Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Route 66, The TV Show

I thought I’d make a bit of a departure at this point, and do more of a review than a road trip. I found myself a Christmas present at Autobooks a couple of years ago. Its an obvious choice for something for me to review: Volume One, Season One of the ultimate Road Trip Show--Yes folks, the TV series “ROUTE 66.” I saw it and of course had to have it. Since it’s the ultimate Road Trip Show, maybe it will give you the feeling of how it was “back then.”
This is one of those shows that a lot of people refer to, but I’m betting probably never saw. At best, it’s been so long that the reality of the show has faded. To the best of my knowledge, it’s never been picked up as a retro-rerun. TV Land, Nick-at Night, et. al. are too busy showing garbage from the 1970s and 80s (but what can we expect when K-EARTH is now playing--shudder--disco as “oldies!”) to pay attention to the really great TV that was available in the 50s and 60s. “Route 66” is one of those forgotten gems. 
The premise, to remind everyone, is that Tod Stiles ( played by a very freckle faced Martin Milner, later of “Adam-12” fame) is the educated, privileged guy who had to leave Yale after his father died, leaving him penniless. The only thing he has left is his 1961 Corvette (actually, in the first episode, possibly the pilot, the car is a ’60) and a need to roam. His odd-couple buddy is Buz Murdock (George Maharis), a tough guy from Hell’s Kitchen who was raised in an orphanage. Together they roam the country, working odd jobs, getting their kicks, and along the way, changing people’s lives. The show also show cased a number of future stars such as Suzanne Pleshette, Leslie Nielson, Lee Marvin, Harvey Korman, Jack Lord, DeForest Kelly (!!) and Joey Heatherton, several getting the “Introducing” tag in the credits. There were some well known people as well, such as E.G. Marshall and Jack Warden. The cast lists were really impressive.
Now to be honest, I was a whole ten years old when the first season aired--1960 (OK, go ahead do the math), and don’t really remember much of the show. I doubt that my folks watched the show that much, and back then, only the insanely rich had more than one TV.  It was probably shown later than my bed time anyway. I do remember seeing a few episodes later on, but I can’t say I really have much more than a vague memory of it. Seeing the first few episodes were a revelation. Its hard to remember when TV drama was so, well, Dramatic. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that each episode has a Title, shown in the opening credits. Titles like “The Lance of Straw,” or “Man on the Monkey Board” seem a bit over the top today, but they give us the feel that each show is its own play. The three central characters are the same (Tod, Buzz, and the Road), and (unusual for the day) there is a continuity from one week to the next, following up on previous adventures.  Each show, however, stands alone in its own right. Shot in glorious, high contrast black and white, the show had tons of close-ups on faces that showed Character, and acting that was done by performers who started on the live stage, rather than in commercials. The feel is more like “Twilight Zone” or “Combat.” This is not a show spotlighting the light hearted hi-jinx of two dudes having a great old time, which is what we’d see today. Each episode is alive with situations that require our two heros to show far more maturity than would be expected in today’s Life-Lite society. Sure, they’re attracted to some pretty girls, but not in the openly sexual way of today’s shows. They really are young gentlemen. Of course, the TV codes of the day insured that kind of respectful yearning. 
     There is also the theme and musical score by Nelson Riddle. The title track is of course famous (it is not however the song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66”), and its meant to have the feel of wheels (knock-off wire wheels, in this case--gotta be one of the few ‘Vettes with that option!) spinning down the road, the feel of wanderlust. Which is of course the whole premise of the show.
The real stars to me are the settings. This show was shot almost entirely on location. It’s a postcard from the past that shows an America of small towns and big dreams. It’s a less crowded America that still has a pre-Vietnam War enthusiasm. Although most of the road shots seem like they are done on minor back roads, in reality, this is pre-interstate America. Main roads could be just two lanes of blacktop. Although the shots are generally composed so the real names of the towns are obscured, some locations aren’t too hard to figure out. Bourbon Street in New Orleans, shrimp boats in the gulf, Grant’s Pass in Oregon. All these places figure in the plot and form the backdrop for the drama. It’s as if the show’s creator, Sydney Silliphant scouted the location and wrote the story to fit. 
Now about this time, you may have noticed that Louisiana and Oregon aren’t on Route 66. Yeah. In fact, about the only time they are actually on Route 66 is in the third episode. The “Mother Road” was more of a metaphor for the wide expanse of the country. Each region of the US was still distinct in 1960, the commercial homogenization of America was only in its infancy, and the Highway connected far flung places that were rarely visited. It reminds me of the trips from LA to Sacramento up old Highway 99 to see my grandparents. There was distance between towns. Each town was distinct. The highway was the main street back then so we’d look for landmarks along the way that told us how far we’d come. “Water, Wealth. Contentment, Health” proclaimed the arching sign entering Modesto. The smell of olives in Lindsay, the Big Orange stands, Burma Shave signs with the punch line missing. My dad convinced that truck drivers knew the “good” places to eat. My sister, brother and I wedged firmly into our spots (well, nests) with favorite toys in reach to keep us busy. Who needed seat belts or airbags? They had to physically extract us and then rebury us at each potty stop. The hours long road games, like the geography game. (name a town, country, physical place anywhere in the world, no street names. The next person has to start theirs with the last letter of the last place, no repeats. Think that’s easy? Wait till some joker says, “Essex”). These treks ended when we crept past an accident in the tule fog. Christmas presents were scattered around an overturned 1955 Buick. 
     The show has this feeling of searching, of striving, of needing answers to life that perhaps are not really there. This is years before hippies and “do your own thing.” These are two guys who were too young for WWII or Korea, but will be too old for Vietnam. They are button-down collar and dress slacks, not James Dean jeans and t-shirt guys. They are rebels of the heart, not of fashion. They are not Brando (“What are you rebelling against?”--”I don’t know, what have you got?”) guys, they are searchers. They are knights errant on a powder blue steed, tilting at life’s windmills, but keeping to a code of honor that is their own. 
Get yourself a copy and go back in time. You’ll be ready to seek out those back roads and long shuttered main streets and try to peel back the layers of plastic and fast food that hide the America of our youth. After all, a bit of maudlin, nostalgic yearning is good for you,

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