50 SUMMERS OF LOVE

(October 13, 2017; THE FAMILY ARENA, Saint Charles MO)

When this show was announced, I was excited at the prospect of seeing two of my favorite performers – the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz and Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders fame – doing some of my favorite songs in solo sets, a la the HAPPY TOGETHER packages of the past. After speaking to Lindsay about the show, I was even more excited, as I learned that this was a full-on production that features both vocalists onstage together, sharing songs, stories and memories. I previously likened the concept to the early live work of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; meanwhile, in a recent interview with the Mule’s Kevin Renick, Dolenz said, “It’s a little bit like a Rat Pack thing.” And, I suppose – if you suspend all disbelief and squint your eyes just right – a case could also be made for the Bonos (circa THE SONNY AND CHER COMEDY HOUR). However you look at it, the “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You” aspect of a show starring Mark Lindsay and Micky Dolenz is a dream come true for any child of the 1960s.

THE FAB FOUR (Ron McNeil as John Lennon) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Opening the show was the Fab Four, hailed as “the Ultimate Tribute,” performing to perfection a set of Beatles tunes that the lads never performed live. Decked out in the Beatles’ SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND attire, the Four looked and sounded like the originals as they played and quipped their way through a packed 40-minute set. Led by founder Ron McNeil as John Lennon, the group – quite naturally – focused on material from the groundbreaking 1967 album, including (of course) the title track, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” (the non-album single from the same recording sessions, as well as its equally brilliant B-side, “Penny Lane”) and the heady, atmospheric “A Day In the Life.” All of George Martin”s studio trickery and embellishments, by the way, were performed live by the quartet, via the keyboard work of McNeil and Doug Couture’s George Harrison… no mean trick, that. The group also visited REVOLVER for “Got To Get You Into My Life,” and the brilliantly dreary “Eleanor Rigby,” one of my all-time favorite Beatles tunes. Nestled in the middle of all of this amazing music was “Yellow Submarine,” along with another of my personal favorites (but then, aren’t they all?), “Day Tripper.” What a great way to kick off the night!

Micky Dolenz and Mark Lindsay (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a short intermission, the Fab Four were back onstage… this time in Raiders costumes. McNeil introduced the headlining duo, Mark Lindsay first, then Micky Dolenz, as the band launched into “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” a song recorded by both the Monkees and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Mark told Micky, “I recorded it first,” to which Micky replied “I had the hit.” The hits came fast and furious from there, with the duo performing their own songs, as well as each other’s. The Raiders tune “Steppin’ Out” gave way to the Monkees’ “Last Train To Clarksville,” a tune that had the revved-up crowd up and dancing. The Raiders’ first “woulda, coulda, shoulda” non-hit, “Louie, Louie” (the Kingsmen recorded the song around the same time they did and rode their version to the top of the charts) followed hot on the heels of that one.

Micky Dolenz (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

While the sound was generally solid, it was not without problems; some of the between-song banter (mostly Lindsay’s) was lost to the cavernous rafters of the Family Arena; as the sound tech worked out the kinks, their were sudden over-modulations of bass or guitar. But, those minor issues aside, the group of musicians onstage (including Micky’s sister, Coco on vocals and his “personal” guitarist, Wayne Avers) sounded phenomenal. Coco’s vocals, in particular, caught my attention, as she added that one extra layer that pushed the proceedings from a solid recreation of the songs we all know and love to a “Holy crap! This sounds just like the record.” level. From a rocker’s standpoint, the backing band had a harder edge. And, that’s not a bad thing… these songs are fifty years old and the relative youth of the Fab Four has infused both the songs and the singers with a new vitality. Tunes like “Hungry,” “Good Thing” and Mike Nesmith’s “Mary Mary” crackled and ignited under the pure weight of the Rock ‘n’ Roll offered up by the players, pushing Micky and Mark to ever greater heights.

Mark Lindsay (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As we knew they must, the reflections soon turned to this dynamic duo’s time on the small screen, with Lindsay ribbing Micky about “hanging out behind a circus tent with Cheetah and Tarzan,” in reference to Dolenz’ childhood role as CIRCUS BOY in 1956. After a little back and forth, the band launched into the theme song from WHERE THE ACTION IS, the Dick Clark vehicle that propelled Lindsay and the Raiders to superstardom, followed by the theme to THE MONKEES, which ended with a sort of modified “Monkees walk” by the pair. An outrageously bizarre video from WHERE THE ACTION IS featured Dolenz and fellow Monkee, Davy Jones, disrupting and dismantling a performance by Paul Revere and the Raiders. Laughing, Micky said, “I really don’t remember that… at all!” Of course, I think we all knew that someone would eventually broach the subject of opening acts. There was mention made of the Rolling Stones in regards to Paul Revere and the Raiders before Lindsay asked Micky about a certain short-lived opening act on the Monkees’ first major tour. “Yeah,” quipped Dolenz, “this is what Jimi Hendrix sounded like opening for the Monkees… ” as the group pushed into the opening of “Purple Haze.” Two lines into the vocals, Micky began screaming, “We want the Monkees! Where’s Davy? Where are the Monkees?” As the saying goes, “mistakes were made, people were blamed.” Somewhere along the way, Mark noticed that there was something off about the Fab Four’s Raiders’ outfits and produced a feather-adorned tri-corner Colonial hat for the only “Raider” not wearing one, Ron McNeil as Paul Revere; with his back to the band, Lindsay continued his spiel, as Micky quietly replaced Doug Couture’s (not absolutely positive, but relatively sure of the name) hat with a green wool cap, a la Mike Nesmith. A small thing, to be sure, but it definitely registered with the gleeful crowd.

Doug Couture and Wayne Avers (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

How can you qualify the sheer quantity of great music that came out of the mid-to-late ‘60s, many by the two legendary figures onstage tonight? I mean, “Kicks,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Him Or Me – What’s It Gonna Be,” “I’m a Believer.” Toss in the lesser-known (though no less impressive) “She,” “Randy Scouse Git” and the psychedelic Blues work-out of “For Pete’s Sake” and you have not only an incredible set list for this show, but along with the Fab Four’s set, you have the soundtrack to the lives of many a baby boomer. Highlight upon highlight drove the performers and the audience to give a little bit more as the evening progressed. Things bordered on transcendent for me when Lindsay and Dolenz discussed their heritage, leading into the spine-shivering intro to “Indian Reservation.” I say again that both vocalists were in top form throughout the show, but it just seemed to me that Mark kicked things up a notch for what was Paul Revere and the Raiders’ biggest hit… a protest, an anthem, a song for the ages.

Micky Dolenz (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

After a final, brilliant turn by Micky Dolenz on “I’m a Believer,” it was over. Well, not really… I mean, you know how these things work, right? After a very short break, the band returned, with McNeil introducing Mark and Micky back to the stage for the encore, which included one of the Monkees’ most beloved tunes, “Daydream Believer.” The night ended with a rousing “Twist and Shout,” an early hit for the Beatles, with Dolenz delivering the first couple of lines before turning vocal duties over to “John.” As the lights came up, the buzz in the air wasn’t from the amplifiers; it came from the excited, appreciative crowd. And, why not? They had just witnessed two of the greatest performers and purest voices of the Rock era put on the show of their lives.


MICKY DOLENZ: CHATTING UP MY FAVORITE MONKEE AT LONG LAST

KEVIN RENICK is one check closer to completing his bucket list.

Micky Dolenz (photo credit: KAY TUOHY)

Micky Dolenz (photo credit: KAY TUOHY)

Micky Dolenz was always my favorite Monkee. They all had their charm, of course, but Micky seemed to me to be the most knowing, the most IN on the joke and the most determined to have as much fun with it as possible. The initial “joke,” of course, was that this quartet of Beatlemania-aping youngsters – three Americans and one Brit – would produce a madcap TV show in the mid-’60s that would hopefully yield a non-stop string of radio hits penned by the likes of Carole King, Neil Diamond, Boyce and Hart and many others. Producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider definitely seemed to view the whole thing through the lens of satire, and hired hand music producer Don Kirshner felt it was his job to feed the music through the hit machine he was in charge of, and to NOT let the boys get too cocky or assertive. Let’s have FUN, kooky visuals but slick, well-constructed pop tunes for the ears… that seemed to be the mandate. And Micky was the singer on a majority of the band’s hits… “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and many more. He wasn’t the “cute one,” that distinction went to Davy Jones. And Mike Nesmith was the group’s quirky intellectual, the one who had a discernibly broader agenda and undeniable charisma. Peter Tork was arguably the group’s most polished musician. But Micky Dolenz embodied the spirit of the Monkees thing better than anyone – he delivered his lines with the most sass, he had nonstop energy (throughout the many reunions as well), and, frankly, he had the best voice, one which has probably been underrated through the years. Micky can SING. And his natural ability to be a professional showman, an audience pleaser, has probably been the most anchoring element of this group in its different incarnations. It’s impossible to imagine the later Monkees successes – the ’86 comeback on MTV, the later trio tours, the wildly successful 50th reunion album and tour – without Micky’s boundless energy. You really HAVE to thank him for the band’s durability all these years later; he’s a gamer, plain and simple. And by the way, that “joke” I mentioned above? Well, the real joke – and triumph – was that the Monkees were damn good. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame be damned – these guys showed a staying power that no one could have predicted, thanks to fabulously catchy songs, the early determination to prove they could actually PLAY their instruments (and even write songs!), and a gift for both re-invention AND nostalgia stoking, which meant that every time they “came back” from seeming oblivion, a huge audience was waiting. One that included the rabid older fans and ever curious NEW fans. Hey hey, they’re the Monkees! But they didn’t monkey around when it came to delivering what fans wanted, time after time.

The Monkees (Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones) (screen shot)

The Monkees (Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones) (screen shot)

I realized a long time ago that if you give the audience what they want, which is those hits they like, you can just about do anything else you want,” said Dolenz during a long-awaited phone interview recently. “And in my case, every time I do a show, I liken it to someone throwing me a birthday party. The audience is so excited to hear those songs. It feeds you! It feeds the fire.”

Dolenz was responding to my question about how an artist mostly associated with an “oldies” type act, can keep singing the same songs over and over, and still be engaged. How do you keep the experience fresh for yourself?

I can only speak for myself. I can’t speak for Mike or Peter or David,” he said. “After the Monkees, I sort of bailed out on that part of the business for a while. I moved to England, and for about 15 years I was directing and producing television shows. I did no Monkee business. And when I came back in 1986 for that reunion, it all felt very new to me again! I never really made a major attempt after the Monkees to have a solo career. Not as an artist or writer. I don’t write that much, you know… I had done a couple of little things here and there, but I was never really a writer or anything.”

So for Dolenz, performing those eternally popular songs was not a problem. “Pleasant Valley Sunday?”

Oh, that is definitely one of my favorites. I always favored Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s stuff.”

The concert favorite “Goin’ Down?” “Yeah, that’s a great one.” More on “Goin’ Down” in a moment, but the point is that Dolenz was perfectly happy fulfilling audience expectations.

I wasn’t trying to do all new material,” he said. “I’m not one of those performers who says ‘I’m not gonna do any of my old hits.’ But again, I can only speak for myself.”

I mention that nostalgia is actually a good thing in music, it provides added resonance for listeners who grew up with a certain kind of music. People WANT to relive great moments from their youth, and what’s wrong with that?

Sure. And another reason I have no problem with it is, I have done other things in my life. I’ve done musical theater (his credits include AIDA, PIPPIN and a London stage production of HAIRSPRAY in 2010). I’ve gotten great reviews, and I’ve played great characters. So if I go out and do a Monkees concert or a Mickey Dolenz concert, it’s not the only arrow in my quiver. It’s not the only thing I’ve done. But it’s certainly the thing I’m most remembered for.”

Micky Dolenz and Joyce DeWitt in a 2014 production of COMEDY IS HARD! (uncredited photo)

Micky Dolenz and Joyce DeWitt in a 2014 production of COMEDY IS HARD! (uncredited photo)

Any baby boomer can recite favorite moments from the first phase of Monkee mania: that inescapable theme song from the TV show, the irresistibly catchy early hits like “ …Steppin’ Stone,” “I’m a Believer,” “She” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” the frenzied energy of the show, a pioneering experiment in the concept of music video. Some people may even remember the unlikely, limited tour that featured Jimi Hendrix as an opening act, something I did NOT have a chance to ask Dolenz about. I was more interested in talking about their music, and though I didn’t get to bring up all my favorite songs, I DID ask about “Goin’ Down,” easily one of Dolenz’s finest hours as a vocalist. Over a jazz-laced romping arrangement that expanded the group’s sonic palette rather significantly, Dolenz sings a rapidfire, tempo-challenging lyric that would be far beyond the ability of most vocalists. The case for Dolenz as one of the finest pop singers of the era was made right then and there, and that was way back in 1967. I tell him how extraordinary the track is.

The story is, there was a song that Mose Allison, a jazz singer, had done – it was called ‘Parchman Farm,’” Dolenz begins. “It was an old bluesy/jazzy kind of thing. I don’t even know if he wrote it (Kevin’s note: he didn’t). It was only three chords. And I always wanted to do it. Peter had done it in the Village when he was coming up, he liked it also. So Mike and I and Peter and Davy laid down a track… it had no melody, just basically this three-chord progression. And when we finished, it was so hot, but then Mike said, and rightly so, ‘I love Mose Allison, and I love that song… but why would the Monkees cover Mose Allison? It’s just a three chord progression! Let’s have someone write some WORDS for our track.’ So we gave it to Diane Hildebrand. And she came back with the song… and the first time that I routined it with her, we played the track. And I had the lyrics in front of me. So I sang it, (Dolenz sings a few lines of the song to me first at the familiar rapid tempo, then at the sluggish tempo he employed when first rehearsing it.) And Diane goes ‘No, No, it should be TWICE that fast!’ (he laughs) And I said ‘What?’ So I rehearsed it, obviously, and then laid the vocal down. Yeah, it’s a big one.”

I tell Micky my poignant story about “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” which in a nutshell, is simply that my good friend and musical colleague, Rick Haegg, whom I had a lot of music plans with, died before we could get ourselves on video significantly. The performance of us doing the Monkees song live at Lindberg’s, in Springfield, MO, is destined to be the only YouTube clip of us out there. Micky used my mom’s expression “Oh, wow” in response to this story. But what I had LONG wanted to ask Dolenz about was, of course, Neil Young. Dolenz did a gentle cover of Young’s “Sugar Mountain” on his 1991 collection of pop lullabyes, MICKY DOLENZ PUTS YOU TO SLEEP. But more significant is the fact that it’s still not widely known among casual fans that Neil played on three or four Monkees songs, including “You and I” and the gorgeous “As We Go Along,” from the legendary HEAD soundtrack.

Micky Dolenz, soundchecking on the Monkees' 2014 tour (uncredited photo)

Micky Dolenz, soundchecking on the Monkees’ 2014 tour (uncredited photo)

Oh, God,” Dolenz exclaims at the mention of that song. “Absolutely one of my favorites.” The shimmering acoustic guitars of the track and another stellar Carole King lyric (in collaboration with Toni Stern) propel Dolenz to what might be his most romantic vocal ever. “Give up your secrets/Let down your hair/And sit with me here by the firelight… Why think about/Who’s gonna win out?/We’ll make up our story as we go along.” Those are beautifully evocative lines that, when combined with the exquisite tune and a sweeping performance by Dolenz, can induce genuine chills. And yes, Neil Young plays guitar on it. But just HOW did ol’ Neil get involved?

Well, he was just around, like everybody was at that time,” Dolenz replied. “I think he had a close relationship with Carole King, and so that’s why he might have been on that one. But everybody was around. Stephen Stills, Buddy Miles, Carole. It was a pretty small community. Everybody sort of hung around at everybody else’s house. Neil was around all the time. It could’ve been the producer, Jack (Nicholson, a co-producer of the soundtrack). Or Ry Cooder, he was the other guitar player on that. It’s also well known that not only us, but everyone was using the Wrecking Crew. Have you seen that documentary?”

Dolenz was referring to an acclaimed 2008 documentary about the legendary group of studio musicians who played on countless major recordings in the ‘60s. I felt guilty that I hadn’t seen it and told him I’d make an effort to do so.

You should watch it. Yeah, the Wrecking Crew… it was Tommy Tedesco, Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn, Carol Kaye, Leon Russell. Glen Campbell. Lots of others. They played on everybody’s stuff. A lot of the Beach Boys stuff. In fact, the story goes that there isn’t one Beach Boy on ‘Good Vibrations’ except for the singing, of course. They played on a lot of early Byrds recordings… the Association… Mamas and Papas. In those days, that’s what you did. Lots of stuff. I’m so glad they are finally getting recognition.”

I asked about Glen Campbell, since he’d died quite recently. What did Micky most remember about him?

Oh, I have lots of memories. We became really good friends. He was in the Wrecking Crew. We kind of just hit it off. We both had families at the same time… in fact, our families hung out. We had barbecues together. One day Glen said, ‘Do you remember your first recording session? Before the Monkees?’ I vaguely remembered it. I was singing around LA at the time. I didn’t know much about recording at all. There were four or five musicians there at the session. I was maybe 19 or 20. So we did the recording, and then the Monkees thing happened. And Glen Campbell said ‘Well, I was your guitar player.’ It was the Wrecking Crew! The song was called ‘Don’t Do It.’ Glen played on it. And Joe Osborn on bass. We did another one called ‘Huff Puff.’ Yeah, Glen was just a great guy.”

Dolenz had also been friends with another legendary songwriter, Harry Nilsson. For the 50th Anniversary of the Monkees, a remarkable set of circumstances came together to spark a new Monkees record, GOOD TIMES, in 2016. It’s a fantastic and surprising recording, which got some help from the discovery of some half-finished Monkees tunes in the vaults, one of which featured Nilsson.

The Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith) (publicity photo)

The Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith) (publicity photo)

It all came together pretty quickly when we were discussing what we were gonna do for the 50th anniversary,” Dolenz explained. “We had some unfinished tracks from the ‘60s, songs written by Carole King, Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson. And there were vocals on some, like ‘Good Times,’ the one that Harry wrote. That was obviously gonna be for me to sing on eventually. Harry had put down a pretty hot vocal as a guide vocal. And I thought, Wow, I could do a duet with my old friend Harry Nilsson! So we ended up calling the album GOOD TIMES, that was my idea. And that was the title track.”

Then all sorts of famous songwriters came out of nowhere to be part of this project, right? You discovered that the Monkees had fans in high places!

What happened was that the record label and producers reached out on their rolodex, and all of a sudden we get songs submitted by Rivers Cuomo, Andy Partridge (from XTC). Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller. Ben Gibbard. It just exploded and took off. I am very grateful and flattered and proud of the album. We got great reviews, too. Even ROLLING STONE gave us a good review, and they were never so into the Monkees before!”

I mention how unprecedented it is for a band to have a top 20 album 50 years after the fact. Compilations or hits collections might make the charts later in an artist’s career, but for that to happen with a NEW album? Truly remarkable!

Yeah, it occurred to me,” Dolenz began with a laugh. “The equivalent in 1966, back when the Beatles, Stones and the Monkees were around, would have been for an act from 1916 to now have a top 20 album. It would have been something by Al Jolson or Enrico Caruso!” We both laughed loudly.

Micky Dolenz, 2014 Monkees tour (uncredited photo)

Micky Dolenz, 2014 Monkees tour (uncredited photo)

But there was something truly remarkable in the strength of the songs on GOOD TIMES. Mike Nesmith sings “Me and Magdalena” with a delicacy that truly elevates the gorgeous melody to a transcendent level (Dolenz provides harmonies). Peter Tork is at his very strongest on “Little Girl” and “Wasn’t Born To Follow.” And no one could have anticipated the luscious psychedelia and beautiful joint vocal performance of Nesmith and Dolenz on the Noel Gallagher/Paul Weller co-write, “Birth of an Accidental Hipster.” Such musical surprises led ULTIMATE CLASSIC ROCK to declare that “the fact that there is a new Monkees album in 2016 is miraculous enough, but that said album, GOOD TIMES!, is nothing short of a masterpiece is astounding.” Fans like yours truly were genuinely amazed.

It’s obviously very gratifying,” said Dolenz. “It took the three of us… well, actually the four of us, because even Davy has a song on there (“Love To Love”). But everything just came together… It had a lot to do with the producer, Adam Schlesinger, who really was enthusiastic. We just kind of caught lightning in a bottle.”

Is there any chance of another Monkees record happening in the future? After all, Micky said that even the notoriously reluctant Mike Nesmith loved making this record.

Well, nothing is in the works right now. We are still riding the crest of the wave off GOOD TIMES. It did pretty well. In my solo show, I even do three songs off that album. The general consensus was that we didn’t want to try to follow that up right away with GOOD TIMES 2. But down the road, you never know.”

Speaking of “the road,” Dolenz performed no less than 60-plus concerts last year, which took him and Peter Tork to four countries. And this summer, he’s been doing the 50 SUMMERS OF LOVE tour with Mark Lindsey (from Paul Revere and the Raiders) and the Beatles tribute band, the Fab Four. Solo, duo or the odd theatre gig, Dolenz seems to never rest. How does he keep up the stamina for so many shows?

To answer your question, I DON’T,” he laughs. “I get beat up pretty hard. There’s a saying we have, ‘You don’t get paid to sing, you get paid to travel.’ The singing is FREE. I don’t travel very well, it’s hard on me. Probably the hardest thing about doing this.”

Micky Dolenz performing at the Davy Jones Memorial show, 2012 (photo credit: CINDY ORD/GETTY IMAGES)

Micky Dolenz performing at the Davy Jones Memorial show, 2012 (photo credit: CINDY ORD/GETTY IMAGES)

Nonetheless, Dolenz is having a good time doing the 50 SUMMERS OF LOVE tour, and I asked him what it’s like performing with his old chum, Lindsey, whose parent band was big around the same time as the Monkees. This show features them performing together.

Yeah, this is not like a typical compilation show, where one act comes out and does 20 minutes, then the next act comes out,” he said. “The unique thing is that we do the whole show together. We’re both on stage the whole time. He sings on some of my songs and I sing on some of his. We talk in between and do some schtick. We open with ‘ …Steppin’ Stone,’ and we talk about it. He recorded the song, and he’ll say, ‘You know, I did it first.’ But I’ll say ‘Yeah, but I had the hit!’ It’s quite interesting. The set list is based on the SONGS, not who is singing them. It’s a little bit like a Rat Pack thing.”

Dolenz talks about how both he and Lindsey were on the ‘60s TV show WHERE THE ACTION IS, which I tell him I remembered watching. We also talk about enthusiasm for the Monkees’ music in England, Australia and Japan. And the participation of his sister Coco in the latest touring Monkees show (vocals and percussion), and how his daughter, Georgia, just graduated from the Groundlings improve comedy school, and how she and her pop run a furniture business together, called Dolenz and Daughters Fine Furniture. It seems there are constant surprises in Micky Dolenz’s career, and nary a dull moment. It’s plenty of work, and not much “monkeying around.” He knows he’s a beloved pop legend, though, and is grateful for his unlikely and diverse career. I had a zillion more questions I would have liked to ask him, and felt like I had barely scratched the surface in our short chat. But he’s a super busy guy, and was nice enough to give me some time despite an illness in his family. I try to express a level of admiration that would cover how I grew up with him, found myself astonished by the many Monkees reunions through the years and by that amazing new album, and how he’d been on my bucket list of desired interviews. I couldn’t say it all. Micky Dolenz! Wow! But even though I am hardly the first to tell him I’m a devoted Monkees fan and that he is truly one of the most underrated singers ever, I am happy to say it to him personally, anyway.

Micky Dolenz in his Dolenz and Daughters workshop, 2014 (uncredited photo)

Micky Dolenz in his Dolenz and Daughters workshop, 2014 (uncredited photo)

Thank you very much,” is his modest reply. And then I went along, with a HEAD full of impressions…


THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW: AN APPRECIATION

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke) (publicity photo)

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke) (publicity photo)

In a huge coincidence, I had rented a DVD box set of the old DICK VAN DYKE SHOW just a couple of days before Mary Tyler Moore passed away at age 80. The show was an Emmy Award winning, wonderful comedy that ran on the CBS television network for five seasons, from 1961-1966. A great star, a great ensemble cast, wonderful writing: It had it all and it made one young lady a huge star; just shy of her twenty-fifth birthday when the series debuted, Mary Tyler Moore had a flair for dancing, comedy and… yes, she was quite pretty and had a great smile. The chemistry between Moore and Van Dyke was exceptional.

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Rose Marie, DIck Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam) (publicity still)

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Rose Marie, DIck Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam) (publicity still)

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was written by Carl Reiner, a comedy genius who also played the egotistical TV star, Alan Brady, for whom Van Dyke’s character, Rob Petrie was the head writer. Rob was (not always so ably) assisted by Rose Marie (as writer Sally Rogers) and the wonderful Morey Amsterdam as Buddy Sorrell who could throw jokes and one-liners out as fast as anyone. One of the all time great character actors of the ‘sixties, Richard Deacon played the show’s set-upon producer, Mel Cooley. Deacon is also remembered for his role as perpetual irritant Fred Rutherford on another classic sit-com, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. Buddy didn’t care much for Mel and continually lambasted him with funny insults. And, of course, no one can deny that cheery, booming theme song is one of the greatest and most recognized in the history of television. The show, because of its writing and brilliant casting, still stands as a true classic, one of the funniest of any era. Yeah, it’s in “boring old” black and white and laced with mid-sixties nuclear-family-cum-hipster-chic fashion and interior design; still, it doesn’t come off as dated, because it dealt with everyday things in a humorous way that resonates as much today as it did 55 years ago.

MARY TYLER MOORE (Mary Richards' coming-of-age hat toss) (screen still)

MARY TYLER MOORE (Mary Richards’ coming-of-age hat toss) (screen still)

Of course, Mary Tyler Moore became America’s sweetheart as Laura Petrie. She went on to major TV stardom later with the groundbreaking MARY TYLER MOORE series, still considered a defining moment of female empowerment. As with THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, the series featured brilliant scripts and a memorable ensemble cast, with Moore’s Mary Richards, a frantic (a trait she shared with Laura) young woman striking a (sometimes unknowing) blow for equality in the male-dominated world of television news. The dancer-turned-actress married future NBC-TV executive Grant Tinker in 1962; the couple formed MTM Enterprises in 1969, producing Moore’s show (and a multitude of spin-offs: RHODA, PHYLLIS and LOU GRANT), as well as innovative television like HILL STREET BLUES, SAINT ELSEWHERE, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and, one of my personal favorites, WKRP IN CINCINNATI, among others. Watching these old VAN DYKE episodes was a lot of fun and a great walk down memory lane. Mary told an interviewer in later years that being on the show, surrounded by all those talented performers, was like being in a college for comedy. I couldn’t have said it better.


…AND THE REST: THE DAWN WELLS INTERVIEW

(Part Two of a Two Part Series by Kevin Renick)

Dawn Wells, circa 2014 (publicity photo)

Dawn Wells, circa 2014 (publicity photo)

The following interview with Ms Wells was conducted by telephone in Fall 2015 during one of her many publicity jaunts for her latest book, WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO?: A GUIDE TO LIFE. Throughout the chat, Dawn was charming, revealing, appreciative and fun, just the traits you would expect from the gal who created the iconic Mary Ann Summers character on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Dawn is seldom wanting for new projects… she’s an actress in multiple mediums, an author, a designer, a brilliant marketer, in demand for special appearances constantly and, as she says, kind of an “adventurer.” She appreciated the essay I wrote about her, and we talked quite a bit about the GILLIGAN days, as well as plenty of other topics.

THE MULE: Hi Dawn. Pleasure to talk to you again! We met some years before in Columbia.

DAWN: Oh, it was probably the Children’s Miracle Network thing?

THE MULE: Yes, indeed. And you were just delightful then, also.

DAWN: Well, what you wrote about me was so lovely. As a fan, you could see the depth of that character and it was really sweet, all the things you said.

THE MULE: I just felt very strongly that you were the heart of the show. You held everything together amidst plotlines that were often preposterous. Not sure anyone else could have done that.

DAWN: That’s the reason that Mary Ann has sustained for so long. And she really has. There are no Mary Ann’s today.

THE MULE: Well, one reason I knew I was onto something with my premise is because I spoke to some female friends about the show and its longevity. And to a one, they said you were their favorite character. Maybe that isn’t so surprising.

DAWN: I’d have been their friend!

THE MULE: Right. Well, let’s talk a bit about your new book, WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO?. What led you to the writing of this book?

WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE (TAYLOR TRADE PUBLISHING, 2014)

WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE (TAYLOR TRADE PUBLISHING, 2014)

DAWN: It was the fans! 80% of the men I meet say, “I married a Mary Ann.” Or, “Mary Ann would have been my partner.” You’d have to have been pretty sophisticated to say that as a young man. The grownups say that they married Mary Ann, and they have their kids with them. Which made me think, there is something to this character that still resonates. Then I went into, Why? What is it about her? As funny as it may seem, I was raised by a Mary Ann mother. In Reno, Nevada. Where there’s legal prostitution! As far away from Kansas as you can be! But it was the morality, the manners, the work ethic, that my mother raised me with. And no matter where you are, it doesn’t make any difference. It was my mother’s influence on me. And I was talking to someone recently, I asked, “Why didn’t I run away? Or go out and drink with my buddies or something like that, like the kids are doing today?” And it’s because I respected my mother. And nobody can teach respect. My parents were divorced. And that’s what I talk about in the book. I had two families that loved me. My mother and father… I never heard a negative word from either of them about each other. My dad would say, “I think your mother needs a washing machine… what do you think?” And then she would ask me something. Raising me was the emphasis in their relationship. And again, that depends on the parents. You know, if you come from a bitter home, you’re listening to what’s around you. And I never had any of that. I really was raised to be a “Mary Ann” and there’s something to be said for that. Today, everybody’s in their room with their computer, nobody knows who they’re talking to or what they’re saying. Nobody has dinner together much anymore. And this bullying? I mean, we had a bunch of kids that I’m sure you’d consider the kids you’d bully maybe. Someone wouldn’t be very good at something but… we loved him anyway. We’ve sort of lost that. I thought this book would be maybe for a mom or a dad or a grandma, to sit down with their kids and read it.

THE MULE: That’s all beautifully expressed, Dawn. I think you’ve really hit on some big things there. You’ve been traveling a lot, and I know you’ve appeared in bookstores and on talk shows and stuff. What has been the response – overall – of people, both the fans and the people who interview you?

DAWN: It’s all positive. I don’t think I have ever had a negative interview.

THE MULE: Really?

DAWN: No, I don’t think so. Well maybe, uh, I don’t know. I did an interview on the Howard Stern show years ago.

THE MULE: Oh, no!

DAWN: I always kind of trusted… and he said we’re gonna do it. And I said okay. Well, it was the most embarrassing thing in the whole world. They did a skit where the Skipper had died and (unintelligible), and Mrs. Howell was pregnant and was played by a guy with a hairy chest. Bob (Denver) and I looked at each other like, Do we walk off or do we continue? But then years later, Howard Stern asked me to be on his radio show, and I said to my PR guy yeah, let me sit down with him for an hour. And I turned him around completely. We got through all of the nonsense right at the beginning. And we ended up talking about the difference between female education and male education in school. And the nitty gritty of who Mary Ann is, which we all know…

THE MULE: Lordy, I’d be terrified to think of the kind of stuff Howard Stern COULD have asked you. (we both laugh) Can you relate an incident or two about fan enthusiasm over the years that stood out? Something more than just, “Oh, you were my favorite character.” Where it maybe surprised you in some way.

DAWN: Well, I tend to get a lot of the same reactions. Some 45-year-old guy will come up, and he’ll bring his 10-year-old daughter. And he wants her to listen to Mary Ann, I think. And they’re not gonna be embarrassed by what I would do. I’m not bra-less, wearing a low-cut gown. So I think they have this trust in what I would say… I mean, I’ve had proposals. Uh, well I did have a cute little thing happen with Nick Nolte. I was doing a show for Australia called “The Castaway Correspondent”. I was interviewing all the people in the movies and everything. And the only person who told me they liked Ginger better than Mary Ann was Robin Williams. (laughs) But Nick Nolte said, “Oh my gosh, you got me through puberty in the nicest of ways!”

THE MULE: That’s a pretty good compliment! In my essay about you, I talked about the fact that you were probably the most popular character on GILLIGAN, that both males and females like you the same, which is amazing. How do you put this in perspective, that you got the most fan mail on the show and continued to be the most popular character years after?

The cast of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Alan Hale Junior, Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, Tina Louise, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer) (publicity photo)

The cast of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Alan Hale Junior, Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, Tina Louise, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer) (publicity photo)

DAWN: I really don’t think I was the most popular… I’m sure it would be Gilligan, maybe, or the Skipper. But, I think Mary Ann was relatable. And for you, as a young person growing up watching the show, Ginger was too much! You have to be pretty sophisticated. And Mrs. Howell could have been your grandmother. I think you identified with me because I’d have been your buddy! I’d have been your buddy if I had gone to school with you and you were a guy. I don’t mean to be too modest, but I don’t think it had anything to do with ME. I just think Sherwood Schwartz put these seven people together and took seven personalities… and I think Mary Ann was… I don’t think I carried the show, but she was the center of making everyone pitch in. Y’know, let’s not bully you and let’s get the Skipper on a diet, and make Mister Howell be a little nicer to Mrs. Howell. And I don’t know that it was really in the writing. There were no messages. I think it was the relationships between us all. And there was no jealousy between Mary Ann and Ginger at all!

THE MULE: That’s interesting… that comes up a lot, people wondering about the relationship between you two.

DAWN: I used to think (regarding Tina Louise), gosh, you’re so glamorous. I don’t know, I never had a leopard outfit on before, and I kissed Gilligan and I kissed the Professor and I thought, oh boy, I get to be a girl now. (laughs)

THE MULE: Well, you brought it up, that episode where you played Ginger… what else do you remember about that one? It’s among the most popular with fans, I think. And it showed off your acting chops.

DAWN: Well, she was very sweet, cause she does that little Marilyn Monroe thing with her mouth. That kind of cute little thing… So I’d say, “Now say that again,” so I could kind of imitate her. And I tried to do that. There’s always a Ginger and Mary Ann question, so you’d assume there would be a competition between us. But Ginger… had never had a Thanksgiving dinner! And she said to me… I’m a pretty good cook and my mother is, too… and she said to me, I don’t know if it was our second or third year, but she said, “Would you mind teaching me how to make a Thanksgiving dinner?” And I said “I’d love that!” So she came to my house, and she sat on a stool with a pencil and paper, and my mother did all the shopping. We chopped all the onions and the celery… and she sat there and took notes. And I don’t know if she ever did it. Eight or nine years later, maybe even later, because she had a daughter by that point. And I met Caprice (Crane, Ms Louise’s daughter). And Caprice said to me, “You know how much I love that story about Thanksgiving, how you taught her how to do it?” And I would not have thought Tina would have embraced it that much!

Tina Louise and Dawn Wells in GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (video still)

Tina Louise and Dawn Wells in GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (video still)

THE MULE: That’s a great story! So, there wasn’t any rivalry between you and Tina on the show? Was that just a made-up thing from the fans?

DAWN: I think the fans, at a certain point, decided they had to make a choice, which was silly. Tina was a big movie star. I had just been in the business a couple of years. She’d done GOD’S LITTLE ACRE with Rock Hudson and she’d been on Broadway. She was a beauty. I remember, we started wearing false eyelashes and Tina ordered them from New York. They were $25 a pair. And they were mink. Well, I didn’t know anything about things like that! I watched her… she was very conscious of only wanting to be photographed from the left side. She was very conscious of how she looked best and everything. And I kind of learned a lot from that! She had the experience, I didn’t.

THE MULE: Did you ever get to have input about Mary Ann’s dialogue or story lines on the show?

DAWN: No. No. I don’t think anybody did… Gilligan might have, a little. But we had good writers, and you all had to just stick to the ridiculous plots. I just did what they told me to do, and read the lines.

THE MULE: There’s a particular episode different friends have mentioned, the one where you did a musical version of HAMLET, which was kind of surreal. What do you remember about that one?

DAWN: Oh, yeah. I didn’t really realize until a few years ago, Phil Silvers was our guest star, and I didn’t realize he helped finance the pilot! Sherwood Schwartz and Gladysya Productions. Not until about six months ago did I realize that Gladysya was Phil Silvers! But no, that was fun. That was quite extensive, what they did with the costumes and everything for that one.

THE MULE: I have a friend who, to this day, if I bring up that episode, she’ll break into one of the songs. They stick in your mind!

DAWN: (singing one of the tunes herself) “Neither a borrower nor a lender be!”

THE MULE: Well, you certainly created something very iconic. No doubt about it. So many memorable episodes. What about you and the other cast members? I know you got along really well with Russell Johnson. I loved you two together. You had great chemistry.

Dawn Wells with Russell Johnson and Bob Denver (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells with Russell Johnson and Bob Denver (uncredited photo)

DAWN: I think we did, too. And we always laughed in that first year about ” …and the rest” (the theme song for the show the first year said ” …and the rest” instead of crediting Wells and Johnson). We’d send each other cards saying “Love, the Rest” for Christmas and birthdays, stuff like that. Bob (Denver) was very private. Very private. He had a lot of children, and he’d come in looking exhausted. There was a childlike soul in Bob. I was one of the few people he allowed in his home. Um, allowed is not the right word. Alan (Hale) was the same size as my dad. So, every time Alan hugged me, he picked me up half off the floor. So there was this big robust, jovial human being there. And he was a good cook. And Natalie (Schafer) and I were very close, especially in later years. I was the least close, probably, to Jim (Backus). I think Jim and Tina were very close, I think they both had that kind of movie star/Hollywood life, which I never did. But Natalie didn’t have any children, and towards the end she confided a lot of things to me. We really were a tight knit cast, though, and I think that shows. I think the charm of the show was that you could kind of tell we all liked each other.

THE MULE: Yes, I agree. There had to be a reason why the show was so popular and never went off the air. Some people don’t realize that, that it has always been on the air, somewhere. People of a certain age still view it with such love and fondness. What’s it like to be part of something so iconic, that people feel such nostalgia for now?

DAWN: You know, it translates easily, into all these other languages. Because you don’t really have to understand any PLOT particularly. And I can’t go anywhere in the world without being recognized. My favorite story… I’m in the Solomon Islands… (she says something about a knee replacement) I’m not an athlete but, I’m an adventurer. Stephens College… went with some of my Stephens College friends to Rwanda, we climbed up to see the gorillas. And I went with five other Stephens women to the Solomon Islands, where no white women have ever been. There was no running water, and no electricity. We had a photographer who had married a Solomon Island girl, so he said, “I’ll take you around.” And, as we canoed up to an island, the chief – his family had been chief for nine generations. And they were all in huts, up on stilts. No running water, no electricity. And he had a little greeting for us. So these young kids did a little dance and as we canoed up to the island, the chief’s wife looked at me and said “I know you.” And I went “WHAT? What are you talking about?” She said “I was on the island of Honiara (capital of the Solomon Islands), in 1979, going to nursing school. And I used to come home and watch you in black and white.” In the middle of the Pacific Ocean!

THE MULE: Oh, I can’t believe it. You must have absolutely fallen over!

DAWN: I almost dropped dead! And then the other thing was, we were probably in production for four or five weeks and Sherwood came in with the Coast Guard. Six or seven big mucky-mucks from the Coast Guard. And we stopped filming for a minute or so. And he said “The Coast Guard has something to say to you all.” And I don’t know what the ranks are in the Coast Guard, but the guy said, “We have received several telegrams saying there are seven people stranded in the Pacific Ocean. Why can’t you find them?” Some people believe everything!

Dawn Wells as the giant's maid in the GILLIGAN'S ISLAND episode, V For Vitamins (video still)

Dawn Wells as the giant’s maid in the GILLIGAN’S ISLAND episode, V For Vitamins (video still)

THE MULE: Amazing, truly. Even though the show was a huge hit in syndication, you guys didn’t really get to share in the profits at all, right?

DAWN: Not a dime. I was just talking to Bob Denver’s wife recently and she said, “It just makes me so angry.” We’ve never been off the air, and in how many languages around the world. And we haven’t had one nickel from it! Sherwood Schwartz, I was told, made $90 million on the reruns of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND alone. He could have split it between the seven of us, maybe given us a million, but nope.

THE MULE: And there’s no lawyer out there clever enough to remedy the situation now, maybe?

DAWN: No, cause a lot of other shows have tried that, like F TROOP and stuff like that. But it’s been tried. And that was the contract! That’s what it was. And Jim Backus used to get so angry, like “Hey, you took the part! You knew there weren’t any things along that line.” And how do you go back? You can’t be bitter, that’s stupid. We wouldn’t be known for who we were… so that’s a plus.

THE MULE: Did I read somewhere that a pair of your shorts from the show will be in the Smithsonian?

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann in that classic two-piece outfit (video still)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann in that classic two-piece outfit (video still)

DAWN: They’ve asked me. They want them. And I don’t know whether to do that. I have a family foundation and we have funded a children’s museum in Reno… we are tied to the Smithsonian. So I was going to the Smithsonian a couple of years ago and he was pulling out all the costumes from THE WIZARD OF OZ, and they’re all in drawers! I mean, they come out once in a while and display them, but… I don’t know that I want my shorts to be in drawers! I think maybe some fan would rather have them. I still have them, so I don’t know what I’m going to do.

THE MULE: Well, they’re famous! Your shorts, as I mentioned in my essay, came years before the Catherine Bach “daisy dukes” from the DUKES OF HAZZARD, which got so much attention. So, I don’t think you got enough credit!

DAWN: I had to cover my navel, though. I helped design them… I tried to make my legs look longer by making them go up on the sides, and my torso looked longer so I dipped it down on the side but I still had to have that little rise in front so you wouldn’t see my navel!

THE MULE: Still a conversation piece all these years later! Can you just mention a couple of your favorite theatre roles through the years? I know you were in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT. I think I told you that my brother Kyle produced the first version of STEEL MAGNOLIAS in New York, a show you were in elsewhere.

Dawn Wells in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, circa 1969 (publicity still)

Dawn Wells in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, circa 1969 (publicity still)

DAWN: I was not in the New York production, but boy, I love that play. I played Ouiser.(in the Judson Theatre Company production in North Carolina). I did LION IN WINTER. I’m doing a play in Jacksonville, and I’ve been looking at some other things. I just asked the Dramatists Workshop if they ever thought of doing SLEUTH with two women. It took us a long time to get two women to do THE ODD COUPLE. I’m always challenged. I don’t know, THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT was about as far from Mary Ann as you could be. However, I gave her the heart of gold. I made her a nice person. I’m always up for a challenge. I’m doing LOVE, LOSS AND WHAT I WORE again in Laguna Beach. I’ve had some funny things happen. I was doing OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT at the Barn Dinner Theatre in Dallas, and we had to run down the aisle to the dressing rooms to change clothes. And some guy grabbed me around the thigh, and put me on his lap! (laughing) And of course, it’s black out… y’know, you gotta be changing costumes, and I’m trying to get his hands off me! It was quite an experience.

THE MULE: Wow, that’s a good one. And you’ve also done a fair number of movies… which one was the best experience for you?

DAWN: WINTERHAWK. Because it was so incredibly beautiful, and I had been working with such professional character actors. And we were really in the snow. I mean, I had on pantyhose over my long underwear, and I was bareback on the horse, trying to go up the Rocky Mountains. And my little horse had just a little tuft of his mane. And we started up the hill and my pantyhose would slide back towards the tail. And I tried to grab ahold of his mane. And about a week into it, I said to the director, “Charlie! All the Indians have saddles under their blankets. Why can’t I have a saddle?” He said “It’s too late now, I put ya there without one.” But you really got to have that feeling… and Michael Dante was a wonderful actor in the role… I think that was my favorite. (She also mentions the horror movie THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, which was based on a true story and conjured suspense for both the cast and viewers)

THE MULE: Anything else you are working on now that you’d like to mention?

Dawn Wells (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells (uncredited photo)

DAWN: I’ve been looking at some plays that I could do, now that I’m more mature. I could do GIN GAME and a few things like that. I’m also in the midst of a cookbook. And, I’ve been asked to do a radio show. And I’d really, really like a radio show, so I am contemplating that… what could be my theme, what could I talk about? I like fans that call in, and having conversations. We’ll be talking seriously about that.

THE MULE: (we talk a little about growing older, and I relate the story of my song “Up In the Air” for the George Clooney movie of the same name, and how I have harbored different impulses myself.)

DAWN: See, isn’t that wonderful. That’s what I always say, you know, “why give up?” Everybody has something to offer in this world, you just gotta do something about it!”

THE MULE: Well Dawn, you have managed to create such good will and a lasting impact from what could have been a less substantial role, and I just admire that so much. Any look at the internet shows how much fans love you. And you’ve managed to stay so positive and accessible through the years. Not every star does.

DAWN: It’s not very hard to be loved. (laughs) I certainly appreciate the admiration. I mean, If you were a secretary somewhere, and somebody was saying, “You did the best job, or you wrote the best blah blah blah,” you’d sort of feel flattered. I do feel flattered, but I also feel a connection. I guess, you know, when you find that many people that… fathers with kids, and passing that down, there must be something connecting us somehow. And I love people. maybe it’s the way I was raised. I don’t know. I wouldn’t change my life.

THE MULE: You preserved something on that show for all time, creating such a lovable character. Something you did transcended the limits of a silly half-hour television show, that’s for sure.

DAWN: Well I wonder, was it the dialogue? Was it my presenting the dialogue? Was it just because I was cast as that character? I don’t know. You can’t put your finger on it..

Two of our favorite things, Dawn Wells and the Monkeemobile (uncredited photo)

Two of our favorite things, Dawn Wells and the Monkeemobile (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells is currently appearing at the Fanboy Expo in Nashville, Tennessee through May 15. Her book WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? is available in bookstores and at Dawn’s website now. You can also keep up-to-date with her upcoming appearances at the site. GILLIGAN’S ISLAND continues its syndication run everywhere, and is probably a popular show on distant planets in outer space by now.


DAWN WELLS: A TRIBUTE TO THE ENDURING SWEETHEART FROM, Y’KNOW, THAT ’60S SHOW

(Part One of a Two Part Series by KEVIN RENICK)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann Summers in GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (video still)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann Summers in GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (video still)

Ginger or Mary Ann? It’s a simple question featuring the names of two girls, and the debate behind it, along with all kinds of underlying implications, not only continues to this day but represents an utterly singular phenomenon in pop culture. The question refers, of course, to the two comely actresses who held baby boomers in their pulchritudinous grip on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, a sitcom about a “three-hour tour” in the Pacific that essentially never left the air after its three-year run came to an end in 1967. Ginger was Ginger Grant, played by Tina Louise; the character was a movie star and glamour girl patterned more than a little after Marilyn Monroe. Mary Ann (Summers) was portrayed by Dawn Wells as the definitive “girl next door” type: Sweet, approachable and down to Earth. Why did this question about the two iconic portrayals gain such traction? Why are there multiple articles about it on the net, including a hilarious point/counterpoint essay on the RetroCrush web site that goes into great detail about why EACH lady deserves to win the argument? What could be so significant about a mere question of preference for certain kinds of women that it caused almost the entire male population of television viewers to immediately take a stand, bonding with those who agreed with their choice and driven to rag on those who didn’t? There may be more intriguing or important questions out there when it comes to pop culture history, but I can’t think of another show or even ANY other entertainment medium that gave rise to such an enduring debate about two women. That deserves some recognition, for sure, in a culture that loves polls and “hall of fame” type debates.

So then, Ginger or Mary Ann? Well, I am proud to say I’ve always been completely, totally in the Mary Ann camp. As a baby boomer, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was one of the shows I never missed growing up; it was an essential part of my childhood. Dawn Wells was the first actress I ever developed a crush on; it was a rather immediate thing, even in the first season of the show when it was in black and white. I’ve run into many guys of a certain age that said the same thing. The easygoing charm and friendliness of Wells’ Mary Ann was arguably the heart of a sitcom that stuffier critics would often ridicule because of the absurd plots. Few of us ever analyzed the plots; we just loved the good fun of the show, the chemistry of the cast, and the pleasure of watching our favorite characters do their thing in each subsequent episode. For me, that meant Mary Ann, followed by Russell Johnson’s charismatic and brilliant Professor (only in one episode did we learn that his actual name was Roy Hinkley), and then poor besotten Bob Denver as Gilligan. There was a familiarity about GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and especially watching it in endless reruns that kept you tied to a vision of simpler, happier times. The castaways became like an extended family. It may have been just an innocuous sitcom, but Dawn Wells, in particular, did something worth examining on the show – she created a female character so fetching, so warm and caring, and so REAL, that millions of fans fell in love with her. Quite early on, the fan mail coffers started filling up more for Dawn than any of her co-stars, and once the “Ginger vs. Mary Ann” debate started in earnest, Dawn almost always came out ahead (with the arguable exception perhaps being polls that appeared in a few men’s magazines). You can find polls and “lists of faves” all over the internet, but we’ll just mention one from the entertainment site, imdb.com. When the question was put to a vote (even asking for other preferences in TV gals; it was phrased as “Ginger or Mary Ann or… “), Mary Ann was the solid winner out of 3200+ respondents, with 652 votes. Barbara Eden of I DREAM OF JEANNIE, not dissimilar in her overall aesthetic, came in second place, with 418 votes. Where was Ginger? Way down in 6th place, with 218 votes.

GINGER OR MARY ANN? (Dawn Wells and Tina Louise... the debate continues) (video still)

GINGER OR MARY ANN? (Dawn Wells and Tina Louise… the debate continues) (video still)

Let’s face it, we like our stars, and we like falling in love with characters from TV shows and movies. It’s part of the escapism that’s really quite necessary to get through life. Dawn Wells became one of the true touchstones on television to embody the concept of “the girl next door.” How she portrayed the endearing Kansas farm girl Mary Ann was to bring her huge, lasting fame and launch a million fantasies and discussions about “desirability” that would utterly transcend producer Sherwood Schwartz’s initial hopes for his unpretentious little TV show. These things can’t be planned or predicted. Audiences do their own thing (especially so in the pre-internet age), and the march of time ultimately determines who wins the popularity contests. Countless actresses earned male admiration and substantial fan bases through the years, but it takes a special combination of circumstances to make someone an icon, a hall of famer, a list topper. The kind of star fans will flock to every appearance for, or write impassioned letters to, year after year after year. Dawn Wells somehow made ALL of that happen, on a TV show that critics thought would fail right away and that was never considered a classic. So, let’s take a look at how she did it, and celebrate a lovely, vibrant woman who has been able to enjoy the fruits of her achievement for many years now.

MARY ANN, THE APPROACHABLE “FRIEND”

It’s not a put-down to say that almost everyone on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was a bit of a caricature or exaggeration. Bob Denver’s Gilligan, though well-meaning, was always messing things up and preventing rescues; NO ONE would screw up that much in real life. The Skipper, played by Alan Hale Junior, was a commanding if often blustery presence, and spent an inordinate amount of time reacting to Gilligan’s screw-ups. The Professor made too many improbable creations out of crude elements on the island and came up with all sorts of far-flung solutions to problems faced by the castaways. There was likely not much resemblance to any real life scenarios in what he did on that island week after week, but let’s acknowledge just how charismatic and energetic Russell Johnson’s performance was; he deserved more credit than he got. How patently bizarre that the first season’s theme song said “and the rest” instead of naming “the professor and Mary Ann,” something corrected in subsequent seasons. It might’ve made more sense if the lyric said “and the BEST,” since Wells and Johnson were arguably just that. Continuing, though… Ginger? Way too much of a stereotypical “glamorous actress” type, with, again, too many Marilyn Monroe-isms, even if Tina Louise was a game and devoted actress with the part she was given. The Howells? Silly, exaggerated rich people caricatures, though you can hardly fault the quirky and enjoyable acting of Jim Backus and Natalie Schaefer.

Dawn Wells in leopard skin dress, from the GILLIGAN'S ISLAND episode, "The Second Ginger Grant" (video still)

Dawn Wells in leopard skin dress, from the GILLIGAN’S ISLAND episode, “The Second Ginger Grant” (video still)

That brings us to Dawn Wells. Not only was she a totally believable character, with her earnest attempts to help her fellow castaways figure things out and her easygoing charm, she transcended the limitations of the show in almost every way by acting and talking like someone you know or would WANT to know. She was a friend to all. She was tender and caring. She was sometimes motherly, sometimes sweetly innocent, sometimes vulnerable in the most beguiling of ways. I truly think Mary Ann was the genuine heart of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND – the character who provided the most balance and real-life levity. She tended to dole out the lion’s share of reassurance and hope. Her good nature and steadfast loyalty provided forward momentum for a show based on a wacky premise. And emotionally, Mary Ann responded believably to a wide range of situations, her eyes sparkling with vitality and eager curiosity, befuddlement or straightforward concern and empathy. Dawn Wells was a fine actress to accomplish all this; if she was perhaps playing a version of herself, well, it had to take amazing discipline and yes, acting chops, to maintain that level of sweet, affable charm throughout the preposterous scenarios the castaways had to endure. And let’s also acknowledge some of the sassy, sexy moments Dawn gave us on the show. Her physical beauty may have been less showcased, or less “in your face” than Tina Louise’s, but that only made it more distinctive and subtly mesmerizing at times. Who could forget the episode where the girls create a singing group called the Honeybees to compete against fictional pop stars the Mosquitos? One of those “honeybees” generates more BUZZ than the others, and you can guess who it is. Or how about the episode where Mary Ann gets knocked unconscious and wakes up thinking she is Ginger? It’s quite a kick watching Mary Ann wear all her rival’s showy outfits. And there’s the memorable “beauty contest” episode, where the all-knowing Professor promotes Mary Ann as his candidate for “most beautiful woman on the island,” priming her in the important art of showcasing her beauty and talent in different areas. (Professor and Mary Ann ‘shippers must’ve delighted in this scenario.) For the record, Mary Ann’s leggy tap-dancing display would’ve been the most memorable thing in that contest were it not for the glue placed on stage by rivals’ supporters. Every fan can name their favorite episodes and moments, but for me, what Dawn Wells brought to the show was crucial, game-changing. I’d be willing to bet that if you went out and asked a bunch of GI fans who was the heart of the show, the majority of them would probably say Dawn Wells. That says a great deal about a show that started out with such a simple, oft-ridiculed premise.

THOSE LEGS, THOSE LEGS!

GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

Here’s a fun fact that is likely only meaningful to male viewers, but for a show that made such a big deal out of having a sex symbol/glamorous actress in the cast, it’s the sweet girl next door who eventually earned a permanent place in the “Legs Hall of Fame” (especially once the internet came along and allowed for endless scrutiny and analysis of, well, every star EVER). Between Sherwood Schwartz’s amiable open-mindedness and Dawn Wells’ evident desire to set herself apart from Tina Louise, the decision was made early on to feature Dawn in the shortest shorts ever to appear on a TV show at the time. They wouldn’t let her show her navel due to absurd censorship standards then in existence, but boy, they let her show her legs, in tiny shorts cut high on the thigh. I would posit that it was the combination of Mary Ann’s sweet innocence and her continual display of leggy beauty that put her over the top with male viewers. These days we don’t think that much about a star merely wearing “hot pants” or other skimpy outfits on their show. It’s commonplace. But in the mid-60s, this was groundbreaking stuff. If I’m not mistaken, a pair of Dawn Wells’ shorts is even headed for the Smithsonian. Sure, she also wore that omnipresent gingham dress and a handful of far more conservative outfits, but it’s the shorts that made the biggest impression with fans. And there were other leg-baring outfits such as the maid uniform she wore in the “Gilligan and the Beanstalk” episode and the short yellow dress from the above mentioned beauty contest, an outfit that she donned again in the “radioactive vegetables” episode. Remember that one? When the Professor tells everyone they need to keep walking and exercising to offset the negative effects of eating radioactive crops, Dawn starts pacing around in that hard-to-ignore outfit. At one point, she complains to the Skipper that she’s too tired and can’t keep walking. “I haven’t got your legs!” she complains. “It’s a good thing you don’t, Mary Ann, or you wouldn’t be able to fit into those shorts,” the Skipper slyly replies. That was one of the few times that Mary Ann’s attire was even acknowledged on the show. But, let it be said that, through the wonders of syndication and endless repeats, hardcore fans got to know every outfit of Mary Ann’s. Who could forget the short little white number she only wore in two or three episodes, including the infamous “vampire” episode (early syndication runs angered some fans by cutting various scenes to accommodate more commercials; one such scene featured Mary Ann and Ginger fighting off a bat until the Professor comes to the rescue. Thankfully, the DVDs and later syndication runs restored the scene). That girly-style frock was also worn by Dawn in the “Tongo, the Ape Man” episode that featured actor Denny Miller as an actor preparing for his role as, well, an ape man. So, yeah, Dawn had legs, and she knew how to use ’em. If we’re talking about the history of women on television, and the evolution of the medium in showcasing female beauty, Dawn Wells pretty much deserves an entire chapter. Giggle all you want, but she wore the shorts noticed ’round the world. Anything that’s a first has relevance and deserves to be mentioned, and appreciated. Ms. Wells gave us a first on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. With freshness, ease and undeniable sex appeal. Take THAT, Ginger!

THIS IS HOW A STAR SHINES!

STEEL MAGNOLIAS featuring Dawn Wells (theater card for Judson Theatre's 2014 production)

STEEL MAGNOLIAS featuring Dawn Wells (theater card for Judson Theatre’s 2014 production)

The annals of stardom are littered with the cases of performers who couldn’t handle their fame, stars who became bitter due to typecasting, or who succumbed to substance abuse or other destructive behavior. Rare is the star, especially one who rose to fame on a single show or movie, that consistently handles their fame with grace and puts it to good use. Of all the “castaways” from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, Dawn Wells seemed most grateful for her success and most determined to make it count. Professionally, she did a ton of theatre (THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS were among her credits in that realm), and acted in various – mostly low-budget – films such as WINTERHAWK, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK, SUPER SUCKER and CYBER MELTDOWN, as well as three GILLIGAN’S ISLAND reunion movies for television, the weirdest of which was THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, actually quite entertaining if you’ve had a few drinks. Dawn has written two books: MARY ANN’S GILLIGAN’S ISLAND COOKBOOK, and the new WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE, which she has been promoting with bookstore and media appearances for the past year or more. In Idaho, Dawn runs Wishing Wells Collections, an organization that makes clothing for individuals with limited mobility. She also helps her pal, Dreama Denver (Bob Denver’s wife), with the Denver Foundation charity.

Dawn Wells at a 2014 book signing for WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? (photo credit: MICHAEL TULLBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

Dawn Wells at a 2014 book signing for WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? (photo credit: MICHAEL TULLBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

But you can read her career stats anywhere on the web. The more important thing to say about Dawn is that she has been fan-friendly to a fault. She has never expressed resentment or even mixed feelings about her GILLIGAN stint; instead, she’s talked about those years with gratitude and the kind of intuitive understanding seemingly beyond the ability of some stars. Dawn appreciates her fans and talks enthusiastically about meeting them all over the world (even relating the tale of a native on a remote island—imagine THAT—recognizing the actress when she was vacationing). She acknowledges the tons of fan mail she gets and answers a good deal of it. She makes autographed photos and other merchandise available on her own web site for modest prices. And, in interview after interview, the divine Ms W talks about the fun she had on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, the reasons why Mary Ann was so popular, and how grateful she was for the whole experience. She even talks about the significance of her shorts with humor and verve. I’ve met quite a few people over the years who were Dawn Wells fans and had the privilege of meeting her at some point. To a person, they state how kind and friendly she was and how appreciative of anything they shared about their fondness for her portrayal of Mary Ann. THAT’S a star. Dawn Wells may not have fully escaped the shadow of GI in terms of subsequent work in the entertainment business, but she has demonstrated, consistently, that she’s at peace with her fame from the show, continuing to work in different media through the years, charming reporters and media types any time she does an interview, and essentially using her fame to keep moving forward while giving fans an ongoing opportunity to connect with her and express their appreciation for what she did on “that show.” Honestly, there just aren’t that many stars of cult TV shows or movies who have so consistently conducted themselves with class and grace, and so openly expressed appreciation for their career path, even if tied to a show with less than stellar critical praise. It’s pretty damn impressive. Dawn Wells could give seminars to fellow celebrities on how to handle fame with true style. And it’s pretty magical how fans seem to light up wherever she goes. She knows that she made an impact with her portrayal of Mary Ann Summers. And she makes it truly FUN to be a fan. That is not necessarily the norm in the entertainment business…

The cast of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Junior, Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

The cast of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Junior, Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

It’s strangely ironic that Dawn Wells and Tina Louise are the only surviving members of the GILLIGAN cast. With Russell Johnson’s death last year, the two rival actresses are the only ones left to talk about those halcyon ’60s television adventures, and Tina sure ain’t talkin’ much. In fact, she often sounds indignant and embarrassed when the subject of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND comes up. But to the pleasure of many, Dawn IS talking. She surfaces regularly when she has a project to promote, continues to act, and keeps providing plenty of opportunities for fans to enjoy images of the Mary Ann character and fresh insights into the cast and the show. Dawn could’ve been like so many other stars and simply shunned her past. But even into the latter years of her career, she has proved she is SPECIAL. She’s just one of those strong, confident, charming stars that handles it well. She has a good life because of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, and it hasn’t stopped her from doing a damn thing. Nope, Ms Wells is on the move, and her fans will follow her anywhere.

Mary Ann or Ginger? Personally I think it’s no contest. When you grow up loving a star, you want to believe they are genuine, caring, accessible and able to talk about their fame in a way that makes you glad you contributed to it. Dawn Wells does all that and more. She’s assured a permanent spot in the “America’s Sweetheart Hall of Fame.” Read her book. Watch those old episodes of GILLIGAN. Marvel at how composed and genuine she is when interviewed or chatting with fans. This is a gal more than worthy of admiration and boomer fan-ship. Just sit right back and you’ll hear her tales. She’s not just “the rest” (thankfully, Bob Denver helped rectify that absurdity). She’s genuinely the BEST, the girl who, in whatever capacity she affected you, was destined never to leave your memory. We all need a little Mary Ann in our lives.


THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW: THE COMPLETE REMASTERED SERIES

(RLJ ENTERTAINMENT; 2015)

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Since its debut in October, 1961, Carl Reiner’s grand creation, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, has served as a benchmark for quality ensemble comedy… in my humble estimation, matched in quality only by the first two seasons of MASH in the five-and-a-half decades since. The rubbery-boned Van Dyke led the cast as Rob Petrie, the harried head writer for the Alan Brady Show (Brady was played by Reiner himself). Though the show served as a spoof of early television comedy writers, it was also very much a series about family and friends, with the irrepressible Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie, occasionally getting herself into some very “Lucy-like” situations, while Rob and Laura dealt out a Ward and June Cleaver type of love, wisdom and guidance to their son, Ritchie (played by Larry Mathews) and, quite often, to Rob’s co-writers, Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell, played by comedic geniuses Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam. Though he appeared in about half of the series’ episodes during its five-season run, a highlight was always Richard Deacon’s irascible Mel Cooley, the show’s producer and Brady’s brother-in-law; Deacon was a master at these types of smarmy, borderline sleazy characters… he also played Fred Rutherford (father of Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford) on another classic, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.

Dick Van Dyke became one of television’s greatest fall guys, as evidenced by one of the greatest opening title sequences ever (introduced at the start of the second season), as well as the consummate straight man with his often bewildered, bemused reactions to the anarchy taking place around him; he also got to show off his Broadway and movie background as a song-and-dance man, either with Ms Moore or as part of the ensemble-within-the-ensemble cast of the Alan Brady Show. His flustered everyman served as template for set-upon husbands and fathers for decades, until the family situation comedy paradigm began to shift in the late ’90s. Even though it was obvious that the adorable Moore had comedic chops aplenty and generally played Laura as smart and confident, it would have been almost inconceivable that she would become head of the powerful MTM Enterprises later in her career; one of her most endearing catch phrases, the quavering, high-pitched lament, “Ohhh, Rob!,” is still recognized virtually the world over. The comedic timing and phrasing of former vaudeville pro Rose Marie, radio performer and writer Morey Amsterdam and veteran character actor Richard Deacon (whose character, Mel Cooley, was the butt of Amsterdam’s Buddy Sorrell’s one-line barbs) was impeccable. Whether the plot showed off the Petrie’s family life at home or Rob’s manic office job, you were guaranteed a quality script and incredible acting.

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, Richard Deacon) (publicity photo)

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, Richard Deacon) (publicity photo)

Now, just in time for Christmas, RLJ Entertainment has released the entire series (158 episodes, clocking in at just under 66 hours of classic comedy), newly remastered from the original 35 millimeter negatives, in a twenty-five disc box set, filled with plenty of extras (including the original pilot, “Head of the Family”). The set is priced at just below two-hundred bucks (which is in line with the suggested forty dollar price tag for individual season sets), but I’ve seen it available for as low as a C-note, so do some shopping to find the best price and… treat yourself with a great Christmas present this year with THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW: THE COMPLETE REMASTERED SERIES… You will thank yourself for being so kind and thoughtful.


A LIFE WELL LIVED: THE LOWELL THOMAS INTERVIEW

PART 1: THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS

COMBAT! Season 2 regulars (Dick Peabody, Jack Hogan, Pierre Jalbert, Tom Lowell, Conlan Carter) (screen capture)

COMBAT! Season 2 regulars (Dick Peabody, Jack Hogan, Pierre Jalbert, Tom Lowell, Conlan Carter) (screen capture)

I am a big fan of classic television. In many cases (oh, alright… most cases), I was around for the original airings of these shows, which includes the five season run (1962-1967) of COMBAT!, the World War II military drama starring Rick Jason and Vic Morrow. However, being quite young (at least for the first two or three seasons) and very rarely in control of the sole black and white set in the home, I didn’t see a single episode of COMBAT! during its original run. I was actually introduced to this incredible series a few years after its initial run when it was shown on a local UHF station as part of a midday block with THE RAT PACK. I would actually walk (run) home from school for lunch to catch as much of the show as I possibly could before I had to hoof it back for more learnin’ and, during summer vacation, I was glued to the set while COMBAT! was on. Of course, the program has been rerun from time to time throughout the ensuing decades and, now, you can own the entire series on DVD (no word on a blu-ray release, though).

THAT DARN CAT (Hayley Mills and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

THAT DARN CAT (Hayley Mills and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

I‘m also a big fan of those family-friendly, ultimately loopy Disney movies of the early-to-mid ’60s. To be more specific, I was actually enamored of Hayley Mills. I had a huge crush on her when I was a kid (and, truth be told, she stills looks amazing at nearly 70). One of my favorites from that bizarre, undoubtedly trip-induced Disney canon was THAT DARN CAT. And that, my friends, is where Disney and COMBAT! intersect. A young actor named Tom Lowell was featured prominently in the first two seasons of COMBAT! and also appeared in THAT DARN CAT with Hayley Mills (he was also in THE GNOME-MOBILE and THE BOATNIKS for Disney, as well as guest spots on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, BONANZA, THE ADDAMS FAMILY and too many others to name… for that, check out his page at www.imdb.com). I’ve been watching those COMBAT! DVDs that I mentioned earlier and, after reading of the death this past January of cast member Pierre Jalbert (he played Caje for the entire run of the series), I went looking for information about the other COMBAT! regulars. That search led me to Lowell Thomas, the very same actor from those Disney movies that I loved as a kid. Sending a blind introduction via e-mail explaining who I was and that I was interested in interviewing him about his career, particularly his COMBAT! days, Mister Thomas very graciously consented.

PART 2: THE INTERVIEW

COMBAT! (Tom Lowell as Billy Nelson) (publicity still)

COMBAT! (Tom Lowell as Billy Nelson) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Mister Thomas, you are currently the Director of Theater Arts at Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills. As a young man, what opportunities were available to you in high school and college? How do your experiences as a student affect your work as an instructor?

LOWELL: I had a very supportive family and teachers in both high school as well as college. My father was the head of the Speech and Drama Department at Cal State Sacramento, and both he and my mother were supportive.

THE MULE: For your acting career, you flipped your name. Lowell Thomas became Tom Lowell. What prompted the change?

LOWELL: I had to change my name because “Lowell Thomas” was a famous newscaster/journalist/film narrator/developer of Cinerama, who was already a member of the Screen Actors Guild, and there is a rule in the Guild that you cannot have the same name as anyone else. So my agent just turned my name around.

THE MULE: Obviously, most people will recognize you as Private Billy Nelson, a role you played for three years, in the television series, COMBAT! And, that’s what has brought us to this interview. However, you did produce a solid and memorable body of work in a relatively short period of time: guest-starring roles in several still-popular-today series; a stint on the soap, DAYS OF OUR LIVES; several movies, including four for Disney. As the bulk of this interview will focus on your days on COMBAT!, before delving into that, which of these roles stick out in your mind as particularly enjoyable, from an acting standpoint, as well as a more personal level… relating to the people you worked with.

LOWELL: There were several roles that were the most enjoyable. A couple of the GUNSMOKE episodes; THE LONG, HOT SUMMER, directed by Mark Rydell; THAT DARN CAT; but, most of all COMBAT!. COMBAT!, because of the relationship between the guys on the show – we all became family.

THE GNOME-MOBILE (Tom Lowell and friend) (publicity still)

THE GNOME-MOBILE (Tom Lowell and friend) (publicity still)

THE MULE: In the last couple of decades, a lot of actors have made the decision to make Disney or Disney style movies… family and kid friendly movies… for their children. Are you proud of your work with Disney, especially as your kids or grandchildren hit that age group that would understand and enjoy those movies?

LOWELL: I’m very proud of the work I did at Disney and, yes, those were the first films with which my grandchildren became acquainted.

THE MULE: Even though you continued to work in front of the screen, on a limited basis, you eventually moved behind the camera, working on commercials at first before working on and developing several series for different networks, stations and companies. Did you always have the desire to produce or was it something that came later? How did your experience on-screen help you in your move to the producer’s chair? What major differences do you think exist between acting and producing?

LOWELL: I became a commercial producer out of necessity – I was unable to make the transition from “teen actor” (which I played into my 30s), to adult, and had trouble finding work. I was offered a position as a commercial producer at that time and took it. But my time as an actor helped me in the production area.

THE MULE: Billy Nelson, your character from COMBAT!, died in your first appearance. Later, obviously, like Lazarus, Private Nelson was resurrected. Why did the producers, first of all, decide to make the character a one-and-done and, what was involved in the decision to bring you back as a regular?

LOWELL: Yes, supposedly, Billy died in the opening episode, with Tab Hunter. That was the initial concept. However, I had already done three more by the time that one was aired, because Burt Kennedy, the producer/writer/director who created the character, enjoyed the relationship between Billy and Littlejohn and convinced the series producers that they needed the character of Billy. Soon, Billy and Littlejohn became the “comedy relief” of the show. And yes, the camaraderie that you saw on the show, was genuine. We all truly had a great time together – hung out after shooting – had parties together and truly liked and respected each other. We all kept in touch with each other through the years. Unfortunately, there are but a few of us left. Jack Hogan (Kirby), Conlan Carter (Doc), Shecky Greene (Braddock) and Steve Rogers, (the first “Doc”). We had our 20 year reunion at Vic’s funeral (something that never should have happened), then when we had a fan-based reunion in Las Vegas, we were greeted at home by the knowledge that Rick had died. Very sad. I kept in contact with and visited with Dick Peabody often, even a few months before he died, and had kept in touch with Pierre – he and his wife would come by at holidays – and just recently, we lost him. The humor on the set was the thing I miss the most from all those guys – it was great fun.

COMBAT! (Dick Peabody and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

COMBAT! (Dick Peabody and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

THE MULE: I don’t think that chemistry within an ensemble can be faked. Likewise, I think that ensembles without a certain chemistry can’t pull off a comradeship that simply does not exist. It seems that the main group of actors on COMBAT! had a genuine fellowship on set. Am I wrong? How deep did that commitment to the core group of seven actors go? Did those relationships last past your time on the show?

LOWELL: Yes, the camaraderie that you saw on the show, was genuine. We all truly had a great time together – hung out after shooting – had parties together and truly liked and respected each other. We all kept in touch with each other through the years. Unfortunately, there are but a few of us left. Jack Hogan (Kirby), Conlan Carter (Doc), Shecky Greene (Braddock) and Steve Rogers, (the first “Doc”). We had our 20 year reunion at Vic’s funeral (something that never should have happened), then when we had a fan-based reunion in Las Vegas, we were greeted at home by the knowledge that Rick had died. Very sad. I kept in contact with and visited with Dick Peabody often, even a few months before he died, and had kept in touch with Pierre – he and his wife would come by at holidays – and just recently, we lost him. The humor on the set was the thing I miss the most from all those guys – it was great fun.

COMBAT! cast reunion, 1996 (Conlan Carter, Tom Lowell, Pierre Jalbert, Rick Jason, Jack Hogan, Dick Peabody) (uncredited photo)

COMBAT! cast reunion, 1996 (Conlan Carter, Tom Lowell, Pierre Jalbert, Rick Jason, Jack Hogan, Dick Peabody) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I’ve read and heard from several sources that Vic Morrow was one of the most generous actors that they had ever worked with. Obviously, Vic and Rick Jason were the leads. What memories do you have from your time on-screen and off of those two gentlemen?

LOWELL: Vic was a very generous actor and would help (especially a young actor just starting out) at any time. I once asked him, in my naivete, what it felt like to be a “star.” He said he wasn’t a star, he was a “comet” – that he’d burn brighter, but have a shorter life span than a star! How prophetic. Rick was a solid “movie star.” Having been raised in the studio system, he generated a great deal of respect.

COMBAT! stars Rick Jason and Vic Morrow (publicity still)

COMBAT! stars Rick Jason and Vic Morrow (publicity still)

THE MULE: The show was known for a certain gritty realism in dealing with its scenes of war, as well as moral issues and personal relationships. Can you tell us about your favorite episodes and why they stand out? How about some episodes that may stick out in your mind as clunkers?

LOWELL: I guess the most favorite episodes were those that Dick and I had some of our comedy scenes – those written by Burt Kennedy. We had several times in which the show was short, Burt would whip up a three-minute comedy scene the night before and hand it to us in the morning. We’d fool with it for an hour or so and shoot it – we knew it was good by the reaction of the crew the minute it was over – they’d break out into laughter! I also loved the ones in which I got some dramatic chops – great for the ego.

COMBAT! Season 2, Episode 1 ("The Bridge At Chalons") guest star Lee Marvin with Vic Morrow and Tom Lowell (screen capture)

COMBAT! Season 2, Episode 1 (“The Bridge At Chalons”) guest star Lee Marvin with Vic Morrow and Tom Lowell (screen capture)

THE MULE: Besides the regulars, you also worked with an impressive set of guest-stars. Who were your favorites to work with?

LOWELL: We had many guest stars but, the one that impressed me and intimidated me was Lee Marvin. In the episode, Marvin is severely wounded and Sergeant Saunders and I are carrying him on a stretcher through the woods (the back lot at MGM) when I tripped on a rock and the stretcher slipped out of my hands, dropping Lee to the ground. I’m thinking, “Oh, my God, I just dropped Lee Marvin on his head!!!!!” I thought he’d get up and clobber me, so I began to profusely apologize and he said: “Don’t apologize, kid – don’t ever apologize!” I thought that was cool.

THE MULE: Likewise, you worked with some great writers and directors, who went on to do more impressive work. Do you have any memories of working with guys like Richard Donner and Robert Altman?

LOWELL: Yes, I worked with Dick Donnor and Bob Altman, both interesting and intense directors. Donnor got me on the first day of shooting – we rehearsed a scene and he turned to me and, with a deadpan face, said: “You really gonna do it like that?!” I was stunned – then the rest of the guys burst out laughing – “Got th’ kid again!!” You see, I really was “Billy Nelson.”

Lowell Thomas (Tom Lowell) at the 2002 TWILIGHT ZONE convention (uncredited photo)

Lowell Thomas (Tom Lowell) at the 2002 TWILIGHT ZONE convention (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I know you attended a TWILIGHT ZONE convention in 2006. Would you consider doing another convention, like Comic-Con or something highlighting classic television?

LOWELL: I’ve attended three TWILIGHT ZONE conventions and they were very enjoyable… and, yes, I’d certainly be interested in doing another – Comic Con or Television classics.

THE MULE: Do you ever get the itch to get in front of the camera again?

LOWELL: Yes, I’d love to do more TV or movies. I have, over the past few years, done some plays locally and have just completed a leading role in an animated feature, HERO OF COLOR CITY. So, yes, I’m ready.

THE ADDAMS FAMILY (Tom Lowell with Jackie Coogan) (screen capture)

THE ADDAMS FAMILY (Tom Lowell with Jackie Coogan) (screen capture)

THE MULE: You’ve made a tremendous impact on people like me who remember (and still enjoy) COMBAT! But, at the end of the day, how do you want people to remember Lowell Thomas?

LOWELL: How do I want to be remembered – I just hope I’ve had the same kind of impact on my students that Professor Fowler (Donald Pleasance), in the TWILIGHT ZONE episode, “Changing of the Guard,” had on his.

THE MULE: Thanks you so much for your time and for all the years of enjoyment that you’ve provided to TV and movie geeks like me.

LOWELL: Thanks for remembering.


THE MONKEES

(June 5, 2014; THE FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis, MO)

The Monkees Fox Theatre ad

Any band that was a significant part of your youth is one that you tend to make allowances for, years later, if they continue to make music. The memories you associate with their songs, the deep familiarity of their music and personas, means you are predisposed to love their show and surrender to the excitement as you did all those years ago. Such is the case for me with the Monkees, a band second only to the Beatles in their pervasive impact on my life in the mid to late ’60s. The first riff I ever played on a guitar was that of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” The album PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED was on constant rotation in 1967 in my circles. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was no less than an anthem. And my favorite Monkees song of all, a Mike Nesmith tune called “Tapioca Tundra,” could very well serve as the soundtrack for my childhood, those peak carefree days of fun TV shows (THE MONKEES among them), innocent crushes, bicycle rides and, always, neighborhood games with my pals. A whole slew of memories are conjured by the spectacle of seeing the Monkees live in concert, and for this tour, with the previously MIA Mike Nesmith leading the charge, things were bound to be interesting. And they were, definitely.

The Monkees, 1966 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith) (publicity photo)

The Monkees, 1966 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith) (publicity photo)

This isn’t the space to discuss the many reasons why Nesmith came aboard only after the band’s heartthrob, Davy Jones, passed away unexpectedly in 2012. It can certainly be said that Nesmith was always a champion for the Monkees’ musicianship and control over their legacy, and perhaps he felt both needed to be reasserted and “freshened up” after the Vegas-style theatricality of several previous Monkees tours that were certainly Jones-centric. Having seen at least half a dozen previous Monkees shows, I can say with confidence that the goofing around and animated stage patter the band is known for was dramatically lessened at their Fox show, relegated to continuous clips from their TV show that screened both during and between their performances. Sometimes these clips were hysterical, sometimes they were monotonous, but they reminded you of where these four guys came from and what they were called upon to do, at least from 1966 until their disastrous (commercially speaking) movie, HEAD, ended one phase of their career. Nesmith, with thinning hair and wearing a dapper white jacket over a Sun Records t-shirt, was a quietly commanding presence at this show. He didn’t say that much, nor did the expression on his face change much, but he was authoritative and he meant business, musically speaking.

The Monkees, 2014 (Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

The Monkees, 2014 (Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

After a slightly tame “Last Train to Clarksville” got things under way (Micky Dolenz sings that one), Nesmith took the mic for quite a handful of tunes: “Papa Gene’s Blues” (an early country-ish outing; Nes was a pioneer of what came to be known as country rock), “The Kind of Girl I Could Love,” “Sweet Young Thing,” “You Told Me,” “Sunny Girlfriend” and more. Fans hadn’t gotten to hear these songs performed live, for the most part; with Davy’s stuff out, with rare exceptions, the set could be reconfigured to accommodate Nesmith’s many fine compositions. If Nes didn’t move much on stage, however, the same can’t be said of the amazing Mister Dolenz, dressed sharp in gray hat and suit, and always ready for his closeup. Dolenz is acknowledged as the finest singer in the band, and he is a consummate entertainer, involving the audience, shimmying from one side of the stage to the next, and belting out classics like “I’m a Believer,” “She” and the utterly peerless “Goin’ Down” with dedication and real joy. He’s clearly happy to be doing this, all these years later, and he always hits those high notes, sometimes to shivery effect. On “Shades of Gray,” a tender ballad where Dolenz shares the vocal duties with Peter Tork, he wryly grabbed a tuft of Peter Tork’s hair as the “shades of gray” chorus came up for the third time; not everyone saw this, but it was a more subtle brand of goofiness than what we’ve seen before.

The Monkees, circa 2013 (Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork) (ncredited photo)

The Monkees, circa 2013 (Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

And speaking of Tork, fans were NOT cheated out of seeing him in the spotlight; there was “Your Auntie Grizelda” (a weird song, even now), “For Pete’s Sake” (which featured Tork introducing the song with a speech about how badly the group wanted to make and play on their own records in the ’60s; Tork declared that the band “were guilty only of NOT being the Beatles, also true of 6 billion other people”), and a rousing “Can You Dig It,” among others. Hits such as “I’m A Believer” and “ …Steppin’ Stone” naturally thrilled the audience, but in terms of musical ecstasy, it was the tunes from HEAD that delivered the biggest impact. “The Porpoise Song” was transcendent, preceded by clips from the infamous film, then easing into a thrilling Dolenz vocal and all the psychedelic layering a fan could reasonably expect. What Monkees fan doesn’t get a shiver from that “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye” refrain? Even better was “As We Go Along,” a truly beautiful song featuring clips of band members wandering through serene landscapes and Dolenz nailing the vocal to the wall in a perfect sonic picture frame. Fun fact: this tune in its recorded version is one of four the Monkees recorded with a young Neil Young adding guitar to the sessions. “Circle Sky” was a chance for Nesmith to rock out more than usual, but I thought he was even better on “The Door Into Summer” and the classic “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round”. The band wanted a big, well-adorned sound for this show: on “Mary, Mary,” four pairs of shakers were utilized by the added musicians on the tour (an ensemble that included Micky’s sister Coco and Nesmith’s son Christian). Female harmonies insured a properly lush vocal sound when needed, and though Mickey played drums fairly often, most of the percussive duties fell to a second drummer that was added.

The Monkees (Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork with the late Davy Jones on screen behind) (photo credit: JEFF DALY/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Monkees (Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork with the late Davy Jones on screen behind) (photo credit: JEFF DALY/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Some other highlights included a vibrant “Randy Scouse Git,” the Jones gem “Daydream Believer,” in which, touchingly, all three remaining Monkees took a verse (encouraging the audience to belt out the chorus), and a poignant clip of Jones effectively punctuated the tune, and the closing encore of “Listen to the Band” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” I was disappointed that “Tapioca Tundra,” while played, seemed to get short shrift in the arrangement department; it sounded tossed off here and lost the eerie melancholy of the original. Some of the vocals here and there were also hard to understand (Tork didn’t always intone his lyrics clearly), and the sound was almost subdued at times. It wouldn’t have killed the band to turn things up here and there and just madly rock. But professional? Yes indeed. Musically diverse? Check. Generous with serving up both hits and deep album cuts? You betcha. There’s no doubt that Mike Nesmith added a whole new dimension to this version of the Monkees onstage, and he’s a crucial balance to the madcap antics that sometimes went overboard in the past. There’s also no doubt that Micky Dolenz is an amazing singer and the real focal point of this band. He just IS. A real BAND was on stage at the Fox Theatre, playing and singing their hearts out, and offering more classics than most bands have in their entire repertoire. How amazing that the Monkees can still surprise after all these years. They’re the old generation. And they got something to say!


SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES, VOLUMES 1-3

(DC COMICS CLASSIC COLLECTIONS/WARNER HOME VIDEO; 2005-2006; Original Television Series, 1996-2000)

Superman TAS

With MAN OF STEEL an unqualified hit, I thought it was time to examine one of my favorite non-comic book versions of the Last Son of Krypton. The three volume DVD collection of SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES is once again gracing the shelves of your local box store and readily available for a sweet lower price (there also exists a SUPERMAN – THE COMPLETE ANIMATED SERIES, which is exactly what it sounds like. It just isn’t available at the box Mart in my neighborhood). So, we concern ourselves with the three separate volumes: all 54 episodes of the now-classic cartoon are here, as well as plenty of bonus extras that delve into the characters and the creators.

For the 3 volumes of SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES, rather than giving us a more traditional season-by-season release, Volume 1 offers the first season and the first five episodes of Season 2 (which is 28 episodes, more than double the Season 1 total). The second volume features the next 18 episodes of Season 2, while Volume 3 features the final five episodes (including two 2-part arcs), all 10 Season 3 episodes and the last 3 episodes, which make up the entirety of the fourth and final season. Why only three episodes in that last season? Well, producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini had intended a full season story arc initiated with the two-parter “Legacy.” The WB network (which aired this series, the BATMAN animated show, as well as the BATMAN BEYOND series), however, wanted the team to focus their creative energies on the newer BATMAN BEYOND. Interestingly enough, BATMAN BEYOND was also put on hold two years later to allow Timm and Dini to work on the new JUSTICE LEAGUE series, allowing everything to come full circle, as that series utilized elements and plot threads from all previous DC animated universe shows (including STATIC SHOCK). But, for now… let’s go back to the beginning.

Clark Kent changes to Superman (publicity still)

Clark Kent changes to Superman (publicity still)

Debuting in September, 1996, this new, animated SUPERMAN took its cues from BATMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES, with a very stylized approach to the artwork and with stories that stuck very close to the source materials. That made comic book geeks extremely happy! The production team, headed up by Bruce Timm, gave us fairly traditional takes on Martha, Jonathan and Clark Kent, Jor-El and Lara, Lois Lane, Perry White and the major villains (Brainiac, Metallo and – of course – Lex Luthor). There’s also an updated, hipper Jimmy Olsen, as well as retro-versions of a few second-tier baddies like the fifth-dimensional imp, Mister Mxyzptlk and the Toyman. Throw in the nearly forgotten Jim Shooter/Al Plastino creation, Parasite, add a healthy contingent from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World (New Gods, Darkseid, Granny Goodness) and some new blood, in the form of Livewire, and you’ve got a party. Heck, even Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, Arthur Curry, the Flash, the Joker and Harley Quinn show up in various episodes.

Lois Lane and Clark Kent meet with Daily Planet editor, Perry White (publicity still)

Lois Lane and Clark Kent meet with Daily Planet editor, Perry White (publicity still)

As with the BATMAN series, this show works on a myriad of levels, one of the most important being the use of great actors. From the lead characters (Tim Daly as Superman/Clark Kent, Dana Delaney as Lois Lane) to secondary characters like the Kents (Mike Farrell and Shelley Fabares) and the wickedly evil Granny Goodness (played to the hilt by – are you ready for this? – Ed Asner!), the cast of SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES reads like a producer’s rolo-dex of some of the most recognizable and well-loved voices in Hollywood. In fact, most of the actors are so spot on that they were asked along for the ride when Timm and company launched JUSTICE LEAGUE (and its later incarnation, JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED). I believe the only actor who would have had overlapping roles in both this and the JL/JLU series not to appear in the latter show would be Supes himself, Tim Daly, who was already under contract to star in another (live action) series. That these talented individuals made themselves available to reprise their roles (often quite small, especially in the JUSTICE LEAGUE shows) speaks volumes about production standards and the top-notch, knowledgeable writing staff.

Every good super-hero story should start with an awesome origin story and, Superman’s is the one that every creative team since 1938 have been using as a template, to varying degrees of success. As it should, this series begins with an awesome three part story called “The Last Son of Krypton,” which is heavy on the Kryptonian lead up to Kal-El’s arrival on Earth, offering new insights into the societal hierarchy of the doomed planet, as well as an intimate look at the lives of Superman’s birth parents, Lara and Jor-El. A major divergence with the comics is the revelation that the evil mind-construct Brainiac started out as the “brains” behind Kryptonian science, culture and politics. The seemingly benevolent computer is seen as the dispassionate destroyer of the planet, preferring to collect all pertinent information on the planet and its inhabitants rather than offering a solution to its ultimate demise. In short, the ultra-rational Brainiac puts knowledge (and his own survival, as the conservator of the history and knowledge of Krypton) above life. While the comic book version went through various incarnations and minor adjustments in his origin since his debut 45 years ago, this version just seems right. I am rather surprised that DC didn’t adopt this storyline when they deconstructed their entire universe with the New 52 (of which, the less said here, the better). I mean, there is precedent: Harley Quinn, arguably one of DC’s most popular villains, made her first appearance in the BATMAN animated show. A later episode of SUPERMAN introduced Livewire, who went on to appear in various DC titles, as both villain and reformed hero.

Other stellar episodes from that first season (a total of 13 episodes, airing during1996-1997) include “Feeding Time,” which introduces Parasite, a little used character from the comics, turning him into a force to be reckoned with in the Superman animated universe; a two-part story called “The Main Man,” guest-starring – DUH! – Lobo, the loud-mouthed galactic bounty hunter; and “Tools of the Trade,” in which recurring gangster boss Bruno Mannheim signs a deal with the devil… Jack Kirby’s ultimate DC creation, the evil megalomaniac Darkseid (deliciously voiced by Michael Ironside), who from this point forward is the focal point of the series as Superman’s main nemesis. Darkseid casts a huge shadow over the DC animated universe, as the ultimate climax of the massive storyline isn’t realized until much later, in the final episode of the JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED series.

Livewire (publicity still)

Livewire (publicity still)

Standouts from Season 2 (probably THE standout season of the entire series) include “The Prometheon,” in which a giant alien android is unwittingly loosed by Superman, to wreak havoc, Godzilla-style on high-tension wires and nuclear generators across the world. The Flash shows up in “Speed Demons,” featuring a plot right out of the comics, with Supes and Wally racing around the planet for charity. When the Weather Wizard decides to hold the climate hostage to get a little respect, hilarity and a tag-team beatdown ensues. The aforementioned “Livewire” is born when a shock jock with a mad on for the Man of Steel is hit by lightning before Superman can save her. Obviously, the fact that he showed up late to the electrocution meant that Kal was to blame and Livewire would become a constant thorn in his side throughout the series (and beyond, in the final season of JLU). Two recurring characters from the comics debuted in this second season: Bizarro (a failed attempt by Lex Luthor and others to clone Superman) and Mister Mxyzptlk, the latter splendidly voiced by the abrasive comedian, Gilbert Gottfried. Often used in the comic books as a comedic foil for Superman, Bizarro’s appearances here are more poignant than funny, as he – like Kal-El before him – seeks his place in a world (and universe) that mocks and shuns him.

As you can see, guest-stars and old school villains abound in this season, including the Dark Knight and his most crazed protagonists, the Joker and Harley Quinn, who all show up in a three-part episode called – what else? – “World’s Finest.” Doctor Fate is called upon for mystical assistance in “The Hand of Fate.” John Henry Irons becomes the hero Steel in “Prototype” and returns in “Heavy Metal” to help Superman against Metallo. The final four episodes prominently feature Jack Kirby’s Fourth World creations, including Granny Goodness and Darkseid. The last two episodes are called “Little Girl Lost” and serve as an introduction to Kal’s cousin Kara, better known as Supergirl, as she and Jimmy Olsen infiltrate a teen gang who are actually being controlled by Darkseid’s evil minion, Granny Goodness.

Darkseid (publicity still)

Darkseid (publicity still)

The most stunning piece of writing and animation comes with episodes 25 and 26, a two-parter called “Apokolips.” With Superman beaten and captured by Darkseid and his armies, the people of Metropolis, led by Detective Dan Turpin (whose character and appearance are based on Jack Kirby himself), rise up and refuse to surrender. As Turpin turns the weapons of Apokolips on Darkseid and uses one to free Superman, Darkseid uses his powers to make an example out of the policeman, vaporizing him with his gaze. Now free, the Man of Steel begins crushing both weapons and parademons alike, forcing Darkseid to retreat, vowing vengeance. The final funeral scenes are some of the best television moments ever. Yeah… I just said that!

Superman consoles his damaged clone, Bizarro (publicity still)

Superman consoles his damaged clone, Bizarro (publicity still)

Season 3 is not as dramatic as the previous… how could it be? There are, however, a couple of episodes that are – if nothing else – pure and simple super-hero/comic book fun. Robin (the Tim Drake version) appears in “Knight Time,” covering for a certain Darknight Detective. Once Clark Kent realizes that the Batman has gone missing, he swoops in to lend a hand, much to the chagrin of the Dynamic Duo’s junior partner. The Legion of Super-Heroes show up in “New Kids In Town,” Kyle Raynor makes a rare DCAU appearance as Green Lantern in “In Brightest Day” and Aquaman is captured by Luthor in “A Fish Story.” “Little Big Head Man” finds the fifth dimension imp, Mxyzptlk, tricking a contented Bizarro into returning to Earth to confound Superman with a double whammy of lunacy.

Superman battles one of Batman’s most dangerous foes, as Ra’s Al Ghul brings his Society of Shadows to Metropolis in “The Demon Reborn,” the first episode of the unfortunately aborted fourth season. Darkseid returns for the series two-part finale, “Lagacy.” The Lord of Apokolips brainwashes Kal-El into believing that he was raised on Apokolips as Darkseid’s son. With Superman reappearing on Earth after a long absence, the citizens of Metropolis are appalled at his destructive actions. By the time he regains control of his own mind, the populace of his adoptive planet are in total fear of the Man of Steel and, as a result, have turned against him. Had the series not ended, this story would have arced across the season, as Superman worked to regain the trust of the people of Earth. Thankfully, this thread is picked up later in JUSTICE LEAGUE and JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED.

Superman confronts his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor (publicity still)

Superman confronts his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor (publicity still)

There is so much neat stuff going on in this series (and, in fact, all of the other DCAU series) that any comic book geek should find and watch it in any form available (DVD, Blu-Ray, Netflix, whatever). If you find the DVD/Blu-Ray collections (either the three separate volumes or the complete series), buy them, if for no other reason than to have the cool bonus features, including creators’ commentary on several key episodes, lending insight into the series and the characters. It is well worth the investment, especially at these new, cheaper prices.


KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER AND DOCTOR MOREAU

(Mike Kelly/Mark Grammel/Eric Stanway/Nik Poliwko/Valarie Jones; MOONSTONE PUBLISHING, 2013)

KolchakMoreauCoverSM

From the opening panels – which are amazingly drawn – the reader is drawn into a mystery just as is LA reporter Carl Kolchak. Originally a Chicagoan, Carl is back on home turf, wrapping up work on another story. But before he can get back on a plane to LA, there are some gruesome murders with a strange twist. They seem to be the work of some kind of powerful and mysterious beasts. And, of course, Carl (as usual) has to stick his nose – along with the rest of his anatomy, which includes his continuously-in-operation brain – where it is least welcome. HG Wells’ Doctor Moreau seems to have modern counterparts busy in the animal research labs of greater Chicagoland. And their creatures have run the proverbial “amok.”

The Mark Grammel panels really flow and move the action along well. Mike Kelly’s story has his usual lean and direct – yet true and thorough character development – with action and mystery aplenty and an ending you will not see coming! Mike knows the Kolchak character, hero of the 1974-75 ABC-TV series, THE NIGHT STALKER, better than anyone on the planet. Mike was the character’s biggest fan then and he shows his continuing devotion and understanding of Carl Kolchak in this book.

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, the Night Stalker (publicity photo)

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, the Night Stalker (publicity photo)

So, now to reveal one mystery: I have known Mike Kelly since we were best friends at high school in a (more or less) peaceful Chicago suburb. We watched the Kolchak TV series when it originally aired, as did our other fellow movie/comic/science fiction friends. Mike never forgot about THE NIGHT STALKER and has been working to promote it and it’s main character ever since it was “not on ABC’s announced fall schedule” in 1975. So Mike is in very familiar digs, with the story set in Chicago and the small towns in northern Illinois which are his ancestral turf. But the ‘burbs of Mike’sMOREAUare quite a bit less peaceful than the ones I remember.

In addition to this being a good time to (re)read the HG Wells novel, THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, it is a good time to renew your acquaintance with Kolchak. If you haven’t seen the TV series in a while (or not seen it at all? Shameful!), now is a good time to catch it on Netflix Instant Watch. I am sure it is available elsewhere, as well. Be sure to check it out… you will be surprised how a vintage series can still play so well! Darren McGavin brought the Kolchak character to life as detective-reporter-supernatural investigator and it is still a great series to watch. THE NIGHT STALKER was a series truly unique for it’s time and the forerunner of many series since. You would have never seen a BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, X-FILES or many others without Kolchak. And, check out this new book and the others in the Kolchak series from Moonstone (at www.moonstonebooks.com). It is not only a good, but a great time to pick up KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER AND DOCTOR MOREAU where you will find a compelling book with vibrant characters and a story that leaves you anticipating another mystery with the persistently annoying – but always on the right track – Carl Kolchak. (XB)