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Batman 75: Was the Adam West Batman TV Show Really Inspired By People Mocking the Old Batman Film Serials?

Posted on the 09 June 2014 by Weminoredinfilm.com @WeMinoredInFilm

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.


 Batman TV Legend: The Adam West Batman TV series came into being because an ABC executive attended a party at which people watched the old Batman film serials and mocked them.  Let’s find out if that’s really true in what is my first attempt at an homage to the format of Brian Cronin’s fantastic site LegendsRevealed.com.

As pointed out in a particularly funny scene between Seth Rogen and Zack Efron in Neighbors, for some of us we know we’re getting old when the person we’re talking to has only ever known a Batman played by Christian Bale, sadly ignorant when asked about Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, or even Kevin Conroy (from Batman: The Animated Series).  Well, at one point you could have made the same joke about people only knowing Michael Keaton as Batman, completely unaware of Adam West.  In fact, back in 1992 The Simpsons’s “Mr. Plow” episode made that very joke thanks to the willingness of West to appear in a cameo and poke fun at himself, presaging his currently on-going voice-over work in The Family Guy by nearly a decade:

Back in the ’60s, sales of the Batman comics were in a downward spiral, forcing DC to contemplate pulling the plug on Batman.  Then, much as it had done for Elvis and The Beatles, TV turned the character into a cultural phenomenon when the nation found itself in the throes of Bat-mania after Adam West and Burt Ward debuted as Batman and Robin in ABC’s Batman in January of 1966.  Playing on the mod/pop-art aesthetics of the timethis camp-tastic Batman featured a Catwoman (Julie Newmar) who purred all of her lines, a Penguin (Burgess Meredith) who added an odd “Quack, quack, quack” sound to the end of every other sentence, a Boy Wonder (Burt Ward) who sported an endless supply of “Holy non-sequiters!”, and cartoon action balloons which popped up during fight scenes (“Bam!” “Wham!”).  Since ABC only had two half-hour slots left to fill on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the hour-long Batman show was divided into two half-hour segments, aping the conventions of the old film serials by ending the first episode with a cliffhanger, thus William Dozier’s oft-paraphrased closing narration, ““Tune in tomorrow – same Bat-Time, same Bat-channel!”

It was a huge hit, playing to adults and kids for entirely different reasons, the adults essentially getting to be in on the jokes (kind of like, “Don’t you get it?  We’re mocking the shit out of all comic books!”) whereas kids could just blindly accept the comic book-style adventures thrown their way, never questioning why Batman carried shark repellent in his utility belt.  This translated to an instant influx of Batman-related merchandise, pulling in a reported $75 million in sales back when $75 million was really, really impressive for that kind of thing.

By the time the bubble burst in 1968 and ABC canceled the show after 3 seasons, they had squeezed out 120 episodes and 1 feature film.  After decades of fixing the damage done by the show to Batman’s reputation, Warner Bros. and D.C. have recently embraced the nostalgia for the old show, 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.

Would any of this have happened if the hipsters of the early ’60s hadn’t decided to have a bit of a laugh at the expense of the old Batman film serials of the ’40s?

The urban legend has always been that the Adam West Batman show emerged as a response to or perhaps extension of a growing movement of select audiences seeking out the old movie serials to mock them, yet that’s always been difficult to actually prove definitively.  What we do know is that a Batman TV series first went into development sometime in the early ’60s when Ed Graham Productions planned to produce a irony-free, straightforward Saturday morning kids show on CBS, in the spirit of the George Reeves Adventures of Superman and The Lone Ranger.  Graham’s negotiations with CBS eventually stalled, at which point DC re-obtained the rights to be optioned to a different network.

At the same time, people, particularly college students, were beginning to discover how fun it was to watch old, crappy movies and make fun of them, the chief target being film serials.  Similar to how you might have felt whenever Mystery Science Theater 3000 took on a particularly dreadful film, there was a certain “shooting fish in a barrel” element to this movement as audiences packed into art houses and college theaters to mock old film serials which in there day had been made as quickly as possible on shoe-string budgets, primarily hoping to appeal to little kids.  They were definitely never meant to stand the test of time, and, in fact, film serials stopped active production by 1956, an early victim of TV.

Many of the serials continued to be reissued for cheap rental fees to local theaters throughout the ’60s, and by mid-way point of the decade a Manhattan art house had scored so big with their exhibition of an old serial that Columbia Pictures decided to serve up its 1943 and 1949 Batman serials for slaughter, though never really clarifying which of the serials you were getting.  The new twist was that all 15 chapters of the individual serial would play back-to-back marathon-style, running over four hours long.  They called it An Evening with Batman and Robin, and initial bookings at art theatres in Cleveland, Champaign, Illonois, and at Chicago’s Playboy Theatre were an unexpected smash success in the Fall of 1965.


Notice the “Come to Jeer-Stay to Cheer…and Vice Versa!” tag-line. Image found at GreenBriarPictureShows.BlogSpot.Com

The story then goes that life-long Batman fan and ABC executive Yale Udoff attended one such Evening with Batman at the Playboy Club, and was so impressed by the crowd’s reaction that he contacted higher ups at ABC to suggest a prime time Batman series, which they went straight to work on after securing the rights from DC.


(Black & White) Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery as Batman in Their Respective Film Serials, (Color) Adam West as Batman

The strange thing, though, is that while An Evening with Batman and Robin was explicitly sold as being an opportunity to “come to jeer” ABC did not actually set out to make a campy show.  Fun, sure, but still serious, like The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  If Udoff was directly inspired by Evening with Batman either his fellow attendees at the Playboy Club weren’t mocking the film as much as in other cities or he missed the point entirely or something was lost in the translation after the project to adapt the Batman comic into a live-action TV show was handed off to someone else.

That someone else was 20th Century Fox, who received the order to produce the show from ABC and assigned the task to William Dozier and his production company Greenway Productions.  It was Dozier who, completely independent of any knowledge of An Evening with Batman and Robin, decided to make a pop-art, camp comedy.  As he has admitted multiple times over the years, when Fox gave him the job to make the show he’d never actually read a comic book before, let alone one featuring Batman.  He chose not to tell Fox that, instead purchasing several Batman comics, and deciding on his own that the only way you could adapt the character to TV would be as a parody.  In Dozier’s defense, though Batman started off a grisly, bad-ass knock-off of pulp heroes like The Shadow by the time the ’50s came to a close he had descended into truly regrettable camp in the comics.  So, if those are the type of Batman comics he got his hands on then his conclusion was the only sane one you could reach.

The original plan was to launch the show with a TV movie, but once Dozier’s campier approach became clear to all involved they had to adjust, and that TV movie was ultimately pushed back to take place in-between the first and second season.

Meanwhile, An Evening with Batman and Robin was gradually expanding to more and more college towns and art house theaters.  By December 1965, a month prior to the debut of the TV show, several dozen cities had booked the marathon, and San Francisco’s Presidio Theatre actually committed its Christmas week to Batman. There were even adorable local promotions, like a Tulane University senior/theater employee serving doubly duty as a Batman impersonator with a home-made costume at New Orleans’ Peacock Theatre:


Most of those kids look miserable.  Long-time theater owners were quick to point out that the kids of ’65 seeing the serials didn’t seem as enthused as the kids did back in ’43.  Image found at GreenBriarPictureShows.BlogSpot.Com

Theater owners reported brisk weekend sales for the marathons but glorified tumble weeds during the week.  So, by April of ’66 Columbia wanted to ride the Bat-Mania wave started by the TV show just several months earlier, but it also wanted to respond to what theater owners had been saying.  So, Evening with Batman and Robin was expanded nationwide, but split up into two installments, with 8 episodes running one Saturday and 7 episodes the next or maybe isolated to a single weekend, as below:


Image found at GreenBriarPictureShows.BlogSpot.Com

Plus, Columbia rolled out all sorts of related merchandise, contributing to the Batman merchandising mania after the debut of the TV show.  By the time Fox was finally able to get their Batman film out into theaters during the summer of ’66, Columbia had already been milking theaters with its Evening for months, with multiple reports of theaters fighting down itty bitty mobs of kids who came expecting to see a movie starring their beloved Adam West Batman but were incensed when the thing started and it was the crappy old Batman from the ’40s that their dad liked.

Verdict: Did the Adam West Batman TV series really come into being because an ABC executive attended a party at which people watched the old Batman film serials and mocked them?  Probably.  However, the campy, tongue-in-cheek tone of the show, while in keeping with the spirit of Evening with Batman, appears to have been the product of a producer who simply read the comics for the first time and decided to just make fun of the source material rather than honor it.

Sources: Wikipedia.org, antiscribe.com, GreenBriarPictureShows.BlogSpot.Com, Tested.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
  • 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

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