thing T. Thing, a disembodied hand that fetches the mail and lights cigars for Gomez Addams. The daughter of the family, Wednesday Friday Addams, has a pet spider collection and Pugsley, her brother, spends much of his play time using his toy guillotine on Wednesday’s doll. The family pet, though, is a man-eating plant named Cleopatra.

Some viewers may consider this family a bit weird, they are definitely “supernatural,” and may even fit the definition of dysfunctional in the minds of contemporary family therapists, but they are also lovable, simply because they do not see themselves as strange, and they rarely judge others as strange, either. To the Addams, their way of life is quite normal and they seem to be completely oblivious to the opinions of others and the fact that other people think they’re “different.” I like this.

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The Addams Family, from left to right: Gomez Addams (John Astin); Wednesday Friday (Lisa Loring); Morticia Frump Addams (Carolyn Jones); Pugsley Addams (Ken Weatherwax); and standing behind Morticia’s chair is Lurch the Butler, played by Ted Cassidy, who also played Thing T. Thing. 

The head of the Addam’s clan is Gomez Addams (John Astin). Gomez is a lawyer who dresses like a gangster–not contemporary gangsters, but the 1940s gangster style. He is intelligent and charming, and often completes complicated mathematical calculations in his head. He has a magic cigar that lights when he removes it from his jacket pocket and extinguishes itself when replaced. According to John Javna’s Cult TV, when John Astin first auditioned for a role on this show he was turned down, but he auditioned for the position of Lurch! Instead, of hiring Astin to play Lurch, Executive Producer David Levy offered him the role of Gomez on one condition, that he grow a mustache. That mustache must have felt like a caterpillar on the skin of Carolyn Jones as Gomez spent most of his time at home kissing the hand, wrist, and arm of his lovely wife, Morticia! True story–according to John Javna, when Ringo Starr met John Astin he greeted him by grasping Astin’s hand and kissing him all the way up his arm just as Gomez does to his wife.

Morticia is one of my favorite characters in the show. She has white skin, long black hair, and is always dressed in a long, tight, black wedding gown. She lights candles with the touch of her finger. Morticia is sexy and spooky at the same time. Morticia is played by Carolyn Jones, who also plays Morticia’s sister, Ophelia, in the show. Carolyn Jones was cast because Levy was looking for an actress with a “name,” and she was the only well-known actress who auditioned. Her previous roles, though, were bit parts in House of Wax and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but they were supernatural films and she was able to show that she could play the part. Jones spent two hours each day dressing for the role. Her makeup was meticulous, and her wig was made of real human hair. Punk rocker Siouxsie of Siouxsie and the Banshees (am I revealing my age here?) bragged that she used Morticia as her costume and makeup role model.

Pugsley (Ken Weatherwax) and Wednesday Friday (Lisa Loring) were inseparable siblings (no, I do not mean this literally!). They are always seen together, but rarely featured in an episode. They look and dress like normal children in the television show with Wednesday’s long, dark hair woven into two braids and Pugsley in the popular striped shirts. The children do not have friends on the show for obvious reasons–not many young girls would appreciate the joys of playing with a spider collection. They do have special talents, though. Puglsey hangs from tree branches by his teeth and Wednesday is a Judo expert. They appear to be home-schooled by their grandmother, though in the contemporary film versions their roles are much larger and Uncle Fester appears to be their tutor. The Addams Family was the only television show or film that Ken Weatherwax appeared in, though he did make an occasional guest appearance on talk shows. Lisa Loring is still acting in soap operas, films, and television shows.

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Famous child actor Jackie Coogan played Uncle Fester in the original television series.

Uncle Fester is shaped like a long box, has dark, sunken eyes and pale skin, and dresses like a monk. He also sleeps on a bed of nails. He has the personality of a child at times, but is well-loved by the family. In the television show he is Morticia’s Uncle. His most famous trick on the show is electrifying a light bulb by sticking it in his mouth. He also plays records using his finger for a needle. Uncle Fester is played by the adult child star Jackie Coogan. Coogan came from a famous Vaudeville family and made his first film with Charlie Chaplin. He made hundreds of appearances in films and television shows, from The Love Boat to I Dream of Jeannie. He even played Oliver in one of the first film versions of Oliver Twist made in 1922. Coogan made his first film, The Kid, at the age of four and was still making films right up to the year that he died, in 1984.

Grandmama Addams (Marie Blake) was a bona fide witch who flies on a broom and is constantly working on her special brews. She is such a fun character with her witchy laugh and her hexes and spells. She always wore a shawl like all good grandmammas do, and her hair was frizzy as if she’d stuck her finger in the socket after Fester removed the light bulb. Grandmama was Morticia’s mother.

Lurch (Ted Cassidy) is the butler, but clearly a member of the family, which is shown in his careful attention to the children (and the fact that he waxes Uncle Fester’s head.) Although Ted Cassidy was a well-established, handsome actor, he was rather ghoulish and a bit scary in the show. He was expected to perform a variety of tasks on the show, but often found them difficult to accomplish due to his great height, something that strangers and neighbors often found terrifying when they dared to knock at the door.

Thing T. Thing is also played by Ted Cassidy, but when Thing and Lurch appeared on screen at the same time, Thing was played by the hand of Associate Producer Jack Vogelin. Thing is generally Cassidy’s right hand, but Cassidy sometimes switched hands to fool the viewing audience. Thing had his own house inside the house inside the upstairs closet of the Addam’s residence. He generally made his appearance at the most inopportune moments, such as when a visitor was alone in the room. Thing does fall in love in one episode, “Morticia Meets Royalty,” when the Princess Millicent von Schlepp visits with a female “thing,” the hand of Carolyn Jones, which is kept inside of an ornate box. She was called “Lady Fingers.”

Although there are many other notable characters in the family, Cousin Itt (Felix Silla and later, Anthony Magro) is probably one of the most popular. He is, well, a hairy It. Itt is about four feet tall and covered head to toe with long, thick hair. He doesn’t speak, he mumbles. He does, however, drive a three-wheeled car.

The New Yorker Cartoon created by Charles Addams

The Addams Family was the creative inspiration of Charles Addams and based on a popular cartoon Addams wrote for The New Yorker. The family had a cult following before it was introduced to television. In fact, David Levy noticed a book collection of the cartoons in a bookstore and as soon as he opened the book he realized the Addams family was perfect for the 1960s monster obsession. Addams had rejected numerous offers in the past to turn the cartoon into a television show, but when he met with Levy the two men seemed to understand what Charles Addams had in mind when he created the family, so Addams agreed to the transformation of his characters from cartoon figures to television actors.

The House is a Museum…

The Addams Family theme song claims, “Their house is a museum, when people come to see ‘em they really are a screa-um. The Addams Family.” And the house truly is a cluttered, dusty museum. The house has a growling bearskin rug; a giant stuffed Polar Bear; a noose hanging from the ceiling (nice touch); and an Eskimo Totem Pole. There is also a rack, iron maiden and stocks. My favorite, though, is the suit of armor that coughs whenever Gomez Addams flicks his cigar ashes.

The Addams Family on Film

The Addams Family was revived in 1991 with a feature film by Orion Pictures who sold the film to Paramount. I love this film. At first, I didn’t think it was possible to replace the original cast, but it was! The film stars Raul Julia, one of my all-time favorite actors, as Gomez, and Angelica Huston as the perfect Morticia. Christopher Lloyd surprised me with his excellent portrayal of Uncle Fester, but Christina Ricci steals the show as the morbid mini-Morticia, Wednesday Friday. In this show, Uncle Fester is the older brother of Gomez. He has amnesia and is hoodwinked by a shady lawyer (Dan Hedaya) and his loan shark (Elizabeth Wilson). In the end, though, the family joyfully reunited.

Addams Family Values was released in 1993 with the wonderful Carol Kane playing “Granny.” Uncle Fester is again the star of the show as the husband of evil nurse Debbie Jellinsky (Joan Cusack) who tries desperately to murder Fester. She convinces the Addams parents to send the older children to summer camp to protect the third addition to the family, baby boy Pubert (Kaitlyn and Kristen Hooper) who Wednesday and Pugsley are constantly trying to kill through various means, such as dropping him from the top of the stairs. At summer camp, the two are tortured by two over-zealous camp counselors (Christine Branski and Peter MacNicol) and forced to watch family films, but Wednesday meets her first boyfriend, Joel (David Krumholtz). Jellinsky fails in her murder attempts, so she finally resorts to attempted murder of the entire family. The family is saved by baby boy Pubert, of course! The film ends with a touching scene between Wednesday and Joel in the family cemetery.

Sources: 

  • Javna, John. Cult TV: A Viewer’s Guide to the Shows America Can’t Live Without! St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.

 

 

 

 

The Twilight Zone: “The Shelter”–Cold War Terror

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MGR-1 Honest John rocket picture. Photo taken in the 1960s by a U.S. Army employee.

 

In September 1961, at the height of the Cold War, Rod Serling wrote a chilling episode of The Twilight Zone speculating about what might happen in small town America if a missile was fired on the U.S. The episode is called “The Shelter.”

I remember watching this episode as a child and the tension, the fear in this show left a profound effect on me. Following a series of school shootings, American students now have drills to prepare them on how to react if someone enters their school with a gun. When I was a child we had drills preparing us for a possible missile crisis. An alarm would go off in our school. Two children were elected to close and lock the windows and the remaining students would climb beneath our desks, sitting with our knees against our chest and our hands over our heads or faces. Of course, these actions would be of little help if a missile did land nearby, but the drills did serve a purpose. They provided parents and children with a false sense of security, believing the children would be safe in public schools if a missile was fired on the U.S.

In August of 1961, construction began on the Berlin Wall. “The Shelter” aired on September 29, 1961.

Cold War Plot

The show opens with deceptively light birthday music. We enter a home in a typical suburban neighborhood where a group of adults are standing around a table and a half-eaten cake that once said “Happy Birthday Doctor” before it was sliced into pieces. It is the home of the neighborhood doctor, Bill Stockton (Larry Gates). As the group laughs and chatters and prepares for an after dinner drink, one of the neighbor’s suggests a speech. The neighbor, Jerry Harlowe, played by the talented Jack Albertson, honors the “good doctor” for taking care of their children and grandchildren through the years. One neighbor jokingly points out the hammering in the middle of the night as the doctor built a bomb shelter in his basement. “Well, we’ll have to forgive him for that,” Harlowe replies.
Veteran actor Jack Albertson who plays Jerry Harlowe, Doc Stockton’s best friend in “The Shelter.”

As the party starts to move to the bar for drinks, the doctor’s son, Paulie (Michael Burns) informs everyone that the television has gone blank and viewers were instructed to turn on the “Comrade Station.” A few people laugh nervously as if they are thinking, or hoping, it is a joke. The doctor, however, looks nervous as he walks into the next room and turns on the radio. The announcer explains that shortly after 11 p.m. a series of unidentified objects were spotted moving in on the United States. The announcer recommends that those who have shelters go to their shelters immediately and states that those who don’t should gather food, water, and gather in a central place. One by one, the couples grab each other’s arms and run from the doctor’s home to prepare for what appears to be a missile attack. The doctor moves his family to the shelter in the basement.

Rod Serling Makes his Appearance

Various couples are seen running down the street when Rod Serling steps out of the bushes. I love these magical appearances when Serling steps into the picture wearing suit and tie and a serious expression to comment on the show. “What you are about to watch is a nightmare,” he explains. “It is not meant to be prophetic, it need not happen. It is the fervent and urgent prayer of all men of good will that it never shall happen.  But in this place, in this moment, it does happen. This is The Twilight Zone.”

Back inside the doctor’s home, Grace (Peggy Stewart), the doctor’s wife, is filling containers of water. She drops one and it shatters on the kitchen floor. “Easy,” the doctor says. “Make believe it costs $100 an ounce. Maybe in an hour or so it will be worth more than that.” Thanks, Doc. I’m sure she feels much more comfortable now!

The son is carrying boxes of canned goods downstairs. The doctor tells him to go upstairs for his black bag. The doctor is looking for light bulbs. Grace says she forgot to buy more. She was waiting for them to go on sale. “How much time do we have,” she asks. The doctor doesn’t know. Then the water runs out.

They carry the remaining items to the shelter. Paulie, the son, is sent to the garage for a tool kit. When he leaves, the doctor tells his wife that he doesn’t know what will happen. He is trying to prepare her. She finishes his sentence. “New York is only 40 miles away,” she says. “If they get it, we get it. Then what? We tiptoe through the rubble and the bodies of our friends?” She suggests it would be better, quicker if they just…and this time does not finish her sentence. Paulie re-enters the room. “That’s why we have to survive,” the doctor tells his wife, nodding at their son. “He’s only twelve-years old.”

 

Jack Albertson, who plays Jerry Harlowe, Doc Stockton's best friend in "The Shelter."

Jack Albertson, who plays Jerry Harlowe, Doc Stockton’s best friend in “The Shelter.”

 

Someone is banging on the door. It is their neighbor, Jerry Harlowe. He points out that the Harlowe home is new, they don’t have a shelter. He wants to bring their family into the doctor’s shelter. The doctor tells him they can use their basement, but there is no air space in the shelter. Harlowe becomes hysterical and attacks him. The doctor stops him, apologizing. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I tried to tell you, but you didn’t want to listen. Now you have to face something far worse.” He slams the door. The doctor and his family are locked in the shelter.

Neighbor Marty Weiss (Joseph Bernard) and his family arrives. Marty is begging the doctor from the stairwell to allow his family into the shelter. Marty’s wife and baby are crying. The doctor refuse. “I can’t and I won’t,” he shouts through the door. “You probably will survive, but you’ll have blood on your hands. You’re a doctor. You’re supposed to help people,” Marty screams. “That was a million years ago,” the doctor mumbles, then he screams for Marty to get out of his basement.

The neighbors are slowly gathering upstairs. “Ask him again!” the wives beg. Harlowe sees this as futile and suggests they stop wasting time and pool their resources then gather in a basement. Another neighbor suggests they break down the door. They then ask Harlowe, the doctor’s best friend, to plead on their behalf. In the midst of the discussion, Frank Henderson (Sandy Kenyon) turns on Marty and makes racist comments. “That’s the way it is when the foreigners come over,” Henderson says, shouting at Marty.

Inevitable Chaos

The radio is making more announcements. Planes are heard overhead. The men run down the stairs and tell the doctor he can either figure out how many people can come in or they will bust down the door. The doctor tells them they are wasting precious time. The neighbors decide to find a battering ram. Then they realize other neighbors will see and want to come. “This isn’t their street, this isn’t their shelter,” one woman says. Harlowe points out that it is not their shelter either, and that they are acting like a mob. Marty agrees. The racist neighbor punches Marty and makes more racist remarks. The sirens go off and the men run for a battering ram.

Inside the shelter, Grace is upset. “Who are those people,” she asks stunned. “Those people are our neighbors. They’ve lived alongside us twenty years,” the doctor replies. The family begins to move furniture to block the shelter door. The neighbors bring a large metal post in and start banging on the door. They are hysterical, sweating, angry, and damaging the door.

Suddenly, the radio comes back on. The President has announced there are no enemy missiles approaching, the state of emergency is called off, there is no enemy attack. The sirens go off to announce the emergency has ended. The couples hold each other, comfort each other. Frank Henderson, the racist neighbor, tries to apologize to Marty. “Oh, I don’t think Marty is going to hold it against you, Frank,” Harlowe says, “Just like I don’t think Bill is going to hold all this against us,” and we now see that Bill and his family are coming out of the shelter. “We can have a block party tomorrow night to pay for the damages,” Harlowe suggests. “Yes, Marty says. “A big celebration. I think we raise one now.”

“Anything to get back to normal,” Harlow says. The doctor stumbles past him, stunned. “I don’t think we know what normal is,” Doc Stockton replies. “I thought I did once. I don’t anymore.”

“I told you we’d pay what for the damages, Bill,” Harlowe says with a pleading tone. “Damages?” Stockton replies. “I wonder. I wonder if any one of us has any idea what those damages really are. Maybe one of them is finding out what we’re really like when we’re normal. The kind of people we are just underneath the skin. I mean all of us, a lot of naked, wild animals who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their neighbors to death just for the privilege. We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder, I wonder if we weren’t destroyed, even without it.”

Rod Serling always has the last word in these plays. “No moral, no message, no prophetic tract,” he says. “Just a simple statement of fact. For civilization to survive the human race has to remain civilized. Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from The Twilight Zone.”

Who Would you Save?

When I was in school in the 60s and 70s there was a popular debate question: In a national crisis, who would you save? The elderly politicians? Young couples with babies and the ability to have more children? Scientists? Doctors?

In the situation presented in “The Shelter,” my first thought was that the doctor should tell the neighbors to leave all their food, water, and children and that he would take their children into the shelter, but leave the adults outside. At first, I thought the doctor should sacrifice his life for the children, too. However, he is also a doctor, and he had obviously studied possible crisis scenarios, so his value increases. He could teach survival skills to the children. In a situation like this one, I know I would send in the children and I would leave the shelter. I would sacrifice myself so others could live and the human race could continue on.

Sources:

  • “The Shelter.” The Twilight Zone. First aired on September 29, 1961. Season 3, Episode 3. Dir. Lamont Johnson. Writer: Rod Serling. Players: Larry Gates, Joseph Bernard, Jack Albertson. Running Time: 25 min.