Boomers Heart Robots

Boomers have had a special relationship with robots that dates back to our youth in the form of movies and toys. Basically, our robots were a link to the future in our play and imagination. There were two types of robots: those that helped us vanquish our enemies (or the task at hand) and those that would vanquish us.

There is evidence that humans have been envisioning robots as far back as the 4th century B.C. Several hundred years later, Leonardo DaVinci sketched a humanoid robot in 1495. However, use of the word “robot” is attributed to a Czech writer in 1920. The word referred to a worker or laborer, or one held in servitude for a contracted period of time.

For boomers, robots meant fun play in the 1950s and 60s. Remember the kid-friendly noise and squawk of Ideal Toy’s Mr. Machine from the unforgettable TV commercial from 1960? Wind the toy up and it swung its arms as it walked, opened its mouth as it squawked. The entire robot, made of plastic and metal, could be disassembled and put back together. It had a switch that would make the toy walk forward or in a circle.

Ideal followed up with another robot toy that let kids “control” the robot. In this case, it fired missiles at your enemy at your command. The toy industry wouldn’t dare let a toy like this one hit the shelves any more, with its numerous choking hazards and eye-poking possibilities.

Mister Boomer didn’t have robot toys, but he loved the robots in the classic 1950s sci-fi movies. Two of his favorites were Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original from 1951 with Michael Renni, not the Keanu Reeves remake).

The plot of Forbidden Planet was inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but to a young boomer, the real star of the film was Robby the Robot. He was there to help in whatever the situation called for, from moving rocks to making a fine evening dress. In the movie, Robby was portrayed by a man in a robot costume, but was listed in the credit as playing “himself.” Robby would appear in other movies and several TV shows in following years. A mechanical version of Robby was made for the TV series, Lost in Space. Many boomers will remember Robby from that TV show rather than the movie that originated the character.

The Day the Earth Stood Still was a fantastic cautionary tale about the dangers of letting our technology get the best of us — particularly our nuclear capabilities. It was the first anti-nuclear proliferation movie. Again, for a young boy, the robot character loomed large. Quite literally, the robot from another planet, Gort, was a giant among men. His handler was the alien, Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie.

Men, ever driven by ignorance, shot Klaatu, causing the robot to go into a defensive/protection mode. Gort’s weapon of choice was a laser that was fired when its eyewear visor swung open. Nothing could stop Gort, as it melted guns and even tanks, while leaving humans untouched whenever possible. Ultimately, Patricia Neal repeated the famous line spoken earlier by Klaatu himself, before he passed out: “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto.” Gort carried Klaatu back to the space ship and brought him back to life with the help of the onboard technology.

If you haven’t seen either of these movies in a while, Mister B humbly suggests you go directly to your movie ship list and add them now. You’ll find them great fun in a nostalgic way, and terrific as an adult boomer.

If you’re feeling nostalgic for robot toys, including the ever-popular Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots that we haven’t even mentioned, rest assured that online auctions have plenty available for bidding. In fact, a quick check reveals you can still get an original Mr. Machine for less than $20 (out of the box, of course).

What memories of robots dance through your boomer past? Did they give you nightmares or hours of fun … or both?

Yabba Dabba Do! Fred and Wilma Flintstone Celebrate 50 Years

This past week, another milestone in the annals of boomer TV history was reached as we marked the fiftieth year since the first airing of The Flintstones on September 30, 1960. Its six-season run made television history, and enshrined itself into the hearts and minds of boomers everywhere.

The Hanna-Barbera Productions show was a prime time animated series that was aimed more at adults than children. It followed the day-to-day life of a working man, Fred Flintstone, and his wife, Wilma, in the town of Bedrock. Their neighbors, Barney and Betty Rubble, were featured in each episode, too. In other words, it was very much like a cartoon version of The Honeymooners. In fact, it has been said that Fred’s voice, as portrayed by voice actor Alan Reed in early episodes, was an imitation of Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Cramden character. (In the original pilot episode, Daws Butler provided Fred’s voice).

Fred and Barney worked at the local quarry, where, in keeping with the rock pun motif of Flintstones names, their boss was Mr. Slate. Meanwhile, Wilma and Betty remained in the home, as was the custom for women in the early 1960s.

During the third season, Wilma became pregnant and, following the pattern of TV sitcoms like I Love Lucy before it, had baby Pebbles in a story line that spanned several episodes. At that point, the show’s writing became more family-oriented. This was reflected in the choice of ad sponsorship; the first three years had been sponsored by Winston cigarettes, while the fourth season started a new relationship with sponsor Welch’s juice and jellies.

In this clip, horror of horrors! Can you believe the main characters are smoking and selling cigarettes in prime time? We can’t imagine that today. Also of special note is the theme song at the end of the show. It’s basically the “This Is It!” song from the “Bugs Bunny Show.” Later, it was changed to the “Meet the Flintstones” song of which most of us can recall the lyrics: “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones/ They’re a modern stoneage family…”

While Fred and Wilma became adjusted to parenthood, their neighbors voiced frustration at not being able to have a baby of their own. Thus, The Flintstones became the first animated series to address the issue of infertility. As a result, in the fourth season, Betty and Barney adopted a child of their own, a son, and called him Bamm-Bamm for the only words he would say as a baby. Again reflecting a working-class suburban family’s actions, pets would follow. Early on, the Flintstones had a sabertooth-tiger “cat.” Later, a barking pet dinosaur named Dino was introduced. The Rubbles’ pet was named Hoppy, a cross between a dinosaur and a kangaroo.

Mister Boomer vividly recalls watching The Flintstones every week on the family’s black & white Sylvania TV. As did most boomer households, the Mister Boomer family had only one TV. This meant that family viewing indeed meant the entire family, in the same room, watching the same programs. That’s a thought that could terrify many a teenager today.

Mister B particularly liked the puns, mostly centered on rock-named phrases. Even more than the puns, though, he enjoyed the wonderfully clever versions of mechanical apparatuses that the characters employed. Everything inanimate was made of carved stone, including the refrigerator. But the writers had inhabited a world where people and dinosaurs lived together, and the animals would assist the people by willingly becoming the power behind their machines. They often spoke directly to the audience about their role with tongue-in-cheek phrases like, “It’s a living!” Everyone remembers the Flintstone car, which was famously powered by the feet of its occupants. Mister Boomer liked the dinosaur lawn mower. The animal was tied to a wood-handled cart, chopping grass with its teeth as quickly as Wilma pushed the gizmo. There was the prehistoric record player, where Fred would tilt a bird on a perch until its beak met the record to act as a phonograph needle; more birds that squawked for Fred’s car horn when he squeezed them; a mammoth’s trunk to disperse water for a shower; Brontosaurus-like cranes for Fred’s work in the Quarry, and others.

Along with Beany and Cecil and Rocky and Bullwinkle, Mister Boomer grew up enjoying The Flintstones. Thanks to DVDs and the Internet, we can still tune in to the sharp, though often slapstick, wit and wisdom of these prime time cartoon heroes of our youth.

What’s your favorite Flintstones memory, boomers?