A Reminiscence by Judy Harris
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Long before there was STAR TREK, a series with a surprisingly similar concept was all the rage from 1950 to 1955.
SPACE PATROL premiered March 9, 1950 on KECA, the ABC network-owned station in Los Angeles, as a daily 15-minute live TV show aimed at children. By September 11, 1950 weeks-old kinescoped film prints were broadcast by ABC on WJZ on New York City.
Even after SPACE PATROL became a live weekly half hour series, airing Saturday, it still continued as a live local 15 minute series, and the same cast also appeared in a twice weekly radio show on KECA.
Two hundred ten half hour episodes were made. These ran consecutively, with no break for summer reruns, up through July 2, 1954, with the various regulars occasionally written out so they could take vacations. The shows were kinescoped on 16 mm film, except for the last year which was 35 mm. Creator (William J.) Mike Moser and his secretary were hit by an oncoming car while crossing a dark Hollywood intersection on April 23, 1953. The series ended March 7, 1955 when the network was unable to gain part ownership.
Set in the 30th century, SPACE PATROL is mainly about a small group of members of the space-going forces of the United Planets, whose headquarters was the man-made planet, Terra, orbiting between Earth and Mars.
The Captain Kirk of his day was Commander-in-Chief Buzz Corry, played by Ed Kemmer. His Security Chief, Major Robbie Robertson, was played by Ken Mayer. And his trusty sidekick and comic relief was Cadet Happy, played by the irrepressible Lyn Osborn. Corry's platonic love interest was Carol Carlisle, daughter of the Secretary General of the United Planets, played by blond Virginia Hewitt, and rounding out the cast of regulars was former villainess from Saturn, Tonga, now reformed and made Assistant Security Chief, played by dark haired, Buenos Aires-born Nina Bara.
In 1952, LIFE magazine ran a 2-page story on the show, which was equally popular with adults (if only for its campiness), citing its weekly budget as $25,000. The show was so low budget that, before it inherited the spacesuits from DESTINATION MOON (1950), Ms. Bara's costume was made by her mother. The show thriftily used its behind-the-scenes personnel for continuing villain characters as well, with co-producer/casting director Bela Kovacs hamming it up as Prince Baccarratti (Tonga's evil cousin from Neptune) and scriptwriter Norman Jolley as Agent X. When the series started, Kemmer and Osborn were making a mere $8 a show, but by 1954, this figure had shot up to $54,000 annually.
Other villains were played by guest stars Lawrence Dobkin (Raymo), Marvin Miller (Mr. Proteus) and Don Gordon (Marcol). Lee Van Cleef and Gene Barry also appeared en route to greater stardom. One time TV quiz show host Jack Narz split his time between playing another Cadet and doing the commercials.
A lot of the charm of looking back at videos of older live shows is seeing what went wrong. Even if you're not a fan of DARK SHADOWS, for instance, it's still pretty amusing to see those hapless actors stumbling through fake forests, accidentally knocking down trees. SPACE PATROL is similarly full of these types of bloopers, including the unexpected appearance, during a tense moment, of kittens on the exterior hull of a speeding spaceship.
By all accounts, the regular cast were all good friends. Thrust together in the almost daily grind to produce the 5 local 15-minute shows, the 2 weekly radio shows, and the half hour weekly network show, they also socialized and appeared together at benefits and promotional events.
Some of the flubs on these shows are the direct result of practical jokes played by the cast on each other. Lyn Osborn was ringleader in these pranks and, where Ed Kemmer and the others would try to ignore the sudden appearance of a stagehand in airless space, Lyn would do slow takes of absolute amazement. Although a lot of the intentional humor of these shows seems corny and over the top, Osborn did manage to humanize the series, and it's obvious from the way the cast interacted, they had great affection for each other.
Occasionally a guest cast member would completely freeze and forget his lines, forcing the regulars to improvise. One show they all had to pretend the guest villain was a telepathist in order to mouth his dialogue and move the plot along.
The tension and terror of doing an underrehearsed live show is evident in many scenes. Adding to the cast's problems was the fact that the sponsor felt free to rewrite dialogue up to the last minute, often in the form of integrating into the plot heavy handed references to their latest premium giveaway.
The commercials were also done live and also by the cast, who often had to dash from some tense, cliffhanging moment, to talk casually about Nestle's Ever Ready Instant cocoa or chocolate bars (enormous compared to today's stingy sizes and only 10 cents!) or enthusiastically eat Ralston Purina Wheat Chex or Rice Chex cereal.
Video tapes of some shows still contain these commercials, which are as enjoyable as the plot lines, particularly the ones which dangle premiums in front of the eager child viewers. Specific episodes even carry the titles of the premiums being hawked, all for a paltry 25 cents plus a boxtop from the appropriate Checkerboard Square cereal, including the SPACE PATROL CODE BELT (decoder rings were also a big DICK TRACY premium), the COSMIC SMOKE GUN, the SPACE PATROL MICROSCOPE, the MARTIAN TOTEM HEAD, the SPACE PATROL PERISCOPE, and my all time favorite, the ROCKET COCKPIT. This was a mere hunk of cardboard with "9 moving parts", including a "working" rotating cardboard display of the planets, with which a child could pretend he was at the controls of the X-RC, a ship similar to the Space Patrol's own flagship, the Terra V.
And what a 30th century state of the art ship the good old Terra V was, having only 2 seats, so that half the cast had to stand, even during trips through hyperspace in which everyone regularly blacked out! And no seat belts, of course, just like there's none on the Enterprise. And that war surplus periscope would not have looked out of place on an old submarine.
One of the best promotions was the NAME THE PLANET contest. The first prize for this was a 35-foot truck-mounted replica of the Terra V, with sleeping accommodations for 6.
In addition to the premiums you could send for, SPACE PATROL jumped on an early merchandising bandwagon. That same 1952 LIFE article estimated sales of $40 million on 80 items, ranging from space helmets to ray guns, viewscopes, spacephones, puzzles and clothes.
Since it was aimed primarily at kids, the series took a serious antiviolence stance. Weapons were along the lines of the paralyzer ray gun, which put its victims temporarily into suspended animation, or the aforementioned cosmic smoke gun, which caused instant sleep.
The series ran at a time when Westerns were particularly popular, and many of its early plots show a great similarity to Earth bound shows of earlier days, but in a futuristic setting. So it seemed as if every week, Buzz or Happy or Robbie or one of the girls was being kidnapped and held hostage or forced to do something against the Space Patrol code because of blackmail or hypnotism. They were always being knocked unconscious and left stranded on a planet or a derelict spaceship with air running out, or infected with some kind of radiation poison, temporary blindness or space disease, with the clock ticking away before certain death, only to be rescued at the last minute by some deus ex machina.
Betraying its radio origins, the scripts featured lots of narration, quite a lot of it telling regular viewers things they already knew, for instance, Carol Carlisle being daughter of the Secretary General of the United Planets. Dialogue was typically peppered with reams of explanation, most of it aimed at the kid/audience stand-in of Cadet Happy, who asked an awful lot of unnecessary questions.
The writers were not very successful in integrating believable science into the mix, and the dialogue is full of awkwardly self-conscious terms for futuristic gewgaws, such as contraterrine matter, explained as "inside out matter" (i.e., antimatter), the space-o-phone (another great Ralston Purina premium) and the Brain-o-graph, which was used to read the minds of apprehended criminals and reprogram them into upright citizens.
Even more amusing is the corny slang the actors had to mouth, particularly the always game Cadet Happy. "Smoking rockets!" was the 30th century equivalent of "Holy cow!" and "Blast off" was the euphemism for "Scram."
For several years, the half hour shows had self-contained plots, reaching a conclusion every week, but in the last year or so, they moved to a serial format, with stories lasting several weeks, often with cliffhangers where the lives of our heroes and even the galaxy were threatened.
Originally SPACE PATROL was the story of Kit Corry, but Glen Denning, the actor playing the lead, had a falling out with the producers, and so a younger brother, Buzz, was invented, so that the rank "Commander Corry" could be retained. Edward Kemmer heard about this role through Pasadena Playhouse fellow graduate Lyn Osborn, already firmly ensconced as that lovable mugger, Cadet Happy.
SPACE PATROL was created and produced by Mike Moser. Like Gene Roddenberry who spawned a similar brainchild, Moser was an former pilot. The director of all the half hour shows was Dik Darley. Interestingly, lighting was provided by Truck Krone, whose name can still be seen in the end credits of such NBC series as SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, while the video engineer was Gene Lukowski, who went on to acclaimed work with the innovative Ernie Kovacs.
After the show ended, Ed Kemmer appeared in such genre films as THE GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN (1958) and THE SPIDER (1958); he died in 2004. Lyn Osborn appeared in INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957), THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957) and THE COSMIC MAN (released in 1959) before his untimely death at age 32 of a brain tumor on August 31, 1958. Ken Mayer's career pre- and post-SPACE PATROL was mainly in Westerns; he died in 1985. Nina Bara appeared in MISSILE TO THE MOON (1959); she died in 1990. Virginia Hewitt appeared in THE FLYING SAUCER (1949) and seems to have given up acting shortly after the series ended; she died in 1986.
Although set in the future, SPACE PATROL is reflective of more innocent times, when all you needed to do to explain time travel was to equip your spaceship with "magnetic time drive." A time when criminals could be reformed by science. It's probably not everybody's cup of tea, but I'm 8 years old again when I hear that stirring opening: "Space Patrol! High adventure in the wild vast reaches of space. Missions of daring in the name of interplanetary justice. Travel into the future with Buzz Corry, Commander-in-Chief of the Space Patrol!"
Click here to see the model of Terra City (created by Bela Kovacs) that was used in the series under the opening credits
|Commander Buzz Corry||Ed Kemmer|
|Cadet Happy||Lyn Osborn|
|Carol Carlisle||Virginia Hewitt|
|Major "Robbie" Robertson||Ken Mayer|
|Prince Baccarratti||Bela Kovacs|
|TV Announcers||Jack Narz, George Barclay, Frank Bingman|
|Radio Announcers||Dick Tufeld, Dick Wesson|
|Producers||Mike Moser, Dik Darley|
|Executive Producer||Mike Devery, Helen Moser|
|Associate Producer||Bela Kovacs|
|TV Director||Dik Darley|
|Radio Director||Larry Robertson|
|Assistant Writer||Maurice Hill|
|Technical Director||Irwin Stanton, Bob Trachinger|
|Production Managers||Darrell Ross, E. Carlton Winckler|
|Audio Engineers||Charles Lewis, Jim Banks, Tom Ashton|
|Art Directors||Carl Macauley, Seymour Klate|
|Engineering Effects||Cameron Pierce, Al Teany|
|Cameraman||Alex Quiroga, John DeMoss|
|Video Engineer||Gene Lukowski|
|Musical Director||Lew Spence|
|Stage Manager||Jim Johnson|
|Kids in Commercials||Tony Sides, Isa Ashdown, Lonnie Burr|
Research includes FILMFAX, SPACE PATROL MEMORIES by Nina Bara and SPACE ACADEMY NEWSLETTER with recent corrections to dates and ABC station call letters by Ronnie James.
|You might enjoy visiting this SPACE PATROL webpage as well:
and http://www.slick-net.com/space/patrol/index.phtml and http://www.xminusone.com/97_space_patrol_shows.htm
In response to numerous requests about where you can obtain copies of episodes on video, I recently discovered this website offering 16 tapes (69 episodes): http://www.swapsale.com/spatrolt.htm I have not dealt with them myself so please do not contact me if you have any complaints.
I have recently found 2 episodes on veoh.com, but don't know how much longer they'll be there; they take forever to load!
97 episodes of the radio series are available at otr.net While the plots are a bit repetitive, the productions are actually smoother than the TV series, because the cast was able to read the scripts and didn't have to memorize lines or deal with the problems that plagued live TV in the '50s.
If you enjoyed reading my synopses/opinions of SPACE PATROL, I recently have collected some of the reviews I wrote for CINEFANTASTIQUE under the title TIME CAPSULE, and these are now available in book form. Click here for details.