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The Twilight Zone: Science & Superstition
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 2005 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine

 

 If you're a typical baby boomer, the chances are that you saw and enjoyed The Twilight Zone. It remains one of the most popular shows from the golden age of television. It harkens back to a time when audiences were willing to suspend their belief in exchange for a thrill. It lasted from 1959 to 1964, totaling an impressive 151 episodes. At the heart of the series was Rod Serling. He was the Executive Producer, narrator, and main writer. In the first season, he wrote 80% of the scripts, and he was still writing almost half of them by the fifth season.

Yet few would remember who Serling was if he hadn't made himself the host of the show. The opening scene would begin and within a few minutes, the camera would pan over to a dark haired gentleman who would address the audience directly, providing background and suggesting future events. Even if the story itself was rather plain, viewers would look forward to Serling's dark observations, eagerly awaiting his omniscient voice to return and underline the irony of the victim's plight. He was like a grim god watching from afar, shaking his head while the foolish mortals tried every week to beat fate, but instead, met it for our entertainment.

Rittenhouse Archives has recently released their fourth trading card series dedicated to The Twilight Zone called Science and Superstition. Since there are indications that this may be the last installment in the T-Zone franchise, now seems a good time to reflect back at the groundbreaking television series.

Much of the success of The Twilight Zone is due to Serling himself. He was so good as the host, it's difficult to imagine that the producers originally wanted someone else. They preferred Westbrook Van Voorhis (rejected because he was too pompous sounding) and then Orson Welles (who wanted too much money). Serling convinced them to let him do the opening and closing voice-overs, but the task became more difficult as the series started to imitate the way John Newland (host of One Step Beyond) would actually appear on screen at the beginning and conclusion of each story. Suddenly, Serling was in front of an audience of 22 million, and he hadn't acted since college. His confidence was undermined further when directors tried to change his habit of talking out of the side of his mouth and through his teeth. The more they tried to "improve" him, the more self conscious he became. Finally, they gave up and let Serling be himself... and it became a trademark of sorts. But he never got over his nerves. Even after five long seasons, he continued to remain a sweating, nervous wreck whenever he stood before the camera. He was so uptight about it, he brought his own supply of spare laundry to each session, since he sweated though one shirt per take!

Some enthusiastic fans think Serling was the genius behind T-Zone's best stories. Serling was an excellent writer, but there were others who were even more creative. (Many of his most famous scripts were actually adaptations of other writer's stories, including To Serve Man.) The most original writer on the show was undoubtedly Richard Matheson. He wrote Nightmare At 20,000 Feet, Nick Of Time, Little Girl Lost, The Invaders, and many other classics. Matheson first went to Hollywood to adapt his novel about an incredible shrinking man into the Universal movie of the same name. In the 1970s, Matheson went on to write the teleplay to Jeff Rice's Kolchak: The Nightstalker, a TV movie that broke all ratings records at the time. His stories inspired other writers like Stephen King. Suffice it to say, Matheson has become a bit of a writing legend above and beyond his Twilight Zone contributions.

The other major writer was Charles Beaumont, who wrote the most scripts after Serling, penning The Howling Man, Printer's Devil, A Nice Place To Visit, Long Live Walter Jameson, and many others. Beaumont's agent was Forrest J. Ackerman (who later became the editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland). Beaumont also wrote the cult classic, The Queen Of Outer Space, which competes with Plan Nine From Outer Space as one of the all time worst films. "I wrote the thing as a big spoof," he said, "Only trouble was the director and some of the cast didn't realize it." Beaumont was known as a very humorous and out going person. He was incredibly prolific but died tragically in 1967 at the early age of 35. He had a degenerative brain condition (perhaps Alzheimer's or Pick's Disease) which may have been triggered by the stress of his heavy work load. He was a dynamo during the show's run. In the first season, Serling, Beaumont and Matheson wrote practically all of the show's scripts.

And what stories they were. Time Enough At Last dealt with a bookworm who is harassed by his wife and bank boss, never getting enough time to read. He goes down to the vault during his lunch break one day and everyone on the surface is killed in a nuclear strike. He realizes he can finally read to his heart's content... until his only pair of glasses get smashed.

The Eye Of The Beholder was about a hideously mutated girl who gets an experimental operation to make her look normal. When the bandages are removed, she looks beautiful. She's horrified. The operation failed. On her planet, normal people look deformed and humans appear as disgusting freaks!

Many up and coming actors flocked to the show, a factor Rittenhouse Archives successfully exploited in all four T-Zone card series. Their newest effort contains a whooping four autographs. (That's 1:10 packs.) The signers are as follows (listed in order from A66 to A97): Barry Morse, Ron Howard (very limited), Joanne Linville, Collin Wilcox, Don Durant, Wright King, Mickey Rooney (limited), Sydney Pollack, Alan Sues, Lois Nettleton, Jason Wingreen (Limited, but signed twice for two different episodes), Veronica Cartwright, Dana Dillaway, Judy Strangis, Russell Johnson (limited), John Lasell, Orson Bean (limited), William Schallert, Ron Masak, Patricia Barry, Susan Gordon, Natalie Trundy, Nancy Malone, Bill Erwin, Arte Johnson (limited), Ben Cooper, Jeanne Cooper, Warren Stevens, Keven Hagen, James Doohan (limited), Ann Francis (limited), and Edson Stroll (an Album Exclusive).

The toughest regular autograph to find is Ron Howard, because only 200 were made. But there's also an "Autograph Cut card" with Rod Serling's signature (taken from old checks and correspondence). Only five of those were made and one recently sold on eBay for $2,650.00!

Hoping to hit the jackpot by finding Serling's AC-1 card isn't the only reason collectors will want to buy the cards. The 72 card base set does a good job recreating twelve episodes of the show. The episodes are The Last Night of a Jockey, Mr. Bevis, The Bard, The Passersby, Dead Man's Shoes, Back There, The Purple Testament, A Piano In The House, Night Call, A Hundred Yards Over The Rim, The Midnight Sun, and The Fugitive.

There are also 18 different "Quotable" Twilight Zone cards (1:7 packs), nine different Twilight Zone "Stars" cards (1:14 cards), a checklist (1:20 cards) and eight different "Hall of Fame" cards (1:100 packs).

Other cards not found in the boxes include the Case Topper SketchaFex card of Robbie The Robot (1 per case), The Multi-Case Incentive SketchaFex card of the Gremlin from Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1 per 2 cases), and the six case Incentive autograph card of Elizabeth Allen (the missing A15 from series 1). And finally, there are four promos. They are a convention exclusive (CP1), a general promo (P1), a website promo (P2) and an album exclusive with Serling on it (P3).

Although the four Rittenhouse series provide the last word on Serling's most famous show, he spawned other shows that were also interesting.

In 1965, he embarked on a very non-conformist Western series called The Loner. It starred Lloyd Bridges and critics liked it, but TV execs wanted more violence and less character development. It was canceled mid-season. Serling then took some time off from TV and worked on other projects, including the 1967 movie adaptation of The Planet Of The Apes.

Serling was a celebrity and did an embarrassing amount of ads and endorsements. He opined in one interview, "How can I turn those offers down? I spend eleven months on a screenplay but I get about the same money for a one-minute commercial." He also narrated the Jacques Cousteau documentary specials. He returned to hosting horror in 1971 with the spooky Night Gallery series. The series was sold to the networks on Serling's name and reputation, but in reality, he had signed away creative control. A few of his scripts were produced, but others were rejected for being "too thoughtful." He was banned from the casting sessions and had no real power on the show. Despite the shabby treatment by hot-shot execs, Serling grit his teeth and did his duty. He continued to lead TV viewers through a darkened museum every week, looking at paintings with even darker themes. When Night Gallery was canceled in 1972, Serling was probably happy to retire from TV and move to upstate New York. He taught at Ithaca College, not far from where he grew up.

Then Serling agreed to be part of a new experiment in entertainment-- at least by 1973 standards. He signed on to host Zero Hour, a mystery/ adventure anthology for radio. Hollywood probably thought he was nuts. Conventional wisdom believed that radio drama was dead, because the last series ended in 1962 with Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. They must have been pretty surprised when they saw what happened next...

Zero Hour generated tremendous interest and spawned a mini-resurgence of radio drama. Many stations began playing shows from the Old Time Radio days, and CBS began The Radio Mystery Theater, a fantasy anthology series that continued nightly for nine years.

Rod Serling died of complications following open heart surgery on June 28, 1975. He was fifty years old. Even though Zero Hour only lasted two seasons, Serling got the last laugh. Zero Hour prompted his old network to produce another fantasy anthology very similar to Twilight Zone. The CBS Radio Mystery Theater produced ten times as many episodes as Twilight Zone (exactly 1,500). The man who fought TV so hard trying to produce thoughtful, imaginative stories succeeded with radio, even though he died in the process. It was one of those darkly ironic, twist endings he was famous for.

 


Sources for this article include:

The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree © 1982, Bantam Books

Fantastic Televsion by Gary Gerani © 1977, Harmony Books

Cult TV by John Javna © 1985, Saint Martin's Press

The Best of Science Fiction TV © 1987, Harmony Books

Rittenhouse Archives at http://www.scifihobby.com

The Radio Horror Host Homepage at http://members.aol.com/radiodrama/zerohour.html

 


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