Now Boomers, Isn’t That Special (Effects)?

In our digital-everything modern era, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for younger generations to envision a time when none of it existed. We boomers on the other hand, don’t have to imagine it because we have lived before, during and beyond the digital dawning. A case in point is special effects technology.

There was nothing new about special effects in movies in the early boomer era. Every boomer is familiar with the stop-action animation of King Kong, and that film was released almost a decade before the first boomer was born. In fact, special effects in movies go back to the dawn of movie making, 50 years before King Kong. In the mid- to late-1890s, filmmaker Georges Melies developed what he called “tricks.” By employing simple techniques — like proportion alterations to stage settings that played with size and perspective, and early stop-action scenes that enabled him to show things and people appearing and disappearing — he delivered real magic to those early movie-going audiences. Yet TV was a whole different medium, and by the time the first boomers arrived in 1946, the technology for special effects hadn’t migrated to the small, black and white screen.

TV sales really started to take off after the War. The television industry had struggled with increasing its audience through the Depression and War years, but between 1949 and 1969, the number of households owning at least one TV jumped from 1 million to 44 million. That made us the first television generation. Early post-war TV days were dominated by mostly live broadcasts. The Big Three networks — CBS, NBC and ABC — had to literally film live TV broadcasts in order to get copies of programs out to affiliates. That meant there wasn’t any budgetary room — or need — for special effects.

By the early 1950s, the most popular shows on TV were variety shows with hosts such as Arthur Godfrey, Bob Hope or Jackie Gleason, situation comedies like The Goldbergs, I Love Lucy or Amos ‘n’ Andy, or game shows like You Bet Your Life or Beat the Clock. Again, not much need for special effects.

As the ’50s progressed, filmed broadcasts became more common, and the Western became a favorite genre of TV viewers. Davy Crockett, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, The Real McCoys, Rawhide and Have Gun Will Travel all appeared in the mid- to late-1950s. Finally, special effects became necessary in making TV programs, but regular movie effects could be brought to the small screen without reinventing the wheel.

The special effects explained in this You Asked For It program illustrate how rudimentary the effects were in early boomer TV programs.

The 1960s saw an explosion of sitcoms with “special effects,” among them My Favorite Martian (1963), Bewitched (1964) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965). Upon examination, however, the special effects featured in these shows weren’t anything that Georges Melies wouldn’t recognize: Raising Ray Walton’s Martian antennae, or Elizabeth Montgomery and Barbara Eden making things appear, disappear or “levitate” wasn’t taxing the medium.

At the same time that Ray Walton stood motionless facing the camera as his TV-like antennae appeared “out of his head,” another TV show was looking to push the boundaries of TV special effects: The Patty Duke Show (1963). The simple premise of two identical cousins presented a production dilemma when both parts would be played by one actress. In 1962, Patty Duke, a boomer herself, had won an Oscar at the age of 16 for her portrayal of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. She was looking for a a TV show that would allow her to further her acting prowess when The Patty Duke Show was created as a vehicle for her.

The question of how to get both characters on the same screen became a challenge for special effects personnel. There had been split-screen technology in movies long before The Patty Duke Show — take, for example, scenes from Pillow Talk (1959) with Doris Day and Rock Hudson. In that case, as in other split-screen movie scenes of the time, each side of the screen was a separate entity in and of itself. The screen often purposefully displayed a visible line between them. Now the people working on The Patty Duke Show were tasked with making it appear that Patty’s two characters were in the same scene, next to each other. With limited budget and post-production time, the main solution was to frequently picture one of the characters from behind while the other faced the camera. The back of the head that appeared onscreen belonged to actress Rita Walter, who became the stand in for either the Patty or Cathy character by donning the appropriate wig. When the two characters did appear face to face, there was often a strong vertical element between them that allowed the special effects editors an easier outlet with which to stitch the scenes together. This technique was known as a traveling matte process.

The show was quite popular for two seasons, but special effects played a role in its cancellation as well. When ABC, the network that broadcast the series, demanded that United Artists, producers of the show, film in color for the 1966 season, United Artists refused on the basis that production costs would be too high. United Artists thought ABC would seize the opportunity to negotiate a higher price for the series, but instead, they cancelled it.

Today we see stars on TV acting in scenes filmed decades ago with people long gone, and a deceased music star appearing at a live concert via a hologram. We’ve come a long way since The Patty Duke Show, boomers!

Were you a fan of the special effects that brought us The Patty Duke Show? Mister B wasn’t a big fan of the show, but he certainly remembers the theme song. C’mon, boomers, sing along: “… Our Patty loves to rock ‘n roll, a hot dog makes her lose control, what a wild duet!…”