Sunday, March 28, 2010

Batmania: How Batman Conquered America in 1966 Part One

"Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible...a...a...A bat! It's an omen! I shall become a bat!"
(Bruce Wayne, "The Batman and How He Came to Be," Detective Comics #33, November 1939)

In 1966 a most unusual phenomenon took place. A 27 year old comic book hero became the next big thing. The TV show Batman debuted on ABC. The series was a hit from its debut, so much so it became the centre of a fad. In the end Batmania (as the craze was named) would dwarf even the Davy Crockett craze. It became the biggest TV fad of all time.

At the centre of this fad was one of the earliest superheroes in comic books. Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and debuted in Detective Comics #27, May 1939. As originally envisioned, The Batman was an at times brutal vigilante who operated primarily at night (not unlike the Dark Knight in comic books and movies today). Batman was Bruce Wayne, a wealthy playboy who had witnessed his parents' murder at the hands of a mugger. So traumatised by the experience was young Wayne, that he vowed vengeance on criminals. Training physically and intellectually from a young age, he eventually donned a bat like costume to battle crime.

In his earliest days The Batman could be ruthless against criminals. He actually carried a gun and even used it on occasion. Many of his opponents died by accidents of their own making, and the ones that didn't sometimes died by Batman's own hand. As an example, in Detective Comics #31, September 1939, Batman fought a villain called The Monk, who turned out to be a vampire. He shot and killed The Monk with a silver bullet. In Batman #1, spring 1940, the Caped Crusader killed two of Professor Hugo Strange's monsters, hanging one and machine gunning another. It would be classic, Golden Age writer Gardner Fox who would create the first of Batman's many gadgets. In Detective Comics #32, October 1939, in a story scripted by Fox, the Batarang and the Batgyro (an autogyro or forerunner of the helicopter) were introduced.

It was when the Caped Crusader was around a year old that the feature lightened considerably in tone. This was due to two events. The first was a code drawn up by co-owner of National Comics and Detective Comics (two of the companies that would become DC Comics) Jack Liebowitz and editor Whitney Ellsworth as to what would be acceptable in their comic books. The two men had wanted to prevent their comic books from coming under fire much as pulp magazines had in the Thirties. As  a result, none of their heroes would ever willingly kill another human being. As a result Batman stopped carrying a gun and stopped killing criminals.

The other event was the debut of Robin in Detective Comics #38, April 1940. Robin was created by Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson for two basic reasons. The first was to give Batman someone to talk to. The second was to provide young readers a character with whom they could identify. It was Jerry Robinson who named the character, as he had always loved The Adventures of Robin Hood as a child. Robin's costume was then given a medieval look for that reason. Robin was Dick Grayson, part of a family of acrobats known as "The Flying Graysons." After his parents were murdered by gang lord Boss Zucco, Bruce Wayne took legal custody of Grayson as his ward and trained the boy to fight crime. He would remain a part of the Batman feature for the next twenty nine years.

While the Batman feature became lighter in tone after the implementation of Liebowitz and Ellsworth's code and the introduction of Robin, it could remain rather grim at times. While Batman no longer killed criminals, he still operated at night and the villains he fought (such as The Joker and Two-Face) were often homicidal maniacs. The character of Batman became the second most popular character at National Comics and Detective Comics, surpassed only by Superman, and possibly the third most popular superhero during the Golden Age of Comic books after Superman and Captain Marvel. Naturally the character would appear in other media. On April 15, 1943, the first chapter in The Batman, a fifteen chapter adaptation of the comic book feature, debuted in theatres. On October 25, 1943,  a Batman newspaper strip debuted. It ran until 1945. It was also in 1943 that the first attempt was made at a Batman radio show. It never sold. All that remains is the script, although it does seem possible that it had been recorded. Batman and Robin would appear on another superhero's radio programme. In March 1945 Batman and Robin made their first of many appearances on the radio show The Adventures of Superman. On May 26, 1949 a second serial based on the comic book feature debuted,  Batman and Robin.  In 1950 a second attempt was made at a Batman radio show, of which a recording of the pilot does still survive. This second radio pilot seems a bit odd today, as it casts Batman as an investigator who seeks to "to prove that ghosts and apparitions are only figments of man's imagination." This pilot also did not sell.

Sadly, the Fifties would not be as kind to The Batman as the Forties had been. The late Forties and early Fifties saw comic books increasingly coming under attack by moral watchdogs. Foremost among the critics of comic books was a psychiatrist, Dr. Fredric Wertham. It was in 1954 that his book, Seduction of the Innocent, was published. In the book Dr. Fredric Wertham asserted that Batman and Robin were homosexuals, even though there was no evidence whatsoever in the comic book feature to lead to such a conclusion. He also attacked one of Batman's primary opponents during the Golden Age, Catwoman, as "vicious" and noted that she "...uses a whip." He also claimed that in the comic book feature "If the girl is good-looking she is undoubtedly the villainess (apparently Dr. Wertham did not find Bruce Wayne's girl friend Vicki Vale attractive...). Dr. Wertham also attacked the violence in the comic book feature, noting a story in which Batman and Robin stood in a room, "..with a whole row of corpses on the floor."

The attacks on comic books in the late Forties and the early Fifties, particularly Dr. Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, would lead to the creation of the Comics Code  At the time the comic book industry described this self censorship code as "...the strictest in existence for any communications media (sic)." And the Comics Code in its original form was indeed strict, forbidding everything from "lurid, unsavoury, gruesome illustrations" to vampires and werewolves. Both the Code and Wertham's criticism of the Batman and Robin would have a lasting effect on the comic book feature. Perhaps because of the Code's rules regarding the portrayal of women and Wertham's criticism of her, Catwoman would not appear in comic books from 1954 to 1966. Perhaps because of the Code's ban on anything gruesome, Two-Face, half of whose face had been damaged by acid, would not appear from 1954 to 1971. During the Golden Age he had been one of Batman's primary opponents. The Joker continued to appear in the Batman comic book feature, but was reduced from homicidal maniac to a practical joking nuisance.

These were not the end of the changes to the Batman feature.The nature of Batman stories changed dramatically in the wake of the Comics Code. During the Golden Age Batman and Robin fought gangsters, hired killers, and a rouge's gallery which included a few outright psychopaths (The Joker, Two-Face, The Mad Hatter, The Scarecrow, et. al.) After the Comics Code pseudo-science fiction stories began to proliferate in the Batman feature. Batman and Robin faced aliens, travelled to other planets, and travelled through time. Increasingly the Dynamic Duo faced their rogue's gallery from the Golden Age less and less, and the new villains introduced during these years were science fiction oriented: Mr. Zero (later renamed "Mr. Freeze" on the TV show), a new Clayface (this one capable of changing shape), and Dr. Double X. Batman also picked up an "extended family" similar to those of Captain Marvel and Superman. To advert any suspicions that the Dynamic Duo were gay, two new female characters were introduced: Batwoman, who debuted  in Batman #105, January 1957, and Bat-Girl, who first appeared in Batman  #139, April-May 1961 (not to be confused with the Batgirl of later Sixties comic books and the TV show). Characters such as Ace the Bat-Hound and Bat-Mite (an imp who sometimes pestered the Dynamic Duo) were introduced during this period.

The late Fifties and the early Sixties were truly the low point of Batman's career. In fact, sales had dipped so far by 1963 that National Periodical Publications (the company now called "DC Comics") considered cancelling the Batman feature. Fortunately, the legendary Julius Schwartz was assigned to edit the Batman feature. Schwartz made drastic changes to the feature, which would come to be known as "the New Look." Batman's costume was overhauled, with the inclusion of a an oval around the bat-insignia on his costume's chest. He dispensed with the pseudo-science fiction stories of the past ten years, and returned Batman to being a detective. The stories of this era were more often than not mysteries. To advert any accusations of homosexuality, he killed off Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred (who had been part of the feature since 1943) and had Dick Grayson's Aunt Harriet move into Wayne Manor. The "New Look" successfully revived interest in Batman at the time, although other factors in American society would also help revive interest in the character. These factors may also have led to the development of Batmania.

One of these factors may have been  one of the most legendary comic book fanzines of all time, Batmania (yes, this is where the term originated). Batmania was first published in July 1964 by Bill "Biljo" White, a Columbia, Missouri fireman who owned nearly every Batman title from 1939 onwards. The fanzine's title was apparently inspired by the term "Beatlemania," then in full swing at the time. Batmania educated its readers on Batman in his early days as a ruthless vigilante and revealed the extent of Bill Finger's involvement in Batman's creation (before 1964 it was assumed Bob Kane had created the character alone, something Kane actually encouraged). Batmania reached a circulation of 1000 copies, large for any fanzine of the time. It also helped revive interest in the character among comic book fans.

Another factor was the Silver Age of Comic Books, a period in which there were more artistic achievements than usual and  a good deal more commercial success. The Silver Age is generally considered to have begun with the first appearance of a new version of The Flash in Showcase #3, October 1956, and to have lasted for most of the Sixties. Not only did the Silver Age see introductions of such classic characters as a new version of Green Lantern, a new version of Hawkman, and entirely new characters such as Spider-Man and Iron Man, but it also saw a revival of interest in comic books in mainstream society. This revived interest in comic books was helped considerably by the movement known as pop art. Pop art was characterised by techniques drawn from commercial art, everyday objects, and even comic books. It is generally considered have begun with the collage Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? by artist Richard Hamilton in 1956. Since comic books were often fodder for pop artists (particularly Roy Lichetenstein), comic books gained a bit more cultural clout.

Yet another factor in the revival of interest in comic books would be the concept known as "camp," most fully described in Susan Sontag's essay "Notes on Camp," published in The Partisan Review in 1964. According to Sontag, the most important elements of camp were "...artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and ‘shocking’ excess." In the March 21, 1965 issue of The New York Times, Sontag would declare Batman comic books to be an example of "Low Camp." These three factors (the Silver Age of Comic Books, pop art, and the concept of camp) may have been why there was renewed interest in superheroes and comic books in the mid-Sixties. Indeed, it is around 1964 and 1965 that the price of Golden Age comic books began to rise. Comic books originally sold for a dime were being bought for hundreds of dollars. By the Seventies they would be going for thousands.

These factors (the "New Look" of Batman, Batmania, the Silver Age, pop art, and camp) would revive interest in Batman, to the point that the character received more attention than he had in years. A sign of the growing interest in Batman was the film Batman Dracula, which Andy Warhol made without the permission of National Periodical Publications in 1964. A fan of the serials, Warhol made his own homage to the character. Batman Dracula was only screened at his art exhibits.  It is believed to be the first intentional portrayal of a campy Batman on the screen. Long thought lost, it only recently resurfaced.

It was around at this time that Ed Graham Productions (best known for producing the Saturday morning cartoon Linus the Lionhearted) bought an option on a Batman TV series from National Periodical Publications. Ed Graham had been a fan of Batman when young, and conceived the series as a straightforward adventure show for children, along the lines of the Fifties' Adventures of Superman. Former NFL linebacker Mike Henry, who would go onto play Tarzan in three films, was set to play the Caped Crusader. Supposedly, National Periodical Publications even had photos taken of Henry in a Batman costume, although such pictures have never surfaced. In March 1965 Ed Graham Productions very nearly closed a deal with CBS for the Batman series, although negotiations soon broke down. Ed Graham did not give up hope, deciding to take his idea for the show to another network. Unfortunately for Ed Graham, the renewed interest in Batman would soon put an end to his plans.

It was in early 1965 (January 1965 according to TCM) that all fifteen chapters of The Batman serial from 1943 were edited together as An Evening with Batman and Robin.. An Evening with Batman and Robin proved popular with cinemas in college towns and art theatres such as the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Peacock Theatre in New Orleans. The serial was even screened at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago. It was there that East Coast ABC executive Yale Udoff happened to be at one of these screenings at the Playboy Mansion. A Batman fan in his youth, Udoff contacted West Coast executives Harve Bennett and Edgar J. Scherick. Bennett and Scherick were already considering a television show based on a comic strip, comic book, or radio show. They had wanted to produce a Dick Tracy series, but the creator of the comic strip Chester Gould was already in negotiation with NBC. The three men then decided to move forward with a Batman TV series, which at the time they conceived as a serious but tongue in cheek series along the lines of the then popular Man From U.N.C.L.E.

ABC's interest in Batman would spell the end for Ed Graham's plans for a Batman TV show. ABC contacted 20th Century Fox about producing a Batman series. 20th Century Fox turned to William Dozier and his company Greenway Productions to actually produce the show. Together they purchased an option to produce a Batman series from National Periodical Publications. Ed Graham only learned this when, after failing with CBS, he tried to sell his Batman series to NBC. After nearly getting a Batman series on CBS, Ed Graham Productions was now out of the running completely.

While ABC conceived Batman as a serious but tongue and cheek series, William Dozier would develop other ideas. Dozier had been vice president in charge of West Coast programmes at CBS in the Fifties, and had produced such shows as Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers and The Loner. By his own admission, he had never read a Batman comic book in his life. It was on his flight back from New York to Los Angeles that he read seven or eight Batman comic books for the first time, among them Batman #171, May 1965 (the first Silver Age appearance of The Riddler). Having read these comic books, Dozier came to the conclusion that there was not much chance of adults taking a series about a man dressed up as a bat seriously. It was then that he decided that Batman would work on two levels. For adults it would be a comedy, an outright parody of comic books and their conventions. For children it would be an adventure show.

To write the series, William Dozier initially contacted thriller writer Eric Ambler. Ambler expressed no interest in writing Batman. He then contacted Lorenzo Semple Jr., who had written episodes of Kraft Suspense Theatre, The Rogues, and Burke's Law. The two had worked together on a prospective series called Number One Son, set to star Bruce Lee. Based around Charlie Chan's "Number One Son," the project was killed when ABC made it clear they would not consider anything featuring an ethnic lead. Dozier and Semple developed the idea for the pilot, loosely based on "The Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler" from Batman #171, May 1965.

With a writer in place, Dozier now had to cast the series. Dozier considered actor Ty Hardin for the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, former star of the Western Bronco. At the time Hardin was tied up making Westerns in Spain, so he could not take the part (in light of his involvement with an anti-Semitic militia group in the Eighties, this was probably fortunate). Dozier would find his Batman in the most unlikely of all places, television commercials for Nestle Quik. In the adverts, a young actor named Adam West played a parody of James Bond called "Captain Q." Dozier was impressed and soon Adam West was up for the part. Ultimately the role of Robin would be filled by a newcomer named Burt Ward (he had auditioned under his given name of Bert Gervis, but took his mother's maiden name of "Ward" as it was easier to pronounce). At 19 years of age, Burt Ward had no real experience acting on screen, but he was an athlete who had trained in marital arts.

Adam West and Burt Ward would not be the only actors up for the parts of Batman and Robin. Lyle Waggoner, who had no real experience in television at the time (he would go onto The Carol Burnett Show and Wonder Woman), was also up for the role of Batman. A young actor named Peter Deyell, who had appeared on The Patti Page Oldsmobile Show and Shirley Temple's Storybook, was up for the role of Robin. Ultimately, the casting came down to two screen tests, one with Adam West and Burt Ward, and another with Lyle Waggoner and Peter Deyell. After viewing the screen tests, the producers settled upon West and Ward. Today the screen tests make interesting viewing, not simply because of the contrast between the two sets of actors, but due to the fact that at this point Batman's costume resembled the one he had worn before the "New Look."

For the other roles experienced actors were cast. Alan Napier, who had appeared in films ranging from Cat People to My Fair Lady, was cast as Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred. Neil Hamilton, whose films credits went back to the Silent Era and included films such as Tarzan the Ape Man and the 1945 version of Brewster's Millions, was cast as Commissioner Gordon. Madge Blake, who had appeared in everything from An American in Paris to the TV show The Real McCoys, was cast as Aunt Harriet.

Initially William Dozier had wanted to make a feature film to promote the upcoming Batman series, but the idea was ultimately put on hold. One reason for this was that 20th Century Fox would have to shoulder the entire burden for the budget of the feature film, while ABC would help with the costs of the television show. Before they would even consider a Batman feature film, 20th Century Fox wanted to know that they had a hit on their hands. Another reason may have been ABC's scheduling. Batman was initially set to debut in fall 1966. This changed when it became apparent that the start of the fall 1965 season was possibly the worst in the history of the network. In the 1964/1965 season ABC closely followed CBS and NBC in the ratings. In the early months of the 1965/1966 season, ABC was a distant third.

In an attempt to boost ratings, ABC decided to treat mid-season as a whole new season, promoted as "the Second Season." The network cancelled several shows and changed the time slots of others. Of course, to create their so-called "Second Season," ABC needed shows. This meant that Batman would have to debut a whole nine months earlier, in either late December or early January. Beyond Batman, the other new shows debuting on ABC's "Second Season" were a spy spoof starring Red Buttons (The Double Life of Henry Phyfe), The Blue Light, and The Baron (not actually a new show, but a British import). Of ABC's "Second Season" shows that debuted in January 1966, only Batman survived.

Not only would Batman have to debut nine months earlier than expected, the show also proved very expensive at the time. The pilot, " Hi Diddle Riddle/Smack in the Middle" cost $500,000. The average episode cost $75,000, even though ABC only allotted $65,000 per episode. This meant that Batman, like many television shows, would not make a profit until syndication. At the time the production of Batman was so extensive that 20th Century Fox did not have room for the show. This meant that the studio had to rent space at what is now called the Culver Studios, but was then owned by Desilu. As to the exterior of stately Wayne Manor, it was actually a home at 380 South San Rafael Avenue in Pasadena, California. The actual house is truly a mansion with ten bedrooms and six bathrooms. Contrary to news reports in 2005, the house which stood in for Wayne Manor did not burn down. That was instead a home at 160 South San Rafael, where such shows as Topper and Murder She Wrote had filmed, but never anything featuring Batman.

Much of the reason that Batman proved to be such an expensive show was that it required the manufacture of more specialised sets and props than even the typical action show would have. The Batcave, with its computers, laboratory, and various gadgets, cost a whopping total of $800,000. Another cost was the Batmobile. It was in mid to late 1965 that 20th Century Fox contracted car designer Dean Jeffries to create the Batmobile for the series. He started customising a 1959 Cadillac for just that purpose. He then received the news that ABC wanted the show to debut in late December or early January. This meant that filming would commence before he could actually finish the car. Dean Jeffries was paid for his work. It was then that William Dozier turned to George Barris, who had already designed the Clampetts' truck on The Beverly Hillbillies, the Munsters Koach and Dragula for The  Munsters, and the 1928 Porter for My Mother, the Car. Like Dean Jeffries, George Barris knew he could not design the Batmobile from scratch in the short time he was being allowed. Fortunately, he already had the perfect car to customise as the Batmobile. Among the cars in Barris' possession was a Lincoln Futura, a concept car built by the Lincoln division of Ford in 1955. The car featured hooded headlight pods and a double, bubble top. It had already appeared in a film, 1959's It Started with a Kiss with Debbie Reynolds. The design work was handled by an associate of George Barris,  Herb Grasse, and Barris hired Bill Cushenberry to make the metal modifications to the vehicle. Barris managed to complete the Batmobile in the three weeks he was allowed. The total cost of customisation was $30,000. Its estimated value at the time was $125,000 (today the Batmobile would cost $2 million). Ultimately five Batmobiles were made for the series, including one specifically for stunts. In addition to the Batcave and Batmobile, there were the characters' costumes, sets for Wayne Manor, Commissioner Gordon's office, and so on which all had to be designed.

As Batman was set to debut in January 1966, both ABC and 20th Century Fox had more to worry about than its sheer cost. Prior to the show's debut ABC ran a test screening of the pilot before an audience.At the time the test screening may have been the worst in the history of television. Batman scored only a 52 in the test, with 62 as a passing grade. ABC suggested to William Dozier and the other producers that they add a laugh track. With a laugh track it did no better. The test screening placed ABC in a precarious position, as they had already ordered thirteen episodes of the series. William Dozier remained confident that the test screenings were wrong, even vowing to get out of the television business if Batman failed. According to Adam West in Back to the Batcave, the test screening was so disastrous that the evaluation cards were never read. They were simply shredded and ABC vowed to keep the results a secret. As a side note, it must be noted that Batman was not the only classic show to have a bad test screening. Both The Monkees and The Mary Tyler Moore Show tested poorly before audiences!

Although regarded by many as a classic today, perhaps it is not surprising that Batman should have tested poorly before audiences. After all, Batman was a very different show from anything which had aired before. It was a highly stylised show. In fact, it was very nearly a comic book on film. Fight scenes would be accompanied by colourful overlays of  words from "Bam!" to "Wam!" In all, 84 different words were used through the show's run.  The series also exploited colour to its fullest extent (colour still being fairly new to network television, especially ABC). Numerous lighting gels in bright colours were used. Back drops of such bright colours as orange and purple were utilised often. Scenes with the villains would often be filmed at a Dutch angle, a cinematographic technique to show madness or psychological tension. For transitions between scenes, the series used the Batman insignia against a spinning background (an idea borrowed from previous fad show The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which used a whip pan for transitions). Aired twice a week (on Wednesday night and Thursday night), the first half of an episode aired on Wednesday would end in a cliffhanger, which would be resolved in the second half of the episode on Thursday night. The series also featured a narrator, who used the same style of breathless narration as in the serials of old. He would often conclude the cliffhangers with the words, "Tune in tomorrow—-same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!"

The narrator was never credited on the series, although on the show's 1966 soundtrack album he is credited as "Desmond Doomsday." In truth the narrator was none other than William Dozier himself. According to Dozier in the book Batmania II, they had tested several individuals as the narrator and none proved satisfactory. Finally, the sound mixer told Dozier he sounded better than everyone they had tested, and asked why he didn't just take the part himself. According to William Self, Vice-President/20th Century Fox Television at the time, Dozier wanted to maintain his membership in the Screen Actors Guild, because of their health plan. He also said that if Dozier had not been good at the narration, they would not have let him done it.

Beyond its rather unique, comic book, pop art style, Batman was one of the few comedies on the air at the time without a laugh track (later in its run The Monkees would be another). There can be little doubt that much of the reason the series lacked a laugh track was that the screen test including one fared no better than the one without one. The primary reason for the lack of a laugh track, however, is most likely that the laugh track would have spoiled the show for kids. For children Batman was intended to be an adventure show. A laugh track would have established the series as clearly being a comedy, thus spoiling the illusion for children. 

With a series that was as decidedly different as Batman, and one that had tested very poorly with audiences, ABC realised they could not sit idly by and let the show sink or swim on its own merit. The network then launched a massive advertising campaign in support of the series, centred around the slogan "Batman is Coming." Well ahead of the series' debut there were promos for Batman on ABC nearly every hour on the hour. There were numerous newspaper advertisements and even billboards for the new show. ABC even hired a skywriter to emblazon the slogan "Batman is Coming" above the Rose Bowl. The advertising campaign alone for Batman cost millions of dollars. Indeed, there may have been more publicity for Batman than any mid-season replacement in the history of television. The earliest newspaper articles on the new series appeared in September 1965, a full three months before its debut. News on Batman continued to hit newspapers until in December 1965 it was nearly impossible to avoid news on the upcoming show.

By the time Batman was set to debut, ABC was more than a little nervous. The show had been very expensive to make. Worse yet, it had nearly catastrophic test screenings. To complicate matters, airing at 7:30 PM Eastern/6:30 PM Central on both Wednesday and Thursday night, Batman was ABC's lead in for its prime time programming on two nights. Failure for the show could cost ABC, who could lose two nights worth of viewers for the network and drive its ratings even lower. It would be understandable, then, if ABC executives had sat with fingers crossed when Batman debuted on January 12, 1966. As it turned out, they need not have worried. On the very night of its premiere, Batman was a hit.

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