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March, 2007 : Essay:

Captain Video

Not too long ago, I observed another birthday, No. 58 in a series, and like any geezer with one foot in the grave I cast my thoughts back, back...all the way back to Captain Video, as it happens. That's more than half a century ago. Ouch.

Captain Video, for the benefit of the more newly minted among my faithful readers, was the first futuristic show created for the futuristic medium of television, making its début on the Du Mont Television Network on June 27, 1949, and lasting through to April 1, 1955. Its eponymous hero was described in a press release as a "combination of Einstein, King Arthur and Marco Polo"; the show's announcer enlarged on this theme and threw in a commercial message for good measure:

POST! POST! The cereals you like the most! The cereals made by Post...take you to the secret mountain retreat of Captain Video! Master of Space! Hero of Science! Captain of the Video Rangers! Operating from his secret mountain headquarters on the planet Earth, Captain Video rallies men of good will and leads them against the forces of evil everywhere! As he rockets from planet to planet, let us follow the champion of justice, truth and freedom throughout the universe! Stand by for...Captain Video...and his Video Rangers!

The captain was played first by husky, square-jawed Richard Coogan, then, after a year and a half, by even huskier squarer-jawed six-foot-two Al Hodge, who had been radio's Green Hornet from 1936 to 1943. Don Hastings portrayed a juvenile sidekick never addressed as or called anything except The Video Ranger. The forces of evil alluded to in the show's opening included Mook the Moon Man, Spartak of the Black Planet, and the "combined forces of the Near East, the Far East and Eastern Europe," but found their most durable embodiment in a role that would exhaust four actors in six years, that of Dr. Pauli, who, as a Variety reviewer remarked in 1949, "even sneers with a Germanic expression." Dialogue tended toward terseness, incomprehensibility, or both at once, e.g., "Throw out the interlocks! Hand me the opticon scillometer!"

The opticon scillometer and many another gizmo consisted of surplus auto parts mated to odds and ends collected, often at the last minute, from the Wanamaker's department store located downstairs from the studio. These outlays were debited from the show's weekly prop budget: $25.00. Special visual effects? Nonexistent, unless you count the opening long shot of the captain's secret mountain headquarters. Captain Video, with its cardboard rocketship interiors and its football helmets passed off as headgear for spacefarers—and without so much as stock footage of V-2 rockets blasting off—was cheap-looking, wretchedly and visibly so. Its viewers had to settle for being told rather than shown.

Television's first space opera hedged its bets by serving up hoss opera as well: during each show, Captain Video would suspend all futuristic activity to monitor the activities of some range-ridin' Video Ranger in a segment of an old B-western. "The western is there," explained Du Mont Vice President James L. Caddigan, "to give us the pace and action that we can't get in a live studio production. The hero of the western is always supposed to be an agent of Captain Video's—that sort of ties it together." Well, that was Mr. Caddigan's opinion.

Even putting aside the range-ridin' Video Rangers (and the occasional burnoose-wearing, camel-riding Video Ranger as well) who galloped through Captain Video until 1953, I imagine that most grown-ups would have empathized with Olga Druce, who, on becoming the show's producer in the summer of 1952, complained, "These scripts aren't even in English!" Determined on improvement, she fired all the writers, signed on Lester Del Rey as a consultant, and solicited teleplays from an impressive roster of real actual science-fiction writers: Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Sheckley, C. M. Kornbluth, Don Wilcox, James Blish, Milton Lesser, Damon Knight, Isaac Asimov, Walter M. Miller, Jr., and J. T. McIntosh. The show also made strides in the special-effects department, through the use of model rocketships, papier-mâché, and dry ice.

Captain Video was television's first merchandising bonanza, generating a fabulously cheesy movie serial starring Judd Holdren, a not-bad comic book (complete with Wild West interlude), and $50 million a year from a seed catalogue's worth of premiums such as space helmets, decoder badges, flying-saucer rings, photo-printing rings, and toy rocket launchers. Inevitably—because, as the radio humorist Fred Allen put it, imitation is the sincerest form of television—it also spun off Secret Files of Captain Video to enliven Saturday mornings during the 1953-54 season, and, predictably, spawned a number of small-screen rivals such as Space Patrol and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.

No less predictably, it drew fire from spoilsport adults. In October 1954, Mrs. Clara S. Logan of Los Angeles, president of the National Association for Better Radio and Television, testified during two days of hearings before the Senate Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee that "crime and violence are the dominating factors in approximately 40 percent of all children's TV programs." She cited Captain Video as one of the "most objectionable."

Al Hodge also testified at the hearings—dressed in a business suit rather than his space uniform, but nevertheless consistently addressed by subcommittee members as "Captain": a portent of things to come. Hodge pointed out that his show's scriptwriters carefully avoided even using the word "kill," that his Video Rangers subdued evil doers painlessly, with "stun guns," then packed them off to a "rehabilitation center" for presumably painless behavior modification. As Time Magazine reported, "Questioned by Senator Henrickson about the good taste of tromping on an enemy's hands, Captain Video explained that it would only be done in self-defense to disarm a foe."

Late the following month came reports of a merger in the works between American Broadcasting-Paramount Theaters and Du Mont, respectively the third- and fourth-ranked television networks. All along, Du Mont could have used a few more cash cows like Captain Video. Allen Balcolm Du Mont, called the Father of Television, had perfected the first commercially practical cathode-ray tube in 1931, introduced the first home television sets in 1938, and established a network of three stations in 1941. During the decade following World War II, the TV sets made money, the network lost it—Du Mont's only hit show apart from Captain Video was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's Life Is Worth Living, which claimed 20 million viewers. Finally, the Father of Television decided to sell out.

As part of his deal with American Broadcasting, ABC would appropriate all Du Mont network programs for use in its own nightly program schedule. It transpired that "all" did not include Captain Video, whose cancellation was announced in March 1955. Just as the show had been tied to Du Mont, however, Hodge was tied to the character who, by the following November, had been demoted to a supporting role in a local show called Wonderama, on which the Master of Space, the Hero of Science, shared billing with a cooking instructor and a drawing teacher.

By August 1957, Captain Video had departed from the airwaves entirely, yet Hodge, now effectively unemployed as an actor, soldiered on in the role out of necessity. "Guess who's opening Macy's camp center this year?" trumpeted ads in April 1958. Captain Video, of course. "He has fantastic pull with the kids," according to a publicity man for Manhattan's largest department store. "He can pack 2,000 in 400 square feet!" Apparently, nobody cared, as Time Magazine observed,

that Captain Video is no longer battling extraterrestrial badmen in outer galaxies. For though the show is dead, the character lives on, like a stubborn ghost, to haunt Actor Al Hodge.... "I've made more personal appearances as Captain Video since I've been off the show than I ever did on it," says Hodge. "I've been at the opening of every Grand Union supermarket, every doughnut shop around New York in the past six months. How do I lick it? What do I do?"

He had become, as Time's reporter put it, "a historic character of TV folklore uncomfortably survived by himself." Determined to "get out of that damned Video suit" and with a family to support, he auditioned for dramatic parts and sought work in commercials. The inevitable reaction from casting directors was some variation on "Hello there, Video, what can we do for you?" Finally, he abandoned acting, took other jobs—real estate agent, glove salesman, security guard. He wound up divorced, broke, alone, in a hotel room strewn with mementos, and in April 1979 died of lung disease. He was 66 years old, which seems younger to me today (or at least not all that old) than it ever has before.

The final irony is that relatively few examples survive of the show that made Al Hodge an early victim of "TV's power to create a fictive personality that neither make-believe limbo nor enduring flesh can destroy." Kinescope recordings, however, virtually guaranteed obsolescence. Named after the cathode ray tube in a television receiver which translates electrical signals into a picture on a lighted screen, kinescopes were 16mm or 35mm film recordings of images directly from a television monitor screen. The result was a grainy, blotchy, fuzzy copy, all that remains of many programs originally broadcast "live" from studios in the days before videotape. The handful of Captain Video episodes I have seen are a few generations removed from live TV, having passed through kinescopes, cable TV, videotape, finally to DVD. The role Al Hodge could never escape in his lifetime has itself all but vanished over the event horizon of human memory.


Copyright © 2007, Steven Utley. All Rights Reserved.

About Steven Utley

Steven Utley is the author of the story collections Ghost Seas (1997), The Beasts of Love (2005), and Where or When (2006), and co-editor (with Michael Bishop) of the anthology Passing for Human, forthcoming from PS Publishing in 2008.

COMMENTS!

Mar 12, 19:54 by IROSF
A thread to discuss Steven Utley's essay on TV's first SF hero.

The article can be found here.
Mar 13, 06:00 by Michael Bishop
I'm three years older than Steven, but have no authentic era-specific memories of the program or the character called Captain Video, and I can't recall poor Hodge's face. I'm grateful to Steven for summoning up both the program and the man, and the melancholy fate of the actor who briefly owed his livelihood to the character but too soon his obsolescence as a performer. I might add here that Steven's story collections The Beasts of Love and Where or When have long since appeared from Wheatland Press and PS Publishing, respectively, and that more collected Utleyarns are likely on their way, including a couple of editing projects. Anyway, it's good to see a little of the early history of televised sf preserved in such a mordantly concise piece here at The Internet Review of Science Fiction.
Mar 14, 16:25 by Jessica Reisman
Another thoroughly enjoyable Utley essay. Thanks, IROSF!
Mar 19, 14:13 by Joe Prisco
Agreed; thank you and well done!
Mar 22, 09:39 by Scott Lawson
And yet again....

Thanks for the informative essay and the good writing.

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