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March, 2008 : Feature:

Live! From the Future!

Early on during the decade between the first network television broadcasts and the début of The Twilight Zone, science fiction flourished in the new medium, after a fashion. ABC's Tales of Tomorrow (1951-53)—produced in "co-operation with the Science Fiction League of America," about which your guess is as good as mine—offered both original teleplays and adaptations of works by such authors as H. G. Wells (The Crystal Egg), John D. MacDonald, Theodore Sturgeon,Fredric Brown, Raymond F. Jones, and Nelson S. Bond, as well as the first made-for-TV version of Frankenstein (with old hand Lon Chaney doing the honors) and an ambitious-sounding two-part adaptation of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The show's credits abound with other names already familiar at the time—screen Tarzan Lex Barker, King Kong alumnus Bruce Cabot, Boris Karloff, Nina Foch, Franchot Tone, Veronica Lake, Frank McHugh, Victor Jory, Jackie Cooper—and names soon to become familiar: Cloris Leachman, Darren McGavin, Lee Grant, Lee J. Cobb, Eva Gabor, Leslie Nielson, Rod Steiger, Paul Newman.

CBS ventured into similar unknown territory with Out There (1951-52), likewise adapting stories by some of the field's leading practitioners, including Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. Out There sounds like a game effort, but it made no headway against the competition—Milton Berle—and lasted a mere twelve episodes.

In fact, while the relatively staid science-fiction anthology series came and went at the pleasure of their relatively staid sponsors (a watchband maker and a carpet mill in Tales of Tomorrow's case), the space-hero shows for children cleaned up in the ratings and sucked in the advertising revenue. The Du Mont Television Network aired the first such show, Captain Video, in the summer of 1949, and Captain Video became virtually a template for those that followed.

Not that Buck Rogers, launched from WENR in Chicago on April 15, 1950, didn't have a pedigree. Its eponymous hero had started out in Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, branched into newspaper comic strips in 1929, to radio in 1931, and to the big screen in the person of Buster Crabbe in 1939—along the way, also purveying Big Little Books, toys, and other merchandise, and incidentally becoming an adjective, as in "that crazy Buck Rogers stuff." Name recognition alone ought to have ensured success in a medium that demonstrated the viability of at least some crazy Buck Rogers stuff.

With its tiny budget and cramped sets, however, the show could scarcely have satisfied any expectations created by its comic-strip and radio precursors. In the funny pages, the cartoonist's pencil and brush worked unhindered by the constraints of budget; radio dispensed with visuals altogether, relying upon sound-effects men's ingenuity and listeners' imaginations to flesh out the world of "Buck Rogers—in the—twenty-fifth cen-tu-reeee!"

Nor can frequent cast changes have helped. During the show's brief run, three different actors essayed the title role, two others portrayed Dr. Huer, and Lou Prentis replaced Eva Marie Saint as Wilma Deering. Such reviewers as deigned even to notice the show found it "short on action and interest" and remarked cuttingly on its "cardboard rocketship." In his July 22, 1950 column in TV Forecast, Chub McCarthy gave Buck Rogers the number-two position on his list of Things I Can Do Without and Never Really Miss. "The man of the 25th century is exciting in cartoon form," McCarthy wrote, "but the few episodes shown thus far lack enthusiasm, and from what I understand the show has been cancelled in many cities." Buck Rogers blasted off for the last time in January 1951.

ABC's Space Patrol, launched on the West Coast in March 1950 as a local 15-minute daily program and later expanded to half an hour, emulated Captain Video's success by closely emulating Captain Video's formula. Set a thousand years in the future rather than Captain Video's paltry few hundred, it had virtually everything the other show had—an omnicompetent and straitlaced hero, a dippy juvenile assistant, a rocketship—only called by a different name. Captain Video became Commander Buzz Corey (played by Ed Kemmer) and the Video Ranger became Cadet Happy (Lynn Osborn); they used space-o-phones and atomolights and the brain-o-graph rather than Video's opticon scillometer, for all the difference it made to kids watching. The show had an orthodox brace of sponsors, too (Nestlé's chocolate and Ralston Purina cereals as opposed to Captain Video's Post Toasties), and pushed an orthodox assortment of premiums—the Cosmic Smoke Gun, the Space Patrol Periscope, the Space Patrol Code Belt, the Martian Totem Head, the Rocket Cockpit (described as a cardboard contraption with "9 moving parts")—and other merchandise ranging from puzzles to clothing. In 1952 Life Magazine estimated sales of $40 million on eighty Space Patrol items.

Other Space Patrol statistics are equally impressive: the show ran to approximately 900 quarter-hour TV shows for local consumption, 210 half-hour network shows for Saturdays, 200 episodes of the twice-weekly radio show; Kemmer's and Osborn's salary, which had started at eight dollars per episode, eventually rose to $54,000 annually.

They earned their money. Live television was not for the faint of heart; peril attended the medium in its infant years. The usual set-up: a dingy studio with three cramped sets, three cameras, and a director whose job it was to make things run smoothly or as nearly so as possible. Under lights that could raise temperatures to the century mark, actors had to negotiate dense tangles of camera cable as they rushed from set from set, hit their marks, and deliver their lines with whatever conviction they were able to muster—even if the line happened to be "Forty-seven degrees inclination, speed seven miles per second; temperature calibrated at zero three; interior pressure stable at nine oh nine!"

Naturally, foul-ups occurred everywhere; TV science fiction was hardly unique in this regard. Not even Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, presiding over Life Is Worth Living, was safe. A technician at station WAAM in Baltimore pulled the wrong switch just as Bishop Sheen, on the Du Mont network, posed the question, "Will the Communists find Christ on the Cross?"—and Corliss Archer was heard to respond from her show over at ABC, "Of course not!" Time's TV reviewer remarked that the Climax! production of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye "lost what little connection it had with reality when one of the corpses—unaware that the camera was still on him—slowly got up and crawled away."

Of course, the space shows' fantastic settings created conditions for fantastic goofs, as when, during a Space Patrol episode, some kittens took an unscripted walk on the exterior hull of a speeding rocketship. Fast thinking could save the day, however, or at least the half-hour. When an actor portraying a villain on Space Patrol froze and forgot his lines, other cast members, without missing much more than a beat, declared him to be telepathic and began voicing his dialogue to keep the story moving. When a stagehand strolled past the window of Commander Corey's spaceship, then supposed to be rocketing between planets, Kemmer and Osborn reacted in character—the former by straitlacedly ignoring the intruder, the latter with a low take of consummate astonishment.

Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers (CBS, 1953-54) offered yet another spacefarer as hero, here played by Cliff Robertson, who took orders from Commander Swift (John Boruff) and traveled to other worlds in the company of Frank Boyd (Bruce Hall) and Wilbur "Wormsey" Wormser (Jack Westort). NBC's contemporaneous but even shorter-lived Operation: Neptune recast Captain Video and the Video Ranger in the waterlogged persons of Captain Neptune (Tod Griffin) and his young assistant Dink Saunders (Richard Holland) and sent them forth to deal with troublemakers from the submarine kingdom of Nadiria, situated 30,000 feet beneath the waves. Atom Squad (NBC, 1953-54) brought the action back to dry land, recounting the exploits of an earthbound, albeit super-secret, government team of scientific troubleshooters who occasionally dealt with visitors from other worlds, but usually went after evil scientists whose various plans for world domination entailed stopping the Earth's rotation or melting the Arctic ice-cap or flooding North America, if not all of the above. The cast featured several Captain Video alumni, including Bram Nossem, first of the four actors to play Video archfoe Dr. Pauli, but Atom Squad failed to catch on and suffered the ignominy of being bumped off the air to make way for The Pinky Lee Show.

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet departed from the Captain Video formula in having three youngish leads—clear-eyed, clear-headed Tom (Frankie Thomas), his trustworthy, albeit rather slow-witted, Venusian pal Astro (Al Markim), and their unpleasant classmate Roger Manning (Jan Merlin)—with adult authority figures (authoritatively named Captain Strong, Commander Arkwright, Professor Doctor Joan Gale) in support. Conceptually indebted to Robert A. Heinlein's novel Space Cadet (1948) but actually developed by Joseph Greene, the show set viewers down at Space Academy USA in the 24th Century.

Tom Corbett had the distinction of running on all four networks during its five-year career. Launched on CBS on October 2, 1950, it moved to ABC on January 1, 1951—which didn't discourage NBC from re-running episodes during July-September 1951. The series moved to the Du Mont network in August 1953, lasted there into the following spring, and finally wound up at NBC from December 11, 1954, through June 25, 1955. Throughout, it gave off the expected by-products, including a radio show, a daily newspaper comic strip, eight issues of a Dell comic book, and eight hardback books published by Grosset & Dunlap.

Alone among ur-TV science-fiction shows, Du Mont's Johnny Jupiter (1953-54) elicited glowing responses from grown-ups. The premise was simple: Duckweather, the janitor at a TV studio, contacts the planet Jupiter and becomes friends with and straight man to Johnny Jupiter and his robot B-12. Johnny and B-12 being hand puppets, they were, like characters in animated cartoons, allowed some latitude in their satiric view of the doings of flesh-and-blood earthlings. For instance, in the Chicago Tribune dated Wednesday, April 1, 1953, Larry Wolters wrote:

Last Saturday the Jupiterians wanted to know about Earth's television. Duckweather explained that the heart of the business was western movies, and he proceeded to show them a sequence or two. The Jupiterians wanted to know why all the gun fighting and Indians. Duckweather had a hard time explaining to the pacifistic Jupiterians why earthlings found it so fascinating to kill off one another.

Unfortunately, Johnny Jupiter didn't last. For that matter, even the most stalwart of live-TV space heroes were losing ground by the middle of the decade. Kinescope recordings, despite their poor picture quality, had enabled Captain Video, Commander Corey, and Tom Corbett to reach audiences in outlying areas—which during the Paleozoic Era of commercial television had been almost any place beyond antenna's reach of New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles, where most shows were produced and broadcast—but now syndicated filmed programs such as The Adventures of Superman, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, and Science Fiction Theater, with their relative gloss and longer shelf-life, were taking over the market.

Yet the live-TV spacemen have devoted fans to this day. Geo. W. Proctor, author, anthologist, artist, and first-generation Tom Corbett kid, writes:

On the wall behind me are autographed pics of Jan Merlin and Frankie Thomas, including one of Thomas from the serial Tim Tyler's Luck, which he starred in. Yeah, I still remain a fan after all these years, complete with all the books, the raygun, the blaster rifle, the lunchbox, two models of the Polaris, windup rocket, puzzles, comics, coloring books, Vue-Master discs, and, of course, the watch. The only thing I haven't been able to locate for a reasonable price is the Marx Tom Corbett set. I do have an assortment of the figures, including the one with Tom posed with hands on hips.

Proctor professes to be still "amazed at what was done live" on the show, "a lot of visual stuff that was great for a 6-year-old in 1953." That was surely all that mattered then, and probably all that really matters now.

Copyright © 2008, Steven Utley. All Rights Reserved.

About Steven Utley

Steven Utley is the author of the story collections Ghost Seas (1997), The Beasts of Love (2005), and Where or When (2006), and co-editor (with Michael Bishop) of the anthology Passing for Human, forthcoming from PS Publishing in 2008.


Mar 19, 03:13 by IROSF
Have a comment Steven Utley's latest take on the fifties?

The article can be found here.
Mar 31, 19:40 by Bill Spangler
I think I can identify the Science Fiction League of America that Steven Utley mentions in "Live From the Future"
In an interview in his non-fiction collection <i>Dancing Naked</i>, William Tenn says, "...Ted Sturgeon organized something on television called <i>Tales of Tomorrow</i>, that is, television half-hour shows,using science fiction stories. And a whole group of us got together as sort would I, what would I call it...kind of a mutual, mutual property fund or manufacturer's cooperative...that is, there were about eight or ten writers (and)the producers of the show would use only our stories."
He doesn't use the name Science Fiction League of America, but that seems to be what he's talking about.
Bill Spangler
Quakertown Pa.
Apr 8, 11:53 by Steven Utley
Thank you, Bill. I would enjoy learning more about sf writers working in television during the early 1950s. Captain Video, for instance, eventually boasted Lester Del Rey as a consultant and solicited scripts from Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Sheckley, Damon Knight, James Blish, Isaac Asimov, C. M. Kornbluth, and other real actual scientifictioneers.
Mar 2, 08:14 by
I being a creative writer this type of article do really inspire me and give me more ideas to do my work more efficiently. I do write articles for blog and most of them are science fiction and creativity oriented articles which we cannot see or assume those will be happening in reality.

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