Batman: Hello and Goodbye

(Inasmuch as this is a music blog, the following post is off-topic. Inasmuch as this blog is a sort of memoir, this post is squarely on-topic.)

Fifty years ago today, I was not quite six years old and in kindergarten at Lincoln School. Fifty years ago tonight (or thereabouts), I fell into the first pop-culture phenomenon I ever participated in directly.

On Wednesday, January 12, 1966, Batman premiered on ABC-TV. I don’t know if I was watching that night, but if not, it wouldn’t be long before I was part of the throng of viewers sweating out the cliffhanger every week. By spring, it would be so popular with kids that my kindergarten teacher asked us to stop bringing Batman stuff to show and tell.

(I had, for some reason, an official Batman wastebasket, although I don’t think I took it to show and tell. It’s still in service today, in the little-used upstairs bathroom of Mom and Dad’s house.)

To adult viewers, Batman was a campy satire on superhero comics; teenagers got the added spice of contemporary pop-culture references. But six-year-olds could take it absolutely straight, and I did. I spent many a Thursday contemplating the horrible fix facing Batman and Robin at the hands of some villain and fearing they might not make it out.

I have revisited Batman occasionally over the years. The show ran in syndication on local stations throughout the 70s, turned up on Nick at Nite during that channel’s heyday in the late 80s and early 90s, and aired on various other cable channels thereafter. Some channel high up on our satellite dish ran it briefly within the last four or five years, and I watched a lot of episodes then.

When the first season came out on DVD last year, I picked it up, and I have been working my way through the series again. Adam West’s parody of upright whitebread American manhood is hilarious, but the best member of the cast is Neil Hamilton, who is never better as Commissioner Gordon than when, in the middle of some speech about Batman’s heroism, he breaks the fourth wall with a look that says, “This is ridiculous, but let’s just go with it.” As Alfred, Alan Napier is the most likable member of the cast. On the other hand, Burt Ward plays Robin with over-the-top gosh-yes sincerity, and without the self-awareness of West, Napier, and Hamilton, can be pretty annoying. Stafford Repp (Chief O’Hara) and Madge Blake (Aunt Harriet) have the most thankless roles in TV; O’Hara sucks at his job and Harriet is oblivious to everything.

Of the four major villains, Frank Gorshin as the Riddler is the best; he conjures up genuine menace while being funny at the same time. The rest—the Joker, the Penguin, and Catwoman—are fine, although everything you have read about Cesar Romero’s disinterest in playing the Joker comes through on-screen even in the first season. Of the minor villains, the one that made the biggest impression on six-year-old me was Mr. Freeze. I couldn’t figure out how somebody could live only at 50 below zero, and I found him pretty scary. (I was freaked out by False Face, too. Not when I was six—a couple of weeks ago when I watched his episode again.)

The fun in watching Batman now is in playing spot-the-stars: for example, a smoking hot pre-fame Jill St. John appears in the very first episode broadcast. A procession of 60s starlets and Hollywood bit players rolls by as various molls and henchmen. I have yet to see any of the famous wall-climbing cameos (Jerry Lewis, Dick Clark, Don Ho, and others; see all of them here), which were reportedly arranged without contracts and thus became one of the obstacles to the DVD release. But the show doesn’t hold my attention beyond that. I find myself fiddling with my phone and looking at the DVD display to see how much time is left in each episode.

I wanted to like the newly restored and unedited Batman, just as I did when I was six. But I don’t, not really. I haven’t put away all of my childish things, but I’m going to bid goodbye to this one.

7 responses

  1. My favorite scene was when Batman told everyone on the radio to turn their radios off so he could to speak to the villain. Then he said OK you can turn them back on now and hundreds of hands clicked on their radios. I cracked up 🤗

  2. I love this post. My Batman was The Dukes of Hazzard; I would have been around 3 or 4 when it first aired, and my older sibs/cousins loved it. I had all these wonderful memories of piling up in front of the TV with them to watch it, and so when it started to air again in reruns when I was in college, I couldn’t wait to see again.

    I have never been so disappointed in all my born days. All that aged well were, in order: Waylon Jennings’ theme song, the General Lee, Daisy’s Jeep, and Bo Duke’s ass in jeans.

    1. Second the Dukes comment. Except I’ve never actually gone back to watch it. I’m sure my reaction would mirror yours.

      1. Don’t ever. Preserve it in your memory.

  3. I didn’t know it at the time but this was a major event in the life of this then 5 year old. The only other times that pop culture had this much impact on me was when I bought my first 45 (American Pie) and watched the premier of Saturday Night Live. At the time I thought the Batman pilot was just about perfect TV but the quality of writing went down hill from there. I guess it’s kinda like the first time you had sex, it was a life changing event but looking back on the quality of the production it doesn’t hold up over time.

  4. I think that composer/arranger/bandleader Neal Hefti must have made more money on the Batman theme (I bought the 45 somewhere along the way) than just about anything else he ever did (I hope so.) And the onomatopoeic graphics still provide great pop art visuals. I loved the show as a kid for its camp self-awareness…but it still seemed to make the 12 cent comics on the newsstand seem slightly more important back then…

    Was this not the first time ABC or other network used the “Second Season” handle to promote the January premiere of Batman in ’66? And a great trivia question: What was the show that came on after Batman? A: “Blue Light” with Robert Goulet, a WW2 series also premiering that night on ABC. Nobody remembers that one…

    Nice read, Jim. I didn’t realize that it was 50 years ago. Wow.

  5. Favorite trivia nugget I didn’t include: the Batman time slot on Wednesday night was previously occupied by Shindig.

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