Friday, January 26, 2007


Television in the 1970s was a very different animal than it is today. Not only did we not have any means of playing movies or programs on demand like today, we didn’t even have the vast selection of television channels that cable and satellite provide. In Baltimore, as I’m sure was the case in cities around the country, you had three local stations which functioned as the affiliates for the Big Three networks, you had a public television station, and you had one or two local independent stations. With a good antenna, you could pick up the Washington, D.C.-based stations, which had pretty much the same set up. The limited number of stations meant that you had to watch what they had to offer (or go read a book, God forbid!). For the same reason, each station felt an obligation to provide programming that would appeal to all demographic groups, meaning everyone was thrown a small bone but not a big enough one for any single group to get exactly what they wanted. Today, if a child wants to watch cartoons, he or she can turn on a cartoon channel at any time and find cartoons. For a child in the 70s, cartoons would be shown between say 7 and 9 a.m. and 3 and 5 p.m. on weekdays (primarily on the independent stations) and from about 7 to noon on Saturdays (primarily on the network affiliates). If, on some boring summer weekday, I happened to switch the set on at 2 p.m., I would most likely have to sit through the last half of a Clark Gable movie before getting to watch Huckleberry Hound or Ruff ‘N Reddy.

Is there a point to this, you ask? I’m not sure, except to say that I think this arrangement exposed children of my generation to a broader range of entertainment and information than children today who have more choices. These choices allow children to focus on the shows and movies that think they want to see while giving them the ability to tune out material they don’t think they would like. That’s a shame, in my opinion, because some of the greatest pop culture influences in my life came from movies and t.v. shows I discovered when there was nothing else on t.v. to watch. One of those influences was the old movie serials, or cliffhangers if you will.

Cliffhangers were originally shown in Saturday movie matinees from the 30s through the 50s. Somewhere between the Bugs Bunny cartoon and the Roy Rogers western, a 15 or 20-minute chapter would spool out the exploits of a cowboy or G-Man or super hero, ending with the inevitable trap from which the hero couldn’t possibly escape. Of course, in the following week’s chapter, he walks away unscathed, often through some improbable last minute derring-do. These serials were the entertainment of my parents, who didn’t even have the choices I had through television. All they could do was go to the theatre, plunk down their dime, and take their chances.

By the 70s, movie serials were shown on television to fill up large chunks of time, either on Saturday and Sunday afternoons or late at night. I would stumble across these films when I was bored or couldn’t go outside due to inclement weather. Despite the fact that they were old and the technology looked positively prehistoric, I liked the fact that these were stories aimed at kids, but using adult characters. The big trend in 70s children’s programming was to make the main characters kids or teenagers. That was depressing to me because I was either the same age as these characters or close to it, and they were obviously having a much more exciting life than I was. I had no hope of having adventures like them. I much preferred my heroes as adults, because I could always dream that I would some day grown up to be Dick Tracy or The Phantom.

The other appealing aspect to cliffhangers was that they had no pretensions of teaching kids morals or values. The old studio heads knew that kids wanted to see fist fights, car chases, people getting obliterated with ray guns, and any other mayhem they could come up with. Kid shows in the 70s weren’t allowed to have any of that. Instead, we’d sit through a ½ hour of tedium before the Super Friends would look into the camera and say, “So remember kids, you don’t want to be called names, so don’t call other people names.” I was calling them a few names after stealing a half hour of my life! I guess the thinking was that, if we were exposed to non-violent programming when we were young, we would have no desire for such material as adults. Yeah, that worked out well.

So, getting back to my point, here were these funky little films with guys in fedoras driving bulbous, lumbering cars and talking in corny old-movie speak, but I gave them a chance because there was nothing else to watch. And after watching for awhile, I realized that these shows were far more exciting and fun than anything Hanna-Barbara would slap together. I really became obsessed with movie serials as a kid. Trouble was, they didn’t show nearly enough of them. I got books out of the library about the cliffhangers and discovered that there were far more out there than what I was seeing on t.v. I yearned to see more, but it wasn’t until a decade later and the advent of mass produced VHS tapes that I was able to watch more of these gems. Now, many more are being released on DVD, and I’m acquiring them as fast as I can.

Although the serials had their fair share of super heroes, most were lifted directly from comic books. Superman, Batman, and Captain America had their big screen debuts through cliffhangers, although none really did justice to their personas. One of the few super heroes created specifically for the medium was Rocketman, later to become Commando Cody. In either persona, Rocketman was a scientist who developed a jet pack that he could strap to his back and fly around averting trouble. Usually, his adventures involved stopping alien invaders from taking over the earth. The stories were pretty silly, but the concept of a personal flying apparatus was exhilarating to a small boy. The image of Rocketman became iconic, even inspiring the comic book and movie titled The Rocketeer.

When I got into custom action figures, I knew I wanted to create a Rocketman figure. As I looked at the outfit more carefully, however, I realized that the original rig in the serials wasn’t as impressive as it seemed to me as a child. No wonder comic artist Dave Stevens altered The Rocketeer’s suit to look more majestic. However, while Stevens went art deco, I wanted to create something that was more in keeping with the jet age, the era that Rocketman inhabited in real life. As a result, I crafted my jet pack primarily from parts found in a model kit for an F84E Thunderjet. In addition, I wanted to get rid of the laughable control plate on the chest with highly technical controls like On/Off, Up/Down, and Slow/Fast. Instead, I gave my Rocketman a control belt with undefined buttons.

I also wanted to streamline the helmet while still retaining its basic style, so I coupled a helmet from The Silver Knight figure with a repainted visor from a G.I. Joe jet pilot outfit. In the serial, Rocketman wore a long, bulky leather coat like those worn by German U-boat commanders. I went for a more stylish Bomber jacket. To complete the 50s retro-future look, I created a little ray gun made from a pistol grip and some bits from the airplane model.

Overall I was pretty pleased with it, although I’ll probably revisit again someday. I just can't get enough of that high-flying hero!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


In the midst of all my football mania, I forgot a landmark historical date last week. January 12, 2006, marked the fortieth anniversary of the premiere episode of the Batman television show. For a generation of kids born in the 60s, this show had a huge influence and haunts our brains to this day. Although I only have vague memories of watching the show when it originally aired in prime time, Batman was the first super hero I was aware of, and I continued to watch every episode over and over in syndication during the 70s. By the early 70s, I had also learned to read and devoured Batman comic books.

Whether it was a reaction to the camp craze that had run its course or simply a reflection of the changing times, the Batman who appeared in the 70s comics was a very different mammal from the character on tv. Robin was shipped off to college, Bruce Wayne ditched Wayne Manor for a penthouse in the Wayne Foundation Building, and Batman had returned to the dark creature of the night just as he had been in the early days of the comic. The stories had an edgy, pseudo-realism as Batman took on drug dealers and mafia-style crime bosses. Even the old super-villains like the Joker were transformed into disturbing socio-paths. To me, it was like a four-color version of The French Connection, only Popeye Doyle wore tights and pointy ears. While I loved this incarnation of Batman in the comics, I also enjoyed the satirical fun of the old tv show. I never saw the two versions of Batman as an either-or option; they were two interpretations of the same character, merged seamlessly in my childhood mind.

It’s little wonder that I would attempt to create custom action figure versions of the Batman tv show icons later in life. Actually, none of this would’ve come about if Dale Van Slyke hadn’t been selling terrific resin head sculpts of the actors. His 1/6th scale likenesses of Adam West as Batman, Frank Gorshin as The Riddler, and Caesar Romero as The Joker are uncanny. Also, Rauty sells costumes to match Batman and the Riddler, so I was halfway there. My Adam West Batman consists of head, gloves, and boots by Dale, and the outfit and belt by Rauty. All I had to do was lop off the head of an action figure, glue the resin version on the figure, and paint it to look like the television Batman. Voila!

The Riddler followed a similar process, although I had to create the question marks on the suit myself. I used stick-on letters for the question marks on the legs, but in order to get the question mark on his chest to look just like the one on the show, I asked my talented wife to recreate a replica in Photoshop and I printed it out on sticker paper to apply to the costume.

Just for fun, I decided to outfit the Riddler with a Big Ben Distillery Total Dehydrator like the one in the Batman feature film. I started with an oxygen tank from a fireman figure that I had, then fashioned the rest of it from odds and ends including the cap off a lip balm tube, a piece of a syringe, copper wire, and bits cut off of other action figure accessories.

To create the Joker costume, I found on eBay a white tuxedo custom-made for a Ken doll. I dyed the suit a reddish-purple color like the way it appeared on the program and drew the stripes on his pants by hand (the lines were funky and uneven on the show anyway). The lapels aren’t the same as on the show, but it was the best I could do with the material. I also dyed a white shirt to the green color on the show and made a bow tie from yarn.

Robin doesn’t have a resin head, but instead is wearing a Burt Ward-style mask along the lines of the Captain Action masks (again, created by Dale Van Slyke). The suit is a vintage Action Boy Robin outfit, although I created my own belt to more accurately match the one on the show. The belt is black felt with a Velcro fastener on the back, and the gold buckle and capsules were made with a thick gold paint I found at the hobby store which dries in three-dimensional clumps. The gloves, boots, and cape were courtesy of Wes McCue at Classic Plastick. The outfit was originally meant to go on an Action Boy figure, but I found another 8-inch figure in the toy store that was more muscular and looked better squeezed into the stretchy polyester.

So there you have it: My Batman tv show action figures.

Now if they would only clear up the licensing issues and release the old episodes on DVD!

Sunday, January 14, 2007


The Indianapolis Colts beat the Baltimore Ravens yesterday, 15-6. I guess us Baltimore fans were asking for it given the way we built this game up beyond all reason. What we ended up seeing was how the Ravens have played all season: the defense was dominating, the offense was shaky. The defense did rattle Peyton Manning a bit, creating 2 interceptions, 1 sack, and allowing no touchdowns. That, at least, was satisfying. If only the offense could've delivered some touchdowns. Oh well, there's always next year.

The game was cathartic in a way I hadn't expected. By experiencing the loss, I realized that it really didn't matter much in the vast scheme of things. The Indianapolis Colts are just as alien to me as the New England Patriots or the San Diego Chargers. I was more upset that we weren't going to the Super Bowl than that we lost to the Colts. In some strange mental twist, I no longer saw Baltimore's past in that blue-and-white jersey. They're just another team. I have purple in my veins now.

Football season is essentially over for me. I'm eager to begin devoting my Sunday afternoons to creating new customized action figures, and I will report on my progess in future entries. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


A few months ago, I made a post about my childhood love for the Baltimore Colts and my John Unitas action figure. At the time, I had no idea that the Baltimore Ravens would make it to the playoffs and wind up taking on the Indianapolis Colts for a run at the Super Bowl. Since the game is hosted in Baltimore, the media has been abuzz all week about how this will be payback for Robert Irsay moving the Colts out of Baltimore. I too have been caught up in the frenzy and am now forced to come to grips with my 23-year hatred for the Indianapolis Colts.

The players on both teams are either too young to remember when the Colts were in Baltimore or not even born when the team snuck out of town on a snowy March night in 1984. They are bewildered by the intensity of this controversy. Even young Ravens fans don’t understand the anger us older fans feel toward Indianapolis and the need for revenge. Frankly, the more I analyze my own feelings, the sillier it seems to me too. I don’t hate the city of Indianapolis, since they simply wanted an NFL team to root for and found an opportunity to get one. I can’t hate Jim Irsay, the current owner of the Colts, who seems like a much nicer guy than his dad was and had no hand in the move to Indianapolis. The only person I can truly hate is the former owner Robert Irsay, and he’s dead.

The ill feelings between Baltimore and Irsay started as soon as he bought the team and escalated to a fevered pitch by the time he left. It’s like if you had a fine, respectable community newspaper that was suddenly bought by an outside publishing firm, which quickly turns the paper into a sleazy tabloid. After awhile, no one wants to read the paper because, not only is it trashy, but it’s an insult to what the paper once was. The circulation declines, so instead of improving the paper, the owners decide to move it to another city. You’re happy to see the sleazy tabloid go, but you wish the newspaper had continued the way it was originally.

Another criticism leveled at us old-Colt-fan-curmudgeons is that Baltimore took away Cleveland’s team much the same way Indianapolis took our team, so we got our payback. There are some holes in that argument, however. First of all, we never wanted another city’s team; in fact, the idea of doing such a thing sickened us. We tried twice to get an expansion team, but were shot down by then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (The Emperor to Irsay’s Darth Vader). Tagliabue was blinded by geography and television markets. He couldn’t see why Baltimore would want its own team when the Washington Redskins were 40 miles to our south and the Philadelphia Eagles were 100 miles to our north. We should simply shut up and root for one of those teams. What he couldn’t fathom was that Baltimore was no more like either of those cities than Seattle or Phoenix. We had our own culture, our own traditions, and once had our own team.

After it was made clear that the sneering Tagliabue would not give us a team, we reluctantly brokered the deal to bring Art Modell’s team to Baltimore. However, we did one thing that Robert Irsay was too evil and mean-spirited to do. We let Cleveland keep the name, the colors, and the records of its old team should they ever get a new one (which they did within a few years). We started fresh with a new name, new uniforms, and new legends. If Irsay had extended the same courtesy to us, this whole controversy would be a non-issue. We’d still be rooting for the Colts and they’d be rooting for the Indianapolis Nappers or something.

The bottom line is, us old Colt fans were hurt badly, not only by the team leaving, but by the years of acrimony between Irsay and the city leading up to the departure, and by the NFL’s outward contempt for Baltimore. No matter how much you rationalize, you can’t deny the pain. Just like a bad relationship, the hurt remains regardless of how much time passes or how much better your life gets. Beating the Colts in M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday probably won’t change anything, but it’ll sure be fun to watch!


Tuesday, January 09, 2007


From age seven to age 11, I had another toy fascination besides action figures. I became obsessed with ventriloquist dolls and hand puppets. My first hand puppets were of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street fame. I was starting to outgrow the show, but I still loved those two characters and wanted to hang out with them. I know what people would say about that now, but trust me, there was no repressed homosexual fantasies in my seven-year-old brain. I just liked the guys, and found Ernie particularly funny. Having the hand puppets allowed me the opportunity to pretend that I was their friend and could hang out with them all the time. I guess this was the beginning of my interest in bringing an inanimate doll to life and providing it with a personality.

Around the same time, I was watching an awful lot of old movies on t.v. Back in the 70s, local stations filled large chunks of airtime with movies from the 30s and 40s. I especially loved recurring movie characters like Blondie, Andy Hardy, and Laurel & Hardy. Among these films, the ones starring Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd were way at the top of my list. Although now I can see that Edgar Bergen was not the best ventriloquist, back then I was amazed that he could make it look like Charlie was talking and not him. Plus, I thought it was great that a grown man could interact with what were essentially cartoon characters made of wood and have all kinds of fun adventures. I wanted to be just like Edgar Bergen, and I got my wish, sort of.

For Christmas 1972, my parents got me a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll. His head didn’t turn and his eyes didn’t move like Edgar Bergen’s doll, but his mouth opened and closed via a string in the back of his neck. A booklet came with the doll to instruct me on how to “throw my voice.” I took this very seriously and practiced with my doll in the mirror all the time. I dare say I was better at throwing my voice than Edgar Bergen, even managing to pronounce the letters “p” and “b” with imperceptible mouth movements.

The following Christmas, I received a dummy based on the clown Emmett Kelly. I had no idea who that was, but I liked the looks of him and soon worked out clown-oriented sketches with him (that's me with Emmett and my childhood friend Linda in the photo). By age 10, I also had a dummy that they billed in the catalogues as Will E. Talk. Unlike the other dummies I owned who had established pop culture identities, Will E. Talk was completely generic, so I treated him like a real friend. I chose to call him Chucky Margolis after a character from the old Hudson Brothers’ Saturday morning Razzle Dazzle Show. He had red hair and wore overalls, so I stuck funny pins on him and worked out whole comedy routines like we were the new Willie Tyler and Lester. My parents even sprung for a cool little case to carry him around in.

The madness came to a head when I bragged about my ventriloquist acumen to my beloved fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Schreiber. She, in turn, told our school librarian about it who had just acquired a high-tech new gadget known as a video tape recorder. The rig looked like something from Bob Crane murder scene photos, and recorded on black-and-white videotape. They asked me to put together a sketch using my dummies, so I did an impression of Johnny Carson and I interviewed each doll separately like a talk show. Thankfully, I have no memory of the content of the sketch because I’m sure it was really awful, but the librarian and my teacher were mighty impressed with my creativity. All I do remember was that I kept looking at the monitor to see how the puppets and my mouth movements looked, resulting in me looking like the most disinterested interviewer since Arsenio Hall.

By age 11, the tug of puberty was pulling me away from toys, but I couldn’t resist the draw of Kenner’s Hugo, Man of a Thousand Faces. He was a bland looking hand puppet with a bald head and wearing only a light blue tunic. However, his array of glasses, hair pieces, and facial appliances allowed you to create any number of disguises. All the facial appliances were put on his face with a stick of spirit gum, which had to be cleaned thoroughly off the face and individual pieces or they would get gooey and dirty. Still, he was a lot of fun and I was dying to show him to my cousin Stewart when we got together at my Aunt and Uncle’s house on Christmas 1975. While I was pulling out Hugo and his numerous disguise pieces, Stewart informed me that he had gotten a 20-gauge shotgun and he wanted to take me out to his Dad’s car to show it to me. Suddenly, I felt like a complete loser. Stewart and I were the same age: he got a shotgun and I was still playing with dolls. I felt like I needed to grow up fast before other kids my age started seeing me as a sissy. As a result, Hugo didn’t see much daylight after Christmas Day. Several years later, he was sold to a grateful young girl at one of my mom’s yard sales, so I hope Hugo got the love from her that I so callously denied him.

A little postscript on Hugo: In the early 80s, WOR in New York aired a show called The Uncle Floyd Show. This Soupy Sales-type program featured Hugo sans makeup. During the closing credits, Hugo would be-bop along to the music at the bottom of the screen. His trademark blank expression was completely out of sync with his bobbing dance moves and manically flailing arms. You really had to be there to fully appreciate the humor of it. God, I loved that show!