January, 1966. I’d been seeing commercials for a week or so for BATMAN. I was seven and to that point the only superhero comic book I had ever owned was X-MEN # 11. For all intents and purposes, I didn’t know Batman (or Robin, for that matter) at all.
Although I don’t think I did it specifically to watch BATMAN, I found myself at my friend Jeff’s house that night and Jeff’s family had just gotten a color TV. We spread out on the floor in front of the box in the corner and my world changed.
BATMAN’s first episode was unlike anything I’d ever seen before! Colorful, funny, exciting and with a bizarre, genuinely creepy villain—the Riddler. The Riddler’s laugh scared me but the way he could stop cold and go into deadly serious conversation scared me even more. Luckily, Batman and his young sidekick Robin were obviously pure and good and would keep me safe from the Riddler and others like him…but not until the following evening.
Emulating the old time serials (which inspired the BATMAN TV series), each week offered an hour of BATMAN spread out over Wednesday and Thursday nights with a seemingly impossible cliffhanger ending the first night. We were told to tune in tomorrow, “same bat-time, same bat-channel” to see if they got out alive.
Actually no one ever died on the BATMAN TV series except Jill St. John’s character Molly in the pilot and two Catwoman henchmen who accidentally shoot each other for the sake of a visual gag. It was a safe show that emphasized doing good and helping people. For kids, it was a colorful, surreal experience, even back home on my own black and white TV. For grownups, there was the humor, the outlandishness and the straight-laced performances that got it labeled “camp.” The term “camp” had previously been attached to homosexual humor and “swishy” performances but suddenly it was opened up. It was mainstream. And it was the hottest trend in America in 1966.
Overnight, superheroes, on the decline since the end of World War II, were everywhere! Comic book sales skyrocketed. Batman became the first huge merchandising bonanza. Everything was bat-this and bat-that. One enterprising entrepreneur even attempted to market a bat credit card!
As far as the actual show, it quickly became trendy to appear on it and many familiar faces began turning up as special guest villains. BATMAN was my introduction to Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero and ultimately so many others. NOT, however, Julie Newmar. Her I had enjoyed before in MY LIVING DOLL.
The one real breakout star here was Frank Gorshin. Having been cast as the Riddler in the pilot, before it became standard to cast name stars as the villains, he actually became a name star because of the role. It wasn’t until years later that I found out he had based the creepy characterization on a hopped-up version of Richard Widmark’s killer in 1947’s noir classic, KISS OF DEATH.
BATMAN was an important and influential part of my life that kept being so on various occasions over the years. We’ll revisit BATMAN soon here on THE BOOKSTEVE CHANNEL.