Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Subversive Genius of Rocky and Bullwinkle

If you’re under 40, you probably believe The Simpsons is the most sophisticated and hilarious animated series ever created. If you are over 40, that distinction still belongs to The Bullwinkle Show, aka Rocky and His Friends, aka Rocky & Bullwinkle. The attention to show titles may have been as haphazard as the quality of the animation, but satire and silliness have rarely coexisted so brilliantly as they did in the adventures of one plucky squirrel and one dimwitted moose. 


The series didn’t get much attention when it debuted in 1959, the same year as Bonanza, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and The Twilight Zone. It was animated, which meant it was just a kid’s show, and it was syndicated, suggesting it probably wasn’t good enough for the networks. But like Star Trek it found its audience after being canceled, and remained a television staple for the next four decades.

Created by Jay Ward and Bill Scott (Scott also provided Bullwinkle’s voice), Rocky and His Friends would raise bad puns to an art form and turn obscure historical and political references into punch lines long before Dennis Miller anchored Weekend Update.

The creators assembled an all-star writing team of guys used to being the smartest person in every room they entered – Chris Hayward, Chris Jenkins, George Atkins, Al Burns, Lloyd Turner – and they wrote jokes more for themselves than the kids in the audience. How many 7 year-olds would laugh when Boris Badenov’s boss, Fearless Leader, was described as “Pottsylvania’s answer to Bernard Baruch?” But the parents were laughing. 

When I interviewed Jay Ward’s daughter Ramona, she told me her father always believed that “children need to come forward, and the show should not talk down to them.”

Wossamatta U
You can watch any of the serial-style adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and understand what made the show so unique and so special. But the story of Wossamatta U best exemplifies the series’ perfect blend of sophistication, silliness and social commentary.

The tale begins when the regents of financially-strapped Wossamatta University vote to increase revenues by “recruiting the best football team money can buy.”

“How will we pay for it?” asks one administrator.

“How else?” replies his colleague, “We’ll fire a few English teachers.”

Bullwinkle is recruited and given the standard course load for a football player on scholarship, which includes a class in crochet and reading Dick and Jane at the Seashore. When the coach tells quarterback Bullwinkle, “Let’s see you throw one,” Bullwinkle replies, “Throw a game already? I haven’t even practiced yet!”

Boris and Natasha turn up, of course, with plans to clean up by gambling on Wossamotta games. When the money starts rolling in from the football program, the professors make plans to buy new books and lab equipment, but instead the funds are spent on an indoor baseball diamond and a new home for the football coach.

For the final game of the season, between Wossamotta and Boris’s team, the Mud City Manglers, Boris borrows his game plan from the Civil War. He is then accosted by a representative from the “League of Confederate Corrections,” who insists the Civil War be referred to as “The War Between the States.” Rocky and Bullwinkle take on the absurdities of political correctness, decades before the term was even coined. 

After paying homage to the writers I should also mention the enormous contributions made to these shorts by William Conrad’s intense narration (“When our last episode was switched off in utter disgust by 37 million viewers…”) and June Foray, who voiced both Rocky and Natasha.

Here are 5 other classic moments from the Jay Ward canon.

1. A Promo Generates Public Outrage
At the end of one program, Bullwinkle told the kids of America to pull the knobs off their TV sets, so they couldn’t change channels “and that way we’ll be sure to be with you next week.” The following week, Bullwinkle had to tell the 20,000 kids who did so to glue the knobs back on.

2. Fractured Fairy Tales: Sleeping Beauty-land
This series added satiric twists to famous bedtime stories. When they tackled Sleeping Beauty, a handsome prince (who happens to look a lot like Walt Disney) has second thoughts about waking his true love with a kiss. Instead, he turns her into the main attraction at the Sleeping Beauty-land theme park. “Disney loved it,” said Mrs. Ward. 

3. Moosylvania
In this remarkably clever and insightful send-up of government bureaucracy, Bullwinkle campaigns for Moosylvania statehood. When the government declares the region a disaster area, it offers to provide assistance. The first airlift consists of helium, maple syrup and bubblegum.

4. Peabody and Sherman: William Shakespeare
The puns and wordplay in the Peabody shorts were hard to top. When the WABAC machine brings Sherman and Peabody to Stratford-on-Avon, they find Sir Francis Bacon accusing Shakespeare of stealing his plays. When he clobbers Will with a flower pot, Shakespeare angrily yells, “Bacon! You’ll fry for this!” 

5. The Lawsuit That Wasn’t
Durward Kirby, a popular 1950s television personality, threatened to sue Jay Ward over a story in which Rocky and Bullwinkle search for a hat known as the “Kerward Derby.” Ward responded in the press by saying, “Oh, that would be wonderful. Sue us fast because we need the publicity.” That was the end of the lawsuit.

I started this piece by splitting the generations between those who love Bullwinkle and those who love The Simpsons. Of course it’s possible to love them both; Simpsons creator Matt Groening certainly does. Homer Simpson’s middle initial, J, is a tribute to Jay Ward.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Terrible Shows I Like: The Amazing Spider-Man (1977)

Another Spider-Man movie opens next month, and as a one-time comic book collector I should be excited. But after four previous Spider-Man films, not to mention three Iron Mans and two Thors and three Batmans and an Avengers and god knows how many X-Men, even this former fanboy is finding it hard to get enthusiastic over another costumed blockbuster.

But back in 1977, there was nothing so awesome as the prospect of a live-action Spider-Man television series. Maybe Cheryl Ladd in that striped bikini on “Angels in Paradise,” but Spidey was a close second. 

There had already been shows inspired by Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, but the Marvel Comics universe had been largely untapped outside of Saturday morning cartoons. Spider-Man, Marvel’s most popular character, had inspired a pretty good animated series with a classic theme song, and helped a few kids learn to read on PBS’s The Electric Company, but that was it. 

The Amazing Spider-Man (1977) starred Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker. If you know his comic book origin you are apparently one up on the folks who made the pilot movie – just about all the details were changed beyond the radioactive spider bite. This was common practice at the time – loyalty to source material was not a priority, especially if it was just a comic book. These days, it’s that very respect for the original character creators and stories that have made films like The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Solider so successful.

The movie performed well enough for CBS to green-light a series, but only a handful of episodes were made, that were then shuffled erratically into the network schedule over the next two years, destroying almost any chance for the show to build an audience. 

Besides the origin story and the scheduling, here’s what else they got wrong. Spider-Man is as beloved for his snappy patter as his superheroics – but in this series he never says a word under the mask. That’s a large chunk of character that never showed up. None of the hero’s famous rogues make an appearance – no Goblins, no Dr. Octopus, Vulture, Electro, Sandman – just the usual assortment of thieves, kidnappers and corrupt government officials.

The supporting cast was a mix of new characters and two that came from the comics, Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson and Peter’s Aunt May. Ellen Bry was a nice addition as Peter’s photographer rival Julie Masters, but fans certainly would have preferred an appearance from Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson. 

So, yes, in many ways a terrible show. But my enduring affection stems from what was done right. That list starts with a good-looking costume, even if it didn’t quite match the perfection of John Wesley Shipp’s outfit as The Flash. The wall-crawling sequences were a triumph of special effects and stunt work, and the web-shooting, while primitive by today’s standards, got the point across. 

I also enjoyed seeing Nicholas Hammond as a likable, heroic character, since he spent most of his career playing smarmy jerks. It was Hammond who canceled a date with Marcia Brady after she was rendered less than perfect by an errant football; he was also a crooked cop who tried to rub out Nancy Drew on The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, the judgmental father who tried to separate Selina McGee from her baby daughter in Family, a self-involved Bradford houseguest in Eight is Enough…and the list goes on. If it weren’t for Spider-Man and The Sound of Music, Hammond would probably still be dodging tomatoes hurled by classic TV fans.

The show had one other delight for me, and that was the guest appearance of JoAnna Cameron in the two-part episode “The Deadly Dust.” Seeing Spider-Man and Isis in the same show was nerd nirvana then, and is still a lot of fun now. 

No DVDs yet on this series, which is surprising given the number of Spider-Man films released over the past decade. But if you still have your VCR hooked up, many of the episodes are available on videocassette. That may indeed be the perfect way to view a 1970s relic that has been surpassed by superior versions, but is not without its charms.

Friday, March 28, 2014

When Actors and Roles Don't Mix

Casting is critical to the success of any television series, but sometimes it just goes wrong. In some cases the culprit is simply bad acting, but usually there’s a disconnect between actor and character that cannot be traversed regardless of talent.

Here are five of the most egregious examples. I avoided recasts, like Dick Sargent in Bewitched or Emma Samms in Dynasty, because replacements always start out at a disadvantage. In these cases there are no such easy answers.

Kate Jackson – Scarecrow and Mrs. King
In both The Rookies and Charlie’s Angels, Kate Jackson played clever, capable professionals. She had a famous falling out with the latter series, mainly attributed to the quality of the writing. Jackson once said a Charlie’s Angels script was so light, if you dropped it from the ceiling it would take a week to get to the floor. And yet her next series, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, was just as formulaic, and this time she wasn’t even the smart one. As Amanda King, Jackson frequently had to play scenes that made her character seem as dense as Chrissy Snow on Three’s Company. It was an awkward fit for an actress that radiates intelligence. 

Lyle Waggoner – Wonder Woman
You would think playing a valiant military man would be easy for someone who held his own with the comedic geniuses of The Carol Burnett Show. But Lyle Waggoner could do nothing with Col. Steve Trevor. Admittedly it was a thankless role, but this is where it is incumbent on the actor to find something in the character or situation to elevate Trevor beyond his status as a dashing hostage. Even a little romantic chemistry with Lynda Carter would have helped the audience understand what Wonder Woman sees in this guy. 

Lesley Ann Warren – Mission Impossible
Mission: Impossible was a pretty right-wing series. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. How else can we assess a show about federal government operatives who covertly invade foreign countries and overthrow corrupt dictators? What they did could be considered justified and perhaps even noble, but it certainly wouldn’t be supported by the counterculture at the height of the Vietnam War era. So how does one explain adding Lesley Ann Warren to the IM Force, since she looked and acted like a hippie chick just back from an anti-war sit-in at Berkeley? It’s not surprising she lasted only one season. 

Ted Knight – Too Close for Comfort
Was it just that the shadow of Ted Baxter was too long to escape? Or did the role of a family man frustrated by modern life not fit with an outsized personality like Ted Knight’s? Either way, Too Close for Comfort never gelled. Knight is not the only reason it hasn’t aged well, but with hindsight it may have been better to cast someone with less classic TV baggage. 

Doris Roberts – Remington Steele
Some actors have a look or persona that pigeonholes them into certain types of roles. For Doris Roberts, it’s the interfering relative, usually a mother or mother-in-law. It’s been her meal ticket for more than 25 years, from Angie to Everybody Loves Raymond. But it’s not the type of character you expect to turn up in Remington Steele, a self-effacing but still slick and stylish detective series. Roberts’ Mildred Krebs was a constant distraction from the urbane romance between Pierce Brosnan as Steele and Stephanie Zimbalist as his partner in crime-solving. The mistake was introducing the character in the first place, but it was compounded by casting an actress who once again did it her way, even if another approach might have worked better. 

Any more that I missed? Which TV actors did you think never settled comfortably into a particular role?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Mom’s Drunk, Dad Left, and the Homecoming Queen is Pregnant: The ABC Afterschool Specials

Television’s first executives and programmers had high aspirations for the medium. They believed this new technology could be used to inform, enlighten, and raise the standards of American culture. But then TV networks found they got higher ratings with wrestling than the New York Philharmonic, and all those hopes and dreams perished.
Still, every so often somebody tries to do something right: Omnibus, Sesame Street, Life is Worth Living, and yes, though they earned their share of derision then and now, the ABC Afterschool Specials

If you grew up with them as I did, they may seem like relics of the 1970s and early ‘80s; but the network kept making them long after you stopped watching. The first show aired in 1972; the last one in 1997! That means all those troubled teens from season 1 were over 40 by the time school finally let out forever.

I have no memory of any of them after 1982 or so. And my guess is that the kids and teens of the 1990s don’t share the episodes of that time as a generational memory – by then there were already dozens of cable stations, and issue-driven stories for younger people were no longer a novelty.

That’s what made the first shows so revelatory– no one else in the 1970s was aiming this type of content directly at teenagers at an hour they were more likely to be watching TV. Just as Phil Donahue was bringing family skeletons out of the closet – alcoholism, drug use, teen pregnancy – and discussing them on his daily talk show, the Afterschool Specials turned them into earnest 45-minute dramas that won dozens of Daytime Emmys.

Of course, not every Special featured such heavy subjects – others looked at how our times were changing. Remember Jodie Foster in “Rookie of the Year,” about a girl who wanted to play for a boy’s little league team?

Here are my picks for the 10 most memorable Afterschool Specials (which isn’t the same as the 10 best, as you’ll discover from the reviews). Some are among the 24 shows released on DVD. The sets are long out of print but worth seeking out – the nostalgic Trapper Keeper-style cases were a particularly inspired touch. 

Sara’s Summer of the Swans
It’s my blog so I get to start with my favorite. Based on the book by prolific, award-winning novelist Betsy Byars, “Sara’s Summer of the Swans” explores the challenges of growing up with a special needs sibling. But it’s really also about learning to let other people into your life, even if you’re not sure they’ll like it there. That message resonated with me when it first aired, and it’s one I still need to hear from time to time. This is a simple, heartfelt story that exemplifies how enriching these shows can be at their best. And for classic TV fans it has two ex-Bradys (Eve Plumb and Christopher Knight) in supporting roles.

Psst! Hammerman’s After You
The two preeminent school bully dramas of my generation are this Afterschool Special and the 1980 film My Bodyguard. What makes “Hammerman” a little more interesting is that the victim, nicknamed Mouse, is not completely blameless for his plight; in fact, he was pretty much asking for it.

Me and Dad’s New Wife
Adjustment to divorce and stepparents was a frequent Afterschool topic.  I thought it was handled better in other installments, such as “The Bridge of Adam Rush” and “A Family of Strangers,” but more people seem to remember “Me and Dad’s New Wife.” This may be due to a cast regularly featured on Tiger Beat covers – Kristy McNichol, Lance Kerwin and Leif Garrett.

It Must Be Love (Cause I Feel so Dumb!)
Anyone who has ever suffered though unrequited love will identify with poor Eric, a short, awkward 13 year-old who’s got it bad for cheerleader ‘it’ girl Lisa. We’ve all been there, kid. The ending is a bit of a cop-out, though.

Schoolboy Father
The young people on these shows often take on adult responsibilities faster than their peers, either from their own transgressions or someone else’s. Such trials also inspired “Francesca Baby,” the heartbreaking “A Matter of Time” and the unfortunately titled “Daddy, I’m Their Mama Now.” But “Schoolboy Father” became the quintessential treatment, if not the quintessential Afterschool Special. Rob Lowe plays the title character, opposite Dana Plato and Nancy McKeon. 

It Isn’t Easy Being a Teenage Millionaire
Usually you wouldn’t want to trade places with the characters on these shows; here’s the exception. Melissa, 14, wins the lottery, but discovers that sudden wealth isn’t the answer to every problem. And before you ask, yes, minors can legally win lotteries if they receive the ticket as a gift. 

Dear Lovey Hart: I Am Desperate
This is another of my favorites, partly because there’s more humor than is typically found in these shows, and party because of Susan Lawrence, an appealing young actress who should have graduated to bigger and better roles (if you know her at all, it’s from Dr. Shrinker). Here, she plays a student who writes an ill-fated advice column for her high school paper.  

Stories of drug and alcohol abuse among teens are synonymous with Afterschool Specials, but surprisingly the series didn’t broach either topic until its eighth season. One year later, Stoned starred Scott Baio as a popular teen jock who tries marijuana and graduates to cocaine and LSD. Reefer Madness overtones aside, Chachi can act and helps keep the story grounded. And this is still better than “Desperate Lives,” in which Helen Hunt cooks up some PCP in her high school chemistry lab and jumps out a high-rise window. 

Which Mother is Mine?
Melissa Sue Anderson plays Alex, a popular teen living in a happy home with her adoptive parents – yeah, you know that’s not going to last. Sure enough, Alex’s biological mother has finally kicked her booze problem and sues for full custody. At first you’ll hate her as much as Alex does, but the observant script is fair and honest in portraying all sides of a difficult issue.

What are Friends For?
New girl in town Amy begins an awkward friendship with eccentric neighbor Michelle Mudd, who like Amy is a child of divorce. “What are Friends For?” makes the list for one scene, which was shot and edited like something out of a horror movie. The first time it aired, it made a whole generation of kids jump back from their TVs at the same time. 

Did I miss your favorite? Let me know!

Monday, March 10, 2014

From the Batcave to the Brady House: The California Comfort TV Tour

Most of the places you see on TV shows are located on studio lots. But there are many others scattered throughout southern California that you could see any time, though you might get in trouble knocking on the door. This has become a hobby of mine (visiting, not trespassing), and during my several yearly trips to Los Angeles I’ll usually schedule at least an hour for one drive-by of a landmark that is part of our television heritage.

Here are some of my favorites, as well as one that I finally plan to cross off my to-do list later this year.

The Brady Bunch House
This was the first classic TV site I tracked down. Though more than two decades have passed since my first visit, I can still recall what a strange sensation it was to actually stand before a home that I only knew as part of a fictional world. I’ve been back several times since, and every time, for the briefest of moments, it still feels like stepping into TV land. The house doesn’t look the same as it did on the series – there’s a wrought-iron fence surrounding the front to keep weirdos like me at a safe distance, and the upstairs window you see on the show was never actually there. But the shape of the Studio City dwelling, especially when framed by the mountains in the background as it often was on The Brady Bunch, remains unmistakable.

If you’d like to check it out, head west on Ventura Blvd. to Tujunga Ave., turn left and then make a right on Dilling St. You’ll know it when you see it. 

Townsend Investigations
I wonder how many people who drive by 189 N. Robertson in Beverly Hills even realize they’ve just passed the office where Charlie Townsend summoned his Angels. The two-story red brick edifice was shown in almost every episode of Charlie’s Angels, though you’ll never seen any of the Angels (or even Bosley) entering or exiting the building. Whenever I’m doing research at the nearby Margaret Herrick Library, I always take Robertson back to Wilshire, hoping to see Jill Munroe’s Cobra parked out front.  

Walton’s Mountain
Last year I was enjoying a deep-dish pizza at actor Joe Mantegna’s Taste of Chicago restaurant. I was seated at the window facing south, when my friend asked, “See anything interesting?” I took another look at the CVS across the street and told him I didn’t. Then he started whistling the Waltons theme, and suddenly it dawned on me – the mountain behind the condos and shopping centers was Walton’s Mountain. Perhaps it took longer to register because one doesn’t expect a peak associated with Depression-era Virginia to be looming majestically over Burbank. 

Squad 51
I used to love watching Emergency on Saturday nights. Paramedics John Gage and Roy DeSoto reported for work at Squad 51, a real fire station (actually Station 127) located in Carson, California. The site has since honored its TV connection with a plaque dedicated to Emergency writer and producer Robert A Cinader, who also created the series. You’ll find the station at 2049 E. 223rd St., just off the San Diego Freeway. 

Fantasy Island
No need to charter a plane to a remote island to see where Mr. Roarke and Tattoo greeted their guests. The building where Tattoo rang the bell at the start of each episode is the Queen Anne Cottage at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. It’s in the city of Arcadia – take the 210 Freeway to the Baldwin St. exit and follow the signs. Even without the classic TV connection, it’s a beautiful place to spend a day. 

The Batcave
Near the beginning of almost every Batman episode, you’ll see the Batmobile speed through a hidden passageway before making the 14-mile drive to Gotham City. What you’re looking at is the Bronson Caves in LA’s Griffith Park.  This is one of those instances where the reality of the location falls far short of its fictional fame. Once you’ve made the quarter-mile hike from the parking lot on Canyon Drive, you’ll a rather undistinguished cave entrance, basically a mouse hole-shaped opening leading into a short tunnel. The surrounding scenery is nice, though. 

General Hospital
For more than 20 years, General Hospital opened with a shot of an ambulance speeding toward a stately white building. This one is really easy to find – it’s the old Los Angeles County General Hospital, now a wellness center of the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. Get on the 10 Freeway and look to your right, just before the 10 turns into the 101. The address is 1200 N. State St.

The Hooterville Cannonball and Water Tower
I haven’t visited these yet, as they are located in the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, California. That’s a 6-hour drive from Los Angeles and almost 3 hours from San Francisco. But I love Petticoat Junction. It’s everything that Comfort TV is supposed to be – simpler times, kinder characters, and optimistic, uplifting messages. So this fall I plan to climb aboard that little train, and think about a time and place where life was like that, even if it never really existed. 


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Revisiting Enterprise, 10 Years Later

Lately I’ve been revisiting Star Trek: Enterprise on Blu-ray.  

I hadn’t planned to write about it here because the series aired from 2001 to 2005, which puts it well outside the Comfort TV era. But it’s also a continuation of the Star Trek saga that began in 1966 and remained a television staple for the next 4 decades. So I think it qualifies.

Plus, we haven’t had any new Trek stories for almost a decade, hence my nostalgia for the final (or first, depending on how you look at it) voyages of the Enterprise. And no, I haven’t forgotten about J.J. Abrams – I just think his vision for Star Trek is as authentic as a rerun of Far Out Space Nuts.

Some Trek fans expect this piece to be filed under the “Terrible Shows I Like” category. But I have always believed that Star Trek: Enterprise did not deserve its rocky reputation.

Sure, it made mistakes. So did every other Trek incarnation. Have you watched some of those third season episodes of the original series lately? Deep Space Nine had a rough start, and Voyager gave us an episode where two bridge officers were turned into salamanders. 

Enterprise was a good idea with bad timing. Setting the series at the beginning of earth’s interstellar exploration restored the wonder in much of what had become routine by the time of Next Generation. Jonathan Archer’s starship was slower, less well armed and less comfortable, and there was no prime directive or handy list of rules for what to do when meeting new civilizations. Archer's crew were the first humans in deep space and everything was new and exciting – I always loved how the Captain would drop out of warp for days to study a comet or a nebula that Picard would have flown by without a second thought.

But after 21 seasons of other Trek shows and new movies still in theaters, even the most ardent Trekkers had become complacent and began taking the franchise for granted. There were other factors in its demise, but the passage of time makes it easier to appreciate Enterprise for what it was rather than where it fell short. Television is simply a better place when Star Trek is a part of it. 
 Why should you give Captain Archer’s crew another look? If you’re not one of those continuity wonks whining about how canon was changing with every episode, here are just some of the reasons why Enterprise is better than you may remember.

The Title Sequence
Hey, where are you going? I know the song choice was…curious, but the montage tracing the history of exploration from ancient mariners to warp-capable ships was very well crafted, a mix of history and fantasy that established the context for the stories to follow. 

“Carbon Creek”
One of the series’ most entertaining (and amusing) episodes begins with T’Pol telling Archer and Commander Tucker about the first Vulcans to land on earth – not the famous first contact that was in the history books, but one that took place in the 1950s. This season 2 show is worth seeing just to hear someone finally acknowledge the haircut similarity between Vulcans and The Three Stooges’ Moe Howard. 

Doctor Phlox
Phlox, wonderfully played by John Billingsley, ranks near the top of the pantheon among memorable Star Trek physicians, alongside the cantankerous Bones McCoy and the even more cantankerous holographic Doctor on Voyager. Quirky and soft-spoken, he always seemed to be studying his human crewmates with a mix of incredulity and admiration, expressed most clearly in the classic season 1 episode “Dear Doctor.” Speaking of which….

“Dear Doctor”
Many of the best Star Trek episodes are built around a moral conundrum. The buck always stops with a Captain forced to make a life or death decision with profound ethical repercussions. Think “City of the Edge of Forever,” or “Measure of a Man,” or “Tuvix.”  To this list we can add “Dear Doctor,” in which the Enterprise visits a planet with two dominant human species, one of which is perishing from a virus that will lead to its extinction. Phlox develops a cure, but advises Captain Archer not to share it. His reason and Archer’s ultimate decision continue to split fandom nearly a decade after the episode first aired. 

More Vulcan Backstory
The Vulcans and their logic-driven culture were one of Gene Roddenberry’s most fascinating creations. Enterprise was the first Trek series to significantly expand our knowledge of their history and culture, adding shades to them – some unexpectedly sinister – not seen since Leonard Nimoy introduced Spock. “The Andorian Incident” is a good place to start, followed by the aforementioned “Carbon Creek,” “Stigma” and a trilogy of extraordinary season 4 episodes set on the Vulcan homeworld. 

The Mirror Episodes
“In a Mirror, Darkly, Pts. 1 & 2” revisit the parallel universe first seen in the original series episode “Mirror, Mirror.” For the non-nerds among you, this is a place where the characters we’ve come to know exist as evil versions of themselves. The cast clearly relished a chance to chew on the scenery with various degrees of sadistic behavior – Linda Park in particular is a revelation as a ruthlessly ambitious (and sexy) Hoshi Sato. 

The Should-Have-Been Series Finale
Enterprise’s fourth season was as consistently strong as any season of any other Star Trek series. It was also a refreshing change from the relentlessly grim, 9/11-themed Xindi story arc that comprised the entirety of season 3. The penultimate season 4 story, told over two episodes (“Demons” and “Terra Prime”) was a memorable sci-fi allegory on isolationism and xenophobia, both briskly debated in the wake of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These episodes should have been the series finale – at least then, if Enterprise had to end too soon, it would have wrapped on a high note. But regrettably there was one more show, that was so reviled by cast and fans alike that it has been removed from canon by universal consensus.

Yes, it’s a dreadful episode – but listening to some critics you’d think they were all that bad. If you miss Star Trek now as much as I do, give Enterprise another chance. All it takes is a little faith of the heart.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Biggest Bozo in Chicago

I’ve written before about the communal nature of Comfort TV, and how it is something we share no matter where we lived. But some classic TV series and characters were strictly regional sensations – Wallace and Ladmo, Garfield Goose, The Magic Garden. They sustain a deep nostalgic appeal for those who grew up with them, but are virtually unknown to the rest of the country.

Which brings me to Bozo’s Circus. The series was a television phenomenon in Chicago, where I grew up. But at one time there were Bozo shows on more than 180 local TV stations, all sharing the same basic format but with dozens of different actors playing the world’s most famous clown. 
It was, at the time, an unprecedented franchising model that proved remarkably successful. And it was conceived by Larry Harmon, the first man to don the character’s red wig and size 83AAA shoes. 

Bozo and Larry Harmon

I interviewed Mr. Harmon in 1996. Even over the telephone it was clear that his nearly 40-year connection to Bozo had lost none of its enthusiasm. He told me how he first became aware of the character from a series of children’s records released by Capitol in the 1940s. They were so successful that Capitol needed someone to play Bozo at personal appearances. Harmon auditioned and won the part, then bought the rights to the character in 1954.

“I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but I borrowed a million dollars and did it,” he recalled.

After producing more than 150 Bozo cartoons, he launched the first live-action Bozo show in 1956. The Chicago version debuted on WGN in 1959, and was renamed Bozo’s Circus in 1961. The remarkable Bob Bell played Bozo from the first live-action episode until he retired from the role in 1984. 

If you didn’t live in Chicago in the 1960s and ‘70s, it’s hard to explain the unlikely but astounding popularity of this low-budget one-hour show, which became as much a part of the city’s cultural fabric as the Sears Tower and baseball at Wrigley Field.

Tickets for the studio audience, which held only 200 people, were harder to get than Bulls playoff seats in the Michael Jordan era. Newly married couples applied for tickets before their honeymoon, so their not-yet-born children might have a chance to see the show when they were 7 or 8 years old. By 1980, the waiting list had reached 11 years, and was frozen for the next decade. When the moratorium was lifted in 1990, WGN opened a 900-number Bozo ticket hotline for five hours. More than 25 million calls poured in.

So what was all the fuss about? Looking back it’s rather difficult to explain. Bozo’s Circus offered songs, comedy skits, games and a guest circus act, usually acrobats or prancing dogs. Each episode ended with the audience joining the cast in the Grand March, a parade that doubled as a fast way to clear the studio. It looks pretty cheesy now, but I still remember how I rarely missed an episode. 

I had a ringside seat for Bozo-mania, as my parents owned the company that manufactured a home version of the Grand Prize Game, one of the show’s most popular features. That connection got me some pretty big perks under the big top, including a chance to meet the show’s beloved ringmaster, Ned Locke, and Roy Brown, who played Bozo’s sidekick, Cookie the cook. 

It did not, however, secure my financial future. In fact, my folks nearly went
bankrupt and had to fold the business. For whatever reason, the appeal of Bozo didn’t always translate well outside of the show itself.

Bozo’s Circus ended its Chicago run in 2001, after more than 40 years on the air. Today’s kids probably wouldn’t have a clue about a character who was once a hotter ticket than Springsteen.

Looking back now I’m still trying to find a way to explain how the series achieved such profound audience loyalty and affection. Perhaps, in this case, it’s best not to look too close, lest we start to see through the magic. For me the best explanation was given by a 6 year-old boy, who attended a personal appearance on the occasion of Bozo’s 50th anniversary in show business.

 “I love you, Bozo!” he shouted at his favorite clown.

“Why do you love Bozo?” asked his mother.

“Bozo is Bozo,” he said.