Gentle Ben: A Bear Hug for Everyone

As we continue our blog series about The Life of Pets, we feature a show about a boy and his bear: Gentle Ben. In 1965, Walt Morey published his novel, Gentle Ben. He had written adult books, but then his wife, a teacher, challenged him to write an adventure kids’ book similar to a Jack London story. Gentle Ben is the story about Mark and his bear Ben. He set the story in Alaska, where he had worked, and he said many of the characters were based on real people. He also said the story of a boy befriending a bear was also based on real stories he read and heard about. The book sold almost 3 million copies.

Photo: ebay.com

The Morey family owned some land which became the Walt Morey Park in Wilsonville, Oregon, a bear-themed adventure. An eight-foot statue of Gentle Ben is one of the park sights.

Photo: metv.com

The book became a movie on the big screen, and like Flipper, it moved to the small screen a few years later. In fact, the house for the Ricks family on Flipper is the same house used by the Wedloe family on Gentle Ben.

The television show debuted on CBS in 1967 and continued for two seasons, with 58 episodes. The series was produced by Ivan Tors who also produced Flipper, Sea Hunt, and Daktari. The TV show was set in Florida instead of Alaska. Tom Wedloe (Dennis Weaver) is a wildlife officer in the Everglades and he lives with his wife Ellen (Beth Brickell) and son Mark (Clint Howard, Ron’s brother) and his pet bear, Ben. Clint and Ron’s father Rance also penned a few of the scripts for the show.

Other characters showing up weekly included Hank Minegar (Robertson White), a local squatter, and Mark’s friend Willie (Angelo Rutherford).

Photo: DVDTalk.com

Like Flipper, there were several bears who played Ben, but the bear used most was Bruno, a black bear. Bruno had a good disposition and a variety of facial expressions. Bruno and his friends traveled from Canada because they had thicker coats which photographed better. They were declawed and most of their teeth had been removed.

Ben only made animal noises but they were spoken through Candy Candido, a voice actor and musician. I’m not sure why a kookaburra was used for Flipper and a human for Ben; you would think they could have used recordings of a dolphin and a bear. Bruno later moved to Hollywood to continue acting and died about 1980.

Most of the stories featured Tom’s work with wildlife and included animal management, children getting lost in the Everglades, weather disasters, and illegal activities such as poaching.

Gentle Ben was a great success and reached #2 in the ratings its first season. The popularity of the show was translated into a lot of merchandise including a board game, books, a stuffed bear, and comic books. The show was on Sunday nights sandwiched between Lassie and The Ed Sullivan Show.

During its second season, the show failed to even get into the top twenty. Lassie also suffered and received a significant drop in the ratings. I think the fact that the shows were on opposite Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color probably had a lot to do with its ratings drop. Also, if you liked animals you had to make a choice because Lassie competed with Wild Kingdom.

While the show highlighted family values and respect for nature, it was criticized for portraying wildlife as a pet. Ben even stayed indoors with the family sometimes. In 1971, National Park Service Officer John Hast recalled that “the television series Gentle Ben was the worst thing that ever happened to us. People saw this big, lovable bear on television and when they see a bear in the park, I guess they think it’s the same one. They don’t realize how wrong they are till they are bleeding.”

Photo: pinterest.com

I think kids from the sixties have fond memories of Gentle Ben, and many kids remember watching it. However, I guess the novelty of the show wore off quickly. You can only have so many things a real bear can do. Compare this show to Mister Ed where featuring a talking horse might seem far-fetched; however, that show lasted on the air eight years because Ed was as much of a character as anyone else on the show.

Shows like Flipper and Gentle Ben had their place, but they just didn’t have the memorable characters, quality scripts, or lush photography that might have extended their popularity. However, they are worth remembering and discussing. They prodded kids to imagine having their own special animal that only they could tame and love.

Flipper: Smarter Than Your Average Bear

We are in the midst of our blog series, Life with Unusual Pets. Today we are looking at Flipper.

Kelly, Nordin, and Halpin Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

From 1964-67, Flipper aired Saturday nights at 6:30 EST. The movie Flipper came out in 1963, and the television show was adapted from the movie. The premise of the television show is that Porter Ricks (Brian Kelly) is the Chief Warden at the Coral Key Park and Marine Reserve in Florida and a widower. He lives with his two sons, Sandy who is 15 (Luke Halpin) and Bud who is 10 (Tommy Nordin). Flipper, a wild bottlenose dolphin, is their pet. Flipper is a very intelligent animal who helps enforce regulations, performs rescues at sea with Porter, and “babysits” Sandy and Bud.

Photo: ranker.com

Additional cast members included Hap Gorman (Andy Devine) who was a carpenter and storyteller; Ulla Norstrand (Ulla Stromstedt) who was an oceanographer; and Ed Dennis (Dan Chandler), another warden.

Home on Flipper and Gentle Ben Photo: wikiwand.com

The show was filmed in Miami in cooperation with the Miami Seaquarium. Gentle Ben, which we’ll learn a bit more about next week, was also filmed there, and the families used the same home. The show was praised for its lush photography and colorful underwater scenes. The background music for underwater scenes was inspired by Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe.”

Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

The show’s theme was composed by Henry Vars, and lyrics were written by By Dunham. If you grew up in the early sixties, you will definitely remember this song:

They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning,
No-one you see, is smarter than he,
And we know Flipper, lives in a world full of wonder,
Flying there-under, under the sea!

Everyone loves the king of the sea,
Ever so kind and gentle is he,
Tricks he will do when children appear,
And how they laugh when he’s near!

They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning,
No-one you see, is smarter than he,
And we know Flipper, lives in a world full of wonder,
Flying there-under, under the sea!

The role of Flipper was played by at least five different dolphins. Susie was the primary actor, followed by Kathy, Patty, Scotty, and Squirt. The show used female dolphins because they are less aggressive and males tend to have more “fighting” scars, so female dolphins look more alike for photography. Surprisingly, the Flipper voice everyone remembers was an altered version of the song of a kookaburra bird. Some critics felt Flipper was portrayed as too intelligent. However, many scientists have stated that dolphins rank with chimpanzees and dogs as the most intelligent animals. They have a complex communication system and often live to be 50 years old.

During the first two seasons, Flipper was in the top 30 shows, but in season three the ratings declined. Both the boys felt they had outgrown their roles and wanted to leave the show. The last episode of season three has Sandy enrolling at the Coast Guard Academy and Bud going to an out-of-state private school. A new family moved into the area composed of a widow and her son and daughter; apparently, they would be Flipper’s companions for season four, but the show was not renewed.

Photo: mycomicshop.com

Flipper was one of the first shows to generate a lot of merchandise aimed at kids. At the time you could buy lunch boxes, comic books, novels, spoons, puzzles, a board game, a watch, and View Master reels.

Halpin must have enjoyed his time on the show. Following the cancellation of the show, he settled into a Hollywood career in marine services, working as a diver and stuntman for many shows including Miami Vice.

Flipper is one of those shows a lot of people have fond memories of watching with their family. There was really nothing groundbreaking in the show, and it was an average quality show—nothing to overly praise or denounce. In our current television schedule, we don’t have many of these family shows. Shows tend to be created for adults, teens, or kids but not all three. Maybe that’s why shows like Flipper, Gentle Ben, and Lassie are so warmly remembered from our childhood.

The Hathaways: Getting Paid to Monkey Around on TV

This month we are taking a look at our favorite unusual pet sitcoms. We start our series with a show that began in 1961: The Hathaways.

Photo: tvparty.com

This one-season show was on ABC. Elinore (Peggy Cass) and Walter (Jack Weston) Hathaway were a suburban Los Angeles couple who took in a trio of chimps (Candy, Charlie, and Enoch) which they were surrogate parents for. Walter was a real estate agent, while Elinore looked after the chimps. The chimps had their own bedroom and a full wardrobe of children’s clothing. Before becoming sitcom stars, the chimps had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Benny Show, and a variety of commercials.

Photo: imdb.com

Rounding out the cast were the great Mary Grace Canfield as housekeeper Amanda; Elinore’s best friend and neighbor, Thelma Brockway (Barbara Perry); theatrical agent Jerry Roper (Harvey Lembeck); and Belle Montrose who was another neighbor (and in real life was the mother of Steve Allen). Montrose’s only other acting credits were for the two Disney movies, Son of Flubber and The Absentminded Professor.

Eleven different writers wrote the 26 episodes and four men took on the role of director. The show was on Friday night before The Flintstones but it went up against Clint Eastwood’s western, Rawhide.

The storylines were similar to other sitcoms from the early sixties. In the first episode, the Brockways move in next door and don’t like pets. In the succeeding episodes, Elinor winds up in jail for an unpaid parking ticket that Charlie pocketed before she saw it, Elinor is worried when they leave the chimps with a babysitter while they vacation in Palm Springs, and Elinor and Walter try to find their housekeeper a boyfriend.

The Hathaways with Jack Weston and Peggy Cass | Classic tv, And peggy, 60s  sitcoms
Photo: pinterest.com

It sounds like the type of show that would have been very popular in that era, but ratings were extremely low. In 1982, critics Castleman and Podrazik called the show “possibly the worst series ever to air on a network,” due to the “utterly degrading” premise, bad scripts, inept production, and the “total worthlessness” of the program. The pair wrote seven books about pop culture.

The show was specifically created to star the Marquis Chimps, and when that was shared in 1961, TV columnist Bill Fiset, wrote, “Heaven help us all? It may be that by the time you read this I’ll have taken the gas pipe, a victim of sheer frustration from trying to work as a serious essayist on a subject matter put into the hands of monkeys.”

Star Peggy Cass had mixed feelings. She admitted that she took the job for the money because she did not think the pilot would sell. While the show was on the air, she did an interview, stating that “Those chimps are natural comics. And believe me, they’re hard to top.”

TV When I was Born: 07/09/16
Photo: tvwhenIwasborn.com

Cass would go on to a variety of television series and guest appearances. She was a regular on the game show circuit and might best be remembered for more than 270 episodes of To Tell the Truth. Weston also stayed very busy on television till the 1980s. And the chimps? Don’t feel too bad for them. They continued to show up on variety shows, including numerous appearances with Ed Sullivan. Ironically, they appeared on more Ed Sullivan episodes than they did their own sitcom. When they weren’t working, they could relax on their Las Vegas ranch. I’m sure they were treated to many luxuries there since they were making a quarter of a million dollars at the peak of their career!