My first eyeballing of Munster, Go Home! came, as it did to many Mockingbird Heights mavens of a certain vintage, on the bottom half of a double-bill. The film had not performed as well as expected, so a worried Universal Studios immediately reissued it in most parts of the country alongside the Don Knotts dud, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, as part of a TV-theme combo.
Chicagoans, wishing they had something half as diverting as Mr. Chicken to justify their time spent waiting for Herman and the gang to appear, were asked to endure the long-forgotten family film, ...And Now Miguel, as an appetizer. Little Scooter, in Houston visiting Aunt Tubby (don’t ask!) and Uncle Jerry the week Munster, Go Home! premiered, returned home just in time for Grandpa Bill Marks to escort my cousins and me to the Olympic Theatre in Cicero, IL, where it played alongside the initiatory animal-rights drama, Born Free.
Other than seeing the gang in color for the first time, the strongest memory of my maiden viewing came on the bus ride home when out of the blue Pa, taken by the other film’s catchy theme, started warbling, “Born free, my father’s a doctor.” Pa was a frequent source of embarrassment, but we all loved him dearly.
This was not the first time “TV’s first family of fright” was committed to color stock. (Neither Universal nor CBS would pay the extra $10,000 per episode needed for color, so the show was subsequently filmed in black and white.) In 1964, Universal presented CBS with a 16-minute color demo reel in response to what they saw as the nation’s growing monster mania. A decade earlier the studio had sold its film library to television, and their classic creatures from the 1930s saw a resurgence in popularity. Suddenly monsters became fun and television smelled potential sitcom material. Ray Walston’s “Uncle Martin” was the first out-of-this-world jester to hit the airwaves, and My Favorite Martian became a surprise hit of the 1963 season.
You’ve heard the old saw about there never being enough quality roles for women in television? It couldn’t have been further from the truth in 1964 with a fall roster that saw no less than four supernatural sitcoms, all featuring juicy female leads. There was bewitching Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha in Bewitched, Julie Newmar as a sexy robot cast opposite a hopelessly sexist Bob Cummings in My Living Doll, and a pair of ghoulish homemakers, Carolyn Jones in The Addams Family and Yvonne De Carlo in The Munsters.
The presentation of The Munsters that Universal put together for the CBS brass was shot on existing sets and used discarded music from a Doris Day picture as its theme. Fred Gwynne, Al Lewis, and Beverly Owen all made the cut, but the honchos insisted on recasting the role of Herman’s wife, Phoebe, played by Joan Marshall. They felt Ms. Marshall bore too close a resemblance to Morticia Addams. When news arrived that she was being replaced by backsliding movie star, Yvonne DeCarlo, both Gwynne’s and Lewis’s insecurity began to show. Would a seasoned movie star pack a lot of ego or, even worse, outshine the boys? Ms. DeCarlo was perfect in the role of Lily, and the actors later admitted they were wrong in their initial assumptions.
Popular child-actor Billy Mumy (Sammy, the Way-Out Seal, Lost in Space) was the original choice for Eddie Munster, but his parents wouldn’t agree to the extensive makeup it would take for their son to become a little wolfboy. Next up, Happy Derman, a monstrous little tyke whose one-note interpretation of Eddie Munster didn’t bode well. Derman’s sole shot at Munsterdom is preserved on the two DVD set
The Munsters: America’s First Family of Fright, a must for all collections. Happy looks a little like Larry Talbot after the third transformation dissolve. He walks hunched over, bares his Westmore fangs, and speaks in grunts and growls. Butch Patrick, the boy who would be Eddie, remembered his predecessor: “Happy Derman wasn’t very happy. He was the meanest little kid I’d ever seen.” Derman was a thoroughly off-putting little creature and, with all due respect to Butch, one I would have gladly spent two seasons watching.
Conceptually, The Munsters is little more than The Donna Reed Show, a typical sixties sitcom about a wholesome suburban family, played in greenface. And damn if the series doesn’t stand the test of time, due in large part to the perfect teaming of Gwynne and Lewis. The two had previously worked together on the NBC sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?, and their pairing as a Yiddish Grandpa Dracula and his goyish-kop seven-foot, olive-skinned son-in-law redefined genius.
In the pilot episode, a deadpan Herman lumbered along like a soulless corpse. The series originally opened with a sad-eyed, innocuous Frankenstein’s monster emerging from behind the stairwell. Not until Lily plants a kiss does Herman turn into the giddy lug we all know and love. Imagine that pre-kiss characterization spread out for an entire episode. Instead of a declawed monster, producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, the masterminds behind Leave It to Beaver, wisely turned Herman into a jejune goon, a childlike behemoth frightened by his own shadow. Gwynne later said of his monstrous alter ego, “Children believe Herman is real and, because of that, have fewer fears about imaginary monsters. It’s a very healthy situation.”
My second sojourn to Munster, Go Home! was held in the unlikeliest of screening facilities: the basement of my Hebrew School. It was the annual Magen David Adom food drive, and for the price of one canned good, students were treated to a scratchy, 16mm dye-transfer print projected in the same bema where Rabbi Jordani dovened mincha. The Rabbi wasn’t in attendance that afternoon, so the projection and hosting chores went to his aide-de-camp, Hyman Wolinitz. The congregation popped for the rental of a 16mm Bell and Howell Autoload, which sat on a folding table opposite a three-legged pull-down screen. Without bothering to check the leader, Hymie threaded up reel two (of three) and started the show.