2014 is the 75 year anniversary of Batman’s first appearance in the comics! So, we’re doing a series of articles (called “Batman 75“-blunt, and to the point, right?) looking back at the Caped Crusader’s history as well as articles covering DC’s efforts to celebrate the anniversary.
THE LEGEND: The Adam West Batman TV series came into being because an ABC executive attended a Playboy Club party at which people watched the old Batman film serials and mocked them. Is that really true?
Pure West indeed. Warner Bros. and D.C. have recently embraced the nostalgia for Batman, launching a new merchandising line and Batman ’66 comic book last year and promising the first ever home video release for the show later this year.
This nostalgia is a reminder of how Adam West’s Batman, premiering on ABC in January of 1966, turned the character into a cultural phenomenon. Of course, for many of us Batman has always been a cultural icon, but immediately prior to the premiere of Batman he had fallen so low in popularity that DC was seriously contemplating canceling its Batman comic book, a by-product of a comic book industry in decline (DC’s sales dipped from 6 million comics per year in 1951 to 4.6 million in 1962).
Then along came Adam West and Burt Ward’s camp-tastic adventures as Batman and Robin, battling a Penguin (Burgess Meredith) who added an odd “quack, quack, quack” sound to the end of every other sentence, a Catwoman (Julie Newmar) who purred all of her lines, with all of the fight scenes visually punctuated by cartoon action balloons (“Bam!”, “Pow!”). This Robin seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of “Holy non-sequiters!”, and the insistent narrator (William Dozier) made sure kids would come back the next evening (the show aired new episodes twice a week) to see how the episode’s cliffhanger would be resolved, “Tune in tomorrow – same Bat-Time, same Bat-channel!”
ABC’s endlessy promoted Batman prior to its debut, and it immediately hit with audiences wowed by its camp sensibilities, bright colors (at a time when most shows still shot in black and white), and the ability to equally appeal to adults (who were in on the joke) and children (who didn’t realize it was a joke). Within its first year, Batman generated a then-astonishing $75 million in merchandising sales, even passing the similarly lucrative 007-related merchandising. By the time the bubble inevitably burst and ABC canceled Batman in 1968 after just 2 1/2 seasons, they had squeezed out 120 episodes and 1 feature film.
The story behind how the show came into being to begin with has always held that life-long Batman fan and ABC executive Yale Udoff attended a screening of the old Batman serials at the Playboy Theater. He was so impressed by the crowd’s reaction that he contacted higher ups at ABC to suggest a prime time Batman series as he knew they had been looking for a comic book character to adapt to TV. Over the years, though, this story has taken different forms, those arguing that what Udoff actually attended was a Batman-themed party at the Playboy Club where Hugh Hefner-hired actors dressed up as Batman and Robin and spouted cheesy “golly gee whiz” dialogue from the comics. Either way, the genesis of Batman, which was a show which kind of plays like an intentional mockery of the old, earnest serials, came from Hugh Hefner and his friends watching the old serials and wondering, “How did anyone ever think these things were any good?”
THE TRUTH: Batman was already in development at ABC well before the old film serials ever made their way to Playboy.
At some point in the early ’60s ad executive-turned-TV producer Ed Graham optioned the TV rights for Batman from DC, and took it to CBS, hoping to produce a live action Batman TV series for kids that could run long enough to score a rich syndication deal just like Adventures of Superman. Graham got as far as casting ex-Los Angeles Rams linebacker Mike Henry as his Batman, but he moved on by the end of January 1964, at which point the project stalled at CBS and was pitched to NBC, who turned it down.
The reason that Graham was able to secure the TV rights in the first place, though, was because DC’s president, Jacob Liebowitz, was desperate to get his characters on screen (film or TV) and on stage (Broadway) as a way to ultimately boost comic book sales. Luckily for Liebowitz, ABC-TV vice-president of daytime programming Harve Bennett had been thinking about doing a Batman TV show since as early as 1963. Once Ed Graham vacated the TV rights to the character ABC scooped them up, most likely in early 1965 if not sooner. ABC approached William Dozier about producing the show, the two sides having previously worked together on an ultimately failed pitch for a show centered around the son of Charlie Chan to be written by playwright Lorenzo Semple, Jr. Dozier agreed to do it with his production company, which was housed within 20th Century Fox.
ABC was expecting to get something in line with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (a popular spy show of the time), but what they got was more like Get Smart (a parody of Man from U.N.C.L.E, James Bond, etc.). That’s because Dozier failed to tell them that he had never read a single comic book in his entire life, let alone one featuring Batman. As Dozier is seen to admit in the Biography Channel’s documentary about the show, “I bought a bunch of comics of various vintages, and when I read these things I thought they must be out of their minds. It was all so juvenile. Then, a very simple idea, and that was to over-do it. If you over-did, I thought, it would appeal to adults but also appear stimulating to kids.”
Dozier handed over writing duties for the pilot to Lorenzo Semple, who later told author Bruce Scivally for his book Billion Dollar Batman that he began work on his first Batman script by mid-1965. ABC was ultimately thrown by the more comic direction Dozier and Semple had gone with it, but after just one meeting to discuss the script they gave them no notes to change anything, instead marching orders to go shoot the pilot.
It is only at this point in the show’s development that the Playboy Club pops up at all. The Batman serials didn’t make their way to the Playboy Theater, an offshoot of the Playboy Club in Chicago, until July 9, 1965, at which point the Theater began showing individual chapters of the 1943 Batman serial daily. Appealing not just to college students looking for a good laugh but also to emerging film buffs as well as older audiences who harbored sentimental fondness for the serials, the daily showings were an instant hit. On October 9, 1965, the Theater presented all 15 of the serial’s chapters back-to-back in a marathon lasting from midnight to 4:45 AM. By 12:15 AM, all 615 seats were sold out, and the related popcorn/candy/drinks sales set a new record for the Theater.
Columbia Pictures, the producer of the Batman serials, really liked that part about setting a new sales record. So, they re-packaged the 1943 and 1949 Batman serials into something they called An Evening with Batman and Robin, mimicking Playboy entirely by playing all 15 chapters of the individual serial in a 4-hour marathon. Columbia first tested the waters for An Evening with Batman and Robin in November 1965 at Cleveland’s Continental Theatre and at the Champaign Art Theatre in Champaign, Illinois. These screenings proved so successful that Columbia quickly booked the show in theaters in New Orleans, Kansas City, Louisville, Akron, Springfield, Tucson, Toledo, Fullerton, Denver, Dayton, Columbus, and Santa Ana, just to name a few.
The Batman craze which so quickly emerged from the Adam West show was likely aided by Evening with Batman and Robin, which didn’t begin in earnest until two months prior to Batman‘s January 1966 debut and then continued well into 1966. Immediately prior to Adam West, you had things like a Tulane University senior dressing up in a home-made Batman costume to regale some seriously miserable looking kids awaiting their Evening with Batman outside New Orleans’ Peacock Theatre:
You have the Playboy Theater’s screenings of the old serials to thank for that because that is definitely what directly inspired Columbia’s An Evening with Batman and Robin. However, the Batman TV show was already in motion by the time Hef and his rowdy pals set their sights on Batman, regardless of whether or not anyone at ABC happened to catch one of those Playboy Theater screenings.
THE VERDICT: The Legend Is Not True, although others disagree.
The format of this post was inspired by Brian Cronin’s fantastic site LegendsRevealed.com.
If you like this, check out our other “Batman 75” articles:
- Batman 75: Looking Back at Batman’s Film Debut in the Casually Racist & Generally Atrocious 1940s Film Serials
- End of An Era? – 2015 Could Be the First Year in Nearly 2 Decades Without An Animated Batman Series on TV
- Batman 75: Will We Ever Be Able to Accept a Non-Bruce Wayne Batman on Film?
- Batman 75: Test Your Batman Knowledge With 11 Questions from NPR’s Comic Book Critic Glen Weldon
- Batman 75: Watch New Animated Batman Beyond Short & Assault on Arkham Trailer
- Batman 75: Watch Bruce Timm’s New Animated Short “Batman: Strange Days”
- Batman 75: How the Joker Was Created & Then Saved from an Early Death
- Batman 75: Bill Finger – The Man Who Co-Created Batman