Through a convoluted series of events Kevin Fahey, who teaches Classic Television at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNLV, asked me to speak about early TV and movies, leaving it open as to what theme(s) I might select. It got me to reminiscing and thinking about what that “clothesline”might be. And as I meander in this essay it may be that the meanderings might serve some common theme. In psychology we call it secondary gain, deriving some psychic pleasure from a primary effort. So a secondary gain from reading a great deal is to enrich your vocabulary, although this is not primary to your reading. It is an unconscious result, you are unaware.
Imagine me as a little boy, perhaps 7 or 8, sitting on steps, as I remember it, playing with a cap gun. It was a short 45mm made of composite metal and within its grip,as I moved the cover away, there was a spool to insert a roll of caps. I remember well what caps were. A roll of papered “explosives,” each cap had a black bulls-eye to it, on red paper. When the cap roll was inserted and the paper lead moved through flanges to the trigger, one could fire it. They always gave off a slightly acrid smell of sulfur, not unpleasantly to my child’s mind. The same caps could be used in an arrowed dart in which you placed a singular cap and threw it high into the air hoping that it would land directly to the sidewalk with its minimalist blast. I will label this. It is called play.
What I am sharing here is the personal solitude I experienced at that time, although I was unaware of it, did not register it; largely, because it was a body sense, thinking had nothing to do with it. It was an aspect of personal daily play free from TV, the first visual assault upon young minds, much like smartphones. At that time radio existed but I was not absorbed by it. I recall the radio openings of the Canadian Sgt. Preston and Yukon King, his dog. I recall Up, Up and Away of Superman, the rescue fantasy of two Jewish cartoonists; there was Mr.Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons; Sanctuary which opened up with a creaking door; Gangbusters and Rossini’s William Tell Overture which introduced the Lone Ranger, and a few fragments of a Tom Mix serial. Obviously radio did not grip me. It just licked my outside self, no more. The outside world of play was my world, for in it I was the master of the world — I roamed lanes, alleys, streets; I played with a penknife, a game called “Land”; I turned shoeboxes into a game of marbles, cutting out holes in one side; I clambered up a tree felled by a hurricane; I crawled with a childhood chum into the basement of his home, unknown to his parents.
When TV entered my life it was tangential. I remember as a child sitting in with a group of other children with a lucky family that had a small TV set on Brighton Second Street, where my Grandma Flo lived in her basement apartment with her spinster daughter, Gussie. The first show I saw was a desert foreign legion movie starring Larry “Buster” Crabbe, who later I would discover also played Flash Gordon, that peerless Art Deco serial. Only one slivered image exists in my mind, of a group of legionnaires riding down a steep sand slope — a granular Rosebud.
Note verb here – I was never “glued” to the TV set; some of that came later as I grew older, the infection and disease settling in. In the late forties and early fifties I had already, gratefully, been conditioned to act in some way on life and not to be conditioned indirectly by anonymous TV programmers. As I grew older, TV shows became more cognizant to my adolescent mind; earlier TV shows permeated myself, consequently subliminal but nevertheless meaningful.
Christopher Walken, at my age, does a very telling and wicked impression of the Continental from very early TV. (You Tube probably has one of his riffs.) At that time shows were fifteen minutes, I don’t know why. Perry Como did a fifteen minute musical show. I believe they needed to fill in air time and this was just the beginning. Two stations were it. NBC and CBS in New York; Channel 7 was mocked, humored. Channel 5, Dumont,was in its infancy.The Continental was a handsome Italian man with dark curly hair, who sat before a piano and candelabra speaking directly to the audience, directly appealing to the American housewife and providing through a heavily inflected Italian accent the fantasy of what it might be to have sex with this Lothario. ( Think of Hepburn in Summertime as experienced through dementia.) All so apparently latent. Often the Continental would suavely offer her a glass of wine and raise it to the camera. And all this was live and Walken and Freese remembered it. He in Jackson Heights, Queens, and me in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Oh, Ron, his real name is Ronald, what fun we could have with this — What larks, Pip! What larks.
I cannot give chronology, why order it? for it all is simultaneous in my mind and it saturates my memory. Before the genius of Sid Caesar appeared on TV in the mid-fifties, I was affected by Westerns on Saturday mornings as TV filled the stations with films from the thirties and forties, most often B flics, since programming was in its infancy and air time had to be filled. I saw early oaters with a wide variety of cowboy stars. Ken and Kermit Maynard, one thin and one becoming fat. Ken Maynard, stunt rider, one of the earliest singing cowboys and a member of Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show, had a tragic life ending up in a trailer and suffering from malnutrition; however he was vigorous and handsome in a quirky way, with his white horse, Tarzan, in early Westerns. He had the charisma his brother did not have, for Kermit played later on in his life as an extra in westerns, Bonanza, and so on. Still thin.
Buster Crabbe had a way about him, an Olympic gold medalist swimmer, he had a lithe muscular body , but a swimmer’s body. And he had a graceful lope to how he moved, which was charming to my sensibilities. He became a better actor as the years went on and spent his later years as an athletic director in the Catskills. Crabbe had his own show on TV for a while, often bringing on his old cowboy sidekicks, Gabby Hayes and Al “Fuzzy” St. John. And he was indelible in Flash Gordon, but more of that later on. I still hear him calling out in moments of high expectancy or peril, “Dale.”
Nostalgically, I find that a decline in the personal life of a western hero has something to it that evokes pathos. The image has taken on its own life, an indirect aspect of TV itself, for good or bad, but there it is. I feel that film bespeaks death, think on that for a moment, as I catch my own breath.
And stalwart Col. Tim McCoy would walk down a western street, snazzy in that black hat and outfit, taking out a stick of gum and unwrapping it, chewing it, signaling to the villain that he was now transforming into something lethal. He had an interesting life in the military, expert in Indian sign language and decorated as a solder. An intimate account of these western stars is in They Went Thataway by James Horwitz, who went out to find these heroes of his own childhood before they passed on. Some gave him a hard time, or were reticent or not forthcoming; some like McCoy divulged openly and it all makes for rich and fascinating reading. Eat a Jujy Fruit as you read it.
Others come to mind –Tex Ritter, Al “Fuzzy” St. John who defined the comical sidekick in Westerns, and there was grizzled and garrulous Gabby Hayes who had his own TV show in the fifties. Reruns brought him back to the collective mind. The classy and smooth silent motion picture actor, William Boyd, reran all his Hopalong Cassidy movies from the thirties and forties. (Robert Mitchum had a part in one of his movies.) And they were well-plotted. And in the early fifties I got to meet with him with other young children as he was mobbed by us, shoving out grasping and needy hands in front of him as he dispensed some trinkets. It was as if he was covered with the moss of live children. Boyd was one smart marketer. He hit a second popularity with TV and he used it well. I do remember observing his long black and chauffeured Cadillac waiting for him
Chubby Tex Ritter and the very lean Bob Steele, small-statured and fast fighting, whose father was a good director (Robert North Bradbury) as well come to mind. Years later Steele played Curley in Of Mice and Men and as a gunsel [Yiddish derivation] in The Big Sleep in which he was a heavy (Lash Canino) and he was terrific in both. He had a memorable line spoken as if in steely syllables — “What do you want me to do , count three like they do in the movies?” Steele was much underused by Hollywood, much like Jack Palance who was superlative, given the right roles.
So what is fragmented personal memorabilia in this essay had its origin in this early exposure, how TV appropriate, to these oaters who had interesting personalities populating them. But there is another movie that deserves special attention and it was not a Western.
I will pass on discussing Caesar, a comic genius, or Strike it Rich and Queen for a Day or Bud Collyer, who played Superman on radio, and later on a TV game host. It is trivia that clings to me. Quite delightfully useless, like the tie saved from your prom decades ago.
The indelible Flash Gordon left an imprint, a good one. It was art deco in design and the cheesy sets and rocket ships were irrelevant to my eye. There were winged men, don’t ask, who could fly and their leader had a burly look to him. There was Dr. Zharkov, the good scientist, as opposed to the creep-outs in the thirty horror movies, Lugosi and Karloff. And the women, Dale, (Jean Rogers), blond, and the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless’ daughter , Princess Aura ( Priscilla Lawson), dark haired and experiencing hots for Flash. Good and evil, black and white, Ming (Charles Middleton) portrayed the evil eastern emperor in a stilted fashion but he got across; if he was only honest with himself, he would have incested his own daughter, but he liked Dale. But that is an evil only known to us today. I liked the dark-haired “damsel.” Dale was too wimpy as I look back, spending most of her film time as a clinger to Flash. I don’t think they ever kissed.
And when Flash got into a struggle or fight with heavies, his body was graceful and athletic, as if he was a male Esther Williams performing underwater.
The sets had forerunners of television to them, and the rocket ships a delight to behold, as if designed by Erte. And the sound they made, a kind of whoosh when they started I found very appealing to my young ear, especially as they slowed down for a planetary landing. But most of all — The Clay People. What was fascinating to these muddy creatures and their clayey looks — terrific costumery — especially the leader who spoke English as if filtered through clay, is that they emerged out of cavern walls and returned to them so as to conceal their presence. Fascinating to my eye! What I still remember was the entrancing and fascinating music played as they walked into the walls and walked out of them. What one remembers? A box of Nonpareils to the person who can help me find that music!
[Kevin Fahey wins the prize. Franz Waxman (Sunset Boulevard, The Bride of Frankenstein, Rebecca and Rear Window) composed the music, taking that syncopated and lilting theme from The Bride of Frankenstein.]
Do we need a conclusion? TV had a hand in destroying play, and play is now pretty much destroyed unless you think working a tablet or smartphone contributes in any way to an inner-directed self. See any kids in the street playing lately? Do you hear a mother calling out her kid’s name to come home for dinner? I think not. Are there answers? No. Only questions.