1313 Mockingbird Lane, 1964, 50th Anniversary, Al Lewis, Beverly Owens, Butch Patrick, CBS, Eddie Munster, Fred Gwynne, Grandpa, Herman Munster, Lily Munster, Marilyn Munster, Pat Priest, The Addams Family, The Munsters, Yvonne De Carlo
I can’t even imagine how fun it must have been to be a kid growing up in the 1960s. Television-wise, I mean. Last week, ABC gave us our first day in the life of “The Addams Family”. And now here we are, just one week later, and CBS is about to say, “We call your House of Horror, ABC, and raise you a monster.” Or four.
In the late 1950s, early ’60s, there was a revival of classic horror. “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters” were the networks’ attempt to capitalize on this trend.
1964 was dubbed “The Year of the Ghoul” by LIFE magazine, and on September 24th, “The Munsters” was born. For 50 years now, people have enjoyed the fun and silliness that the monstrous, all-American suburban family called Munster brought to TV screens.
“The Addams Family” premiered a week earlier, but you might be interested to learn that “The Munsters” was conceived first, and in fact, ABC was the network originally interested in picking it up. So for those out there who like to argue which really came first… technically speaking, “The Addams Family” is the rip-off, and it was ABC who copied CBS. *ahem* But let’s not dwell on semantics. We’re all fans of both here. ;P
As I proposed in my last post, there are two kinds of people in the world — Addams Family people, and Munsters people. While the majority of my readers (okay, ALL of you so far!) picked “The Addams Family” as your favourite, I have been a Munsters girl all my life.
What is it about “The Munsters” that “The Addams Family” didn’t have for me? Well, I’ve been asking myself that for years. I always felt as if this show didn’t take itself quite as seriously as the other did. The Addams Family was more adult — the humour was a bit darker, it was full of innuendo, geared to a much more mature audience — and to me, it simply wasn’t as much fun. The Addamses were just strange and kooky people, with a penchant for the macabre. But the Munsters are real monsters! The Addams clan are all straight-up, red-blooded human beings (perhaps with the exception of Cousin Itt), but Herman, Lily, Grandpa and Eddie are not. In fact, each member of the family represents a different classic monster. Grandpa is actually identified as the real Count Dracula; Herman is clearly a Frankenstein-type monster; Eddie is a werewolf. And ghoulish Lily seems to be a mix of the Bride of Frankenstein AND one of the brides of Dracula! It’s absolutely brilliant, this monstrous departure from the predictable “family” norm.
It was so much easier to get “involved” with the Munsters. When they went on adventures or Grandpa was busy in his laboratory, I always felt like I was right there. Whereas with “The Addams Family”, I was just a spectator looking in. And we rarely left the Addams homestead. But the Munsters had two super cool cars and visited all sorts of fun, out of the way places.
Okay, enough about those inferior Addamses for right now. Today’s anniversary is all about “The Munsters”! Welcome to 1313 Mockingbird Lane.
“My Fair Munster” was the first episode to be filmed, but “Munster Masquerade” was the first to air, officially making it episode 1. “My Fair Munster” also incorporates some footage from the Munsters 15-minute unaired pilot. Fun fact about that: It was in colour, and featured different actors in the roles of Lily and Eddie. In fact, there was no “Lily” yet. Joan Marshall is billed in the opening credits as “Phoebe”, and she has a very distinct Morticia vibe going on. And a really creepy frickin’ kid (Happy Derman) is a hissing, snarling, somewhat rabid-looking Eddie Munster. Glad they sorted THAT out before the show aired. (The Twilight Zone’s Billy Mumy was originally offered the role of Eddie Munster, but declined because his parents didn’t like the idea of so much makeup and hair dyeing.)
Here’s the unaired pilot. It’s worth clicking just to hear the absolutely awful theme music that is NOTHING like the theme we all know and love.
“The Munsters” underwent some serious changes in its much too short, 70-episode, 2-season run. The most obvious was the departure of Beverly Owens as the Munster’s niece, Marilyn. Owens was very unhappy being in California (where “The Munsters” was filmed). Her fiancé lived in New York, and after 13 episodes, she left the show. Her final episode was “Family Portrait”, which is possibly the most ironic script of the series: The Munsters are chosen by a magazine as “The average American family”. Obviously when the reporter and photographer show up, they find the Munsters are anything BUT “average”.
Taking over the role of the family’s “ugly duckling” Marilyn Munster (a quippy play on Marilyn Monroe, in case you were wondering), was actress Pat Priest. She was a reasonable replacement (pretty much looked the part), but I definitely prefer Beverly Owens. For me, Priest’s interpretation of the character lacked the subtlety of Owens’s. Owens’s Marilyn had this quiet, melancholy sadness about her (probably a reflection of her personal unhappiness on the show), and I always felt that Marilyn Munster needed that. She’s the outcast; the one who isn’t normal. She should be shy and soft-spoken because she’s so insecure about her appearance. Pat Priest portrays a much stronger Marilyn, one who is NOT as believably insecure. It really changed the dynamic of the show. But nevertheless, Priest made something fun out of the role, and I think audiences were just happy to have their “relatable” character still a part of the family.
A cast change meant an updated opening. The opening credits for the first 13 episodes began with Yvonne De Carlo and ended with Fred Gwynne. But the new opening bumps Gwynne to the forefront, showing him emerging from under the grand staircase.
We also get a brand new opening sequence for the second season — updated theme music and all. The slow, hauntingly creepy sound of season one is replaced with a faster, louder, more modern (and bordering on obnoxious compared to the original) sound — definitely a reflection of the music scene at the time. The second season intro also takes us outside the Munsters’ residence, showing clumsy Herman crashing through the front door onto the porch. It also features Lily in her gorgeous casket-liner cape.
A step backwards for season two however, is that we no longer see the episode title after the opening credits roll. The producers, writer and director’s taglines in the famous Munster dripping font are still shown, but that’s it. Which is a real shame. I hate to see features taken away instead of being added.
You know, the more I write, the clearer it becomes why I like “The Munsters” better than “The Addams Family”. Munsters writers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher were always using the show to comment on popular culture. The Munsters is full of then-present-day references to other TV shows, social trends and happenings. The show itself is a sort of tongue-in-cheek spoof on life at the time!
My favourite TV reference is from season 2, episode 1, “Herman’s Child Psychology” where Herman says, “I just don’t understand what went wrong with my child psychology; it always worked on Leave It To Beaver.”
A few other fun zingers:
Grandpa: “Will you be quiet, Igor? Oh, he hates television ever since Bat Masterson went off the air.” ~ From “Rock-a-Bye Munster”, S1E4 (Note: Igor is Grandpa’s pet bat.)
Lily to Herman: “We look up to you to guide us and protect us against the trials and tribulations of life. You have made, right here at home, our own Ponderosa.” ~ From “Herman’s Raise”, S1E37 (A reference to another show I adore, “Bonanza”. Yvonne De Carlo guest starred in the premiere episode, “A Rose For Lotta”, in 1959.)
Now see? These little pop culture quips are clever! They required some thought. And by disguising them with humour, you create a whole other dimension to the show. The Addams Family’s humour wasn’t really “clever”, it was just “odd” and “eccentric” people saying unexpected or twisted things. For me, “The Munsters” drew many more legitimate laughs than “The Addams Family” ever did. The Addamses are sort of like a freak show — its entertainment comes mostly from a “What the heck?” or “I can’t believe it!” standpoint. When I watch the Munsters, it just seems like the writers put more effort into the actual writing process. They didn’t want you to shake your head, they wanted you to laugh out loud because it’s funny humour.
And the show WAS funny. My favourite episode is season two’s “The Fregosi Emerald”. It’s Marilyn’s birthday, and Eddie’s gift is a ring he found in the attic. Grandpa takes one look at it, cries, “Oh, no, the Fregosi Emerald!”, and passes out. When he finally comes to, he explains that the emerald ring is cursed.
Herman is immediately skeptical about the so-called “curse”. But Marilyn returns home early from her date in tears. Her clothes are torn and she’s covered with mud. As she explains her terrible streak of bad luck, Grandpa warns that it’s the curse at work. Still not satisfied, Herman convinces Lily to wear the ring the next morning as a test. But her oatmeal turns to stone and the pop-overs literally start popping out of the pan as the Fregosi emerald blinks on her finger. When she takes it off, the popping abruptly stops. She slips it back on… and Herman gets pummeled by the pop-overs. “I’m sorry, Herman, but I’ve HAD IT!” says Lily as she slams the ring down onto the table.
But stubborn and determined to prove everyone wrong, Herman decides to wear the ring himself. “Fregosi curse… come and get me!” And right on cue, the water heater falls out of the wall next to Herman and smashes through the table, spewing water everywhere. Grandpa yells for Herman to take off the ring, but it gets stuck on his finger.
Now that he’s a walking magnet for bad luck, the family sits poor Herman in the middle of the family room, cordoned off with some rope and a sign reading, “Stay Away! Bad Luck!” Grandpa makes suggestions on how to get the ring off, but Herman and Lily have already tried them all, each of them failing miserably.
Suddenly Lily has an idea. If they can’t get the ring off of Herman, maybe they can remove the curse from the emerald instead. But the curse can only be lifted by a descendent of the Fregosi who made it in the first place. So Grandpa places a call to Werewolf Junction, Transylvania (how can you not love that?) to find out if there are any Fregosis left. There’s a fun exchange between Grandpa and the operator (Louise Glenn), who is a BIG fan of Count Dracula. Get a load of this great dialogue.
Grandpa: “You’ve heard of me?”
Operator: “Oh, I’ve heard your praises sung ever since my childhood! You once bit my grandmother. Her maiden name was Lois Schultz. She was quite tall, about 6’5”. She loved to dance and she jumped center for the girls’ basketball team.”
Grandpa: “Lois Schultz? Well, I’m sorry I just can’t seem to –“
Operator: “Listen, don’t apologize. If you had a grubnitz for every girl you bit…”
Grandpa: “I’d be as rich as Transylvania T & T.”
See? Pure fun! Grandpa asks if there are any living Fregosis. Turns out there’s one Fregosi left, conveniently living in Detroit, Michigan. Occupation? Automobiles. His name? “Henry J. Fregosi, Chairman of the Board of Amalgamated Motors”. I’m sure you can pick up the cute cultural reference there. Man, I really like this show.
So off Lily, Herman and Grandpa fly to Detroit. At first, Mr. Fregosi (who looks enough like Bela Lugosi that he could play him in a biography) denies any ties to Transylvania. But as soon as he lays eyes on the cursed emerald, he recoils, admitting he’s had to hide his “powers of black magic” in order to be a success in the business world.
Begging that the Munsters keep his secret, he agrees to remove the curse, and opens a secret panel in his office which leads to, what else? A super-cool mad scientist’s laboratory.
Fregosi: “As Chairman of the Board of Amalgamated Motors, I put curses on rival automobiles.”
Herman: “What do you do? Hide emeralds in the glove compartments?”
Fregosi: “Oh, no. That would be too expensive. I put the whammy on their gas gauges and the owners think they’re getting poorer mileage. Or I jam their car radios with my commercials. It all comes under the heading of what I like to refer to as “Creative Management”.
Grandpa: “Have you ever put a curse on the whole automobile?”
Fregosi: “Only once. I assume you’ve heard of the Edsel.”
Fregosi makes up a witch’s brew with all sorts of crazy ingredients, all while laughing maniacally, and then recites this incantation:
“Elves and witches, ghosts and ghouls, demons from the stygian pools. I command you, as your king, please uncurse this crummy ring.”
The ring starts blinking on Herman’s finger, we see some very cool little lightning bolts coming from it as it makes a sizzling sound, then there’s an explosion and the ring falls to the floor.
With the curse broken, the happy Munsters return home and give the ring back to Marilyn. As Lily comments on how the whole family has had nothing but the best of luck since the curse was removed, suddenly, an excited Eddie comes running down the stairs with more treasure he’s found in the attic. He thinks it’s a marble, but Grandpa looks grim. “That’s not a marble,” Grandpa said. “That’s the Nathanson Ruby!”
Eddie asks if it has a curse on it. “Does it have a curse on it? Well, I’ll put it this way: Compared to the Nathanson Ruby, the Fregosi Emerald was considered a good luck charm! To protect my loved ones, I’m gonna throw it away.” Now, of course we know that an episode of the Munsters can’t just END with everything hunky dory. So just as Grandpa opens the door to throw it outside, in walks Herman, right into Grandpa’s path, and what does he do? Swallows the ruby! The episode ends with Grandpa off to look up Prince Nathanson’s phone number, a typical “Well, here we go again!” look on his face. Curses, curses, what is with the rich putting curses on their jewels?
Now, I apologize for writing out the ENTIRE episode, but I just can’t stress enough how cool this show was!
And it’s really thanks to the chemistry between Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis that “The Munsters” works so well. The two had already worked together on another show, “Car 54, Where Are You?”, a police sitcom that ran from 1961-63. The antics of Herman and Grandpa are a sheer delight. They’re funny, silly, and sometimes downright ridiculous. But no matter what situation or hair-brained scheme these two found themselves wrapped up in, they always pulled together as a team to come through it.
There’s so much more I want to say about “The Munsters”. I could easily keep going for another 2500 words. But this is a blog post, not a book, so I’ll save the rest for another time. Suffice it to say that thanks to the magic of film and television, my childhood was greatly enriched with hours upon hours of this classic masterpiece. “The Munsters” had it all: Quirky yet relatable characters, amazing visual appeal, solid stories that were bursting with pop culture quips, and even some lessons on life. The only thing truly monstrous about the Munsters was how big Herman’s heart was. Said the New York Times on September 25, 1964:
But it is Mr. Gwynne who walks off with the show and makes palatable even the extremes of broad slapstick to which the program is not immune. His gift for underplaying adds enormously to the hilarious image of the heart of gold beneath the forbidding facial exterior.