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.

robot and Will

 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.

Lost_in_Space_Jonathan_Harris_1967

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.

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.