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Bruce Markusen Remembers “The Munsters” TV Show 50 Years Later



Bruce Markusen Remembers "The Munsters" TV Show 50 Years Later

It was a show that lasted all of two seasons on network television. It has been more than 50 years since it aired in prime time on CBS-TV. And somehow, in spite of these irrefutable facts, “The Munsters” has retained a relevant and timely place in American culture.

“The Munsters” was more comedy than it was actual horror, but it is still remembered at horror conventions and conferences to this day. In fact, the annual “Monster Bash Conference” is planning a Munsters theme for its June gathering, one that will feature appearances by the two surviving members of the fulltime cast. Fan favorites Butch Patrick and Pat Priest, who played Eddie and Marilyn, respectively, are both scheduled to appear at the popular event in Mars, PA, on the weekend of June 19th-21st.

What is it about “The Munsters” that keeps fans so interested all these years later? After all, the show garnered decent but generally unspectacular ratings during its two-year run in prime time. Only 72 original episodes aired before CBS unceremoniously cancelled the show at the end of the 1965-66 TV season. In today’s television market, a show generally must last for three seasons before earning a place in syndication, but the paucity of original Munsters episodes has not prevented the show from maintaining a continuous 54-year presence in television re-runs. The COZI Network currently airs the shows on a nightly basis, featuring two episodes each weeknight during the 7 to 8 pm Eastern Time slot and a mini-marathon on Sunday evenings.

The Munsters Herman and Grandpa

Several factors seem to be working in favor of the staying power of “The Munsters”. They involve simplicity, timelessness, likeability, the quality of the sets and the makeup, and the unending love that America has for monsters of any kind.

First off, “The Munsters” resisted temptations to delve into real-life issues of the 1960s, like the Vietnam War and drug abuse, and instead chose to keep the focus on basic, fundamental comedy that emphasizes double takes, physical humor, and slapstick hijinks. Yes, the humor can be silly and predictable, but it remains amusing and understandable to multiple generations of fans, be they young children or those who watched the show during its original run. (Venerable actor Al Lewis, who played Grandpa, helped carry the humor. He had a way of delivering a punch line, sometimes deadpan and sometimes wacky, that almost always hit the mark.) Other than occasional references to the 1960s, like the appearance of a Beatles-type musical group that once invaded the Munster house or intermittent mentions of old-time celebrities, the show manages to keep the storylines tied to the family and their day-to-day concerns, which are usually mundane rather than serious. By doing so, the writers succeeded in retaining a timeless quality to “The Munsters”, avoiding the pratfalls of other, more sophisticated shows that become dated by obscure references to their own time period.

Second, the members of the Munster family are basically likeable folks. While they are frightening in appearance, they are basically good people at heart with a proper sense of right and wrong, and an unending concern for each member of the family. Sure, they have their flaws, as we all do. Herman, the head of the house, often loses his temper in childlike ways and sometimes lacks common sense. His wife Lily is occasionally prone to jealousy. Grandpa, Lily’s father, often lacks patience with his son-in-law and needs to be restrained from using his magical potions against those who have crossed him. Despite such shortcomings, the Munsters usually come to their senses (often with a little nudging from their loved ones), refuse to behave dishonestly or break the law (despite Herman and Grandpa’s various hair-brained schemes), and don’t intentionally harm anyone they meet. Ultimately, by the time each 23-minute episode has come to an end, the Munsters have managed to do the right thing.

The Munsters Lily and Herman

Not only did the members of the Munsters’ family exude a likeability and friendliness, but so did the actors playing the five main characters. In watching several archival interviews with Al Lewis, he attributed the success of “The Munsters” to the real-life relationships between the actors. Initially, Yvonne De Carlo (who played Lily) proved demanding and difficult, perhaps because of her previous success as an actress and model, but over time, she became more grounded and appreciative of the other cast members. Once De Carlo made the adjustment, all of the cast members became unified, a quality that showed in their portrayals of the tight-knit Munster family. “We liked each other off camera,” Lewis told the Archive of American Television a few years before his death in 2006. “And we did [the show] on camera with that passion and enthusiasm.”

Lewis also emphasized that he, his longtime friend Fred Gwynne (who played Herman), and the other actors all had tremendous fun doing the show. When actors enjoy their jobs, that tends to translate into better portrayals. “So we brought that animation on camera,” Lewis said. “To me that was one of the biggest assets.”

Another major strength of the show involved the quality of the sets and the terrific makeup. The exterior of 1313 Mockingbird Lane provided the perfect setting for a house inhabited by people with a weird sense of good taste and home décor. Once inside the house, we enjoy the shots of that grand staircase that opens up like a trap door and give us a glimpse of the fire being breathed by “Spot,” the family pet of unknown origins. Then there is the living room, filled with cobwebs, dust-ridden furniture, a clock featuring a live raven, and of course, what every American household needs, a full-blown electric chair.

The Munsters Family

The other parts of the house also provide appropriate atmosphere. Grandpa’s dungeon laboratory looks like something out of a Boris Karloff film in the 1940s. The first-floor hallway features a telephone booth made out of a coffin that has been tipped onto one end. Grandpa sleeps in a bedroom that has no mattress, but is fitted with a concrete slab. And the upstairs hallway resembles a corridor taken from one of Abbott and Costello’s meet-the-monster movies. The scenery alone makes “The Munsters” worth a look.

The makeup and costumes were no less spectacular. The work of artists Karl Silvera, Abe Haberman, and Perc and Michael Westmore helped bring the characters of Herman, Grandpa, Lily and Eddie to life, both in terms of horror and humor. (Poor Marilyn had to make do without any of the ghoulish attire.) Not only did the costumes enhance their creepiness, but they also featured a sufficient tinge of comedy, from Eddie’s ridiculous widow’s peak hairline to Lily’s outrageous outdoor cape, made from the interior lining of a casket.

Another strength of the show was the quality of the actors. The aforementioned regular cast of Gwynne, De Carlo, Lewis, Patrick, and Priest (who replaced Beverley Owen after the first 15 episodes) turned out beautifully, as did the many guest stars who made appearances. A number of noted comic actors did guest spots during the show’s brief run, including Harvey Korman, Paul Lynde, and Don Rickles. From the world of baseball, Hall of Famer Leo Durocher made a memorable appearance as the supervisor of Herman’s ill-fated tryout with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Munsters Herman

And from the genre of horror itself, the venerable John Carradine made two appearances. He played Mr. Gateman, the owner of the Gateman, Goodbury, and Graves Funeral Home, where Herman worked. (It was about the only work place that could accept Herman’s nine-foot frame and Frankenstein-like appearance.) With his tall frame and skeletal look, Carradine was a nearly perfect choice to portray the owner of a local funeral parlor. He also had plenty of experience playing creepy roles, including turns as Dracula and assorted other vampires, werewolves, evil scientists, and villains. When John Carradine showed up as Mr. Gateman on “The Munsters”, it made for an especially enjoyable experience.

One other circumstance has helped “The Munsters” find long-term standing with American audiences. It was the show’s faithfulness to the monsters that Universal Studios had introduced to us in the 1930s and forties. Herman was unquestionably a replica of the Frankenstein Monster; since “The Munsters” was also produced and distributed by Universal, the show was able to use similar makeup to the look created by Jack Pierce and later copyrighted by the studio. Both Lily and Grandpa were vampires (though neither was ever seen drawing blood on a show that was basically wholesome and innocent). Little Eddie was a werewolf, roughly similar in appearance to the character played by Henry Hull in Werewolf of London. By making the main characters replicas of these creatures, the show appealed to the so-called “monster kids” of the 1960s, young fans who had become hooked on the classic monsters through late-night movies, the photographs featured in Famous Monsters of Filmland, and the plastic models produced by the Aurora Company.

Thanks to this confluence of factors, “The Munsters” has managed to defy the critics and maintain its standing as a part of American popular culture. Perhaps this phenomenon explains why this author recently purchased, at the cost of approximately $40, a vintage miniature lunchbox featuring the original Munsters cast. And perhaps it provides some reasoning as to why so many fans excitedly anticipate the appearance of Patrick and Priest, two of the “The Munsters’” main players, nearly 55 years after the show’s cancellation.

All these years later, “The Munsters” still matter to us—and for fans who share the love of nostalgic horror, that is a very good thing.