Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Official Space Helmet On, Captain Video!"

To this day I get excited waiting for the mailman. I have no doubt that this feeling of anticipation goes back to the days when, as a kid, I would periodically send away for some gadget or other that one of my radio or TV heroes was urging every fan to get. It usually involved sending in cereal box tops or labels from a sponsor's product. I can't explain to you the fevered excitement that could overcome a ten year old awaiting one of these giveaways to arrive in the mail. The fact that I still remember them nearly sixty tears later will give you some idea what they meant to me. When you spied that bulging envelope or small box with your name on it, suddenly all was right with the world.

There was a classic Honeymooners episode when Ed Norton drove Ralph Kramden crazy watching "Captain Video and His Video Rangers". The Captain had a teen aged sidekick who was called The Video Ranger and that's what legions of fans came to be called. I'm proud to say I was a Video Ranger! By far the greatest premium offered by Captain Video was a space helmet exactly like the one worn by the Captain himself. It cost a dollar, and it was worth it. A red dome-shaped headpiece was attached to a white plastic piece that encircled the head, and had black earphone-like bulges on the sides. It featured a curved, clear plastic visor, which could be raised for lounging around the Spaceport or lowered for blastoffs. Joining the Video Rangers earned you the coveted membership card which, once you signed your name, bound you to abide by the Code of the Rangers. (If only Bernie Madoff had been a Video Ranger we wouldn't be in this fix!)

The Lone Ranger is one of my all-time heroes. In 1954, I sent away for a Dell two-comic promotional series distributed by Cheerios that told about the origin of the Lone Ranger, how he was saved by his future friend and partner Tonto, why he wears a mask and why he uses silver bullets. I loved the Lone Ranger because he was so unassuming. He always thundered out of town on his magnificent horse Silver before anyone could acclaim his latest good deed. Who can forget the great intro to his TV show: "A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty Hi-Yo, Silver! Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The Lone Ranger rides again!" I recently checked the price of old Lone Ranger comics on e-bay; sorry Kemo Sabe, no can do.

The original comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" was hugely popular as was the radio show sponsored by Ovaltine. At the end of each radio program, listeners received a secret message that could only be decoded by sending away for the Secret Compartment Decoder Badge. In the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story," little Ralphie finally received his long-awaited Orphan Annie decoder badge in the mail. When he rushed into the bathroom to decode the day's secret message, he was disgusted to find out that it said, "Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine." It was funny, to be sure. But it wasn't accurate. Annie's secret messages, which appeared several times each week, were brief previews of what would happen in tomorrow's exciting adventure. That movie was like a time capsule of life in the 1950s, and every time I watch, I love it. I was Ralphie, right down to the burning desire to own a Red Ryder B-B gun.

The radio show "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" followed the adventures of Tom and his two sidekick cadets at the Space Academy as they train to become members of the elite Solar Guard. Kellogg's PEP sponsored a giveaway in the promotion of the show for Tom Corbett Space Cadet goggles on the back of PEP cereal boxes. Many times the actors would step out of the shows action to shamelessly proclaim the merits of PEP cereals, even using the Space Academy as a backdrop to plug the giveaways associated with the cereal. The goggles were used in the space lab and to keep down the glare from the radar deck, whatever the hell that was. Of course I had to have them. It took me a while doing errands and taking back soda deposit bottles to save the 35 cents that the goggles cost. When they finally arrived, I tore open the envelope, and looking back I can only describe my reaction using the words of a Peggy Lee song: "Is That All There Is?

Comic strips in the newspapers were popular in the 1950s. A favorite of mine was Dick Tracy by Chester Gould. Featured in the Tracy strip were Dick's partner with the unlikely name of Sam Catchem, Tess Trueheart, Tracy's girlfriend, and great villains like Pruneface and Flattop. Tracy was one of the first cops to rely on forensic science and advanced gadgets to help track the bad guy down. An example is his great two-way wrist radio, a radical communications concept in its day. Soon ads for the wrist radio appeared proclaiming: "You've seen it in the comics, now you can have one for your very own." Despite my pleas that I would die without a two-way wrist radio, when she heard about the $3.98 price, my mother decided to risk my dying rather than fork over what to her was probably a couple of days worth of grocery money. I checked e-bay...no dice, although a comic book describing the origin of the two-way wrist radio was selling for $299. Thanks a lot Mom.

It takes a lot to impress a kid today. They grow up surrounded by technology, and take it all in stride. How can one communicate to them the thrill we felt as kids at being given the chance to own a secret decoder badge! They would give you that "You poor old man" look that, by the way, I seem to be getting with increasing frequency lately. But I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts (gee, coffee and a doughnut would be nice now) that the fleeting excitement they feel for their latest picture-taking cell phone doesn't come close what we felt in the 1950s on receiving that bulging envelope in the mail.

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4 comments:

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Who IS this masked man, anyway?

Remember the gray plastic submarine and the frogman, you stuck baking soda in the bottom seal it with the metal cover and it floated in your bath tub? Came in the mail in a box with your name on it. The box was magic!

Nice blog once again kemo sabe.

Jim Pantaleno said...

The sub must have been the ONLY thing I didn't send away for! Thanks Joe.

The Whiner said...

I rememer trying to convince Mom to let me order those sea monkeys out of a comic book (I believe they were dried brine shrimp). You know what the answer was...

Jim Pantaleno said...

How about we get them for your birthday?