Friday, June 13, 2008

Route 66: An Appreciation - Part 1

Route 66 aired on CBS from October 1960 to March 1964. The premise was simple but revolutionary: two men in their 20s roaming the back roads of America, working at odd jobs, just trying to find “where they fit in”. The young men were Tod Stiles, an ivy-leaguer grieving over the sudden death of his father, and Buzz Murdoch, a brooding, tough-as-nails product of Hell’s Kitchen who grew up literally on the streets. While the two young men couldn’t be more different, they share a unique bond: a restlessness, a desire to see what is really out there before making the big choices that will guide the rest of their lives. So Tod (Martin Milner) and Buzz (George Maharis) tie their duffel bags (one just can’t have too many duffels on a trip like this) onto the luggage rack of Tod’s Corvette, and set off to experience the America of the early 1960s, a land of possibilities, both exhilarating and tragic.

From the beginning, the production team of Herbert Leonard (Herbert Leonard) and Stirling Silliphant ( stop that) wanted their concept to look and feel radically different from anything else on TV, and they had an extraordinary idea of how to achieve it. Each episode would be shot on actual locations across the US, and the script would reference those locations. No more substituting Griffith Park for Ohio or The Pier in Santa Monica for the Gulf Coast. If the script called for Mobile, Alabama, by God, the whole company would pack up and go there. This doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but leaving the back lot to film a TV show in 1960 was an idea that bordered on fiscal madness. Film equipment was big and heavy back then. Film stocks were slow, and enormous lights with big appetites for power were needed for interior and night scenes. Equally strong and powerful men with big trucks were needed just to move all this apparatus from place to place. IATSE and Teamsters Union men that had to be housed and fed at great expense somewhere in the backwaters of America. Sound recording was perilous too, and there’s more than a few scenes in Route 66 where dramatic moments are accompanied by disconcerting airplane or street noise.

These contingencies made for accountant-choking budget projections, but someone at CBS had the brilliant idea of approaching the Chevrolet division at General Motors in search of underwriting. It was a natural, since the uber-cool Corvette was in essence the third star of the series, and if Route 66 was successful, it would likely create a run on Chevy showrooms throughout the country. It didn’t hurt that the Corvette had one of the highest profit margins of any vehicle in the GM stable, and the thought of a sales spike gave the Detroit execs weak-kneed vapors of joy. So a deal was done, martini glasses were clinked, and CBS had a big fat bank roll that somehow, via some miracle, might be enough dough to get Route 66 on the air. But not to worry, Leonard and Silliphant’s gamble proved wise. Route 66 was a big hit in it’s day, and it remains a hallmark of American television almost 50 years later.

Short compilation discs and bootleg DVDs of Route 66 have been available for years, but the good people at Roxbury and Infinity Entertainment have decided to put an authorized complete episode package on the market, and while the results are far from perfect, it beats my old crumbling (do electrons crumble?) off-air Nick At Nite recordings from the 80s. Yes, those wretched VHS tapes, complete with their singularly annoying Pocket Fisherman commercials (even in my youth, I was never fast enough with the pause button).

In the coming weeks, I will be writing more about this extraordinary TV series and the Roxbury/ Infinity releases (there is some possible big breaking news on that front I must research further). I will be highlighting some of the better episodes, as well as the great guest stars, especially the lesser known ones. It is my hope that more people will become aware of this series and grow to appreciate it. In the meantime, check out these new releases and see this marvelous time capsule for yourself.

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