Going Batty over BATMAN!

By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 2004 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine

 In 1966, over five dozen manufacturers made more than 500 different Batman products and sold more than $60 million worth of them. (That's 50% more than the James Bond products sold in their biggest year.) The Batstuff included Batbath Bubble soap, Batman Peanut Butter, Batman Viewmasters, the ongoing comic book series, Batman alarm clocks, Batman Halloween costumes, Batman records, plastic Batman models by Aurora, and most importantly (for the purposes of this article) Batman trading cards.

What caused such a lucrative Batcraze? The answer requires just two letters: TV.

Batman had been around since 1939, when cartoonist Bob Kane created him as a stablemate for the DC Comics character, Superman. It also became a radio series, and spawned two different movie serials in the 1940s. By 1965, pop art and comic books were making a resurgence and Batman comics were doing well. ABC took up the series and gave it to William Dozier to produce. He had never even heard of Batman. But then Columbia pictures re-released four hours of its 1940s Batman serials under the title, An Evening With Batman and Robin. It played to packed houses at college campuses around the country. Dozier discovered the college kids were laughing at the serials, which were so serious yet unrealistic, that they were unintentionally hilarious. He decided to use the same approach with his new Batman show.

ABC gave him free reign and ordered 13 episodes. Ty Hardin was Dozier's first choice for Batman, but Hardin was shooting Westerns in Italy and was unavailable. Someone showed Dozier a photo of Adam West carrying a surfboard on the beach. Dozier invited him for a screen test and was impressed with his intelligence. "I explained to [West] that it had to be played as though we were dropping a bomb on Hiroshima, with that kind of deadly seriousness. He got it right away and understood what we were trying to sell." He got the part.

West was actually Bill Anderson, son of a Washington state wheat farmer. His mother was a would-be Metropolitan opera star. One day, in the middle of a wheat field, he decided to give up farming and become an actor. He went to Stanford and was one of the college radio pioneers at KZSU. (Which happens to be the same radio station I worked for. Holy coincidence!) West also did a hitch in the Army and eventually migrated to Hawaii, where he became a radio celebrity and married a Polynesian princess. When the chance arose, he moved to Hollywood and endured seven years of bit parts before Batman. (One of them was a role in the Three Stooges last movie.)

Bert Gervis, Jr. was a starving real estate agent. He only earned $800 in commissions for all of 1965. One of the two houses he sold that year went to a producer who suggested he audition for the role of Robin. Burt was small and athletic. He was also an accomplished trumpet player, but it was his brown belt in karate that helped him win the role of Robin, the Boy Wonder. Once he discovered he was hired, he cashed in 25 cents worth of empty Coke bottles and bought eight chicken wings to celebrate with his new bride. Eighteen months later, he had a new name (Burt Ward), a Malibu beach house, a Jag, and was investing in radio stations and oil wells. Holy Jackpot!

Robin wasn't the only one who made out like a bandit in Batman. Alan Napier played Alfred, the English butler who served millionaire Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward, Dick Grayson. Napier thought the entire enterprise was the most ridiculous thing he ever heard of until he realized they paid $100K. He quickly went to work polishing the silver.

Madge Blake played Aunt Harriet, a sort of house mother who kept things moral at Wayne Manor. "That was to keep [the three men] from looking like homosexuals," recalled Dozier. "We put a woman in the house to balance the act."

But the real stars of the show were the villains. A famous voice impersonator named Frank Gorshin was so mesmerizing as The Riddler, that he was nominated for a 1966 Emmy. Cesar Romero, a vintage Saturday matinee idol, played The Joker. He refused to shave his trademark mustache for the role, but made a half-hearted attempt to conceal it beneath clown make-up. Burgess Meredith played The Penguin. He would hear fans quack, "Wah, wah, wah!" at him for years after the show. He added the trademark expression to his role to conceal coughing from the cigarette smoke. Julie Newmar, a talented flamingo dancer and Hollywood sex kitten, played The Catwoman. Others would play Catwoman as well, but Newmar would always personify the role.

The villains were not only popular, the parts looked fun! They got to ham it up and the costumes were usually a hoot. Other actors quickly clamored to guest star on the show. Their names read like a Hollywood directory of Who's Who. There was Victor Buono as King Tut. Ann Baxter as Zelda. George Sanders (and Otto Preminger and Eli Wallach) as Mr. Freeze. Roddy McDowall as The Bookworm. Art Carney as The Archer. Shelley Winters as Ma Parker. Vincent Price as Egghead. Liberace as Chandell. Carolyn Jones as Marsha Queen of Diamonds. Cliff Robinson as Shame. Maurice Evans as The Puzzler. Michael Rennie as The Sandman. Tullulah Bankhead as The Black Widow. Joan Collins as The Siren. Ethel Merman as Lola Lasagne. Rudy Vallee as Lord Marmaduke Ffogg. Milton Berle as Louie the Lilac. Zsa Zsa Gabor as Minerva. Countless others also appeared in cameo roles, poking their heads out of high rise windows as Batman and Robin climbed past. (Two typical examples include the small Sammy Davis, Jr. and the giant Addam's Family butler, Lurch.) Just imagine a modern card series with all those stars autographing signature cards!

For the second season, former ballerina turned actress Yvonne Craig joined the Dynamic Duo as Batgirl. She drove the high speed Batcycle and knocked the bad guys out with a roundhouse kick and sexy, high heeled Batboots. Alfred was the only one who knew her secret identity. She just so happened to be the daughter of the police commissioner-- the same one that had to call Batman for help whenever a costumed criminal was on the loose.

Another notable hero to appear in the second season was The Green Hornet. That's right, both Van Williams and Bruce Lee (as Kato) guest starred on Batman. Although both the Hornet and his sidekick are heroes, Batman and Robin mistake them as villains, and engage in an on-screen fight sequence. Bruce Lee, one of the best martial arts experts in modern times, could have easily cleaned Robin's clock. He actually pretended that he was angry with Burt Ward on the set, making Ward worry he was about to get clobbered on TV and in real life. It was all a joke though, and what viewers saw was a fight that ended in a draw.

With such a star-studded cast, it's hard to imagine that studio big shots wanted to pull the plug on Batman before it even aired. They tested the pilot episode on a trial audience who were supposed to press a button when they liked what they saw. They didn't. It scored an abysmal 52. Suddenly the "hands off" approach was replaced with panic stricken tinkering by the high brass. They added a laugh track and tested it once more. Again, just 52. They added an introduction informing the audience it was a comedy and to hiss the villains and cheer the heroes. Instead, they hissed everyone. ABC thought they had the worst disaster in the world on their hands, but they had already bought it and it was too late to get a replacement. The network was already at the bottom of the ratings heap, and Execs feared for their jobs.

Fortunately, Dozier was convinced that the lazy button pushers and hyperventilating higher-ups were wrong. He said, "I remember the night we tested that thing, and we went to the Beachcomber for dinner afterward, and it was a funeral procession. I remember driving home that night and I said to my wife, Ann Rutherford, who used to be an actress, 'If that goddamn machine is right and I am wrong about this, I am going to get out of the business. There is no place for me if I can be that wrong.' Well, the rest is history."

Television history, that is. Batman not only shot up to #1 overnight, it has remained one of the most syndicated TV series ever, being translated into different languages all over the world. It even raised thick Russian eyebrows when the Soviet newspaper Pravda declared, "Batman is nothing more than a glorified FBI agent, a capitalist murderer who kills his enemies beautifully, effectively and with taste, so that shoulder blades crack loudly and scalps break like cantaloupes."

Despite the negative Russian review, Batman thrilled capitalist pigs and their piglets, while emptying their piggy banks along the way. Besides the $60 million in merchandising mentioned earlier, there were also public appearances. In New York City, seven thousand children poured into Central Park to meet Batman. Another three thousand youngsters went to Shea Stadium on the same errand. After seeing that kind of kiddy response, is it any wonder Topps raced to get in on the act?

They produced five card series in a row, all dated 1966. Two of the sets were photo sets, using actual color stills from the TV series. The Batman Riddler backs are more expensive and one of the most popular of the five. There are only 38 cards in the set. They are black edged, making the slightest imperfections in the borders obvious and costly. The photos are taken from the Batman movie. The film was originally planned to be released before the TV series aired, but was postponed until after the first season aired because of sagging ratings in all of ABC's other programs. The film (and card set) featured many of the expensive props that would otherwise not have been affordable for the TV series. Things like the jet propelled Batmobile, the Bat Helicopter, the Batboat, the Bat motorcycle (complete with sidecar), the very elaborate Batcave and Batcomputer, and even a submarine for the villains to use. The bad guys were the Ferocious Four, so to speak. That is, The Riddler, The Joker, The Penguin, and The Cat Woman. (Julie Newmar was unavailable for shooting, so former Miss America, Lee Meriwether stepped into the role.) The flick featured many hilarious moments including one that appears in the cards: Batman is attacked by a shark while climbing the Bat Helicopter ladder, and drives off the giant fish with his handy can of Bat-Shark repellent. (Whew! That was a close one!) The card backs also include a short description of the action on the front, although those descriptions are not really based on the movie at all.

One of the things that makes this series so fun is the Riddles on the back that require a Bat-decoder to show the answer. (Riddle: "Why does Batman drive to the Batcave?") The collector slips the wax paper of the back and lines up two marks, revealing the answer from the jumbled letters beneath. ("It's too far to walk.") There was a decoder included in every pack, but today, they often fetch about 300 times the original cost of the pack (about $15, compared to just 5 cents). The set itself can run anywhere from $150 to $300, depending on condition.

Batman Color Photos (AKA Bat Laffs) also featured many stills from the movie, plus a few shots from the TV series. There are 55 cards in the set. No mention of the photos on the front are included on the reverse. Instead, there is a puzzle back plus a joke. (Example: "What is a bat's favorite pet? A Kitty BAT.") This series isn't as creative as the Riddler back series, but the photos are classic and it remains popular with fans. It can be found for around $200.

By far, the most common and collected of the series are the painted Batman cards. One could assume these were based on the comics, but they certainly cashed in on the hype over the TV series. Norm Saunders is said to be one of the artists, but there are others who are less talented who contributed. The overall quality is definitely mixed, but some might argue the less detailed images add to the charm of the series. All three series tend to cost around $150 per set, even though the first series has 55 cards, and the remaining ones have just 44.

The first of the three sets is often called the Orange back cards (or Black Bat version, because the card title is surrounded by a black bat graphic on the front). The backs contain a detailed story about the action featured on the front, with a graphic along side showing Batman running toward the reader.

The second series is called the Red Bat series (or "A" series). The card title is inside a red bat graphic on the front, and the back has only a short story description. The rest of the reverse is filled with a cartoon puzzle image. Each card number has the letter "A" listed after it (8A, 9A, etc.), hence the "A" series reference.

The last of the three painted series is called the Blue Bat series (or "B" series). The card title is surrounded by a blue bat on the front, and the card number is followed by the letter "B" on the reverse. This series comes in two varieties. One features a puzzle back with a brief story description, the other features a blue bat silhouette surrounding the same story description on the reverse and no puzzle. Some collectors refer to it as the "Blue Bat back" variety. (It's a little less common than the puzzle back version.)

In 1989, Topps reissued all three of the Batman painted series in a deluxe reissue edition of 143 cards. They are easy to differentiate from the originals because they have glossy fronts and the backs say "reissue 1982". The factory boxed set is often found for around $35. For those who want a cheap alternative to hunting down the originals, this is a convenient solution-- but less fun.

Thirty years after the first Batman TV program was produced, Batman is still big. It spun off several cartoon series for television, fuels the ongoing comic book franchise, and inspired four different modern motion pictures with stars ranging from Jack Nickolson, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Jim Carey, Tommy Lee Jones, Uma Thurman, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Meanwhile, Adam West and Burt Ward have continued to give speeches about their glory days as the Caped Crusaders. On one such occasion, Burt Ward was displaying his old costume at a Harvard speech. It was valued at half a million dollars. A questioner asked "When is a costume not a costume?... When it's stolen!" The lights went out and the costume vanished. Ward received photos in the mail of various students wearing the cape. It was eventually returned. The leader of the gang of thieves turned out not to be The Riddler or The Joker, but rather, another clown prince of crime: the then editor of the Harvard Lampoon and future late night NBC talk show host, Conan O'Brien. Holy Celebrity Larceny!


Bibliography (and interesting sources of more Batman television history) used in the article include:

Cult TV by John Java (©1985, St. Martin's Press)

Fantastic Television by Gary Gerani and Paul H. Schulman (©1977 Harmony Books, Inc.)

The Official Batman Batbook by Joel Eisner (©1986 Contempoary Books, Inc.)

The Sport Americana Price Guide to Non-Sports Cards by Chris Benjamin (©1992 Edgewater Book Company)

Author's taped phone interviews with various cast members of Batman (KZSU, Stanford 1989)


 

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