Rod Serling with Playhouse 90 Logo
Today was a strange day. It was beastly hot and humid, with a Mexican Monsoon effect. Having no air conditioning in our apartment—and living in an area that regularly gets hit by power blackouts—Martine and I decided to go to the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. The lobby was crowded with young tourist couples seeing the displays about American Horror Story, a series on FX with which I was previously unacquainted. These guys (and their women) were heavily tattooed, wore their baseball hats backwards, did not know to flush toilets, and led with their smart phones taking pictures of everything in sight.
I suddenly felt old. Here I was with a large group of young people that made me feel alienated. And here I was going to see a couple of Playhouse 90 episodes from 1959. I might has well have been talking in Armenian to a group of prairie dogs. Did I feel bad about that? In a way I did, though I would not have considered going far to seek common ground with them: The gulf between me and them yawned as big as the Grand Canyon.
But I felt delighted with the Playhouse 90 episodes I saw, shot in consecutive weeks. The first was “The Town That Turned to Dust,” written and introduced by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer. The story was about a lynching in a small Texas border town called Dempseyville of a Mexican youth who was accused by William Shatner, as the local dry goods merchant, of beating up his wife Fay Spain and robbing the store. The sheriff who is powerless to prevent the lynching is Rod Steiger, in a powerful role, with James Gregory as a visiting newspaperman.
The other was a dramatization of “The Great Gatsby” starring Robert Ryan as Gatsby and Jeanne Crain as Daisy May Buchanan. Rod Taylor was excellent as Nick Carraway. Rod Serling introduced the episode, which was directed by Franklin Schaffner.
Although I do not watch much (if any) current television, I have a great deal of love and respect for the early days of the medium. Back at the beginning, they not only knew how to produce superlative entertainment, but used people who knew how to act, not just nod their heads meaningfully.
Rod Serling with Playhouse 90 Logo
Almost sixty years ago to the day—on October 4, 1956—CBS presented its first Playhouse 90. It was called “Forbidden Area,” written by Rod Serling, directed by John Frankenheimer, and starring the likes of Charlton Heston, Tab Hunter, Diana Lynn, Vincent Price, Victor Jory, and Charles Bickford.
As he did later with Twilight Zone, Serling takes us to the heart of the Cold War and a projected Christmas Eve nuclear attack by the Soviet Union on major cities across the United States. Charlton Heston is trying to discover why eight B-99s of the Strategic Air Command suddenly disappeared without a trace from radar screens.
Playhouse 90 was live television: There were no rehearsals. While American viewers were watching, the actors were acting. As difficult as it was, this was the Golden Age of Television. Now there are hundreds more channels, dozens of content providers, and tens of millions more viewers, what they are watching is nowhere near as good as during those heady days of the 1950s and the early 1960s.
I love television as it used to be. As it is today, I would rather leave the remote to Martine and go read a good book.
Tonight, the UCLA Film & Television Archive put on a double bill of Playhouse 90 episodes written by Serling. It was introduced by Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, who gave an excellent speech about why those days were the artistic pinnacle of television as an art medium.
Rod Serling at Work
“There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.” It is this middle ground that television writer Rod Serling ruled in he years between 1955 and 1975, when he died at the age of 50 of a heart attack.
After the Second World War, Americans were delighted they had won, but frightened by the devil’s bargain we had made with the atomic bomb. And once the Russians were able to not only produce their own super weapons but match us megaton for megaton, there was a sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs. I remember that period vividly, especially around the time the Berlin Wall was erected. Between then and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, I was convinced that the world would end in mutual nuclear destruction.
Apparently Hollywood thought so, too. There were films like Them (1954) about giant ants affected by nuclear radiation; The Giant Gila Monster (1959); and the many films of Bert I. Gordon such as The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Village of the Giants (1965). The uncertainty spread to visitors from outer space who may or may not have been drawn to us by our discovery of nuclear power. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Thing (1951) are classical examples.
It was into this world that Rod Serling came with his great television series, The Twilight Zone. He scripted many of the episodes himself, and it quickly became evident that he was a master of the genre. Today alone, I saw four episodes at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. The best of the stories was “And When the Sky Was Opened” (1959) starring Rod Taylor about three spacemen who crash land back on earth after their ship temporarily disappeared from radar screens. The three not only start disappearing one by one, but all memory of each one is wiped clean as if he never existed, both from the minds of the people who knew them and from the documentary record of their existence.
In my opinion. The Twilight Zone is one of the best five shows ever to appear on TV. Some day, I hope to buy all the episodes on DVD (which costs a pretty penny) because I know that the stories are great and will always affect me every time I see them.