Lassie: This Series Had Five Lives

We are finishing our series Life with Pets. Although the shows we have looked at so far this month have featured some unusual pets, I knew that we had to include man’s best friend at some point, and really, how could you have a blog series about pets without Lassie who was a very unusual dog?

Except for The Hathaways, the other shows we learned about this month were based on a movie, which was often based on a book. Lassie is no exception. English author Eric Knight wrote a book in 1940 called Lassie Come Home. Several films were produced between 1943 and 1951 about Lassie. Once the seventh and final film was completed, Lassie’s (or Pal as he is known in his real life), owner Rudd Weatherwax was given all rights to the Lassie trademark and name. Weatherwax began taking Pal to local fairs and rodeos.

File:Lassie cast 1955.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Clayton, Rettig, Cleveland Photo: wikimedia.com

Robert Maxwell convinced him to feature Pal in a weekly television show. The men developed the story of Lassie who lived with a young boy named Jeff Miller (Tommy Rettig), age 11; his widowed mother Ellen (Jan Clayton); and her father-in-law (George Cleveland) who all lived on a farm. The show was approved, Campbell’s Soup agreed to sponsor the first year of shows, and the series debuted in 1954 on Sunday nights at 7 pm EST.

Campbell’s would continue its role as sponsor for 19 more years, which totaled 591 episodes. The company asked to have their products featured on the set, so you will see them in background shots. The soup company held a contest in 1956 to name Lassie’s puppies. Grand prizes included $2,000 and ownership of the pups which were hand-delivered by executives. In 1958, viewers could send in 25 cents and a label from a Swanson’s TV dinner to get a friendship ring; the company mailed 77,715 of them to fans. In 1959, fans could send in five labels from Campbell’s products and receive a wallet with a photo of Lassie. More than 1.3 million were mailed and Campbell’s profits rose 70% after its sponsorship began.

In 1957, Jack Wrather who owned The Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon purchased the show for $3.25 million. In 1958 Lassie received new owners. Both Clayton and Rettig expressed an interest in wanting to leave the show. Cleveland had passed away the year before. Adoptee Timmy Martin (Jon Provost) becomes his master and they live with his parents, Ruth Martin (Cloris Leachman) and Paul Martin (Jon Shepodd).

Lassie (TV Series 1954–1974) - Photo Gallery - IMDb
Photo: imdb.com

In 1958 Wrather dropped Leachman and Shepodd, replacing them with June Lockhart and Hugh Reilly. A neighbor Cully Wilson (Andy Clyde) was also added.

Lassie received good ratings from 1954-1958. In 1959 it fell out of the top 30. By 1960 with the change in characters, the show shot back and made it to #13 in 1964.

However, just as things were looking up, Provost declined to renew his contract. So, ten years after its debut, the show changed its focus to conservation and environmentalism, teaming Lassie with a group of US Forest Service members. In 1965 the show transitioned to color, but the ratings decline had already begun.

Season 17 transitioned again and this time it was an anthology season with Lassie traveling on her own, finding adventures along the way. CBS cancelled the show after season 17, but it became a syndicated show for networks to pick up.

The final two seasons were spent with Garth Holden (Ron Hayes) on the Holden Ranch, a home for orphaned boys. After season 19, the show went off the air for good.

Five of Pal’s descendants also played the role of Lassie. They included Lassie Jr. (1954-59), Spook (1960), Baby (1960-1966), Mire (1966-1971), and Hey Hey (1971-73). Like the show, Pal lived to be 19.

The show was filmed at Stage One of KTTV in Los Angeles from 1954-57 and then moved to Desilu for a year. The Timmy seasons were filmed at the Grand Canyon and High Sierra and the Forest Service seasons were filmed in Alaska and Puerto Rico, among other sites.

Photo: ashroudofthoughts.com

Most of the plots involved the boys or other characters needing help and Lassie coming to the rescue. However, ironically the biggest spoof of the show is Timmy falling down a well and Lassie saving him, but no one ever fell down a well on the show except Lassie in season 17. It is such an iconic plot, that Provost wrote his autobiography in 2007 and called it Timmy’s in the Well: The Jon Provost Story. On his website, Provost says he kept in touch with Rettig. He says that he always ended their conversations with “Thanks for the dog, Jeff” which was his line in the series when he took over the show.

During the nineteen years that the show was on the air, several theme songs were used. For the first season, the theme was “Secret of the Silent Hills” composed by William Lava. The song was originally created for a 1940 radio show, “The Courageous Dr. Christian.” The song was tweaked a bit for the second and third seasons. An orchestral version of an aria from Faust, “Dio Possente” came in for the next year. Beginning with year five, the most famous version was aired: “Lassie Main & End Title” was created by Les Baxter and whistled by Muzzy Marcellino. After the Martin years, an orchestral version of “The Whistler” was used for a few years, and then Nathan Scott’s arrangement of “Greensleeves’ finished the run.

The series received two Emmy Awards for Best Children’s Program in 1955 and 1956 and a nomination in 1960. In addition, June Lockhart was nominated for Leading Actress in a Dramatic Series in 1959, Jan Clayton was nominated for the same award in 1957 and 1958, and the show was nominated for Best Dramatic Series in 1957.

The series was released on DVD during the years 2001-2007.

I do remember watching Lassie during the Provost years, but I actually was not aware of the other seasons. Like Flipper and Gentle Ben, it was a family show where everyone could sit around the television and watch together on a Sunday evening. With the show being on the air for 19 years, it is fondly remembered by several generations and made a ton of money marketing merchandise.

One of the things I love most about the show is that people are sure they remember Timmy falling into the well. It would be fun to do a blog about things that people are positive they remember but never happened. It’s similar to the Robot on Lost in Space saying “Danger Will Robinson” which he never actually did. It just proves that some shows live on in our imaginations for a long time.

The Lone Ranger Rides Again . . . And Again . . . And Again

Like most of the westerns we are studying this month, The Lone Ranger first aired as a radio series. In 1933, the masked hero and his best friend Tonto, traveled throughout the Old West, capturing outlaws and putting them behind bars.

Fran Striker began reworking some old scripts about westerns in 1932. Those stories became The Lone Ranger. George Trendle brought Striker in to work on the radio scripts in 1933 when the show debuted. Striker continued to pen books about the hero with his first being The Lone Ranger in 1936 and his last The Lone Ranger on Red Butte Trail in 1961, 25 in all.

The Lone Ranger Rides by Fran Striker

The television show began in 1949 and ran for eight years. Clayton Moore portrayed the ranger and Jay Silverheels portrayed Tonto. Silverheels was a full-blooded Mohawk Indian from the Six Nations Indian Reservation in Ontario, Canada. In season three, Moore was temporarily replaced by John Hart, but he returned for the final two years. The other recurring character we see during the series is the ranger’s nephew Dan Reid played by Chuck Courtney. This was ABC’s first big television hit.

Photo: pinterest.com

The show began and ended the same way. As the show opened, the Lone Ranger’s horse would rear up on his back and the ranger shouted “Hi-Yo Silver.” At the end of the show, someone would as “Who was that masked man?” Another repeated phrase from the series was “Kemo sabe.” Tonto called the Ranger this which translates to “faithful friend.”

The backstory of the ranger is that a patrol of six Texas Rangers was massacred and only the Lone Ranger survived. He now wears a mask to protect his real identity and he and Tonto, who nursed him back to health, travel around bringing justice to the territories. The ranger owns a silver mine which is why he named his horse Silver and why he carries silver bullets.

Photo: pinterest.com

MGM film veteran producer Jack Chertok was brought in to produce the show. He would later produce Ann Sothern’s show Private Secretary and My Favorite Martian.

This show was produced and filmed differently than most shows in the classic age. Seventy-eight episodes were broadcast for consecutive weeks. Then they were all shown for a second time. After 156 weeks, they decided to film another 52 shows but there was a controversy and Moore left the show and was replaced by John Hart. Again the 52 filmed shows were consecutively shown and then rerun. For the next season, the original creator George Trendle sold the rights to Jack Wrather in 1954. Wrather hired Moore again and produced another 52 shows which were shown and then rerun. For the final year, only 39 episodes were produced with Sherman Harris taking over as producer. The final season was the only one shot in color. Because there were only new episodes in five of the eight years, only 221 shows were produced.

At this point, film stars were still avoiding television, seeing it as a temporary competition with films. Therefore, most of the guest stars we see on the show were actors who went on to have successful television careers. Some of those include Michael Ansara, James Arness, Frances Bavier, Hugh Beaumont, Dwayne Hickman, Stacy Keach Jr., Marjorie Lord, Martin Milner, Denver Pyle, and Marion Ross.

The Lone Ranger" Texas Draw (TV Episode 1954) - IMDb
Photo: imdb Marion Ross guest starred

This was one of the first series to be nominated for an Emmy; unfortunately, it lost to the first version of The Life of Riley starring Jackie Gleason. The nomination came in 1950 at the second Emmy ceremony. The early years had very limited categories for awards.

General Mills was the original sponsor for the show. They also sponsored the radio show from 1941-1961.

The Lone Ranger, first created and broadcast in Detroit, turns 86 this week  | Michigan Radio
Photo: michiganradio.com

The theme music was the classical piece, the William Tell overture. Rossini composed the piece in 1829.

Like Adam West and Batman, Clayton Moore really embodied the character of the Lone Ranger. After the show ended, he would make up to 200 appearances a year as the crime fighter. In 1979, Jack Wrather, who owned the rights to the character, sued him, but Moore won a countersuit allowing him to continue appearing as the masked hero.

The Lone Ranger was never permanently retired. Two animated series were released in 1966 and 1980. Also, both Silverheels and Moore starred in two big-screen features: The Lone Ranger (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958).

In addition, Moore slipped into his costume again for a film in 1958 to promote the Lone Ranger Peace Patrol to convince kids to buy US Savings Bonds. A 2013 movie reboot came out with Armie Hammer in the starring role.

The Lone Ranger has had an iconic place in history for 87 years now. Almost every generation recognizes the hero, and his black mask is at the Smithsonian Museum. It’s pretty incredible for a show that really had five years’ worth of episodes made and has been off the air for 64 of those years. Although this era did not often portray African Americans or Native Americans very well, this show was about friendship, and I read very little about negative portrayals of anyone on the television series. You can easily find the episodes on DVD, Youtube, or a variety of network channels.

Photo: amazon.com

When my son who is now 29 was about 9, he was enthralled by westerns and watched The Lone Ranger and Daniel Boone.  Internet and email were newer forms of technology, but he was able to reach out to Fess Parker and Clayton Moore.  Both were very kind.  Moore sent him his autographed book with a written note. He still enjoyed discussing his time as the crime fighter. A classic man from a classic show.