Monday, June 18, 2007

Mala Powers and Mr. Wizard

Two pop cultures recently died. One, Mala Powers, was an actress who made many guest appearances on TV shows in the Fifties and Sixties. The other, Don Herbert, better known Mr. Wizard, taught science to a generation through the miracle of television.

Mala Powers passed on June 11 at the age of 75. She had been battling leukaemia. She had begun her career in films, but would eventually become a guest star on various TV shows.

Mala Powers was born Mary Ellen Powers on December 20, 1931 in San Francisco. When Powers was nine her parents moved to Los Angeles. She went to the Max Reinhardt Jr.Workshop where she appeared in her first play. She continued to study acting, making her first appearance in the Dead End Kids film Tough as They Come in 1942. Not wishing for her daughter to become a child star, her mother told her that she should study more before taking any more acting jobs.

It was at age 16 that Powers started acting on radio shows. In 1950 she appeared in her second film, Edge of Doom. Her breakthrough would be in the 1950 movie Outrage (not to be confused with The Outrage, the 1964 American remake of Akira Kurosawa's Rashoman), playing a rape victim. For her next role she played Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac (1950).

Under contract she appeared in such movies as Cyrano de Bergerac (in which she played Roxanne), City Beneath the Sea, City That Never Sleeps, and The Storm Rider.

Unfortunately, Powers' film career would be interrupted by illness. While in Korea on a USO tour, Powers contracted a blood disease which nearly killed her. When she was healthy enough to work again, she found herself cast in B movies. She appeared in such movies as City Beneath the Sea, City That Never Sleeps, Rage at Dawn, Bengazi, and Storm Rider.

As the Fifties wore on, her career would increasing consist of television appearances. Her first appearance on TV came in 1953 on Pantomine Quiz. Her first actually bit of acting on television was in an episode of Studio 57 in 1955. In the late Fifties she guest starred on Zane Grey Theater, Wagon Train, Bonanza, and Bourbon Street Beat. By the Sixties the majority of her career was spent in television guest appearances. She guested on such shows as Maverick, Surfside 6, Thriller, Rawhide, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Daniel Boone, Ironside, and Murder She Wrote. She still appeared in movies from time to time, including Daddy's Gone A-Hunting, The Doomsday Machine, and Hitters (her last film appearance). Powers also had a stage career. In 1964 she appeared on Broadway in Absence of a Cello. Her final apperance on stage was in Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood in 2003 at the Laguna Playhouse in California.

Powers was a talented actress whose career never quite recovered following her illness. This was unfortunate, as she was capable of much more than guest appearances.

Don Herbert, better known to the world at large as Mr. Wizard, passed on July 12 at the age of 89. He had been battling bone cancer.

Don Herbert was born on July 10, 1917 in Waconia, Minnesota. Herbert attended University of Wisconsin-La Crosse as an English and General Science major. In World War II he enlisted in the Army where he became a B-24 pilot with the Fiftieth Air Force. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters and was a captain by the end of the war.

The war over, Herbert took a job at a radio station in Chicago. He also performed on stage at times, as well as radio shows from Captain Midnight to Jack Armstrong. He wrote scripts for Curtain Time and First Nighter. Herbert's career would not be in acting, even if it was spent before a camera. He developed an idea for a TV show which would seek to teach science to youngsters through using ordinary household items. Initially he wanted to give the show a rather generic name, but suggestions from an ad man eventually resulted in the title Watch Mr. Wizard. Watch Mr. Wizard debuted on March 3, 1951. The series became very popular. Mr Wizard clubs were founded across the United States, with a membership of 50,000 by 1965 when the series was cancelled. The series was awarded the Peabody Award and three Thomas Alva Edison National Mass Media Awards. Both the National Science Foundation and American Chemical Society cited Watch Mr. Wizard for teaching children about science. Much of the show's success was due to the fact that, like the best children's show hosts, Herbert never talked down to children.

The cancellation of Watch Mr. Wizard did not mean Mr. Wizard would leave television. Don Herbert produced the series Experiment for National Educational Television (now PBS). Herbert would return to NBC in Mr. Wizard in the 1971/1972 season, but the revival did not last. Though his new series lasted only one season, Herbert would produce a series of thirty second Mr. Wizard Close Ups for NBC in the Seventies. Still later he would appear on CBS's children show Razzmatazz. In 1983 he returned to television again in Mr. Wizard's World, which lasted until 1990. Mr. Wizard also appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman.

Frank Herbert also wrote several books on science for children, including Mr. Wizard's Science Secrets and Mr. Wizard's Supermarket Science.

Even though Generation Y and even members of Generation X have never heard of him, Mr. Wizard would have a lasting impact on pop culture and even science. Herbert proved that science could be entertaining, thus paving the way for future children's shows about science. Both Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beakman's World have been publicly acknowledged as being inspired by Watch Mr. Wizard. More important than its impact on television may have been its impact on its young viewers. Many scientists who had watched Mr.Wizard as a child had become interested in science through his TV show. More so than many children's show hosts of his era, Don Herbert had a lasting impact.

No comments: