When I was a little boy, there were two heroes that I really looked up to.
The first was my father. Well, I suppose that’s typical enough…every little boy I ever knew wanted to grow up and be just like his old man, and all the little girls wanted to be like their mommies. That is, until all those little boys and girls grew into teenagers, and suddenly Mommy and Daddy were somehow transformed (if only for a brief time) into Mother and Father. The Dreaded Enemies.
The other great hero of my childhood was a fellow by the name of Bruce Wayne. Some of you might remember him. He was the fellow who saw his parents gunned down by a thug when he was just a boy. Who vowed upon his parents’ graves to spend the rest of his life waging war on crime. Who took to wearing a disguise which he hoped might scare the bad guys silly.
Bruce Wayne. Alias The Batman.
Oddly enough, the earliest memories I have of this character - and some of the fondest - center around the television series that ran on the ABC Television Network from 1966 to 1968. I say “oddly enough” because it is apparently unfashionable these days for Batman fans to admit they even watched the show, let alone enjoyed it. Even DC Comics - who merrily went along with the series’ broadly-comical treatment of the character, to the point of letting it spill over into the comic books themselves - now seems intent on erasing the program’s existence from the memory of fans.
Personally, I think that’s a lousy shame. Whether it stayed true to its source material or not, “Batman” the television series was as much a part of our popular culture in those days as the Kennedys, the Beatles and the Space Race.
And 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.
I wish that there were some tales I could tell of those swinging days when that initial wave of “Batmania” (as the news media and the dim-bulb pop psychologists still insist upon calling it three decades after the fact) first swept the nation.
I was there, but I don’t remember anything about it. I was a mere two years, seven months and eleven days old on January 12, 1966, the night the very first episode of “Batman” 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). In those days that was still considered a bit young to be camping out in front of the television… and yet I must have been vaguely aware of the show’s existence.
There is an old photograph taken during that period of me wearing a Batman sweatshirt. I still have a pair of hot cocoa mugs my parents bought for me, one with Batman’s picture and the other featuring The Green Hornet, who appeared on Batman’s show a couple of times in addition to starring in a companion series of his own. And then there is that post card from my father’s brother, off in the Marines training for duty in Vietnam at the time, which closes with a request that I “say hello to Batman for me.” So I must have at least known who the guy with the pointy ears and the funny costume was, even if I wasn’t actually watching him twice a week.
Like so many other fads of the era, “Batmania” seemed to fizzle as quickly as it had ignited. The series limped to an end after three seasons, was placed into syndication almost immediately and slowly began to attract a whole new audience, one made up mostly of those of us who had been too young to catch it the first time around.
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 of Oreo cookies in one hand, a tall cold glass of milk in the other, goofy grins smeared across each of our faces. Then, following a half-hour warm-up consisting of an episode of “Speed Racer” (the third great hero of my childhood, although my devotion to him was not nearly so great), we would settle in for thirty minutes of thrills, action, comedy, and the corniest dialogue this side of our mother’s soap operas.
Every once in a while one of us would have to get up and turn up the volume, just enough to drown out the sound of Mom fussing in the next room. It was bad enough that her children had developed this strange fixation on a silly program about a guy who dressed like a flying rodent; did that program have to air at the same time as her favorite afternoon game show?
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?
What mere game show (ugh!) could ever hope to compete with the thrills that raced up and down our spines as we watched Adam West and Burt Ward slide into their gaudy longjohns and rush off to do battle with the latest Hollywood has-been (better known as the “special guest villain”)? How could knowing the answers to such trivia as “The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand touched off what significant historical event?” be half as exciting as trying to figure out how the Dynamic Duo would escape being turned into a pair of giant Frosty-Freezies?
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!
Eventually Mom quit complaining and assured herself it was only a phase we were going through, confident we’d outgrow it all some day. Never happened. The older we got, in fact, it seemed the more we found to like about the show.
Just between you and me, sometimes I get a kick out of remembering 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. For one thing she 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. Crime doesn’t pay, neighbors, I don’t care 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 no way in the world that Jill St. John could make that figure of hers disappear just by putting on a latex facemask that made her look like Burt Ward. 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 was always that same building that the Dynamic Duo seemed to be Bat-climbing.
That same building, with that same skyline in the background 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…”
All this is simply nitpicking, I know. We didn’t understand then that it was all 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 had no idea that there had been any 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. His co-creator, artist 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 dozen different cheaply made video tapes - low-budget “documentaries” detailing the history of Batman - appeared in video stores throughout the world. 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 the week of the film’s opening that a Batman comic 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 merchandise that they were willing to pay huge amounts of cash for anything even remotely connected with the character; I personally sold a copy of a picture I had taken at Chicago’s famed Rock ‘N’ Roll McDonalds’ restaurant - with a painted Batman and Robin on the outer wall - 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 made it so sat back and grinned at all the naysayers and said, “We told you so.”
Something wasn’t quite right.
I don’t know quite how to explain it. I loved “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. (The Fox Network’s 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 I distinctly did not like about the movie was the god-awful noise made by that so-called musician, Prince (or whatever he’s calling himself these days).
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 has put it.) 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 would have just pulled a gun and blasted our hero into the next life. 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 about what a wonderful film “Batman” was, and how it owed its very greatness 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. 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 lives within me 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…
* * *
A few 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 early 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 the reporters present, I alone somehow managed to grab a front-row seat. Not that it did me any good.) 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 even Jackie Gleason might have appeared svelte - drove 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 exists anymore; he seemed to think the world would be better off if the pilot never resurfaced, but the rest of us considered this to be truly one of the great lost artifacts of ‘60s television. (Some clips have recently surfaced on YouTube, enough to make me wish all the more that the entire film might be made available at some point.)
And then it was on 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 alcohol and roles in such forgettable films as “The Happy Hooker Goes To Hollywood” and “One Dark Night,” not to mention a mediocre television cop show spoof entitled “The Last Precinct.”
But the story, unlike some others I have heard, has 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 has helped the actor 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 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 he once performed on his radio show and once had a conversation with Johnny Cash in the men's room at the Rialto Theater in Joliet - 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 reporter and I’ve met 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 all the troubles it may have caused. 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…
In : Pop Culture
Tags: "tv & movies" "pop culture" "batman"