At various points in my life, I’ve had major problems with credit card debt. While I can gratefully report that I am no longer a victim of the usury perpetrated on millions of consumers across this country, I have been down that Black Hole more than once and I know what a horrible, out-of-control feeling it is.
Yeas ago I realized that I had to remove myself from the credit card game the same way an alcoholic needs to cross the street when he approaches the corner saloon. Whenever I receive an offer for a new credit card, no matter how enticing (“0% interest for the next 60 years and a free trip to Europe on signing!”), I rip that sucker into shreds before it even crosses my threshold. I recently saw a chilling documentary called “Maxed Out” that details the predatory practices of credit card companies to lure people who are already drowning in debt into deeper waters. It used to be that people who were not good credit risks were denied cards. Now the big banks target consumers who are already in debt, who have filed for bankruptcy, or who are barely living above the poverty line. Why? Because these are the folks who are most likely to rack up huge balances and pay only their minimum payments each month, thus transforming a $49.00 toaster purchase into a $490 item or worse when all is said and done. Another obnoxious practice of credit card companies is soliciting college freshmen who are on their own for the first time and are too tempted by the offers of “free money.”
I blame my credit card troubles on my very early start. My indoctrination began 40 years ago, when credit cards as we know them today were still a novelty. At about the time BankAmericard morphed into Visa and MasterCard appeared as its main competition, I received my very first credit card. I proudly carried my Batman credit card around in my Batman wallet and couldn’t wait to show it to everyone I knew. You’d think the warning printed on the back of the card would have been enough to keep me out of debt: “Delinquent accounts result in a loss of credit privileges and a big spanking.”
But no, I was soon in over my head, unable to pay for my Matchbox cars or Mattel Fright Factory Thingmaker. Remember that dangerous toy? You fitted this mini-oven with die-cast metal molds in various shapes (my favorites were the “Creepy Crawlers” but I think I also had a set of “Batman” molds) and then poured in some horrific substance called Plasti-Goop that I’m sure was more carcinogenic than my mother’s Kent cigarettes. We had a cedar-paneled game room in our basement in Chicago that remains to this day a time capsule of 1960s toys. Swipe away the cobwebs and the real-life creepy crawlers and you will find yourself transported back to 1967. Other debt-incurring items that provided endless hours of fun included my Kenner Spirograph, our well-used Twister mat, board games such as Operation, Life, Tip-It, and Battleship, and my sister’s Show n’Tell, a primitive precursor to video players. Okay, I didn’t really buy those items with my Batman credit card, this entire post was just an excuse to showcase that treasured 40-year-old item I recently found. Whole parts of my childhood are lost to me, but I vividly remember writing away for the card in 1967 and how thrilled I was to receive it. (As thrilled as I was in later years to receive a new low-interest Visa.)
The card has produced a week-long reverie about life in tumultuous 1967. This was the year that saw the capture of the Boston Strangler, a major escalation of the war in Vietnam, Mohammed Ali being stripped of his boxing title after refusing induction into the army, the nomination of Thurgood Marshall as the first African-American on the Supreme Court, a deadly sniper attack at the University of Texas prompting the first calls for gun control legislation, the capture of Che Guevara in Bolivia, the opening of “Hair” on Broadway, major riots on the streets of Detroit, Jim Morrison’s defiance of the CBS censors by refusing to change the line “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” when The Doors sang “Light My Fire” on Ed Sullivan, and the bloody Six Day War in the Middle East.
I didn’t pay much attention to world events back then, unless they were incorporated into my favorite TV shows. Many of my favorites were still going strong in 1967—shows like “Bewitched,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “My Three Sons,” “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies,” “Gomer Pyle,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” and of course, “Batman,” with the hotter-than-hot Catwoman played by Julie Newmar, fresh from her cancelled series “My Living Doll.” New favorites that year included “Family Affair,” “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.,” “Love on a Rooftop,” “That Girl,” “The Monkees,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Star Trek.” I could write long posts about each of those shows (and probably will at some point, God help you), and it’s amazing to me how I watched that much TV and still spent so many hours playing outdoors. Thank God my daughter doesn’t watch TV like I did. We almost never turn on the set during the week and the last series she watched religiously was “The Rugrats” when she was a toddler. But I was a real television addict, as I’ve made clear time and again on this blog.
I’ve always been fascinated by time-travel stories, and 1967 saw the debut of two of my all-time favorites. Each of them only lasted one season but they made a huge impact on me. “It’s About Time” was the story of two astronauts who traveled through some kind of time warp in their space capsule only to land back on Earth in prehistoric times. There they encountered a wacky caveman family that included Imogene Coca as Shadd (originally named Shagg but changed by producer Sherwood Schwartz when he learned what the word meant in Britain) and Joe E. Ross as Gronk. Low ratings forced a major plot twist midway through the season when the astronauts returned to 1967 with Shadd and Gronk in tow. I haven’t seen an episode of this show since it went off the air forty years ago next month but I remember the theme song like I heard it yesterday:
It’s about time, it’s about space,
About two men in the strangest place.
It’s about time, it’s about flight
Traveling faster than the speed of light…
It’s about caves, cavemen too,
About a time when the earth was new.
Wait’ll they see what is in sight!
Is it good luck or is it good night?
It’s about two astronauts,
It’s about their fate,
It’s about a woman and her prehistoric mate.
One of the astronauts on “It’s About Time” was played by actor Frank Aletter. His real-life wife at the time, Lee Meriwether, was the star of my other favorite 1967 time-travel series, “The Time Tunnel.” The 30 episodes of this series recently appeared on iTunes and I immediately watched several of them. It was the first time I’ve seen the show in 40 years and I was instantly transported back. “The Time Tunnel” had one of the most ridiculous plots in the history of television. Deep underground the Nevada desert, scientists are working on a top secret time travel experiment called Project Tic-Toc. When a skeptical U.S. senator (played by Gary Merrill, looking ravaged following the end of his tempestuous marriage to Bette Davis) arrives at Tic-Toc headquarters and threatens to pull funding, hunky physicist Tony Newman (James Darren) hurls himself into the time tunnel before it is fully operational, becoming lost in time. Here’s a clip of that scene to refresh any baby boomers’ memories:
Luckily, the Tic-Toc personnel are able to watch images of Tony on a big video screen complete with changing angles and close-ups (huh?) even though they are unable to bring him back. Tony lands on the Titanic in 1912, the day before its fatal encounter with an iceberg. Tony finds the captain of the ship and tries to warn him of the impending disaster. “But you don’t understand,” Tony shouts to Captain Smith, “This is the Titanic!” No duh, Newman. Tony is locked in the brig where he meets a lovely British passenger played by Susan Hampshire whose 1960s bouffant would have been laughed out of the Titanic’s first-class dining room. Seeing that Tony is trapped, his colleague back in 1967, Dr. Doug Phillips, dons a period 1912 suit and goes through the tunnel himself to save his friend. Now the two of them are trapped. The only thing the staff back home can do is to send the pair to another point in time at the end of every episode (just as Tony and Doug are about to brutally killed).
Although their time travel is supposed to be completely random, Tony and Doug always seem to land somewhere just before a major event in history: Pearl Harbor, Krakatoa, Custer’s Last Stand, the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln’s assassination, D-Day, and so on. Throughout the entire series, no matter where they end up, Tony is wearing the green turtleneck he wore when he jumped into the time tunnel, and Doug remains in his 1912 Titanic suit. I love this quirk, especially the fact that even though they go through hell in each episode, often getting their costumes ripped to shreds, the outfits are somehow magically repaired, dry cleaned, and pressed before they land in a new time period.
Lee Meriwether was one of my favorite 1960s hotties despite my resentment that she got the part of Catwoman in the 1966 “Batman” film instead of Julie Newmar. Meriwether was a former Miss America and she was a knockout as the intellectual Dr. Ann McGregor on “The Time Tunnel.” Despite her residence in the secret underground lair, she still found time to have her hair and makeup expertly done every morning. I know I had the hots for her because otherwise I wouldn’t have remembered her inane role on this show. Her part mostly consisted of her hunched over some cheesy control console shouting “TONY! DOUG!” as she watched the two stars approach their weekly near-death experience. I only discovered what a fantastic actress Lee Meriwether really was when I started seeing her perform in L.A. theatre productions including a revival of “Spoon River Anthology” at Theatre West in which she appeared with our friend, Naomi Caryl, who wrote the songs and performed in the original "Spoon River" in 1963. (Click here for a video clip that offers a glimpse of Lee Meriwether when she was one of the hosts of "The Today Show" introducing the Broadway cast of the play she would appear in 40 years later.) I last saw Lee Meriwether at Naomi's house, but I didn't have the courage to tell her of my childhood lust for Dr. Ann McGregor. It was a fairly thankless role, but the actress did get to step from behind her panel on one tour-de-force episode when she was kidnapped by aliens from the future who somehow managed to invade the Time Tunnel control room.
Aliens bent on destroying the Earth was a frequently recurring subplot of the show, revealing the rampant paranoia of mid-1960s America. In the final show of the series, which I watched yesterday, Tony and Doug travel to 1978 to find a seaside town in Maine completely taken over by aliens. The hideous creatures (wearing leftover costumes from various 20th Century Fox B-movies) can take the form of the local townspeople at will, including kindly shopowner played by Mabel Albertson, better known to ‘60s audiences as Darrin Stevens’ mother on “Bewitched” (“Frank, I’m getting a sick headache!”). Doug and Tony learn that the aliens are about to suck all of the oxygen out of the Earth’s atmosphere and they stop them in the nick of time and save the planet. But despite high ratings, the oxygen was sucked out of the network’s enthusiasm for the show which it cancelled abruptly after this episode aired. As a result, no concluding episode for the series was ever shot, and producer Irwin Allen turned his attention to his next big series, “Land of the Giants,” starring Heather Young, the babe-of-the-week from the final “Time Tunnel” episode.
And now I must hurl myself 40 years into the future, back to 2007, and get some work done since my Batman credit card is no longer cutting it. If only Lee Meriwether were still at the controls, looking out for my safety and whisking me to new adventures at the first sign of danger.