To quote the current TV hit Fringe—which owes much to Rod Serling—there's more than one of everything.
When I was a kid, the Twilight Zone was a foreign country. I lived in suburbia, far from the surreal urban landscape of episodes such as "Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room" and "What You Need." I yearned to visit that imaginary city full of mid-century chic, sleazy back alleys, and exotic characters both good and evil. I wanted to go there and poke around.
In 2000 I finally visited Binghamton, NY, and it offered me a second version of the Twilight Zone—especially the downtown with its magnificent period architecture that must have influenced young "Roddy" Serling. Binghamton is a recognizable American city, more industrial than exotic, and quite clearly the shrouded-in-nostalgia hometown of "Walking Distance." Ride the carousel and stroll around the bandstand at Recreation Park; this incarnation is sentimental rather than surreal.
Ten years later, my wife and I stepped into a third version of the Twilight Zone: downtown Beverly Hills. It's a wholly different flavor of recognizable American city. Fish out of water? You bet: we handed the keys for our peeling 1999 Honda Civic to a bemused parking valet and climbed a flight of stairs to the sidewalk of Rodeo Drive, where you can spend a month's paycheck on a pair of shoes.
For me, a return to the surreal.
We walked one block to an ultramodern building, The Paley Center for Media (named after CBS founder William H. Paley), at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and North Beverly Drive.
The Rod Serling exhibit there opened in 2002, back when the place was named the Museum of Television and Radio. Between the hours of Noon and 5PM on any weekday, you could view any of 269 programs that feature Rod Serling's written word, or his narrating voice, or the man himself.
Thankfully, you still can (although it's Wednesday through Sunday now with slightly different hours). It took me eight years to visit the place and see just one of these videos—and I live in the same state, north of San Francisco. Getting there wasn't cheap, either. But I'll complain about the sad facts of inaccessibility later. Serling's work is always worth the effort to see.
Fortunately, as the folks at The Paley Center add new exhibits, they keep the old ones. All reside digitally in a vast upper floor that they call The Library. (Wait, I thought that was a Star Trek episode!) You sit at a booth with one to four chairs clustered around a single screen, wearing headphones and watching whatever two hours of video that you've requested from a workstation in another room.
It was all so vast and impressive—and deserted. Most of the viewing stations were empty.
The multiple greeters downstairs and librarians upstairs were friendly and generous with their time, anxious to be of help to anyone with a video itch to scratch. More people should come through these doors. Many more!
The ground floor is exposed to the street by clear glass walls. It gleams with cleanliness and, as previously noted, mostly empty space.
The half of the lobby that was not empty contained a giant display of photos of black entertainers, and we paused to check it out. Attractive, impressive, but to my mind, too large a space for the contents.
The impression was like opening the towering plastic box of a 1990s desktop computer: most of the inside was air. Even the stairs took up more space than I expected. Maybe I just need to adjust my expectations. I was disappointed that a place which honors the crowded and dusty past of all radio and TV programs since the media's beginnings didn't itself feel more crowded, and dusty.
I wanted the place to make me claustrophobic, like the upper floor stacks of a college library. Perhaps in time, it will. There was a lot of space upstairs too, much devoted to passageways that during our visit were filled with Hirschfeld sketches of TV and movie stars. Quality, interesting art that stimulated a lot of childhood TV memories.
A visit to their website gave me a different perspective on the empty lobby. Check out their daily schedule. This cavernous space is busy with an event on most evenings that it is open.
Today we're nearly alone, but there is still much to see. I could go to the screening room, which shows their program-de-jour. These change monthly or so. I could check out the various exhibits, or go upstairs to the video library. Of course, I was here online months ago. I knew exactly what I wanted, so we headed for the stairs.
Finally, we reached the upstairs lobby and counter, with more people eager to assist us. In fact, one of them operated the workstation that found the show I wanted to see. I felt less a participant and more a detached observer—but try searching their website at home. It takes some practice. If you don't know the exact name of the show you're seeking, you may not find it. There's help with that at the end of this article.
The show was "The Rank and File," a Playhouse 90 episode from 1959 starring Van Heflin, Luther Adler, and Charles Bronson. It's a classic Serling drama that saddles a conflicted protagonist with heavy moral choices and shows the heartbreaking consequences of his actions. Rod's forte. This show also pushed the envelope for live productions of the time, combining taped outdoor scenes with live indoor scenes to tell a story that spans several years.
It was all in crude but watchable kinescope, which is a 16mm film taken from a TV monitor that is broadcasting the show. I saw exactly what live viewers saw at home on the original broadcast (Saturday, May 28, 1959): introductions, commercials, any gaffes committed by the actors, and live-action previews of next week's show.
Characters evolved and devolved, argued and interacted, and kept me engaged for the full 90 minutes. I want to see it again, to dig for details, but of course that would involve another trip to Beverly Hills.
As we left, I saw too few other viewing stations occupied. At one, a middle-aged man was watching an episode of the TV show 24. Maybe it was a function of being there on a Thursday afternoon, but I was shocked that with so much available for viewing, so much in that library which could be viewed nowhere else, one of the few visitors would be watching something that is out on DVD. I hope he donated the suggested ten bucks.
I wanted to see more Serling dramas, the shows that cannot be found anywhere else. But even a Paley Center membership will buy you just three hours of viewing per day. So many of the shows here, and so much of the Serling stuff, will go unwatched. I can't stay here and come in for three hours day after day. You can't get these shows on DVD or VHS, you can't even find them on 16mm through eBay. We at the Foundation know, because we are constantly looking.
The only way to see "The Rank and File" is to go to New York City or Beverly Hills. That is a sad necessity, but it's also a shame because how are the folks in Topeka or Oshkosh ever going to receive Rod Serling's enlightenment? There's so much more to his work than The Twilight Zone.
And in fact, there are also many other artists from the Golden Age of TV whose work is exemplary but not as well known. Reginald Rose and Paddy Cheyevsky come to mind, and their work is right there alongside Rod Serling's.
If you're going to build the world's biggest video library anywhere, L.A. and New York are the obvious places. There are more potential viewers there. But getting there is prohibitively expensive for the rest of us. I'm the webmaster for the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation, and thus someone with special motivation ...but it took me eight years to justify the expense of a trip to L.A.: my wife's nephew graduating from Medical School. That's because it really did take an investment, in transportation and lodging, to accomplish that visit.
I do understand why this stuff is not out on DVD—it has too few potential buyers and would be too easily copied. Forget profit—you couldn't even pay for the conversion from 16mm to mass market DVD. But it seems a different type of crime that Rod Serling's work, once broadcast for free on the airwaves, now costs such big bucks to view. So here are some suggestions for making your visit to the Paley Center as inexpensive as possible...
BEVERLY HILLS ON THE CHEAP
The important thing is: Go! There are several dozen Rod Serling gems there, that you'll find nowhere else. He won six Emmys, only two of them for Twilight Zone. And he wrote a lot of gripping stuff that won no awards at all. This is a great place to discover all of that.
Go to http://www.paleycenter.org but don't use the search box there. Click on the link The Collection. Once there, use THAT search box. If you search for "Rod Serling" you will get shows he was in (for instance as narrator of many Jacques Cousteau specials). You'll find commercials, game show appearances, interviews and much more. Lots of interesting stuff, but in my opinion not worth the money you've invested to get to New York City or Beverly Hills. Go there to view the writing of Rod Serling!
For this, you would need to search for episode names, or actor names, or show names. I've done that for you, and my list appears below. (Most Twilight Zone and Night Gallery episodes are in the Paley Center library, but they are also available on DVD and thus not included here.)
"I Lift My Lamp"
"Horace Mann's Miracle"
"Man Against Pain"
"Old MacDonald Had a Curve"
"Nightmare at Ground Zero"
"The Blue for Joey Menotti"
"A Long Time Till Dawn"
"Herman Came By Bomber"
"The Worthy Opponent"
"Knife in the Dark"
Portrait in Celluloid
"The Man Who Caught the Ball at Coogan's Bluff"
"Noon on Doomsday"
"Requiem for a Heavyweight"
"A Town Has Turned to Dust"
"The Time Element"
"The Velvet Alley"
"The Rank and File"
Note: Most Twilight Zone episodes are in the Paley Center library.
"In the Presence of Mine Enemies"
"Slow Fade to Black"
"Carol For Another Christmas"
"The Lonely Calico Queen"
"One of the Wounded"
"Window on the Evening Stage"
"The Doomsday Flight"
"A Storm in Summer"
Note: Most Night Gallery episodes are in the Paley Center library.
"The Time Travelers"
View Rod Serling's Complete Filmography