Monday, December 7, 2009
MONDAYS WITH MILTON
One of the greatest things about growing up in the 1970s was that the local TV stations were still truly “independent.” Before the rise of Fox, the WB and UPN these stations each had its own flavor. In the New York tri-state area, there was WNEW Channel 5, WOR Channel 9 and WPIX Channel 11. Through the years, these three stations would run some of the same shows and movies, but despite the similar programming, they still maintained their distinct identities. It came down to the local talent employed at each – the news folks, the kid show hosts, the sports teams they hosted, the talk show hosts (for those who grew up in the area, think about it – both Joe Franklin’s nostalgia show and Ralph Kiner’s pre, during and post-Mets game shows were decidedly “Channel 9” in tone and atmosphere; likewise, over on “Channel 5” Bob McCallister’s kid show “Wonderama” and the Bill Boggs’ midday talk show’s set seemed quite similar – but you couldn’t imagine Joe Franklin and Ralph Kiner’s shows on Channel 5 or Bob McCallister and Bill Boggs’ show being broadcast on Channel 9 – at least not in the forms in which you’d become accustomed).
One of the coolest things was that this individuality extended to the way the stations presented their syndicated programming. Particularly cartoons. In those days, a station could have bought the rights to show Looney Tunes cartoons from one syndicator, Popeye cartoons from another syndicator and Woody Woodpecker cartoons from yet another syndicator. They could run the half-hour shows exactly as received with the opening and closing credits and bumpers provided by the syndicator, or they could chuck those elements entirely and actually mix and match those cartoons into the same half-hour with a custom-made opening created by the station.
This led to some excellent and unexpected “original” programming. I’m pretty sure the example I used above happened (or at least there were “Bugs & Popeye” and “Bugs & Woody” shows). I’m also pretty sure either Channel 5 or Channel 9 used to run the short Laurel & Hardy animated cartoons from the mid 1960s before the live-action Laurel & Hardy theatrical shorts. I know for a fact that Channel 5 created a cool half-hour called “The Superheroes” that was composed of cartoon shorts from several late-60s Filmation Saturday morning cartoon series based on DC Comics characters AND the mid-60s Lone Ranger cartoon shorts from Format Films (this I know is true not only because my fellow comic book professionals have the same memory, but because Vinnie Bartilucci immortalized the memory in a guest post on Robert J. Kelly's great “Hey Kids, Comics” blog).
Perhaps coolest of all was an all-out superhero marathon on Saturday mornings that combined the cartoons mentioned above with some of the superhero spoof cartoons then in syndication – Mighty Mouse, the Mighty Heroes and a character called Batfink. I loved all these cartoons, but I took a particular like to Batfink. I loved the character designs and the voice work, plus the tone and atmosphere of these cartoons. While they reminded me in some ways of the Jay Ward, Total Television and ‘60s-era Terrytoons , they still had their own unique look and feeling, and I hoped I would see more like Batfink at some point.
You have to fast-forward to the late ‘70s/early ‘80s before I got that chance. That’s when the family got cable, and in those days, that meant that you were able to get “independent” stations from other states! Our cable system carried WPHL Channel 17 from Philadelphia, WSBK Channel 38 from Boston and also the local Atlanta station that would later transform into Ted Turner’s Superstation. I can’t recall for sure which of these stations ran the following (my guess is that it was the Philly station - hopefully a reader with a good memory can confirm) but the best thing about getting these stations was that if afforded me the opportunity to see some old cartoons I had never seen before, particularly George of the Jungle (with Super Chicken and Tom Slick), Marine Boy and the Milton the Monster Show!
The last one reminded me of Batfink, and with good reason: Milton the Monster and Batfink were both produced by Hal Seeger Studios. And the Milton the Monster show featured another superhero parody, Fearless Fly as its bonus segment. But Milton was the star, and I was transfixed by this wacky world of benevolent monsters in goofy situations, led by title monster Milton, he of the soft-spoken, Huckleberry Hound-like southern drawl. The cartoon was simply charming, but at the same time, cool. It didn’t have the same zip and zing as the later “Mad Monster Party” feature film from Rankin-Bass, the Filmation animated TV series The Groovie Goolies or the live-action “Hilarious House of Frightenstein” out of Canada, but it keeps good company with them as a fun and creative depiction of monsters for younger audiences. Fans of 1960s TV animation will especially appreciate the character designs – a hallmark of the Hal Seeger Studios (in fact in the mid ‘60s the studio was tapped to create an animated series based on my favorite superhero Plastic Man, but the show never came to be).
The complete series is available on DVD and you can order it here:
You can also read more about it here and here and here.
There are some fun clips available to view online, and we’ll take a look at some every now and then on Mondays.
So... what better place to start than at the beginning? Here's the opening to the show… enjoy!
BE SURE TO JOIN US ON THURSDAY, DECEMBER 10th FOR A REVIEW OF “BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA” FEATURING NOTORIOUS JERRY LEWIS IMPERSONATOR SAMMY PETRILLO!