CAPTAIN VIDEO, signing off. Captain Video, over and out.
His Video Rangers long since disbanded-like the Mystic Nights of the Sea-Albert Hodge, who played Captain Video on TV in the early '50s, died in a New York hotel this week at the age of 66, 23 years after his limited domain over our imaginations ended in the indignity of series cancellation, and only two weeks after television brought us live pictures of Jupiter that make the ingenuous TV sci-fi of Captain Video's day seem even daffier now than it did then.
According to the speed with which radio signals travel through space, however, "Captain Video and His Video Rangers" may just now be reaching some distant viewers in this galaxy or another. Whatever will they make of it?
And for those of us in the first generation of television children, there will always be a corner of the mind's eye reserved for the flickering black-and-white appartition that the Captain was to us-way, way, way back then.
When "Howdy Doody Time" left the air after years on NBC, Clarabell the mute clown spoke his first and only word. It was, "goodbye." And it struck like a knife to the heart. Later, however, Buffalo Bob Smith and his puppets from Doodydom made a tiny comeback during the nostalgia craze that was set off when people realized that popular culture, especially television, had become creatively barren. In desperation we searched our youths.
For Captain Video, there was to be no reprieve even then. Instead, those attentive enough to remember and to recognize him got a sinking feeling a few years after his show vacated the cosmos because here was the man who once had lectured us on moral certainties from the cardborad cockpit of a make-believe spaceship suddenly turning up as an extra in a Polident commercial. To call fate cruel is really to let it off the hook.
"Captain Video and His Video Rangers," though set circa 2254, brings the past to mind now, especially that era of ggod felling in which television was regarded as the friendly new specter in the living room, not as a poisoner of minds, trivializer of experience, rotter of children's teeth, destroyer of values, demoralizer of writers and producers, and corrupter even of its own potential for good.
At the time, we could scarcely begin to imagine all the wonderful things it was bound to bring us in the years ahead.
Television was a toy from Santa's Workshop and Programs like "Captain Video" were so fastidiously unimposing in concept and execution that they made this new technology ingratiating and unthreatening almost at first exposure. Of course, the first thing many of us saw on a television screen, probably a round one, was that most reassuring and wholesome of American secular communal rites, a baseball game.
The very old and the very young have always been television's most loyal and least protesting audience, and in my neighborhood, the little old man with the snowy and fuzzy private peephole on the doings of the Chicago Cubs became enormously popular in the gleaming afternoons of one radio summer. It was probably the last radio summer. And going outside to play would become less and less an irresistible impulse in the years ahead. We can't blame the Captain for that; he did what he thought was right.
Some naked roofs were thorny with antennae as enighborhoods reached out to the ionisphere for whatever amazements and wayward diversions might be up there just waiting for spontaneous consumption.
"Captain Video" was a daily serial for most of its seven years on the air, and for most of these also, Hodge played the Captain, abetted by a cast of teen-age aides and villains with accents who came and went through plywood doors at the old Dumont Tele-Cine Studios in New York. Dumont was a limited network, hardly with the coverage of today's big three, but its programs reached much of the East live and other cities by kinescope, which is a film taken off at TV monitor.
Much of the primitive material from the Dumont years of early television might be lost forever if not for the efforts of Donald Zimmerman, a 37-year-old Washington State archivist who has tracked much of it down and who provided CBS News with clips of "Captain Video" to use in its Hodge obituary, on "The CBS Eveing News with Walter Cronkite."
Zimmerman has also located copies of such antiquites from Dumont as "Rocky King, Detective," a 1950 series that starred Roscoe Karns as a blurry private eye and introduced a gimmick that would be imitated years later on NBC's popular "Columbo." Detective King's wife, Mabel, was never once shown on the screen. Instead she remained an unseen voice, usually heard yelling threats or complaints from some other room of the house.
However, one difference between television then and now is that nobody in 1950 tried to spin off a show called "Mrs. King" or "Mabel." The Freddie Silvermen would come later.
It nearly astounds me that I still have relatively crisp in my mind a vision of Karns standing at the bottom of an tamospherically lit-or just cheaply-lit-staircase and shouting to Mabel upstairs. An image like this somehow can clatter around in the same space with such impressions of childhood as a mother making pancakes in a kitchen of yellow walls or the size and feel of a working-man father's hand as your reached up for it before attempting to cross Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
Television is life remembered.
There are few people like Zimmerman around to stoke the memory, however. Because if the preservation of motion pictures is a relatively recent phenomemon, and it is, the preservation of television programs has barely begun. Networks, ad agencies and even producers have been incredibly callous in letting TV shows disappear. When Johnny Carson's staff first started putting together anniversary editions of "The Tonight Show," for instance, they discovered that not only had the first program in the series been erased, but so had the television singing debut, on "The Tonight Show," of Barbra Streisand, She become quite a sensation a bit later on.
Networks like NBC have been known to burn priceless film of vintage programs just to make more storage space. And yet it may be as important-it may tell us as much about ourselves and our past-to save not only the masterpieces and the momentous events but also the charming marginalia that "Captain Video" represents. It certainly didn't seem like marginalia when we used to watch it religiously every afternoon.
From Pullman, Wash., where he is working toward a Ph.D. in television archivism, Zimmerman decries the carelessness that sees old television programs destroyed or misplaced. "Television is the most permeating medium we have, and yet it is the most disposed of," he says. "We've got to raise public awareness of this problem so that those who come after us can examine what kind of people we were."
Erik Barnouw, now setting up a TV archive at the Library of Congress, has said, Zimmerman notes, that we have better documentation of our culture from 1860 to 1865, through daily newspapers that existed around the nation then, than we have of the period between 1960 and 1965, because during that period most of the documentation of our political and cultural activities was done on film and videotape. Much of the film was preserved, but much of the tape was erased, or tossed into a drawer somewhere, or just thrown away. "We are losing the trappings of our society day by day," Zimmerman says.
No one seems to know exactly what the life span of videotape recordings is. "I heard someone say the other day that videotape might last 25 or 50 years," says Zimmerman. "Nut what about 100 years from now" What are people going to look back at then"?
Zimmerman, whose recent Dumont finds include a backlog of programs by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen before he became a superstar on ABC, is asked what he learned about American society from looking at these early shows.
"In looking at the material, the first dominant attitude you see is fear of communism," Zimmerman says. "Not only in the political shows, but in the dramatic programming and even into children's shows. It was as if it were something floating in the air to be feared and it was thought to be all-pervasive."
He noticed political implications even in the outer space shenanigans of "Captain Video and His Video Rangers."
"One thing you see is suspicion of anyone other than Americans. Chinese and Japanese in two episodes are portrayed as untrustworthy individuals. Science is seen as a plus-minus things, but the mad scientist, the bad one, always has a German accent. Also, there were virtually no female characters on the program."
The show was live, "all hot, on the line," as Zimmerman says, and so viewers might see microphones come dropping into the picture, or one camera crowding into another camera's shot, or actors fluffing lines and Captain Video having to save the day in more ways than one. The sets were so minimal that the Captain didtn't even have a real video screen; just a box with a piece of white paper on the front and a flashing light bulb inside.
On many nights the Captain would take a breather from the live script and introduce a chapter from an old Columbia Pictures serial. "He would say, 'let's find out what our other video rangers are doing,'" Zimmerman recalls, "and the serial would turn out to be of all things, a Western-usually, one of the cheapest ever produced.You know, the kind of film where they bought a rock and wrote a story around it."
Then it was back to the stone-age version of "Battlestar Galactica," except that there was no dazzling display of photogeic hardware. Far from it.
"There was only one special effect that I can recall," says Zimmerman. "It involved using a miniature, which was supposed to be some kind of monster, and a human being. But they didn't have split-screen or soom lenses or any of that stuff then." Cameras had four lenses of various focal lengths mounted on a revolving turret. "So what they did was what they called half- rack the lens, turn the turret on one camera so the lens was only half open, then turn the turret on another camera so the lens was open on the opposing half, and then the director would punch up both cameras at once, so Captain Video would appear to be standing next to a a monster.
"Of course, you could see these two big curved arcs where the edges of the lenses were."
Captain Video would deliver commercials-for Powerhouse Candy Bars, Skippy Peanut Butter, Post Cereals-himself, a practice now forbidden on the air. He also hawked the Captain Video decoder ring, and CBS News reported that some 300,000 of them were distributed. The ring, says Zimmerman, was incorporated into the plots of the serial, thus making it all the more desirable to the video rangers at home. Zimmerman had one as a kid, "but I'm afraid it went down a drain or a dog's throat a long time ago."
The thing about this kind of television was that it seemed at the time totally benign and not in the least intimidating. Today almost all TV shows are packaged and edited into terrifically slick and monotonous units of sometimes stultifying similarity. Television was just elbowing its way into our homes then and the people who were running it didn't know much more about it than we did; this made it somehow organic as opposed to synthetic. We were all partners in the great game of discovery. The game has long since ended and a race of television professionals had squeezed almost all the spontaneity and serendipity out of it.
In a colossal load of bunkum passed off as a speech to the International Radio and Television Society last Monday, CBS Broadcast Group president Gene F. Jankowski again tried the network executive trick of denying there ever was a Golden Age of television; this is always an attempt to make the trash of the day appear less meretricious than it is. And so the man who this season brought us "The Dukes of Hazzard," "Flatbush," "The American Girls" and "Flying High" told his audience that those who imagined there to have been a golden age were "dead wrong."
Then he even dragged two of the finest programs in CBS history through the mud, though he is not fit to speak their names in public.He invited people to visit the CBS-founded Museum of Broadcasting in New York to "view a few of the greats that we hold in such high esteem--the 'Playhouse 90's' and the 'See It Now's.' They were great, truly great, for their day. But if we offered them now, we would be attacked for everything from poor production values to rank amateurism."
At this point the men with the butterfly nets should have dashed out from the wings and dragged this demented heretic right back to his executive rubber room.
The biggest lie of all is that "production values" make good television. They're incidental, but when you lack originality, when you underestimate your audience so severely as to imagine them goons, when you pre-test and pre-package everything into the entertainment equivalent of plastic spoons, that's when you start waving the banner of glossy production values to make it look as if you have produced something of merit. The explorers, the pioneers and the jolly amateurs are almost all gone now; television is in the hands of the philistines, the lawyers, the salesmen and the superhacks.
Calling Captain Video! Calling Captain Video!
Come in, Captain Video. CAPTION: Picture, Hodge as Captain Video: Cardboard certainties.