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Friday, Dec. 19, 2014

Here's to you, Captain Video!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Up until the time I was about 14, I had a weekly date to hustle into my house and tune in to the 15-minute-long "Lone Ranger" radio program sponsored by Cheerios breakfast cereal, each Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m., Eastern Saving Time. It would ordinarily be, after all, a sultry summer evening, still light enough to see for another hour, and I'd have to bow out of my daily endless softball game across the street in the empty lot. I was, among all my friends -- and they were legion, since this was in the late 1940's, and male adults, having returned from World War II, began to have very large families -- and I hated to desert my friends, but my loyalty to "the masked man and his faithful Indian companion Tonto" was first on my list of priorities. There would be plenty of time for softball after the show, the plots of several such shows remaining with me to this day. Radio shows were a powerful prod to their listeners‚ imaginations. And that, I guess, is what made the "Lone Ranger" radio show so utterly tantalizing to me. I can still tell an authentic Lone Ranger fan by how he answers the trivia question, "Who was Dan Reid?" (Hint: it had something to do with the Lone Ranger's background, long before he took to wearing a black mask, to conceal his identity.) From 1949 to 1953, "Captain Video" came on nightly from 7 to 7:30 p.m., on the DuMont television network, Channel 5 on our dial. (CBS, NBC, and ABC: channels 2, 4, and 7 were your only other choices of networks if you lived in the New York City area back then) I don't remember what preceded that half-hour show, whether another children's show or an unblinking test pattern, I don't remember. What I still remember vividly was the sudden appearance of a picture of a screen-filling black-and-white castle atop a steep mountain and the blazing orchestral music from Wagner's "Overture to the Flying Dutchman." From that moment we were given a basic introduction to the show, presented by a fellow with the same very deep bass voice as introduced "The Lone Ranger."

In the late 1940's, during what they always refer to as "television's infancy," nearly all shows originated in New York City. The settings, in Manhattan's skyscrapers, were always nothing but hastily painted large cardboard panels, which, of course, always came across in black-and-white (very often somewhat obscured by "snow") , and the action was always live, which meant that you didn't have to look closely and pay particular attention, to witness stage hands tripping over cumbersome wires that some careless stagehand had left unsecured. Except in special occasions, like my sixth grade class that had somehow managed to get tickets to visit "Howdy Doody" and sit in his "peanut gallery," there were no live audiences. (Did I go with my classmates to see "Howdy Doody?" And if I did, did I spend the half-hour of the show holding my girlfriend Sherrie Tatham's hand? Lord, after half a century, I can't remember.)

What I marvel at today is how the hastily constructed sets and the other laughable faux-pas inherent in children's live TV didn't diminish our pleasure one whit. The world of Captain Video was as black-and-white as its transmission. There was Good, represented by the good Captain, "played to the last confident swagger," in the colorful 1949 words of Variety reviewer Sam Chase, "by Richard Coogan."

Of course, even Captain Video can't destroy Evil all by himself, (and I believe he must have been early replaced by a man named Al Hodge), so he was helped by the so-called Video Ranger, played by Don Hastings, an actor most recently seen in an NBC-TV soap opera about modern (2005) doctors, now, I believe, retired and maybe gone to his just TV rewards and replaced by one of Don's descendants.

Evil was personified by slimy, mustachioed little Dr Pauli, who, again according to Chase, was "the Captain's only real rival in electronic theory. It seems Dr. Pauli is doing something with charged atoms and sympathetic frequency electrons, which will create radar reflections on the moon, causing a total eclipse of the sun. The purpose of all these shenanigans is to terrify us earthlings and enable Dr. Pauli, who even sneers with a German expression, to take over the world" Nineteen forty-nine was too close to the cataclysmic end of World War II for Evil not to speak with a German accent and wear a Hitlerean mustache.

The thing I don't recall about the show was the movie intervals, in which short clips of old 1930- and 1940-era Western films were run, as if to give the live actors time to forget their lines for a brief moment and have a long drink of water or whatever to save them from the extreme heat generated by the overhead Klieg lights.

Sam Chase, in his May 1949 review of the show, writes, "Every five minutes or so, the good Captain seems to grow weary of all this (relentless battling against Evil) and to relieve his mounting ennui called upon the Video Ranger to tune in the doings of Lightning Bill Carson. This enabled DuMont to offer another chunk of an ancient Tim McCoy film titled "Six-Gun Trail." What kid could ask for more? One feature of the show that I'd forgotten was its futuristic language and expressions.

As TV critic Mel Gilden wrote, "When the Captain and the Ranger were in dire peril, they debated whether to 'throw out the interlocks'." Gilden wrote that as long as he followed the serial, he never did learn what that expression meant, and there must've been many other such expressions the meanings of which I had no idea. But, then, these were adults who were familiar with futuristic ideas and expressions, and who was I, a mere earthling youngster, to question them? The end of Sam Chase's 1949 review, asserts, "Lest all this sound like a hasheesh smoker's dream, it must be added that it is genuine, and likely will draw more than a small portion of adults. It's video's answer to Buck and Roy Rogers. It's not bad television, and it should sell."

Well, for the four years it was on TV, I was sold on it. And lest you think Mr. Chase's critical standards were as low as Dr. Pauli's moral standards, let me plead the case for the show's merits. We had all spent Saturday afternoons of our very early years sitting in a big movie theater, eyes glued to a far-away screen on which a recently post-war color movie was playing out. But now, lying on the carpet a scant five feet away from a tiny screen on which a tiny black-and-white figure dressed in a gaudy space suit, next to a cigar-shaped space ship, was saving the whole world from Evil -- now that, folks, was something to see! It was the intimacy of that very small TV screen -- there was not yet anything but, I believe, 14-inch screens -- that was new and intriguing.

On Thursday, April 8, 1979, there appeared in the L.A. Times an article, by Mel Gilden, that started, "Last month a man died in a cheap hotel in New York, taking part of my childhood with him. His real name was Al Hodge, but I -- and millions of others -- knew him as Captain Video. Even though he save the universe every week for years, he couldn't save himself."

One of the obituary writers for the L.A. Times wrote that in life, Al Hodge had seemed like an older brother. I second that.

Of course, like all soap operas, "Captain Video" asked children to look at the world as the battleground for the war of Good against Evil. Al Hodge displayed no human weakness, and Dr. Pauli sure didn't have any saving graces. But, I must say, at age 65, I still kinda view the world in the same way.

Here's to you, Captain Video!