Hey, Hey, Boomers Loved “The Monkees”

Next week marks the fiftieth anniversary of a boomer-era TV anomaly: the final episode of The Monkees TV series was aired on March 25, 1968. Many boomers have forgotten or perhaps did not know that the group was actually made for the TV show, and not the other way around. The concept for the show was to be about a rock ‘n roll band looking for their big break. An ad was published in trade publications and hundreds of musicians and actors auditioned for the parts.

The four selected to play the band members were Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith — two actors and two musicians. Micky had previously appeared in the TV show, Circus Boy (1956-58), but he also sang and played guitar with several bands in the early ’60s. Davy gained his acting chops by playing The Artful Dodger in Oliver! (1964) on the London stage, and later, on Broadway. Peter was a musician who was recommended for the role by Stephen Stills. Stills was offered the job, but didn’t have any interest in doing a TV series. Instead, he took Peter Tork to the audition, telling the producers that Tork was often mistaken for him. Michael was a musician who rode to his audition on a motorcycle. He wore a wool hat to keep his hair out of his eyes on the ride, and kept it on for his screen test. The casting directors thought it was a nice quirky addition and nicknamed him “Wool Hat.” The first episode of the show refers to Michael with that nickname, and Michael’s hat became part of his persona.

NBC bought the concept in an effort to appeal to young viewers — boomers. The concept was developed and the pilot episode was written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker. It aired September 12, 1966. After the initial episode, NBC took control of the writing and Mazursky and Tucker were left out. Mazursky and Tucker went on to write the film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) for which they were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The duo also was responsible for I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! (1968) and had many other writing, acting and directing credits.

The Monkees was conceived as absurdist, surreal humor — sort of like The Marx Brothers on acid. It emulated avante garde films of the day with quick cuts, ample improvisation and breaking the fourth wall. Critics quickly compared The Monkees to The Beatles characters in A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Many saw Mickey as John, Davy as Paul, Michael as George and Peter as Ringo. The writers agreed they had been influenced by the Richard Lester film.

The boys were coached on comedy improvisation, but since it was increasingly improvised, early episodes placed sections of the four actors’ screen tests or short Q & A formats to fill remaining time. As the show progressed, time was filled with the band singing. It was those song “videos” that Mister Boomer and his sister would wait for.

Davy Jones is quoted as saying, “Ours was the kind of show you could look at or look away from — it had no deep plot. If you missed five minutes while you ate your dinner you didn’t exactly lose the whole thread, you know what I mean? It was all harmless, happy fun. No hidden meanings.”*

Mister Boomer watched the show through its entire run, like other boomers. It reminded him of The Three Stooges, but with less violence. He hadn’t seen many Marx Brothers movies at that juncture. The all-around absurdity reminded him of the Adam West Batman series that aired during the same seasons as The Monkees.

There was a lot to like about the show for boomers; girls thought Davy was cute and hung up posters of him on their bedroom walls, while boomer boys bought models of the Monkeemobile. Then there was the music. Fifty years later, boomers can still sing more of The Monkees theme song than they can of Auld Lang Syne! Mister Boomer’s sister was partial to Daydream Believer and I Want to be Free, while Mister B liked (I’m not Your) Stepping Stone, A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You and Valleri. His mother was a fan of Last Train to Clarksville.

It was only years later that Mister Boomer could fully appreciate the artistry — if one can call it that — of their performances and that of their fellow actors on that show. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Mister B saw an episode in color!

Did you watch The Monkees on TV during its original run, boomers?

*Quote appears in Mutant Monkees Meet the Masters of the Multimedia Manipulation Machine! by Davy Jones and Alan Green; Click! Publishing, 1992

Boomers Watched Scary Weekend Late-Night TV Programs

At the beginning of the Baby Boom, television broadcasting expanded to make boomers the first TV generation. By 1955, half of all U.S. homes owned a TV, so the next issue for broadcasters was to fill the programming day. From the early days of four-hour prime time broadcasting (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.), the burgeoning networks had grown the broadcast day to twenty hours, signing off the air at 2 a.m.

The dilemma broadcasters faced was what to put on the air after 11 p.m. on weekends, when most people (and all good Baby Boom children!) were already in bed. While the networks experimented with late-night programming during the week (i.e., Broadway Open House in 1950, The Tonight Show in 1952), it wasn’t as lucrative to them in terms of advertiser sponsorship. For the most part, late-night broadcasting was left up to locally-owned stations. The cheapest way for them to fill the time was by airing old movies.

As the 1950s became the 1960s, many stations were airing syndicated segments of movies from the horror genre on weekends in the time between midnight and 2 a.m. Some had a voiceover actor to introduce the film, then disappear until there was a commercial break or the film ended — whichever came first since it was difficult to sell late-night ad space. Most had a local host or hostess who was often dressed as a ghoul, vampire or monster themselves to introduce the movie of the night. While the hosts may have been adept at slapstick and schlock with a distinct feeling of improvised scripting, the movies were from Hollywood — often B movies but also top-rated films like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. Various regional favorite hosts emerged (such as Vampira on the West Coast).

Their success drew copy cats from other regions, to the point that several used the same titles for their programs even though each region generated their own content on either end of the movie being aired. Some of these program titles included Nightmare Theater, Creature Features, Chiller Theater and the most famous of them all, Shock Theater. Shock Theater became synonymous with the genre, so much so that the title is now considered a generic name for programs airing late-night movies from classic horror films of the 1930s and ’40s to the sci-fi and Japanese monster movies of the ’50s and ’60s.

Shock Theater began as a syndicated package of Universal/Screen Gems classics. The originally syndicated package ran from 1957 to ’59. There was a version of the movie package under the umbrella title of Shock! airing until the 1980s. Mister Boomer and his siblings were in bed long before the shows came on, though his father was a late-night TV watcher/sleeper. Mister B, a light sleeper, would wake up when the TV broadcast ended and white noise filtered into his bedroom down the hall. He’d turn off the TV and shut the light, then head back to bed.

Mister Boomer saw his classic horror films mostly at Saturday matinees at the movies, but later enjoyed them on TV during daytime or nighttime broadcasts. He was well-versed in everything from Abbott and Costello Meets the Mummy to creepy Vincent Price movies like House of Wax. There is one time, however, that Mister B recalls seeing Shock Theater. He believes he was in the third grade when a classmate held a sleepover with Mister B and a couple of his friends. After the boy’s parents went to bed and the house was dark, the group made their way to the TV to watch Shock Theater. Mister Boomer was frightened that the boy’s parents would get up and be angry with them, but that did not happen. Mister Boomer would view a Shock Theater program.

Mister B remembers that the movie that night was Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). It didn’t matter that the film was in black & white (as was the capability of the TV set); the movie scared the bejeebus out of him. There was no other movie that gave him more nightmares than that one episode of Shock Theater, watched in the dark in a strange home in the middle of the night.

Did you watch Shock Theater or weekend late-night scary movies in the 1950s and ’60s, boomers?