MEMOIRS OF A BAT-FAN
In case you happened to miss it (you’d be surprised, it seems like there is always a few who somehow manage to not receive the memo), this past Tuesday marked an important milestone in the history of American popular culture.
Well, it was important to some of us, anyway...
January 12 marked the 50th anniversary of the night that the television series Batman, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, premiered on the ABC television network (WLS-TV, Channel 7 in Chicago if you happened to be living anywhere near my neck of the woods at the time). Based on the long-running comic book, the program debuted as one of several mid-season replacements ABC began airing that month as part of its so-called “Second Season” - a euphemistic designation created by the network in an attempt to sugarcoat the fact that those new shows were taking the place of other programs that had either run their course after several seasons, or had been deemed as turkeys after airing for only a few months.
Off the top of my head I couldn’t tell you the titles of those other mid-season replacements that premiered in January of 1966, or whether any of them ended up being hits or not. I could do the research if I wanted to, but it probably doesn’t really matter. I think it’s safe to say that no other show that premiered on the network that month had anywhere near the cultural significance Batman had at the time.
I was a mere two years, seven months and eleven days old that night Misters West and Ward first leapt into the Batmobile and raced into Gotham City to do battle with Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. As young as I was, I shouldn’t be able to remember sitting on my parents’ laps those two and a half seasons and watching the Caped Crusaders square off against the forces of evil. I shouldn’t, but I do. Almost as if it were just yesterday. It’s funny how memories can work sometimes.
The show made quite an impact on my young life. There are old photographs taken during that period of me wearing a Batman sweatshirt. I still have the ceramic Batman milk mug and Batman charm bracelet my parents bought for me at the time, and the post card sent to me by my father’s younger brother Tom - off in the Marines training for duty in Vietnam at the time - which closes with a request to “say hello to Batman for me.” Although the package they originally came in is long gone - the tragic result of childhood’s lack of regard for the important things in life, I suppose - I still have the set of three original View-Master reels (from the days when View-Master was owned by the Sawyer company, before the GAF era) derived from the first Catwoman two-parter starring Julie Newmar AND the booklet that came with them; even without the package they are the crown jewels of my collection.
And then there was the time when my parents had to drag me out of a tavern I had wandered into one night during a window shopping trip downtown because I had heard Batman coming on the tavern’s TV set as we walked by...
For years Adam West has referred to the 1960s as the “Decade of the three Bs: Bond, the Beatles and Batman.” It’s a valid observation, one which I used as the cornerstone of a well-received term paper I wrote for my Freshman Comp class in college.
But for a long time it was considered unfashionable for fans of the character to admit that they had even watched the show, let alone enjoyed it. Personally, I always thought that was a lousy shame. Whether it stayed true to its source material or not, Batman was as important a part of the popular culture of that era as the Kennedys, Woodstock and the Space Race. I mean, let’s face it: remembering the Gotham City of the 1960s certainly brings to mind happier memories of that era than do thoughts of Dallas, Memphis or Saigon.
The fad that the series engendered at the time - that cultural phenomenon someone in the media was clever enough to dub “Batmania” - exploded like a Roman candle but ultimately fizzled out just as quickly; cancellation came after only two and a half seasons. But the show immediately went into syndication and has pretty much continued to air ever since, ensuring Batman’s place in TV history as a genuine, honest-to-Cleveland Amory classic alongside such other iconic shows as Star Trek, M*A*S*H and The Andy Griffith Show. (Is there anybody out there who REALLY thinks that Two And A Half Men will be as fondly remembered half a century from now...?)
In recent years the widespread negativity towards the show seems to have finally gone away. A Batcave full of new toys and other memorabilia, aimed mostly at adult collectors, has hit the market in recent years. Mattel released a Hot Wheels version of the Batmobile - several of them in fact - as well as a special Barbie and Ken set featuring the famed dolls dressed as Batman and Catwoman. DC Comics reversed decades of trying to ignore the program’s existence, publishing a monthly comic book based on the TV show that won acclaim from critics and fans alike. And after years of legal wrangling stemming from various copyright issues the series itself was finally released on DVD and Blu-Ray last year amidst great rejoicing by several generations of fans - Yours Truly among them.
The other day I happened upon a conversation a couple of friends were having about this week’s historic Powerball jackpot, and they turned to me and asked what I would do with the money if I were to win. Without hestitation, I gladly informed them that the first thing I’d do would be to order an actual working replica of Adam West’s Batmobile.
Holy Automatic Transmission, Batman! Wouldn’t THAT be bat-rific...
• • •
Although I had indeed watched the series as a wee nipper during its original network run, it wasn’t until those early years in syndication that the show tightened its grip upon my imagination once and for all.
I can remember racing home after school every afternoon to join my younger brothers for our daily ritual. We plopped ourselves down in front of the television set with a bowl full of cookies in one hand, a tall cold glass of milk in the other, and goofy grins of anticipation smeared across each of our faces. We’d turn the TV set to Channel 32 (it’s a Fox affiliate now, drat it all, but back then it was the best of Chicago’s independent UHF stations) and laugh through a hour-long warm-up consisting of the Three Stooges, the Little Rascals and the old black-and-white Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons. There’d be a quick bathroom break and a not-always-successful attempt to score a few more cookies, and then we would settle in for thirty minutes of thrills, action, comedy, and (admittedly) some of the corniest dialogue this side of our mother’s soap operas.
Our favorites scenes, of course, were the fight scenes. Those cacophonic ballets of comic book violence, accompanied by a Greek Chorus of onomatopoeia exploding across the screen: POW! BAM! KER-SPLAT! ZOWIE!
Our enthusiasm quite often drove our poor mother to distraction. Looking back now with the benefit of forty years of hindsight, sometimes I feel a little bad about that. At the time we viewed her reaction typically childish disdain. Mothers just don’t understand. They never have; if they did, would so many of my classmates have come home one day to find their mothers had tossed out their baseball card collections? (I’ll give my mom credit for never having committed such a heinous act herself. She may not have understood our boyish passions, but she never begrudged them or tried to force us to give them up, God bless her.)
I suppose Mom managed to survive that stage of our development by assuring herself that it was only a phase we were going through, and that with any luck at all we’d outgrow it all some day. Never happened, of course. The older we got, in fact, it seemed the more we found to like about the show… especially as we became more worldly and we able to decipher names and pieces of dialogue that we hadn’t before realized had been double entendres or had some sort of hidden meaning.
And just between you and me, sometimes it’s fun to think back and remember those first wonderful flashes of puberty at the age of eleven or twelve, when I began to notice just how good Yvonne Craig looked in that skin-tight Batgirl costume of hers. Yeah, okay, Julie Newmar as Catwoman had ALMOST the same effect on me. Almost, but not quite. She was one hot lady, to be sure, but she also just happened to be the chief villainess and I already knew enough by then to know that I really didn’t want to get mixed up with that. If there’s one thing I learned from Adam West it’s that crime doesn’t pay, citizens, no matter how good the boss lady looks in uniform…
There were those moments, of course, that even a kid just could never swallow. Even before I became interested in such things, for example, I knew there was absolutely NO WAY in the world that Jill St. John could make that figure of hers disappear just by putting on a homemade latex Burt Ward facemask. And it never made much sense to me that - no matter what part of Gotham City they were supposed to be in at the time - it seemed like it was always that same building that the Dynamic Duo seemed to be Bat-climbing... and that same window where various non-threatening guest stars appeared from time to time.
And just what was the deal with those guest stars, anyway? How was it that someone like Colonel Klink - a character from a television series set two decades earlier, and broadcast on an entirely different network to boot - could pop his head out that window and promise to say “hello” to Colonel Hogan for Batman?
Only on television. Only on Batman. Or, just maybe, The Monkees. (Burgess Meredith DID show up briefly in one episode as The Penguin, after all.)
All this is simply nitpicking, I know. We didn’t understand then that it was all for the most part just a put-on, any more than we understood that the television show was being somewhat less than faithful to the lead character’s established legend. Heck, at that time we still had no idea that there had been those kinds of long-established legends for the show and its producers to be less than faithful to! Contradictions and impossibilities aside, I really did love that show - or maybe the contradictions and the impossibilities were what made me fall in love with the show in the first place.
That, and the time that Mr. Freeze blasted our heroes with that ice-gun of his. Oh, how we cheered when our heroes looked Mr. Freeze dead in the eye and Batman proclaimed, with just the slightest trace of a smug grin, “We took the precaution of wearing our special Bat-Thermal Underwear.”
Man, that gent was always in control!
• • •
I don’t know what 1989 was according to the Chinese calendar. I could look the matter up in an almanac, I suppose, but it really doesn’t matter. In America, 1989 was the Year of the Bat.
That was the year that Batman, the Tim Burton film starring Michael Keaton in the title role, hit the theatres of America and began setting all kinds of records.
Whether by accident or design, the timing couldn’t have been any better. As it turned out, 1989 was the 50th anniversary of Batman’s first appearance IN Detective Comics Issue 27. His co-creator, Bob Kane, turned up all over the place that year: on television, in newspaper and magazine articles, in an autobiography, and even in an exhibition of his artwork. A renewed push began to see Kane’s fellow creator, Bill Finger (who actually wrote wrote episode of the TV series, you may recall), finally get the recognition he so rightly deserved. Meanwhile, a dozen different cheaply made video tapes - low-budget “documentaries” detailing the history of Batman - appeared in video stores throughout the world, and two old Batman movie serials produced in the 1940s began playing again at some movie theatres.
The new film’s merchandising blitz, which kicked into high gear months before the film opened, generated billions of dollars in sales. This in turn led to a huge demand for the comics themselves, especially those from the character’s early years from which Burton drew much of his inspiration; Gary Colabuono, owner of the Chicago-based Moondog Comicland chain of stores, told the Chicago Tribune on the week of the film’s opening that a Batman comic book he had sold for $9,000 three years previously had just changed hands again for a whopping $16,000. People were so hungry for Batman-related merchandise of ANY kind that they were willing to pay huge amounts of cash for anything even remotely connected with the character; I personally sold a spare copy of a picture I had taken several years earlier at Chicago’s famed Rock ‘N’ Roll McDonalds’ restaurant - of a painted 1970s comic book-style Batman and Robin on the outer wall alongside the drive-thru lane - to a college buddy for $50!
Those reporters who had either been around for or read about that first wave of Batmania in 1966 churned out reams of paper ruminating on the fact that lightning had indeed struck twice. People who considered comics little more than a fad - or, worse, a complete waste of time - sat back and shook their heads and wondered what all of the fuss was about.
The rest of us kept showing up at the theatre, again and again and again. Soon, Batman the movie was actually being mentioned in the same breath as the original Star Wars, and those of us who had helped make that success happen sat back and grinned at all the naysayers and smugly said, “We told you so.”
Something wasn’t quite right.
I don’t know quite how to explain it. I loved Burton’s Batman. I felt it was the closest, most accurate depiction of Bob Kane’s original concepts that we were ever likely to see on film. (Warner Brothers’ classic Batman: The Animated Series was still several years in the future at this point.) I thought Michael Keaton proved himself a far better choice for the role than many critics had first believed. For the first time I could remember, I even liked Jack Nicholson. The only thing about the movie that I distinctly remember not caring much for were the songs by Prince, although my feelings on that matter have admittedly softened a bit over the years.
But I found myself missing Adam West.
I know, that sounds a little odd. West’s Batman and Keaton’s Batman are two distinctly different creatures. (“They have their vision, and we had ours,” is how West put it at the time.) As much as it pains me to admit it, I don’t think West’s Batman would have stood a chance against Nicholson’s Joker; Nicholson probably would have just pulled a gun and blasted our hero into the next life, the same way he did his pal Bob the Goon. And Burt Ward’s Robin would have been far too distracted by Kim Basinger’s legs to have kept his mind on his job - one can only imagine what his reaction would have been to Michelle Pfiffer’s Catwoman in the sequel.
And yet, even as I raved to friends and family and newspaper readers (the latter in a review I wrote for the Kankakee Daily Journal) about what a wonderful film Batman was, and how it owed its success to the fact that it was not anything like the television show, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe that wasn’t necessarily such a good thing after all.
When Michael Keaton told Kim Basinger to get in the car and we saw his Batmobile for the first time, the first thought that crossed my mind was, “Hey, they’re getting in the wrong car.”
As much as I wanted Keaton and Burton to succeed, the child that still lived within me then (and does still today) shed a silent tear over the end of Adam West’s 23-year reign as The Batman. I guess old loyalties really do die hard…
• • •
Years later, I finally got the chance to meet my childhood hero in person. Sort of.
I wasn’t the only one there. Between 250 and 300 people somehow managed to squeeze into a tiny meeting room at a Dallas hotel in 1993 to meet Adam West. That’s right, THE Adam West - the actor who had made us all believe in Batman all those years ago.
A few of us present for the Big Event were reporters, looking to get a celebrity interview. (Of all the reporters present, I alone somehow managed to grab a front-row seat.) A small number of brave souls had actually come to tease and jeer, although they didn’t remain long once they saw they were severely outnumbered.
Most were simply fans, present simply to gawk and get an autograph and, maybe, say “Thanks for the memories.” One older gentleman - next to whom Jackie Gleason might have appeared svelte - told everybody in the room about how he had driven all the way from Pennsylvania to don a homemade Batman costume and meet his favorite actor.
After a longer wait than many of the lesser fans had figured on, Mr. West finally entered - looking far better in his 60s than I did just approaching 30, I might add - and regaled those present with stories collected over more than three decades as an actor.
He told us about his days as “Captain Quik,” the character he played in a series of television ads for the chocolate drink mix that parodied the then-new James Bond films. He shared tales about making the films The Outlaws Is Coming, in which he co-starred with The Three Stooges, and the science fiction classic Robinson Crusoe On Mars, which he still regards as one of his best roles despite the fact that his character died just minutes into the film.
And there was that interesting little tidbit about some long-lost television pilot in which he and a pre-Star Trek William Shatner ran around in togas in the days of Alexander The Great. Everyone in the place became heartsick when he admitted that he doesn’t know if that particular piece of film even existed anymore; he seemed to think the world would be better off if the pilot never resurfaced, and he told us that he and Shatner were both fortunate it failed because it cleared the way for both of them to take on what became their signature roles, but the rest of us considered this to be truly one of the great lost artifacts of ‘60s television. (It has since been found and released on DVD; I bought a copy about a year or so ago, and it turns out that it really wasn’t so bad. In fact it probably would have made a pretty good series if the pilot had sold - but then we wouldn't be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Batman or Star Trek this year, so things ended up working out for the best.)
And then Mr. West turned his attention to the reason to why most folks had turned out to see him this day in the first place: the story of his glory days as Gotham City’s Caped Crusader.
Most of the stories we’d heard before. I already knew, for example, that it had been the Captain Quik role which had helped land him the Batman gig. And it’s never been much of a secret that it was his decision to play the part straight - as opposed to planting his tongue firmly in cheek, winking at the camera and joining in the buffoonery going on all around him - which helped make the show a success in the first place. But somehow, hearing the stories coming directly from the master himself made them seem new all over again.
He was even very candid about the downside to his most famous role: the lack of decent work due to typecasting, a bout with alcoholism and roles in such forgettable films as The Happy Hooker Goes To Hollywood and One Dark Night, not to mention a funny and unusual but ultimately short-lived television cop show spoof entitled The Last Precinct.
But the story, unlike some others out of Hollywood that I had heard over the years, had a reasonably happy ending; the emergence of Michael Keaton’s re-interpretation of the character helped throw West’s years as Batman back into the spotlight, and helped the actor himself attain a new-found appreciation for his work as TV’s best-known superhero.
Then for an hour he graciously answered questions thrown at him from nearly every member of the audience. That is to say, every member of the audience EXCEPT FOR ME.
That’s right. Mr. Big-Shot Award-Winning Newspaper Reporter, the same guy who has interviewed politicians and famous sports figures, who has exchanged letters with a former President of the United States and who spent the better part of a month on the telephone tracking down renowned author and radio performer Garrison Keillor to learn the origin of a song entitled “Tishomingo Blues,” didn’t open his mouth the entire time. He - I - was too thunderstruck to speak.
Understand. This man was my childhood hero. The same hero I rushed home from school every afternoon to watch on television. I mean, there is still enough of that little boy in my soul to be overwhelmed by the idea of just being in the same room as Batman - let alone having the chance to actually talk to him.
And so I just sat there, gawking, while other reporters and fans and some goofy old man in a homemade Batman costume asked all the questions I had wanted to ask, and then some. If I hadn’t had the good sense to bring my tape recorder and camera, I’d probably wonder somewhere down the line if I’d even been there.
After the question-and-answer session, West took what looked to be a really uncomfortable seat behind a table at the other end of the hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon signing autographs. And so I spent the better part of an hour waiting in line hoping to get the man’s autograph for my son. And yes, for myself too.
Finally I stood before him and handed him two photographs to sign: one for my son Joshua, who was not quite two years old at the time, and another for me. I vaguely remember mumbling something about including my wife’s name on the autograph, as well, which he did. He was kind, patient, perhaps a bit amused by the poor goofball standing there before him; I felt like the village idiot, standing there stammering while trying to make small talk with an actor who probably had better things to do.
Somehow I finally found my tongue long enough to blurt it out. Not a question, but a statement. “Mr. West, I’m a newspaper reporter and I’ve met and interviewed my share of celebrities over the years, but meeting you has been the high point of my career. Thanks for the show - and for the good memories.” It felt silly even as I said it.
But Adam West smiled, shook my hand, and said, “It’s people like you that have made my Batman experience worth it all. Thank you.”
And you know something? I got the feeling that he really meant it.
I just wish I’d thought to turn the blasted tape recorder back on…
(Copyright © 2016, by John A. Small)
Posted by John Allen Small. Posted In : Pop Culture