February 3, 2012

The ghosts of Route 66

If you’re like me*, Friday night in your household is Route 66 night.  Route 66 was the iconic CBS series of the early 60s, in which Tod and Buz (Martin Milner and George Maharis), two guys with no roots but a thirst for adventure and a willingness to try anything, travelled across America in a Corvette that looked as if it should have been red and white but was in fact blue, working odd jobs while looking for the meaning of life.  The show ran for four seasons, on Friday nights – and so the DVD version runs on Friday nights in our household.

*And in this case, I'm fairly sure you aren't.

Route 66 was a unique show in that every episode was shot on location in some part of the United States, though not necessarily along the real Route 66. Although Tod and Buz were the stars, they often remained in the background while the guest stars and their stories too center stage, which at times gave the series the feel of an anthology.

It could be preachy (the series creator and writer of many of its episodes was Stirling Silliphant, a brilliant writer (and creator of the legendary police series Naked City) who was second to none when it came to earnest discussion of “important” issues), and there are episodes in which you wish Tod and Buz were more (or less) involved in the plot than they are. For all that, though, Route 66 is a virtually unparalleled look at the America of the late 50s and early 60s – the small towns, the large cities, the unique, often ethnic, flavor of each region of the country, at a time when the culture was far less connected than it is now. It’s almost like having a mini-documentary each week, and I suspect it would function quite well as a companion to Alistair Cooke’s America in giving us a glimpse of a country that both is and was. That alone would make the show worth watching.

And it's that snapshot of time and place that makes for some memorable moments, such as last Friday's in the Hadley household. That episode was "Aren't You Surprised to See Me?" (original air date February 16, 1962) and it stars David Wayne (Inspector Queen in the great Ellery Queen series of the 70s) as a religious fanatic determined to hold a city hostage. He fails, of course, as we knew from the start, although we didn’t know just how things would reconcile themselves. Let’s put it this way – for Wayne, it didn’t end well.

But what I found interesting was the look it gave us of Dallas, Texas, less than two years before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  I don’t know how well-known Dallas was in the early 60s – it had just gotten its first professional sports team, the Cowboys (along with the AFL Texans, who would move to Kansas City at the end of that season), and I’ve always had the thought that for most people, Dallas was some remote place in the wild west, where it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see steers coming down Main Street in the middle of the day.Maybe I’m wrong about that, maybe not.

At any rate, the episode opens with Wayne’s character walking through the terminal at Love Field.  He makes a phone call, and shortly thereafter meets someone who delivers him a package.  We see him standing near the statue of the Texas Ranger that William Manchester refers to in his epic Death of a PresidentEveryone has pretty much free reign of the place, and it was just after the missus remarked on how different things were back then, when security wasn’t so important, that we see Wayne going into what is supposed to be a secure part of the airport, whereupon he begins to prepare a biological weapon with which he intends to terrorize the city. As the threat unfolds, we hear a reference to Mayor Cabell - Earle Cabell, the real mayor of Dallas, who played a prominent role in the Kennedy assassination.

Later, walking through downtown, Wayne looks down from the top of a tall building, surveying the scene around him, in much the same way that Oswald might have viewed the city from the School Book Depository. He’s on his way to a fateful encounter with Tod and Buz, who are working at an imported goods store. As Buz delivered a crate of items to the store, I thought to myself, “That building looks familiar.” And indeed it should have – it was the Trade Mart, to which JFK was headed when he was shot. Now, the fact that I could recognize the interior of the Trade Mart, specifically the catwalks that crisscrossed the main atrium, probably means I’ve been watching way too many of those JFK videos. (More irony - the Trade Mart is part of a complex called the World Trade Center.)

The point, though, is that for someone of a certain age and era the Trade Mart would have provoked an instant reaction – not quite like Ford’s Theater, but something close.* And here was a chance to see it without irony, when all it was was a merchandise mart. One thing the viewer wouldn’t have seen in the exterior shots of the Trade Mart was the memorial to JFK which now sits outside the main entrance.

*Maybe like the start you get even now when you see the Twin Towers in an old movie or TV show.

I don't want to put too fine a point on the similarities existing in this episode - besides, there's an even better example of that if you want to draw the parallels.  But it remains a point of fascination to see the ghosts in this episode.  In his book, William Manchester mentions Rita Dallas, the nurse to family patriarch Joseph Kennedy, and the shame she suddenly felt for her last name, along with the fear that people would hate her for it.  Foolish, we might think from a distance, but there's no doubt that in "Aren't You Surprised to See Me?" we see a Dallas that, less than two years later, would never be seen in the same way again. TV  

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!