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50 Years Ago: “The Fugitive” Stops Running

The Fugitive

 

In our current age of Hulu, Netflix, You Tube and live streaming, it would now be hard to imagine everyone in the country watching the same show on the exact same day at the exact same hour of the day, unless of course it was a major sports or news event. But that most certainly was the case on the night of Tuesday, August 29, 1967, when tens of millions of Americans tuned into ABC television at 10pm to experience the conclusion of Dr. Richard Kimble’s four-year saga as the innocent man fleeing from the law…probably the greatest demonstration of the country being emotionally invested in a TV character since “Lucy Ricardo” gave birth to her son 14 years earlier.

As you no doubt remember, “The Fugitive” was the televisions series that followed the exploits of Dr. Richard Kimble (played by David Janssen), a man unjustly accused and convicted of murdering his wife, who escapes custody from the law as the result of a train wreck on his way to death row. For the next four seasons, which included 120 one-hour episodes, Kimble remained on the run, hoping to clear his name before he is recaptured. “The Fugitive” was the brainchild of Roy Huggins, a writer and producer whose earlier credits included “Maverick” and “77 Sunset Strip.” Although most people assumed that Huggins inspiration for Dr. Kimble was Sam Sheppard, a doctor accused of killing his wife in the 1950’s, Huggins denied this. It’s not hard to believe Huggins, as Western culture as filled with stories of innocent men being condemned to prison or death for crimes committed either by others or not committed at all. Alexander Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo,” is an early example, while Alfred Hitchcock’s career as a great film director includes several movies (“North by Northwest,” “The 39 Steps,” and “Saboteur”) where common men unwittingly get caught up in nefarious activity. Possibly the best comparison to “The Fugitive” is Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” where the main character, “Jean Valjean” is also a fugitive from justice, and is forced to stay on the run, hiding behind many aliases, trying to avoid being apprehended by “Javert,” a police inspector who remains in constant pursuit.

“The Fugitive” made its network debut at 10pm, Tuesday, September 17, 1963. Episode 1, titled “Fear in a Desert City,” opens with Dr. Kimble (Janssen) handcuffed to Lt. Phillip Gerard (Barry Morse), riding on the train that would deliver him to death row. The narration provided by William Conrad explains it best. “Name: Dr. Richard Kimble. Profession: Doctor of medicine. Destination: Death row, state prison. Richard Kimble has been tried and convicted for the murder of his wife. But laws are made by men and carried out by men, and men are not imperfect. Richard Kimble is innocent. Proved guilty. What Richard Kimble could not prove was that moments before discovering his wife’s body, he encountered a man running from the vicinity of his home. A man with one arm. A man who has not yet been found. Richard Kimble ponders his fate as he looks at the world for the last time, and sees only darkness. But in that darkness, fate plays a huge hand.” That “huge hand” was the train wreck that gave Kimble the freedom to roam the countryside, hoping to catch up with the one-armed man, all the while looking over his shoulder for the police lieutenant obsessed with his capture.

Over the course of the first season, viewers learned more details of the events the occurred the night of Helen Kimble’s death. It seemed that Dr. Kimble and his wife had argued earlier in the evening, their shouting overheard by neighbors. Kimble drove off in his car, attempting to cool off, almost running over the one-armed man who was fleeing from Kimble’s home. It was only after finding his wife dead that Dr. Kimble realized that the one-armed man was leaving a crime scene, but by then it was too late to quickly round him up. But although the premise of “The Fugitive,” was that of a man on the run, the program did not always focus on Kimble’s situation…Usually, while in in a strange town, and using a fake name, Dr. Kimble would come across a wide variety of folks with problems of their own, only to be helped by the man who always seemed much too bright to be working at whatever lowly occupation he managed to find that week. But Kimble’s successes were always short lived, as the looming shadow of Lt. Gerrard would force him to move on.

As early as the first season, the schoolyard and neighborhood rumor mills were filled with “reliable” information that “The Fugitive” as a series, was ending and that Richard Kimble’s situation would be resolved in a satisfactory manner. One of my classmates assured me he knew this because, according to his cousin in Nevada, viewers in Las Vegas were several episodes ahead of us. The most common story was that Lt. Gerrard himself would be proven to be the actual murder, but of course, “The Fugitive” stayed on the air for three more seasons. That “cousin in Nevada” provided countless fake news even beyond that.

By Season Two, “The Fugitive” was a huge hit, reaching #5 in the 1964-65 Nielson Ratings. “The Fugitive’s” popularity led to several other programs adopting the formula of an unsolved issue being a show’s main premise. “A Man Called Shenandoah,” “The Guns of Will Sonnet,” and “Coronet Blue” went this route, but it was NBC’s “Branded” that came closest to being a blatant rip-off. Starring Chuck Connors, “Branded” was the story of “Jason McCord,” a U.S. Army captain who is charged with cowardice during a battle with Apaches, and is discharged from the military. Like Richard Kimble, McCord drifts from town to town, hoping his name will eventually be cleared. At least “Branded” never incorporated a one-armed Indian into its storyline.

 

It was during the 1966-67 television season that ABC announced that “The Fugitive’s” fourth season would be its last. By this time, the show had sunk to #50 in the Nielson rankings, as viewers began to tire of the repetitive nature of the storylines. In an unprecedented move, “The Fugitive” would end its weekly run on April 11, and would return after a fourth month hiatus on August 22, 1967 with the first of a two-episode arc that promised to provide closure for the show.

“The Judgement” parts 1 and 2 aired on consecutive weeks, August 22 and 29. “Fred Johnson,” an alias used by the one-armed man, is arrested after a fight in a Los Angeles strip bar. Learning this, Richard Kimble heads to the West Coast hoping to catch up to him…But Lt. Gerrard also goes to L.A., figuring Kimble would be there in pursuit of “Johnson.” Gerrard finally succeeds in capturing Kimble, but not before questioning “Johnson,” and realizing that Kimble might have been telling the truth all along. Viewers also learn that Helen Kimble’s murder had an eye-witness in the form of a neighbor who kept silent, as his testimony would reveal that he was too frightened to help Helen while being strangled to death by the one-armed man. This information sends Gerrard and Kimble in joint pursuit of “Fred Johnson.” The chase ends at and amusement park, where “Johnson” shoots Gerrard in the leg. At that point, Gerrard tosses Kimble his gun. During the final confrontation on a carnival tower, the one-arm man manages to get Gerrard’s pistol, but is shot dead by Lt. Gerrard’s excellent rifle shot. With the former neighbor now willing to testify on Kimble’s behalf, it’s all over, except for narrator William Conrad’s final voiceover, “Tuesday, September 5…The day the running stopped.”

Despite its low place in the Nielson ratings, the final episode of “The Fugitive” was the most watched series episode up to that time. An estimated 78 million viewers tuned in, demonstrating that although no longer as popular as a weekly entity, much of the country still cared about the fate of Dr. Richard Kimble. “The Fugitive’s” finale numbers have only been surpassed by those of “Roots,” “Cheers,” and “M*A*S*H.”

For me, the conclusion of “The Fugitive” coincided with a pivotal moment in my life. I was about to embark on a four-year run of my own at Capuchino High School. After a few weeks of being a lowly freshman, Richard Kimble’s plight seemed trivial.

Notes: “Fred Johnson,” the one-armed man was played by Bill Raisch, who lost his arm in WWII. Raisch was originally a dancer with the Ziegfeld Follies.  “Helen Kimble” was portrayed by Diane Brewster, best remembered as “Miss Canfield,” “Beaver Cleaver’s” teacher during the first season of “Leave it to Beaver.”

The Rise and Demise of Drive-In Movies

Among the many examples of disappearing Baby Boomer culture, few stand out as obvious as the demise of drive-in movie theaters. Once an important component of the film industry, and a popular choice for family fun and teenage hijinks, drive-ins have almost vanished from our landscape. Unlike hula-hoops or 8-track tape players, drive-ins were neither a short lived fad nor a piece of technology that quickly became outdated…drive-ins were around before most of us were, and lasted well into our adulthood. Although they are practically gone, they did leave all of us with plenty of personal memories, and maybe even with a sense of loss.

The advent of the drive-in movie theater goes back to 1932 when Richard Hollingshead came up with an idea which would combine American’s love of movies with their love of cars. Working out of his backyard, Hollingshead, nailing a white bedsheet to a tree and placing a Kodak film projector on the hood of his car, came up with the prototype from which he would create the first outdoor movie theater. On June 6, 1933 in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey, America’s first drive-in theater opened for business. With room for 400 cars, a snack bar and a 30-foot high, 40-foot wide screen, customers paid 25 cents to see “Wives Beware.” That night, an industry was born.

It wasn’t long before a few more drive-ins began popping up around the country, including California, where in Los Angeles, the first drive-in in the state, the Pico, opened its gates in September of 1934. The original appeal of the drive-in theater was the idea of families being able to bring crying babies and noisy children to a film without bothering other patrons, in addition to saving the cost of a babysitter. But it wasn’t long before young adults and teenagers realized that being legally parked at a drive-in provided enough privacy for all kinds of human interaction. Soon, drive-in movie theaters became known as “passion pits,” and were the bane of concerned parents throughout the land.

It was during the late 1940’s, during the first wave of Baby Boomer births, that the concept of drive-in movie theaters really began to catch on. Families started fleeing to the suburbs, where land was cheap and plentiful. Soon, cow pastures, corn fields and apple orchards were being converted into drive-ins, holding anywhere from 500 to 2,000 autos. From 1946 to the end of the decade, the number of drive-ins grew from roughly 100 to 1,000. The first drive-in built in San Mateo County was Palo Alto’s Peninsula Drive-In, which was completed in 1947, followed by Belmont’s Starlite, which opened the following year. Within a few years, the Peninsula was home to about a dozen drive-in theaters, including the El Rancho (Daly City), the Redwood (Redwood City), the Spruce (South San Francisco) and the Mission (Colma).

As a business model, drive-ins had a few inherent problems. First, they could only operate after dark, which meant many hours of daytime downtime. Some locations solved this by using the drive-in lots for swap-meets and flea-markets. Another problem was unpaid admissions, as many young film lovers became proficient at performing the circus clown car routine, and would stuff kids below the backseat and in the trunk in numbers far exceeding the suggested capacity. And, of course, there was the problem of having a screen big enough to be seen well beyond to confines of the theater. My friend John Arnolfo tells me that his dad found a street in Daly City that provided an ample view of the El Rancho Drive-In’s screen, and was able to provide free, if silent, movies for his family. Ken Nichols had a friend whose Belmont house was only a block away from the Starlite, and enjoyed films for years without having to go any further than his backyard. Then there was Scott Anderson who late at night would ride his bike a mile to his local drive-in, hop the fence, and nestle up to a speaker with a sleeping bag…hey, where there’s a will.

drive-inMy first drive-in movie experiences came during the late 1950’s at the El Rancho, which the Daley family considered the “Rolls Royce” of the Peninsula drive-ins. Usually attending a double-feature, our parents would have us dress in our pajamas, in a pathetic act of hope that we would fall asleep at some point…fat chance of that when there was always the possibility of popcorn, candy or soda to be had. Sitting in the back of our station wagon was a big minus for me, not because of the poor movie viewing from there, but because of the infrequency of any treats being passed to that part of the car.

A real game changer occurred in 1965 when the Burlingame Drive-In opened in the area between the 101 freeway and Airport Blvd. Complete with two giant screens, 1500 parking spaces and space-age themed architecture, the Burlingame became the “go to” drive-in for many years. Although I was over the age of 12 by then, my parents still insisted that I wear pajamas in order to convince ticket-takers that I still qualified for the child rate. It was at the Burlingame that I finally was old enough to take a girl to a drive-in, but any chance of romance was short circuited when my date, Mindy Shumway, fell asleep during the film “Airport.” At least I saved money on popcorn.

But by the 1970’s, the drive-in boom started to recede. Drive-ins were now getting competition from home entertainment choices including cable television and VCR’s. Some drive-ins tried to stem the tide by offering specific genres like horror movies or biker films. The Burlingame Drive-In experimented with soft-porn in the late 1970’s, but it became a problem, as the screens could be seen from the freeway, which was an obvious distraction.

Soon, the real estate occupied by drive-ins became too valuable for a dying industry, and during the last decade of the 20th Century, drive-in movie theaters began closing all over the countryside. In more than a few cases, the big screens would stay intact for many months, fittingly resembling giant tombstones scattered across the landscape. In 1959, considered the peak of the drive-in movie craze, there were over 5,000 of them in the United States, representing 25% of the entire movie theater business. By 2013, drive-in movie theaters accounted for about 1% of the country’s movie screens, with less than 400 in operation.

In 2003, the Burlingame Drive-In shut its gates for the last time. Although I had not been there for many years, I had never got over the habit of checking the Burlingame’s billboard as I drove by, to see what was playing, or trying to make out what was on the screen as I went by at night. Would I still attend drive-in movies if they were available? I doesn’t matter, I miss them anyway.

 

Note: The first drive-in theaters relied on outdoor speakers to provide the sound for the assembled automobiles…The individual speakers with volume control knobs were developed by RCA, and became available in 1941.

Kennedy vs Nixon…Politics on the Playground

I’ve always had an obsession with presidential elections. Putting aside any partisanship, I’ve forever been attracted to the pageantry, the excitement and the drama that is usually found during any typical campaign season. My love affair with elections began 55 years ago when John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon faced off in the 1960 race for the Presidency, the first campaign I was old enough to follow. Of course, when I say “follow,” do not think in terms of reading up on issues, studying the candidate’s stands on foreign policy and taxes, or researching the political party’s platform on Civil Rights…although the 1960 Election did play itself out at the grammar school level with as much fervor as there was among adults, the nature of the campaign among kids had a wonderfully innocent if not naïve feel to it.

Prior the entering 2nd grade, I knew little about presidents and even less about elections. I had heard about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and I had a vague awareness that the current President was a guy named Eisenhower, who was older than my grandfather. In the early fall of 1960, the kid across the street mentioned to me that the country was going to vote on a new President, and that it was probably going to be Richard Nixon, who was Eisenhower’s Vice President, and according to the young man’s parents, deserved the job. Our conversation was joined by my friend Scooter, who agreed that Nixon should be our next President, a feeling that shared by several more children who had joined in what was my first political discussion. Like many youngsters, I wanted to feel like part of the group, so I instantly became a young Republican, an affiliation that lasted for about 20 minutes. Arriving back at my house, I asked my mother if our family was supporting Nixon, a question that was answered with the quickest “no” I had ever received from my mom. At that moment, I heard the name John F. Kennedy for the first time, as my mother explained that the Daleys were lifelong Democrats. Since I always had faith in my mom’s judgment, I immediately switched parties, and have not budged since.

Democrats were overwhelmingly outnumbered on Pinehurst Court. Our neighbors on our southern border were registered Republicans, as were the parents of my best friend Dougie, both who hailed from rural Colorado. The only support Kennedy was receiving on my block came from the two families that sent their children to St. Dunstan’s, a Catholic school, which made sense to me once I learned about Kennedy’s religion. Everyone on Pinehurst seemed to be locked into the election with the exception of our northern next door neighbors, the Schribers, whose father was more worried about the possibility of election coverage pre-empting Roller Derby. But happily, Kennedy seemed to be polling better at Meadows School.

00010821The 1960 Election was debated furiously on the Meadows playground. During every recess, arguments over the merits of the two candidates would continue all the way to the bell, only to be picked up again the moment we all got back outside. Kickball teams were no longer comprised of the two 2nd grade classes, but instead were determined by political considerations. Games were now played between the “Kennedys” and the “Nixons.” As stated earlier, issues were not discussed, as the focus was usually on the candidate’s looks (a big plus for Kennedy) and their respective speaking voices (none of us were yet used to Kennedy’s Boston accent).  This went on for a number of weeks, until the middle of October when the Nixon campaign was rocked by one of the most vicious rumors ever thrown at a presidential contender, a game-changer that would do untold damage to Nixon, at least among kids.

It was less than three weeks before the day of the 1960 Election (November 8) that the word was being spread that should Richard Nixon win the Presidency, all children in the U.S. would be required to attend school on Saturdays, in addition to the existing five day schedule. Like many rumors, no one knew its source, but those who were passing it around seemed convinced of its validity. Looking back, you might ask if any of us thought to check this out with an adult, maybe a parent, or especially with a teacher, who would be just as affected by a six day school week as the kids would be. Well, no we didn’t, because that’s not how we operated. Urban legends that were embraced by children did not require input from grownups…we would process them on our own, thank you very much.

Needless to say, Richard Nixon’s support among seven year olds evaporated very quickly. Oh sure, there were a few hold-outs, but those were the nerdy little brainiacs who loved school, and were usually lousy at kickball. Meanwhile, at the other side of the Meadows School playground, my future friend John Arnolfo was dealing with an emotional struggle. A 5th grader, John was from a staunch Republican family, but the Nixon “school on Saturday” story had hit him like a ton of bricks. Swallowing the rumor hook, line and sinker, John made the difficult decision to break from his parents and jump aboard the Kennedy bandwagon. As he explained to me in later years, “Between five days of school, and church on Sundays, Saturday is all we had to look forward to…I’d sooner be damned than to give that up.”

nixon-lodge-litho-1rIn another part of Millbrae, another future friend was facing a dilemma. Jeff Banchero, a 4th grader at Green Hills Elementary was assigned by his teacher the task of delivering a campaign speech to his class on the behalf of John F. Kennedy while a fellow student would do the same for Richard Nixon. Jeff, aware of the Nixon “school on Saturday” rumor, was conflicted over whether he should include it in his presentation. Taking the high road, Jeff decided to omit the Nixon smear from his spiel, a decision he regretted when Nixon defeated Kennedy 15 to 14 in a 4th grade straw poll Jeff’s teacher conducted shortly after the two speeches were completed. I think we can all agree that a brief mention of Nixon’s so-called plans would have swayed at least the one vote Jeff needed to carry the day. Despite his failure to put JFK over the top, Jeff Banchero was bitten by the political bug, and eight years later would enjoy a successful run for Capuchino High School student body president…by all accounts, a clean campaign.

On November 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected our 35th President in one the closest contests in our nation’s history. Although he finished second nationally, Richard Nixon did manage to carry California, San Mateo County and Millbrae by razor thin margins…no votes among the country’s 2nd graders were ever recorded. In 1962, Nixon ran for Governor of California, and once again the “school on Saturday” myth reared its ugly head, and although fewer of us were buying it, Nixon was defeated anyway by Pat Brown. Of course we all know that Nixon wasn’t quite finished…his 1968 and 1972 Presidential victories, as well as Watergate were still in his future. It was in 1972 that I was able to participate in a presidential election for the first time, casting a futile vote for George McGovern. That year, I heard no rumors regarding Nixon pushing for a six day school week, but I was no longer in elementary school anyway, so it would not have affected my vote…in fact by then, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

1960_electoral_mapNotes: My dad once told me that he’d “crawl over broken glass” in order to vote against Richard Nixon. Indeed, he had plenty of chances…starting in 1950 when he ran for the U.S. Senate, through two runs as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s running mate, one attempt at the governorship and three campaigns for President, Nixon’s name appeared seven times on statewide California election ballots (not including primaries). It’s interesting to note that it was only in his loss in the 1962 Governor’s race that he failed to carry California.

What Became of Saturday Morning Television?

While growing up, there were several events that I could always look forward to. Halloween, Christmas, my birthday and the Fourth of July were occasions I could faithfully rely on to deliver a wonderful memory. Unfortunately, these special days happen months apart, but happily, there was another pleasant tradition that took place every week, year after year. I’m referring, of course, to Saturday, or, to be more specific, Saturday morning in front of the TV. For as long as I can remember, all of the commercial television stations in the Bay Area would devote 5-6 hour time blocks exclusively to children’s programing on Saturdays, usually beginning at 8am and continuing into the early afternoon.  Cartoons, adventure shows, kid variety and children’s education programs were featured from breakfast until lunchtime, giving many of us no real reason to change out of our pajamas long after waking up.

As you can tell by this article’s title, Saturday morning television has gone through many changes over the years, and is virtually unrecognizable from what most of us remember. Today, the four major networks are now presenting sports, news shows and infomercials in place of anything remotely geared towards children. Yes, I’m aware that there are now cable channels that are entirely aimed at kids (Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon ) but those networks offer kid’s stuff 24/7, robbing Saturday mornings of any remaining uniqueness….if fact, with so many organized activities available for children weekdays and weekends, I’m wondering if Saturdays hold any specific significance to the present young generation as opposed to us “Boomers.”

Children’s programming goes back to the advent of commercial television, almost 70 years ago when NBC introduced “Howdy Doody,” a puppet show that appeared weekdays at 5:30pm. Network producers quickly learned that the youngsters watching the show represented an important consumer demographic, and programs directed at children would be the perfect vehicle for promoting cereal, candy, toys and even toothpaste to an impressionable audience. Before long, “Howdy Doody” had plenty of competition, as all three networks began chasing after the youth market, while local affiliates and independent stations began to produce their own shows. Of course, weekday programing geared towards children could only be effective during after school hours, but Saturdays were wide open. Thus began the Saturday tradition that found me a most eager participant.

I’m guessing most kids would simply wake up on Saturday mornings, turn on the TV, and start searching for a show of their liking. My sister Patrice and I were much more methodical. Every Friday night, we would tear out the Saturday page of the television listings and plan, in detail, the next day’s viewing. Starting at 8am, every 30 minute interval until late afternoon would be covered,  With four channels to choose from, sometimes our decision making wasn’t easy, and there were the inevitable disagreements, but Saturday mornings were too important to allow for much squabbling…we were always willing to compromise, probably the only time we were so cooperative with each other. Although my impressive memory cannot accurately recreate a typical Saturday morning in front of the Daley TV set, we are all fortunate (?) that one of Brian-Patrice schedules, circa 1962, has survived. As I transcribe what is on the list, I will attempt to explain, as best as I can remember, the decision making employed for each choice.

7hqdefault:30am  “Popeye” KRON Channel 4…An easy choice, as the other stations were offering programs about hobbies and science, while Popeye was an “A” list cartoon star. As much as I admired the popular sailor, I never could wrap my brain around what he and Bluto saw in Olive Oyl…and Bluto got his ass kicked every week due to his obsession. Despite the obvious propaganda, I never grew to like spinach.

8am “Cartoon Time” KGO Channel 7…I loved seeing generic cartoons from the 1930’s and ‘40’s, and the best ones were those produced by Warner Brothers. Best known for “Bugs Bunny” and “Duffy Duck,” the studio also created dozens of cartoons featuring no one from their fabulous roster, but usually just as entertaining. I especially enjoyed the travel log that featured the camel who insisted, despite what the narrator said, that he was thirsty.

8:30 “Ruff and Reddy” KRON Channel 4…”Ruff and Reddy” was Hanna-Barbera’s first foray into television, debuting appearing in 1957. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera went on to greater heights with Yogi Bear, the Flinstones and the Jetsons, but the dog and cat duo of Ruff and Reddy remained a favorite long after their show ceased production in 1960.

9am “Captain Kangaroo” KPIX (CBS) Channel 5…Although the Captain is best remembered as a weekday morning staple, “Captain Kangaroo” was also included on CBS’s Saturday morning lineup from 1955 until 1968. Watching the Captain was always a refreshing break from the usual noisy and frantic pace set by almost every other children’s program. I’ll never forget Captain Kangaroo’s (Bob Keeshan) short tribute to JFK given in November of 1963, when “Captain Kangaroo” returned to the air after being pre-empted by network assassination and funeral coverage. Let me also add that another reason for choosing the Captain was that his NBC Channel 4 competition was the “Sheri Lewis Show” which I never forgave for replacing “Howdy Doody” in 1960.  Trivia: Bob Keeshan was the original Clarabell on “Howdy Doody.”

9:30am “King Leonardo” KRON Channel 4…Long forgotten by most, “King Leonardo” was the original Lion-King, ruling Bongo-Congo with the help of his loyal companion, a skunk named Odie O. Cologne. Better remembered is Tudor Turtle, who with the help of a lizard-wizard, would live out his various fantasies, until his failure to handle the situation would inspire his cry, “Help Mr. Wizard! I don’t want to be (that week’s fantasy) anymore.” “King Leonardo featured voiceovers by the great Jackson Beck.

FuryNotKing10am “Fury” KRON Channel 4…I’m sure everyone over the age of 50 is familiar with “The story of a horse, and the boy who loved him.” A live action show, “Fury” starred Bobby Diamond as young Joey Newton while Peter Graves played his father Jim Taking place on the Broken Wheel Ranch, Joey would constantly find himself in danger, only to be saved by his extraordinary horse, who seemed as smart as Lassie, but unable to unlock doors and climb in and out of windows like the famous collie. “Fury” was never terribly exciting, but it did feed my lifelong hope of owning a horse, which, sadly, never happened.

mitymous10:30am “Mighty Mouse KPIX (CBS) Channel 5…Even at age 8 or 9, I found Mighty Mouse cartoons to be a bit childish, but I also thought Terry Toons animation was very good compared to the quality that was employed for most television productions…In any case, “What a mouse…what a mouse!”

11am “Rin Tin Tin” KPIX (CBS) Channel 5…This live action show was comprised of reruns, some episodes already 8-9 years old. Set at a U.S. Calvary fort in the 1870’s, Rinny was a German Sheppard who was about as smart as Lassie, but was decidedly more aggressive. Of course, Lassie was never asked to fight Indians, so maybe she was just holding back.

11:30am “Top Cat” KGO (ABC) Channel 7…”Top Cat” was kind of an urban version of Yogi Bear, preferring to live off his wits rather than put any real effort into life. Voiced by Arnold Stang, “Top Cat” was inspired by the Phil Silvers’ character, “Sargent Bilko,” in fact, Maurice Gosfield, who played Private Doberman in the “Bilko” series, was the voice of “Top Cat’s” Benny the Ball.

220px-Gloria_Winters_Penny_Sky_King_1952Noon “Sky King” KPIX (CBS) Channel 5…Another rerun, “Sky King was a contemporary Western, which was obvious due to the fact that the main character owned and operated a twin Cessna airplane known as the “Songbird.” Every week, Sky (Kirby Grant) would use his piloting skills to apprehend smugglers, bank robbers and evil foreign spies, often with the help of his niece Penny (Gloria Winters). It always seemed to me that Penny, who was very well developed in the chest department, would constantly get herself kidnapped. Each kidnapper would tie Penny up, always making sure the rope was bound tightly around the chest area, accenting her impressive rack. Man, I miss that show.

I would love to describe the rest of the shows that were telecast that day, including the Three Stooges, “The Magic Land of Alakazan” and “Rocky and His Friends”, but to be honest with you, Patrice and I seldom made it past noon. Our mother, apparently sickened by the sight of two healthy children lounging in front of the TV on a glorious Saturday, would toss us out of the house on our respective ears. We never thought she would notice.

Saturday mornings remained kid’s territory for many more years, developing animated programs that featured comic-book favorites (Superman and Archie), or becoming used as a dumping ground for recently canceled prime-time shows (“Batman,” “The Monkees”). But as the Baby Boomers grew older, the networks adjusted their programing to maintain its relevance with an aging demographic. By the 21st Century, children’s shows had long been outsourced to the cable networks, allowing Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC to run, at least in the fall, wall to wall college football. This is fine with me…every generation should have their own traditions, and develop their own notion of what a certain day of the week should mean. But for me, as much as I like college football, I would not be least bit disappointed if an Ohio State-Indiana matchup was pre-empted by “Sky King”…no one ever gets tied up in football.

Notes: On September 14, 1968, “The Archie Show” made its Saturday morning television debut on CBS. An animated version of the popular comic-book icon, “Archie,” not only featured all of the title character’s pals, but also included a music component by having the cast form a faux band. One of the songs performed by “The Archies” was “Sugar, Sugar,” which surprisingly became the Number 1 song of 1969. There is a musical legend that “Sugar, Sugar” was originally offered to The Monkees, but was rejected, with prejudice, by Michael Nesmith, but the historical time-line suggests this never happened. “Sugar, Sugar,” recorded by studio musicians, featured Ron Dante’s lead vocal.

Death on the (TV) Frontier

Years ago, a study on television violence maintained that children exposed to an average of 25 hours of TV programming a week will witness 8,000 murders before they leave elementary school. If those numbers are accurate, that would probably mean that I, based on the number of hours of television I logged as a kid, combined with the types of shows I watched, probably saw a lot more than 8,000 murders. I assume this based on the fact that my genre of choice during my formative years was westerns, and there was usually a lot more mayhem in one episode of “Bonanza” than in five seasons of “I Love Lucy.” While the study did not conclude that a steady dose of television would necessarily lead to children being prone to violence, its findings did suggest that children at the very least, could become desensitized and develop a lack of empathy for human suffering. But using myself as a model, I am not a particularly physically aggressive person, and after countless hours of watching TV, I feel I am still very sensitive to human suffering, especially my own. But I do have to agree that, after a boyhood devoted to watching television westerns, I came away with a distorted view of death, mainly in terms of how it occurs, the frequency, and what it would look like up close. Re-watching many of those programs as an adult has allowed me to examine the obvious disconnect between reality and fantasy of life and death on the American frontier.

One cannot blame television for how much the American West during the second half of the 19th Century became so romanticized…the process began 150 years ago while the history of the West was still unfolding. Newspapers of the period were eager to report the exploits of outlaws such as Jesse James and “Billy the Kid,” as well as lawmen like Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp. Soon came the so-called “dime novels,” pamphlets that either exaggerated the activities of well know western figures, or invented them from whole cloth. By the 20th Century, the image of the cowboy had become America’s most noteworthy contribution to the world’s popular culture, immortalized by the paintings of Charles Russell, the sculptures of Frederick Remington, the writings of Zane Grey and the motion pictures of John Ford. By the time TV came along in the mid-20th century, America’s understanding of life on the frontier had been twisted into the simplicity of a 90 minute John Wayne movie, comprised mostly of cattle stampedes, barroom brawls, Indian attacks, train holdups, and of course gunfights…lots of gunfights.

In the early days of television, westerns were produced as children’s entertainment, relegated to Saturday afternoons. Starring the likes of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy, these shows were action packed adventures with plenty of shooting, but surprisingly, not a lot of fatalities. The Lone Ranger shot to wound or disarm, never to kill. But in the fall of 1954, Walt Disney introduced Davy Crockett to America in a series of prime-time television episodes, m6oz2v-m6oz18davycrockettwhich not only touched of a national fad, but also convinced network executives to rethink westerns role in TV programing. In the fall of 1955, came the first three “adult” westerns…”The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” Cheyenne,” and of course, “Gunsmoke.”
Beginning as a radio series in 1952, “Gunsmoke” made its CBS television debut on September 10, 1955. Lasting 20 seasons, “Gunsmoke’s” principle character, Matt Dillon, played by James Arness, became one of television’s most enduring fictional figures, and, by my count, probably its most prolific killer. During “Gunsmoke’s” 635 episodes, Matt Dillon is estimated to have shot over 300 people, most of them fatally. Of course, Dillon can’t really be faulted for this, as he was the Marshall of Dodge City, Kansas, and shooting people was part of his job. But this is where I have to confess my personal interpretation of 19th Century frontier life was formed more from television than from books containing more accurate information. After years of watching “Gunsmoke,” I was shocked to learn that old west gunfights were not that common, and history records only about 30 significant shootouts occurring between 1840 and 1918. The reason why the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” stands out so vividly is because it was an exception to the reality of the historic frontier…Taking place in Tucson, Arizona on October 26, 1881, Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, along with Doc Holiday, squared off against Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury. In a battle that lasted 30 seconds, Both McLaurys and Billy Clanton were killed, and it’s not certain if Wyatt Earp was responsible for any of the three deaths. Although no one is quite sure, historians figure Earp probably killed no more than six men in his entire lifetime, a number that pales compared to what Matt Dillon could rack up in half a TV season.

“Gunsmoke’s” initial episode, entitled “Matt Gets It,” is unique in that, in his first ever television gunfight, Matt Dillon is beaten, and severely wounded by gunfighter Dan Grat (Paul Richards) who then proceeds to run amuck in Dodge City during Matt’s long recovery period. Before their second confrontation, Marshall Dillon correctly figures that Grat, while obviously the faster with a gun than Matt, is not a particularly accurate shooter. Sure enough, in the rematch, Matt keeps his distance, and kills his opponent after Grat’s shot is just a bit outside. The myth of the gunfighter is commonplace in western folklore, and Matt Dillon was constantly being challenged by gunslingers eager to make Matt Dillon another notch on their gun barrels…in fact, the opening title sequence of “Gunsmoke” each week depicted Matt stepping out into the street and successfully dispatching a generic gunman. Gunfighters were so common on “Gunsmoke,” as well as on other TV westerns, that it seemed that there was some sort of formal rating service that determined who was currently the “Fastest Gun in the West.” Men were judged by their ability to handle a gun, comparable to today’s individuals having a golf handicap. Although Matt Dillon was usually reluctant, he was rarely able to avoid the ultimate showdown on Front Street, and the result was generally that his foe ended up regretting Dillon’s warning to “Get out of Dodge.”

But as stated earlier, gunfights were few in the actual old west, and the spectacle of two men facing each other in the street, daring one another to make the first move was almost unheard of. Most gun battles happened in the spur of the moment, and the shooting would start immediately, with no one asking anyone to “step outside.” In many westerns, prominent gunslingers would seek each other out, eager to test his skill against anyone with a top reputation. In reality, gunfighters who either worked for the law, or hired themselves out to protect the interests of wealthy ranchers, were not interested in facing anyone with equally abilities…kind of like Floyd Mayweather.

gun-gunsmokeI’ll say this for Matt Dillon…his killings were relatively bloodless. None of his targets were ever shot through the head, and most died instantly. In fact, Marshall Dillon was so practiced in his profession, he normally never felt the need to bother to check on the condition of the many bodies he left lying around the frontier. Speaking of which, I’ve also noticed that some victims of shootings are uncanny in their ability to access their own medical situation. How many times have we seen some hapless person, after suffering a bullet, forsake the services of a doctor, saying , “No, it’s too late for that,” but not too late to give a lengthy deathbed speech, a curtesy afforded only to the central characters…apparently henchmen #’s 2 and 3 never have any last words.

Although I’ve crowned Marshall Matt Dillon as televisions all-time death merchant, honorable mention has to be given to “The Rifleman’s” Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors). McCain, using his tricked-up Winchester, was able to blow away close to 120 men during the show’s five year run. Not only was McCain able to run up his number in just 168 episodes (compared to “Gunsmoke’s” 635), but he was able to do so while just being the owner of a small ranch. Although McCain’s son Mark witnessed many of his father’s shootings, he still trails me in the number of killings he witnessed by several thousand.

Yes, so let’s get back to that study about television violence. Although we’ve been told that children averaging 25 hours a week will see 8,000 murders before leaving elementary school, I have to dispute those findings. First of all, the term “murder” is a bit pejorative, as many of the deaths were in the line of duty, and those guilty who may have been guilty were often, in the old frontier, never convicted in a court of law. But secondly, these were scripted drams, and no real killing took place. In fact, the only real murder I saw before leaving elementary school was Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby.

Note: ABC’s “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” starring Huge O’Brien debuted September 6, 1955, four days before “Gunsmoke.” What children may have found confusing was the fact that Earp and Matt Dillon both held the same job…Marshall of Dodge City. I guess in this case, the town was big enough for the two of them.

Entering the World of Strat-O-Matic Baseball

I first learned of Strat-O-Matic while reading a comic book. Somewhere inside the pages of “Superman” was a full page ad inviting me to play “big league baseball” with a board game that incorporated all of the elements of real baseball, including pitching, hitting, fielding, running and managing. All of that sounded nice enough, but the real grabber was the idea that, unlike other sports related board games, Strat-O-Matic simulated baseball by utilizing all of the teams of Major League Baseball, with virtually every big leaguer being represented. All of this seemed too good to be true, and so, for the moment, I passed on the opportunity.

Had there been an internet 50 years ago, I would have read that Strat-O-Matic was the brainchild of Hal Richmond, a Bucknell mathematics student who developed an early version of the game in 1961, and after taking out ads in various comic books and magazines, began selling it out of his basement through mail orders. Plagued by low sales, Richmond, in 1963, revised his game, adding the names of real MLB personal to all of the dozens of Strat-O-Matic player and pitcher cards. Each card contained outcomes (singles, doubles, strikeouts, pop-ups) that would vary depending upon the player it represented, thus a Willie Mays Strat-O Matic card would, over time, produce more offense than, let’s say Hal Lanier. The way it worked was simple…A batter’s card had three columns,1,2,and 3, while a pitcher’s card contained columns 4,5 and 6. Each column had 11 baseball outcomes. Three dice would be rolled, a red die determining which column would be used, the other two die, added together, would specify the result of the at bat. Although the luck of the roll would decide each outcome, the mathematics Richmond employed in developing the game cards made the games come alive for the participants, who, by deciding line-ups, batting orders, and pitching changes, as well as decisions on when to steal, bunt or hit and run, would truly get the feel of managing a baseball team.

Once Strat-O-Matic tweaked its game to mimic actual MLB games, it slowly began to attract a steady cult following. After the 1963 player cards were introduced, the Strat-O-Matic company was compelled to furnish a brand new set of cards each season, updated, of course, to reflect each team’s current lineup, as well as individual player production levels. Over the years, several MLB players and other sports celebrities have revealed their devotion to Strat-O-Matic. Millbrae’s own Keith Hernandez was a fan of the board game, and reportedly could not wait to see his 1979 card, after winning that year’s National League MVP award with a .344 batting average.

Despite never acquiring a Strat-O-Matic game of my own, it was my good fortune to learn that several of my new high school friends were active proponents of the game. John Arnolfo owned the 1965 version of the game, and invited me to observe a series of games played between him and another classmate, Tom Toschi. Although John and Tom had several good teams to choose from, including the 1965 World Champion Dodgers and the second place S.F. Giants lead by National League MVP Willie Mays, they somehow developed a fascination with the ’65 Kansas City Athletics, and played them night after night against different opponents, no doubt feeling that their managerial skill could improve the A’s actual 59-103 record. John was nice enough to loan me his game, and I quickly became hooked on it, although I stopped short of becoming a Kansas City Athletic fan. Soon, I discovered that others in my immediate circle of buddies were actively involved in Strat-O-Matic…Bill Nunan, living five houses down from John, was regularly making use of his 1963 player-pitcher cards, while Jeff and Steve Banchero were reliving the 1964 season, although their brother versus brother contests had more in common with Civil War battles. With so many guys within a close knit group being infatuated with the same game, it was almost inevitable that we would start our own league, with each of us assigned a specific team. Thus was born the great Millbrae Meadows Stat-O-Matic League of 1968.

As the league begin to take form, several decisions had to be made, including the number of teams, a schedule, which teams and which MLB year would be used, and of course, importantly, team assignments. Fortunately (or at least we thought) most of those issues would not have to be argued, as Bill Nunan had already made himself commissioner. No one objected when he expanded the league to eight teams, which meant our good friends Larry Garcia and Bud Harrington would be joining Bill, John, Tom, Jeff, Steve and myself as franchise owner-managers. Bill then decided that our league would be comprised of 1963 MLB teams, which was also fine with us, as we were a nostalgic bunch, and the past was already beginning to look pretty good to us. But it was the matching us with our teams that saw our league’s first major controversy.

Bill had suggested a blind drawing to determine team assignments, a drawing, we assumed would take place with all participants present. It was a surprise to the rest of the league when Bill announced, on the eve of our opening day, that he, Jeff and Steve had gone ahead and conducted the drawing themselves, and the teams were set. When the results of the “drawing” were revealed, some smelled a rat. Jeff had drawn the Giants, complete with Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, while his brother Steve drew the 1963 World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Bill Nunan was almost equally “lucky,” as he ended up with the American League champion New York Yankees, winners of 104 games in ’63. John got the average Chicago Cubs, Larry was assigned the Milwaukee Braves, while Bud was stuck with the pathetic Houston Colt .45’s. Tom and I felt fortunate as his Chicago White Sox and my St. Louis Cardinals were both second place teams in 1963. Still, I had to wonder how the only three guys present at the drawing were able to wind up with the three most coveted teams.

539wIf my memory serves, we were to play a 42 game schedule, with the group meeting at John’s house twice a week to get in as many games as possible each night. Opening night saw more controversy. Soon after Bill distributed everybody’s team cards (they belonged to him) I noticed that Curt Flood was missing from my set. Bill immediately accused me of losing the card, and threatened me with all kinds of physical violence if the card was not found promptly. As I wondered if the actual MLB Commissioner had ever beat up an owner, John offered a short term solution…I would use the 1965 Curt Flood card until the 1963 version turned up, which it eventually did, in Bill’s bedroom. I was also dismayed when I realized that the 1963 Cardinals did not include Lou Brock, as he did not become a Cardinal until the following season. John, knowing my interest in Brock, just happened to have Brock on his Chicago Cubs, and suggested we reenact the Lou Brock-Ernie Broglio trade a year before it happened, which I did, unaware that Brock only hit .258 in 1963, while Broglio was an 18 game winner. John sweetened the pot by adding Bob Buhl while I gave up an aging Stan Musial, who batted .255 in what was his final season.

The opening games at John’s house provided a glimpse into everyone’s Strat-O-Matic personality. Jeff Banchero acted like a manager during his games, fretting over each decision, and recreating discussions between him and his players. John Arnolfo, on the other hand, played the role of announcer, giving play by play accounts of whatever was unfolding in front of him. Then there was Bill Nunan, who played like he was double-parked, growling for everyone to hurry up. A typical Strat-O-Matic game took about 30 minutes…Bill could play a double-header in that amount of time. Of course, there was always the look of disgust he gave while playing against me, and the 1965 Curt Flood would come to the plate. There was also a slight problem with Larry Garcia’s handling of the Milwaukee Braves pitching staff. Players, especially pitchers, are supposed to be used at the same frequency as their real life counterparts, but Larry tried to use Warren Spahn every game, claiming, “I don’t care what you guys say…he’s ready.” From what I remember about the first couple of weeks of the 1968 Millbrae Meadows Strat-O-Matic League, the standings were somewhat bunched up after 18 games, although Tom Toschi’s White Sox won 11 out of their first 12.

I’d love to complete this article by telling you how our league turned out, but I can’t, because, unfortunately, the league folded before the season was halfway finished. Blame it on summer vacations, some guys getting jobs or girlfriends, but the sad fact that it just petered out. Or did it? Unlike the rest of us, Bill Nunan never lost his interest in Strat-O-Matic, playing the game well into adulthood. Some 30 years after our league collapsed, Bill told us his intention of reassembling the eight 1963 teams, and completing our 42 game schedules for us. Of course, by now, Strat-O-Matic had undergone several improvements, and a late 1990’s computerized version allowed Bill to play a game, and print out a box-score in a matter of minutes. Week after week, Bill updated us as to the progress of our teams, which was made doubly fun by the fact that all of us had remained friends. It’s hard for me to remember what happened with Bill’s attempt to finish our season, because, frankly, if you play enough Strat-O-Matic, you start confusing your countless simulations with the real thing.

 

 

 

 

50 Years Ago: Ali-Liston and the Mystery of the Phantom Punch

Longtime boxing fans would be quick to tell you that the recent Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight was not the first bigtime bout that failed to live up to its hype. One of the best examples of this happened 50 years ago this month when Muhammad Ali took on Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine in a highly anticipated rematch. Those expecting an epic battle were instead served a two minute fiasco which resulted in Ali being credited with a 1st round knockout. Half a century later, experts are still debating what happened in Lewiston on the night of May 25, 1965. Although there are many unanswered questions, it really boils down to two…was Liston really knocked out by a solid punch or did he take a dive?

Sunny-Liston-vs-Muhammad-AliThe road to Lewiston actually began 15 months earlier in Miami Beach, Florida on the night of February 25, 1964 when heavyweight champion Charles “Sonny” Liston entered the ring a 7-1 favorite to defend his title against the 22 year old Ali, who was still known as Cassius Clay. Liston, coming off two straight one-round knockout wins over Floyd Patterson and considered unbeatable, was totally outclassed for six rounds. When the bell rang for Round 7, Liston, claiming an injured shoulder, refused to leave his corner, thereby forfeiting his crown to his jubilant opponent. Immediately, much of the sporting public became suspicious of the fight’s unsatisfactory ending. While some accused Liston of throwing the fight, a charge made reasonable considering Liston’s ties to organized crime, the probable truth is that Liston was overconfident and undertrained for the fight.

A rematch was scheduled for November 16, 1964 at the Boston Gardens. After their first meeting, Cassius Clay had joined the Nation of Islam, and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, instantly becoming the most controversial figure in sports. Liston, apparently stung by the loss of his heavyweight title, trained furiously for his second fight with Ali, reportedly getting down to 208 lbs, ten pounds lighter than he was at Miami Beach. But three days before the fight, Ali suffered a hernia, resulting in a six month postponement of the fight. Liston, claiming to be 32 years of age, but probably at least three years older, was disheartened…he had gotten himself in shape for nothing, and now would have to do it all over again.

Rescheduled for May 25th, 1965, the political climate surrounding the fight started to get dicey. The assassination of Malcom X revealed that the American Islam community had become split into warring factions, and some feared Ali could become a target for revenge. The financial entity staging the fight, Inter-Continental Promotions, had been found in violation of contract rules by including a return bout clause with Ali, should he win the first fight, which actually gave Liston, a partner with Inter-Continental, an incentive to lose the Miami Beach contest. Three weeks before the fight, Inter-Continental, rather than battling with the Massachusetts Athletic Commission, pulled the fight out of Boston Garden, and moved it to Lewiston, Maine’s 4,500 seat Central Maine Youth Center…Ali-Liston II was already obtaining a small town carnival atmosphere.

Only 2,434 fans were present as the referee, former heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott, gave Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston their pre-fight instructions. The evening had already begun in bizarre fashion when singer Robert Goulet forgot the words to the National Anthem. Ali, fighting at a surprisingly trim 206, started fast by landing a good right hand seconds after the opening bell. Liston, weighing 215, immediately began stalking Ali, but was unable to land anything effective during the fight’s opening minute. After taking another solid right to the head, Liston followed Ali towards the corner and attempted to connect with a long left-jab. While avoiding Liston’s punch, Ali came over the top with a quick right that hit Sonny’s left cheek, sending him to the canvas at the 1:43 mark. As Liston lay on the mat, Ali stood over him, taunting him to get up. Walcott tried to push Ali to a neutral corner, but Ali paid little attention to him, and after looming over Sonny, he took a victory lap around the ring. In attempting to rise, Liston made it to one knee, 5d88a47cbbd84e65b0cc576bd70bafe8-5d88a47cbbd84e65b0cc576bd70bafe8-0rolled over to his back again, and then managed to get to his feet at 2:01, his time on the canvas clocking in at around 18 seconds. As Walcott wiped off Liston’s gloves, his attention turned to ringside, where Ring Magazine editor Nat Fleischer, who was sitting next to timekeeper Frances McDonough, was calling Walcott over to his side of the ring. Leaving the fighters, Walcott, ran across the ring and briefly conferred with McDonough, who informed Jersey Joe that he had counted Liston out, and the fight should be over. Meanwhile Ali and Liston resumed fighting, with Ali raining punches in Liston’s direction but missing virtually all of them. Walcott quickly returned to separate the fighters, declaring Ali the winner at 2:11 of the first round, setting off an immediate storm of protest and disgust from the media and the rest of the small crowd. Cries of “fix”, “setup” and “sham” were heard throughout the arena, with Ali’s winning right described as a “phantom Punch.” For many days and weeks, the fight was discussed, rehashed and debated, while the video of the fight quickly became boxing’s version the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination. Over the years, the second Ali-Liston fight has inspired many different theories, involving everything from a mob fix to Liston being threatened by members of the Black Muslims. But there are a few, including me, who feel the fight was on the level, or at least started out that way, until the 1st round knockdown turned the event into one of confusion and chaos.

First of all, there was a punch. Ali’s right hand, thrown over Liston’s lead left, landed flush, causing Liston’s front foot the elevate a few inches above the mat. If it’s conceded that the knockdown was legitimate, the next question is how badly hurt was Liston? The key moment came when Sonny’s first attempt to rise was unsuccessful, as he fell back to a horizontal position. At that point, most people figure he was either too dazed to get up or was pretending to be hurt. But there is a third possibility. At the point that Liston is on one knee, Ali is racing around the ring, moving quickly behind Sonny. In later interviews, Sonny Liston mentioned that since getting off the floor involves using one’s hands for balance, any fighter would be vulnerable to being hit as they attempt to rise. It could very well be that Liston, seeing Ali approaching him as he was climbing off the canvas, deliberately sought the safety of the floor, and then got up seconds later when Ali was across the ring where he could see him. The fact that this meant being down for five or six extra seconds was entirely the fault of Ali, who was in blatant violation of boxing’s neutral corner rule, and referee Walcott, who obviously lost control of the fight.

In my view, Jersey Joe Walcott should not have stopped the fight when he did. Since Ali never retreated to a neutral corner, and Liston never received the benefit of a referee’s count, Walcott should have overruled the timekeeper’s judgement that Liston be declared counted out. It’s interesting to note that during the brief time that Ali and Liston resumed fighting, Liston deftly avoided all of the blows Ali threw at him, suggesting that Sonny was not in too bad of shape. But although I, or anyone else does not know what really happened, I think we can all agree on one thing…Liston was not going to beat Muhammad Ali that night, or probably any other night going forward.

Liston’s 1st round defeat did untold harm to his career. It would be three years before Sonny could obtain a license to fight anywhere in the United States, as most boxing commissions were a bit skeptical of Sonny’s performance the night of May 25, 1965. Ali would successfully defend his title eight more times, until his 1967 refusal to be drafted into the military resulted in him being stripped of the championship, and a three and a half year layoff from the ring. Ironically, it was during Ali’s hiatus that Sonny was able to put his boxing career somewhat back together, winning enough fights to place himself back into the heavyweight rankings. But time was not on his side…On December 6, 1969, Sonny Liston, now about 40, was knocked out in the ninth round by Leotis Martin in Las Vegas, ruining any chance for another shot at the title.

Liston and Ali’s paths crossed one last time in June of 1970, when Ali showed up in Jersey City, New Jersey to watch Sonny Liston face Chuck Wepner. It was Sonny’s 16th fight since Lewiston, while Ali had not fought in over three years. But their immediate futures could not have been more different. Muhammad Ali would be allowed to resume his career a few months later, and would eventually earn millions of dollars in huge bouts against the likes of Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton. Liston, receiving $13,000 for stopping Wepner in nine rounds, never fought again. On January 5, 1971, Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home by his wife, who was returning from a trip…he had been dead for a week. Although the official cause of death was a drug overdose, it has been speculated that he might have been murdered. But like his date of birth and his second fight with Ali, his death remains a mystery.

Notes: In Ali-Liston II, Liston got back to his feet at the 2:01 mark, which coincidently was the winning time for that year’s Kentucky Derby, won by Lucky Debonair. The fight, however, was about one minute shorter than what was the current Billboard Number One song, “Ticket to Ride” by the Beatles, which lasts 3:10.

100 Years Ago: Johnson-Willard and the End of Boxing’s “Great White Hope” Era

Although the general public’s interest in boxing as declined to the point where it currently enjoys only a cult following, the sport’s rich history will always remain intact, with the controversial Jack Johnson-Jess Willard fight being a perfect example. Celebrating its 100th anniversary, Willard’s 26th round knockout over Johnson was significant in sports history, as it not only ended Jack Johnson’s six and a half year reign as the World’s Heavyweight Champion, but also terminated the relentless quest to wrest the title away from boxing’s first black heavyweight champion, or, as it was described at the time, the search for the “great white hope.” But to understand the public’s mindset towards Johnson, and the need for his defeat, one has to go back 30 years, to the beginning of boxing’s modern era.

When John L. Sullivan won the heavyweight title in 1882, most bouts were still fought under London Prize Ring Rules, which meant bare-knuckles and an unlimited number of rounds. It was during Sullivan’s 10 year reign that the sport transitioned to gloves and three minute rounds, conditions that John L. favored. But while Sullivan can be credited with helping modernize the sport, he also began another tradition…drawing the “color line.” Although Sullivan was known for bragging he could beat “anyone in the house,” he also made it quite clear he would never face a black man in the ring. “I’ve never fought a negro,” Sullivan simply stated…”I never have, and I never will.” The “negro” Sullivan probably had in mind when he issued this statement was Peter Jackson, a black Australian fighter of considerable skill, who many felt stood a better than even chance of beating Sullivan. But actually, Sullivan’s refusal to meet Jackson or any other black opponent was not thought to be very unusual in its day, as blacks were denied opportunity in most areas of American society at that time, and boxing’s heavyweight title was considered by most whites as too prestigious to fall into the hands of a black athlete, even by those who felt boxing should be banned altogether.

In 1892, Sullivan lost his crown to Jim Corbett, and although Corbett had previously had fought Peter Jackson to a 61 round draw, he had no intention giving Jackson a rematch now that he held the title. Sullivan’s “color line” remained intact as the title passed from Corbett to Bob Fitzsimmons to Jim Jeffries. It was during Jeffries’s title run (1899-1905) that John Arthur Johnson, an African American from Galveston, Texas, began to climb the heavyweight ladder. Jeffries, citing the prevailing custom, refused to fight Jack Johnson, and pretty much defused any speculation of him doing so by retiring undefeated in 1905.

By 1908, the heavyweight championship had fallen into the hands of Tommy Burns, a 5’7 Canadian who proved to be much more interested in money than tradition. Accepting a guarantee of $30,000, Burns defended his title against Jack Johnson in Sydney, Australia on December 26, 1908. Johnson gave Burns a beating, and was awarded the championship in the 14th round. The sporting public was now saddled with grim reality that the world’s heavyweight championship was now in the hands of a black man. The search for a “white hope” had now began.

The mere fact that Jack Johnson was black was bad enough, but in the eyes of many, his personality made things much worse…he wore fine clothes, drove fast cars, and ran around with white women, eventually even marrying one. Reporting from ringside at the Johnson-Burns fight, famed writer Jack London unofficially started the “white hope” frenzy by stating that the golden smile of Johnson needed to be wiped off Johnson’s face. But London already had a particular man in mind to defeat Johnson, writing, “Jeff…it’s up to you.”

Inactive since 1904, Jim Jeffries was lured back into the ring by promoters, who promised him $100,000 plus a share of what figured to be lucrative revenue from the bout’s film. On July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, in what was the biggest sporting event up to that time. Johnson easily dispatched of Jeffries, a result that unfortunately triggered race riots throughout the United States. Jeffries’s loss only intensified the search for a white man talented enough to beat Johnson, and soon the heavyweight ranks swelled with fighters like Gunboat Smith, Frank Moran, Carl Morris, Luther McCarty, and a huge guy from Kansas named Jess Willard.

But while Johnson seemed unbeatable in the ring, the U.S. government saw some vulnerability in his private life, and charged him with violating the Mann Act, a law that prosecuted those who transported women across state lines for immoral purposes. After a sham trial (all of Johnson’s violations of the law occurred before the Mann Act was in effect) Johnson was convicted in June of 1913 by an all-white jury and sentenced to a year in prison. Instead of going to jail, Johnson skipped the country, eventually ending up in Paris, where he performed in night clubs, fought exhibitions and defended his title twice. But in 1914, World War I broke out in Europe, denying Johnson of any more financial opportunities in the region. By early 1915, the high living Johnson was badly in need of money, and was also homesick.

At about this time, a group of promoters, led by Jack Curley, figured Johnson’s crown was ripe for the taking. Johnson was turning 37 years of age, and reportedly was not in the best of condition. Curley began to negotiate with Johnson the terms for a major title defense back in the Western Hemisphere. Since Johnson could not enter the U.S. without being arrested, Havana, Cuba was selected as the site for the April 5th prizefight. As for Johnson’s opponent, it was Jess Willard who promoters chose over the large field of white hopes, probably due to Willard’s 6’6 height and ability to absorb punishment. Receiving a $30,000 guarantee, Johnson accepted the offer to meet Willard, and also agreed, to his later regret, for the fight to be scheduled for 45 rounds…what else was agreed to still a matter for debate.

Over 17,000 spectators made their way into Oriental Racetrack on the day of the fight where ringside temperature was reported to be 100 degrees. Willard entered the ring at 230 lbs., the best shape of his career, while Johnson, at around 220, appeared a dozen lbs. overweight. Johnson started with uncharacteristic aggression, pounding away at Willard in the opening rounds, and intensifying the attack between rounds 10 and 15. Although Johnson was winning most of the rounds, he did not seem to be hurting Willard very much, and by the 20th round, the fight was beginning to sway Willard’s way. Johnson, tiring from the heat, started to fade, and after the 25th round, asked that his wife be escorted out of the arena. In the 26th, Johnson, after taking a wicked body shot, was nailed by a Willard overhand right, causing him to desperately attempt to cling to Willard before falling to the canvas. As seen in Jack Johnson Knocked Out by Jess Willardthe iconic photo, Johnson took referee Jack Welch’s ten count while seemingly shading his eyes from the sun. The large crowd erupted in celebration as Willard’s hand was raised in victory, a joy that was no doubt duplicated around the globe as news of Johnson’s defeat was circulated.

But soon after the fight, Jack Johnson began to muddy the waters as only he could. Johnson claimed that he was assured by the promoters that a loss to Willard would result in his Mann Act conviction being dropped, allowing him entry into the U.S. without having to spend time in prison. Anxious to go home, Johnson said he agreed, for an extra $20,000, to throw the Willard fight, and was now speaking up because the promise of the charges being dropped were not being met. Promoter Jack Curley laughed off Johnson’s accusation, saying that he did not have the political pull to offer Johnson any kind of clemency, and Johnson was never promised anything of the kind. In any event, Johnson continued to claim he took a dive in the Willard fight for the rest of his life, although most boxing historians are skeptical.

In 1920, Jack Johnson crossed the Mexican-U.S. border into Texas, surrendering himself to U.S. officials. After a stretch in Levenworth, Johnson resumed is boxing career in 1921, hoping to get a title shot against the current champ, Jack Dempsey. But the “color line” had been reinstated after Johnson’s loss to Willard, and would not be until 1937 that another black man (Joe Louis) would get a chance to fight for the championship, not that a 45 year old Johnson posed much of a threat anyway. Johnson boxed until age 50, then bounced around through various endeavors, until he died in 1946 when he fittingly, at age 68, lost control of the speeding car he was driving in North Carolina, in route to the Joe Louis-Billy Conn rematch.

Is there a possibility that Jack Johnson went into the tank against Jess Willard? At this point, there is no way to know for sure, but my personal opinion is that he did not. It’s my guess that Johnson, after losing legitimately, truly thought that since he was no longer heavyweight champion, the U.S. government would interest in his case, and the conviction would be reversed. When this didn’t happen, I think an angry Johnson lashed out at everyone he could…plus his ego might not have accepted losing to Jess Willard, who Johnson thought of as a second rater. If Johnson did intend to lose the fight, why wait 26 rounds? He could he be sure Willard would not wilt under the many punches he landed on Jess long before the fight’s ending? As Willard later remarked, “if Johnson really did throw our fight in Havana, I wish he had done it sooner…it was hotter than hell down there.”

Note: The Johnson-Willard fight, at 26 rounds, was the longest heavyweight championship fight in the modern era, and last title bout to be scheduled for 45 rounds. During Willard’s and later Jack Dempsey’s reign, the duration at title matches ranged from 10 to 15 rounds. By the 1930’s, 15 round championship fights became the norm, and remained so until the 1980’s when title fights were shortened to 12 rounds.

Preserving Our (Bad) Music

When it comes to the highest levels of mankind’s artistic creativity, it’s a wonderful fact that much of it has, and will continue to survive virtually forever. The plays of Shakespeare, the music of Mozart, the paintings of Rembrandt and the writings of Homer have already been enjoyed for hundreds of years, while 20th Century technology as added great cinema and high quality recording, allowing performances of Charley Chaplin and the Beatles to live on through eternity. With museums, libraries, film collections, and now the internet seemingly preserving everything that happens, I still wonder if parts of our history will fall through the cracks.

I’m not worried about the obvious things…every big rock concert, significant sports moment and important political event will find its way to You Tube moments after it happens. My concern revolves around Baby Boomer street culture, which includes games, catch phrases, jokes, and silly songs that we all learned and passed along to each other, without the benefit of social media…a “knock-knock” joke was considered as gone viral when, after originating with 6th graders, had begun being repeated in the 2nd and 3rd grade section of the schoolyard. My fear is that if many of our experiences that currently reside exclusively in our collective memory are not cataloged soon, much of them will die with us. Yes, there are internet sites that have complied almost every joke we ever told, and games like “Hide and Seek” have their own Wikpedia pages explaining the rules, but what about the music? Who is preserving some of the bad music we grew up with?

Now, when I say music, I’m not talking about popular music, rock & roll, classical, or even TV show themes, commercial jingles, or anything that has actually been recorded. I’m referring to the song parodies that we learned as kids, whose origins and authorship were almost always unknown. Most of these ditties would be adaptations of well-known American songs, with new lyrics that could be clever, naughty, subversive, and sometimes even funny. Although song parodies have been composed for centuries by many different cultures, it’s my biased belief that the 1950’s and ‘60’s represented a golden age for the genre.

meadows-0

My first introduction to the phenomenon came at age six when an older neighbor of mine, after humming the “Marines Hymn,” started singing out lyrics that went something like this:

“From the Halls of Millbrae Meadows School

To the shores of Frisco Bay

We will fight our teacher battles

With spitballs, mud and clay

We will fight for the right and freedom

To keep our desks a mess

I will gladly claim the title

Of the teacher’s biggest pest”

I was very impressed by this obvious masterpiece, especially when assuming that the young man had written the song himself, an assumption that he was not exactly eager to disclaim. When I later tried to recite the tune to my older sisters, they seemed to already be familiar with it, and, in fact had heard it years before. It also became clear that the song included interchangeable locales, as Kathy and Elaine’s version mentioned Green Hills School, which was where they attended grammar school prior to Meadows being built. As to not make the moment a total waste, Elaine taught me the song which, during my early years, served as the logical companion piece to the reworked “Marines Hymn,” the now classic “Burning of the school,” inspired by the classic “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“My eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school

We have tortured every teacher

We have broken every rule

We have thrown Mr. Cowen (Meadows principal) out the back door

There is no school no more

Glory, glory hallelujah

Teacher hit me with a ruler

I hit her on the butt

With a rotten coconut

There is no school no more”

As you can see, the first two schoolyard songs I learned had identical themes, that being the childhood pipedream of a grammar school student revolt, a fantasy we all knew would never happen, and, in fact, probably never really wished  would. As time moved on, I began to notice that many of the song parodies I was taught fell into a handful of categories. Along with tunes that ridiculed school were those that lampooned holidays (mostly Christmas), poked fun at TV show themes and totally disrespected any product that happened to be advertised on television. I have to conclude that learning and singing these songs were some kind of rite of passage, demonstrating to others that we had not completely bought in to the culture that being delivered to us on a regular basis…or we just thought they were funny.

Television show themes were a frequent target for mischief, and since the melody of the music was usually already familiar to most of us, learning a parody became simple. The first such song I recall hearing was a direct insult to the first TV show I remember watching…

“It’s Howdy Doody Time

It’s not worth a dime

So turn on Channel 9

And watch Frankenstein”

I’m guessing that song was composed when “Howdy Doody” was still in production, but when I first heard it, watching it was no longer an option, and besides, Channel 9 in my HowdyDoody4area was a PBS station, which was not likely to air “Frankenstein” or any of its sequels. But even though the song didn’t make complete sense to me, I enjoyed it anyway, and would sing it constantly. As time went on, other TV themes received similar treatment, as evidenced by this send up of the “Addams Family” song…

“The Addams Family started

When Uncle Fester farted

They all became retarded

The Addams Family”

As you can see, some genius somewhere along the way realized that “farted” and “retarded” rhymed, and couldn’t wait to include his discovery in a song.  How lucky we are he did. But while most of us 61WDYnIstKLprobably still remember the “Addams Family” tune 50 years after it originally aired, not all TV programs have stood the test of time.  Almost 50 years ago, Chuck Connors, of “Rifleman” fame, starred in another western, titled “Branded,” which told the story of Jason McCord, a cavalry officer unjustly accused of being a coward during the 19th Century Indian wars. Although “Branded” was short-lived, one of its contributions to Baby Boomer culture was this clever version of its theme, which I reprint here as a public service…

“Stranded

Sitting on the toilet bowl

What do you do when you’re stranded?

And you don’t have a roll

To prove you’re a man

You must use your hand

Stranded”

Since the parody’s lyrics have nothing to do with the premise of “Branded,” and with the melody of the song no longer in the mainstream, I’m afraid “Stranded” has lost much of its impact, although some might say it stands on its own merit. (I don’t know who those “some” might be, but you might want to stay away from those people.)

The first Christmas song I ever learned was “Jingle Bells.”  The second one was also “Jingle Bells,” only with a slightly different words…

“Jingle Bells

Santa smells

Easter’s on its way

Oh what fun it is to ride

In a beat-up Chevrolet…hey”

After that, I heard many other holiday offerings based on “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the 29403_XXX_v1Snowman,” and a few with a slightly more religious bent, guaranteed to offend the more serious among us. But while making fun of Christmas might push the levels of decency, I don’t anyone who ever objected to making Madison Avenue the subject of musical satire. Possibly the first commercial jingle I remember hearing was for Bosco, the syrup used to make a chocolate drink when added to milk. Although I’ve long forgotten the Bosco song sung on television, I have no problem reciting the alternative version…

“I love Bosco

It’s made with TNT

Mommy put some in my milk

To try to poison me

But I fooled Mommy

I put some in her tea

And now I have no Mommy

To try to poison me”

There were also songs about Ajax and Comet, both sang to the tune of the “Colonel Bogey March” (Which was the whistled theme heard in “Bridge on the River Kwai”), songs based on the Oscar Meyer jingle and a brilliant ditty based on McDonald’s former campaign slogan/song, “Your kind of Place”…

“McDonald’s is your kind of place

They serve you rattlesnakes

They throw then in your face

And there is no parking space

Next time you go in there

They’ll serve you underwear

McDonald’s is your kind of place”

It’s interesting that some classic Baby Boomer parodies ended up more famous than the songs they were based on. How many of us actually know the words to “The Old Gray Mare,” a 150 year old American folk classic? Probably only a fraction of those that know of the song it inspired, possibly the granddaddy of all Baby Boomer tunes….

“Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts

Mutilated monkey meat

Little dirty birdy feet

Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts

And me without a spoon”

Besides being composed by anonymous songwriters, all of these Baby Boomer favorites have one other thing in common. I’ve never heard any of them performed in any way that could be called a professional manner. Instead of acapella versions of these songs sung by no-talent neighbors and school mates, I would love to have the chance to hear some of these tunes performed and recorded utilizing full instrumental accompaniment, complex arrangements, complete with the best background singers in the industry. With the help of government subsidies, I’m thinking people like Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, the Las Vegas cast of “Jersey Boys,” and the Mormon Tabernacles Choir could be hired to finally do what should have been a long time ago….Save our music.

Television’s Animated Product Mascots…With Issues

Cartoons were always one of my favorite forms of entertainment, and even now I still enjoy watching a classic Bugs Bunny short or an episode from Rocky and Bullwinkle. Thanks to the likes of Warner Bros. and Walt Disney, animation had become a profitable arm of the motion picture business even before the advent of television, at which point Baby Boomers were introduced to literally hundreds of cartoon characters. But as popular as Fred Flintstone, Yogi Bear and Quick Draw McGraw were in the 1960’s, there were other animated figures that, despite not having their own shows, or even ever appearing in an eight minute animated feature, were just as familiar to us as any of the cartoon world’s biggest stars. Naturally, I’m referring to those characters who served as commercial spokespersons for many well-known consumer products. Tony the Tiger, Mr. Clean, Snap, Crackle, Pop and Speedy Alka Seltzer are just of few of the advertising icons who have graced TV screens for several decades.

In most cases, a product’s mascot is a friendly, non-threatening, one dimensional character, suggesting nothing in the way of a controversial back story. The Pillsbury Doughboy, Elsie the Borden’s Cow and the Lucky, the Lucky Charms Leprechaun, all seem rather harmless as they pursue their life’s work of pitching their particular products. But over the years in has come to my attention that a few non-benign individuals have slipped through the cracks, and have made their way to our television screens despite having obvious personality disorders. Not only were these disturbed figures allowed to appear in commercials to begin with, but shockingly, were allowed by the corporate suits to continue in their capacities for decades, long after their problems had been spotted by viewers and sponsors alike.  In any event, I’ll now produce a short list of a few animated product mascots with issues.

Sonny the Cuckoo Bird (Cocoa Puffs).   I’m sure most of you are familiar with Sonny, and are aware of his unfortunate condition. Introduced in 1962, Sonny, whenever placed in the proximity of Cocoa Puffs, the popular General Mills cereal, comes completely unglued, and begins his crazed rant, “I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” all while practically bouncing off the walls. At least by shouting out his plight, those witnessing his temporary insanity are not stuck with having to guess what ails the poor bird. You’d think that once Sonny’s condition became clear, the last thing you’d want to put in front of him would be a box of Cocoa Puffs, but unfortunately Sonny, in the original commercials, was paired with Gramps, presumably Sonny’s grandfather. Gramps was really the main culprit, as during each segment, he’d find some excuse to temp his grandson with a bowl of you know what, thereby lighting the fuse that would result in still another outburst. The one thing that has never been made clear to me…since I never remember seeing Sonny actually eat any Cocoa Puffs, how do we know his outbreaks stem from liking the stuff?

Tricks the Rabbit (Trix).   Another General Mills creation, Tricks , like his stable-mate, is totally obsessed with a particular brand of sugary cereal, but unlike Sonny, is able to keep is composure as he tries to move heaven and earth in order to get his paws on a bowl of fruit flavored Trix. Since 1959, the Trix Rabbit has donned a variety of disguises in a constant effort to fool a group of youngsters into sharing their box of Trix with him. For me, the question was always why didn’t Tricks take the money he spent on elaborate costumes and simply buy a box of his own? But to me, although I could see that Tricks had developed an unhealthy addiction to Trix, I never felt anything other than sympathy for the poor rabbit. But while I actually kind of liked Tricks, the same cannot be said for that selfish, unlikeable little snot-nosed kid that always busted the rabbit, denying him of even a mouthful.

In the early Trix television spots, Tricks would pose as a human authority figure, like a fireman or policeman, performing some sort of civic action that would compel a small circle of kids into offering him some of their Trix. The excitement of getting some of his favorite cereal would prove too much for Tricks, as his enthusiasm would cause part of his disguise to come off, enabling the children to recognize him as Tricks the Rabbit. At that point, one kid, apparently the spokesman for the group, would take the box of Trix away from the poor guy, admonishing him with the words, “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.”

Maybe the people at General Mills thought that boys and girls would identify with the boy who was saving his Trix from a being taken by a charlatan rabbit. Not me. I hated that kid! I’m sure most of us grew up knowing youngsters just like him…the ones that wouldn’t let you look at their baseball cards or borrow their comic books. If the makers of Trix really thought Baby Boomers were siding with the kid in those commercials, they certainly found out differently in 1976 when General Mills ran an election to determine whether the Trix Rabbit should be given a box of Trix (up to then, he never got as much as a mouthful in any of the previous ads).  Tricks was the overwhelming winner, and they actually aired a commercial showing that miserable kid handing over a box of Trix to Tricks. Yes, revenge really is a dish best served cold.

Charley the Tuna (StarKist Tuna). While the Trix Rabbit’s goal always seemed to be something in the way of self-gratification, the same certainly can’t be said for Charley the Tuna, who debuted in StarKist Tuna commercials in 1961. From the beginning, the running gag was that Charley, hoping to be chosen by StarKist, would put on an air of sophistication, thinking that they were interested in tuna with “good taste,” unaware that StarKist was really after tuna that “taste good.” Every effort by Charley would always end with him getting the same rejection slip, with the words, “Sorry Charley” attached to the end of a hook.

The big question, other than why a huge corporation would still be using such outdated fishing methods, is what is the deal with Charley? Does he know that being selected by StarKist means being chopped into 100 pieces before being stuffed into a can? If he’s in such a hurry to die, why not just offer himself up to some passing shark? Or is he mistaken over the nature of StarKist’s business…maybe he thinks they run a high-class aquarium somewhere, or a water-themed amusement park along the lines of Marine World? I wonder how Charley would feel if someone showed him a documentary about how the fishing industry really works? In any event, Charley should feel lucky that StarKist’s standards are as high as they are, and that they take the time to learn the names of fish they don’t want, and turn them down right there in the ocean, rather than at the factory when it would be too late to give them back their lives.

Punchy (Hawaiian Punch). No matter what one might think of Sonny, Tricks or Charley, at least they are not out to deliberately hurt anyone, which, of course, is the opposite of what we know about Punchy, the longtime mascot of Hawaiian Punch. We’ve all seen the TV commercials for Hawaiian Punch that features  the little guy wearing a straw hat, the first of which appeared in 1962. Punchy walks up to an unsuspecting man, probably a tourist, and offers him a “nice Hawaiian punch.” When the poor man replies, “sure,” Punchy proceeds to deck the guy with a vicious right-hand to the jaw. Haha…get it? Punch, as in a punch to the face, rather than the drink. This might be funny to a 3rd grader once, maybe twice, but the makers of Hawaiian Punch ran several variations of the same ad for many years, all with the same “punch-line,” if you will. I have wonder why a company that sells non-carbonated, overly sweetened soft-drinks would want their product associated with getting slugged, and who, in their right mind would find the character Punchy the least bit appealing?  I also wonder how many young impressionable children repeated Punchy’s joke on friends or siblings. I’ve been told that Punchy, whose ads no longer run on television, has toned down his behavior, as he now appears on Hawaiian Punch packaging as some sort of surfer dude, probably satisfied with the thought that he got away with slugging a man for decades, and emerged completely unpunished.

In preparing this article, I asked Mrs. Daley Planet if she knew of any examples of animated commercial characters with mental or emotional problems. She said no, but she had heard about an overly analytical middle-aged guy who takes simple, humorous television ads much too seriously…I’ll have to watch for him.

Trivia: In 1963, the makers of Post starting using a character called Linus the Lionhearted in TV ads promoting their newest cereal, Crispy Critters. Linus and his commercials were well received enough for Post to develop a half-hour cartoon show based on Linus, and other Post Cereal cartoon mascots. In the fall of 1964, “Linus the Lionhearted” was added to the CBS Saturday morning schedule, a 30 minute animated series featuring Linus, Sugar Bear (Sugar Crisp), Lovable Truly (Alpha Bits), So Hi (Rice Krinkles), and Rory Raccoon (Post Toasties). The “Linus” show lasted several years, but in 1969, the FCC ruled that children show characters could not be used to sell products on the same program they were starring in. Since that was the entire point of “Linus the Lionhearted,” the show was canceled.