“There was a character that hung out in a clock called Froggy, the Magic Gremlin, and they used to say to him, ‘Plunk your Magic Twanger, Froggy!’ There was something about the character that bothered me, and I can recall having some weird dreams because of this. Or did I just dream the whole thing?” (Tom Johnson quoted in TVParty.com)
Let us now consider Andy’s Gang, a horrific children’s television show from the 1950s. For those who live outside the United States, and didn’t grow up during the Cold War, this series may be absolutely unknown, and if this is the case, you can be thankful. For Andy’s Gang is the most twisted, most willfully odd and perverse television show imaginable, no matter what age group it’s aimed at. As one viewer put it, “the show reminds me of something David Lynch would come up with,” but actually, that’s selling the show short. This one is truly off the charts, existing in a hermetically sealed land all its own, a phantom zone of non-performance and non-participation which is staggering in its dimensions and implications.
That’s quite a claim, but if I had to compare Andy’s Gang to anything else that comes under the heading of a moving image construct, I’d be almost instantly reaching for the horror films Castle of the Living Dead (1964), The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967), or Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon (1973, a.k.a. The Mansion of Madness). For here is a television show, ostensibly aimed at children, in which the host never met – not even once – any of the members of his supposed audience, or was even in the same room with them, or even the same year – and which is comprised of such serial repetition of actual footage, as well as ceaselessly repeating its own internal structure, that it almost defies description. Indeed, as I’ll show later, there are virtually web support groups for aging baby boomers who seem to have been traumatized by the show as children, more than 53 years after the final episode of the series aired.
Saturday morning television in the United States in the 1950s belonged exclusively to children; this was a holdover from the tradition of Saturday morning shows in movie theaters in the 1920s through the early 1950s, when boys and girls would rush down to the local theater to see a double bill of two genre films, usually a western and/or a science-fiction or horror film, plus some cartoons, a chapter of a serial or “cliffhanger,” some trailers, travelogues, shorts, and other assorted screen fare.
When television took hold in the mid 1950s, it spelled the death of these morning screenings – serials, for example, ceased production entirely in 1956 as a direct result of competition from television – and television did its best to slavishly copy the model the movie theaters had followed so successfully.
So, on Saturday morning network television, you could forget about anything aimed at an adult audience; instead, one got a nonstop diet of such series as Kukla, Fran And Ollie, Howdy Doody, Flash Gordon, Lassie, Annie Oakley, Ding Dong School, The Paul Winchell Show, The Roy Rogers Show, Captain Z-RO, The Rootie Kazootie Club, Winky Dink And You, Super Circus, The Cisco Kid, Sky King, Captain Midnight, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, The Pinky Lee Show, Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle and many more.
Each of these shows had their own peculiarities; Howdy Doody was a live puppet show, with a real live “Peanut Gallery” where kids would scream and holler as the show progressed – in short, genuine audience interaction; Flash Gordon, starring Steve Holland, was filmed in West Berlin in converted beer halls on a miniscule budget; Winky Dink and You encouraged kids to actually draw on the picture tubes of their television sets with crayons to trace this week’s mystery clue – one was supposed to place a special “magic screen,” actually thin plastic film, over the screen before marking it up, but many kids, enthralled by the suspense, simply forgot this part of the process – and so on.
But Andy’s Gang was a breed apart. As Wikipedia accurately reports,
“Andy’s Gang was a children’s television program that ran on NBC from August 20, 1955, to December 31, 1960. It was hosted by actor Andy Devine, and was the successor to the radio and television programs Smilin’ Ed McConnell and his Buster Brown Gang, later shortened to Smilin’ Ed’s Gang. Devine took over the television program when Ed McConnell died suddenly from a heart attack in 1954. He inherited a number of the characters on the earlier show and the sponsor, Buster Brown shoes.”
Under Smilin’ Ed McConnell’s tenure, first as a radio show starting in 1944, and then a television series, each episode would begin with a young boy portraying Buster Brown, the fictional Dutch boy who was a well-known trademark for children’s shoes in the 1950s, accompanied by his rather spectacularly ugly dog Tige screaming – from the inside of a shoe – “Hey kids! It’s the Buster Brown Show! – followed by McConnell leading his juvenile audience in the rousing adolescent anthem “I got shoes, you got shoes, everybody’s got to have shoes, but there’s only one kind of shoe for me, good old Buster Brown shoes!” while his fans screamed with delight.
When the show started on radio, McConnell would actually perform from a barely propped stage before a studio audience, and when the show switched to television, he continued this practice. But as his health faltered, McConnell decreed that henceforth, he would perform on a stage in an empty auditorium, and reaction shots of the children could be spliced in later, culled from earlier episodes. For some reason, the series producers went along with this idea.
This in itself is unusual as far it goes, but it gets even stranger when one considers that after McConnell’s death, when Andy Devine took over, series producer/director Frank Ferrin saw no need to film new reaction shots of the audience, and simply continued to recycle footage from episodes shot in 1952 and 1953 – actually comprising less than three minutes running time – for the entire length of the series, up until the final 1960 airdate.
Thus, Andy’s Gang never really existed – it was simply Andy Devine, on an almost empty stage, interacting with no one at all – or rather, the same group of phantom children over and over again, week after week, year after year, who had never seen him, or had any contact with him at all. Nor did Devine do any personal appearances in conjunction with the show; indeed, he filmed all his segments for each year’s worth of the series in a matter of weeks, and then moved on to other assignments. And remember, this is a mainstream network television series, not some fly-by-night syndicated operation. It’s the real deal.
The gravel-voiced Devine, of course, was a reliable and well-known character actor who appeared in more than 400 feature films and numerous television shows, in addition to voiceover work, and he couldn’t afford to spend too much time on Andy’s Gang, even if the series did bear his name, and ostensibly, his imprimatur. But in fact, even within each episode, footage of Devine reacting, laughing, or gesturing to the “audience” was also repeated, so that his actual “new footage” time for each episode was roughly ten minutes or less. And with long takes, the whole series could be shot rapidly and cheaply.
As TVParty.com notes,
“The backdrop was a clubhouse, with kids in the studio audience […] the folksy broadcast was hosted by old-timer Smilin’ Ed McConnell; music and stories from Smilin’ Ed’s Storybook were regular features. The show also featured Gunga, the East India Boy, a serial set in India. Led by The Maharajah, Gunga Ram and his pal Rama [would] set out on great adventures around the village of Bakore in filmed segments.
The most popular segment was the visit from Froggy the Gremlin, who would appear when Smilin’ Ed yelled his famous catch-phrase, ‘Plunk your Magic Twanger, Froggy!’ […] The Smilin’ Ed Show was moved to Saturday mornings in 1951, where it ran on CBS and ABC (as Smilin’ Ed’s Gang) until 1954 when the Ed McConnell died suddenly of a heart attack. Andy Devine was brought on as McConnell’s replacement in 1955 […] In addition to Froggy and Gunga, the show featured two other holdovers from the Smilin’ Ed days – Midnight the Cat and Squeaky the Mouse.”
But this précis doesn’t begin to do justice to threadbare cheapness and insularity of the show, shot at the legendarily down-market Nassour Studios, located at 846 W. Third Street in Los Angeles. After the opening theme song – which was rephrased after Buster Brown dropped out as the show’s sponsor to the somewhat suspect “I’ve got a gang, you’ve got a gang, everybody’s gotta have a gang, but there’s only one real gang for me, good old Andy’s gang!” – delivered from a bare stage set comprised of only a few basic props – from left to right, a grand piano, a small bookstand to hold the “story book,” an oversize easy chair, and a grandfather clock – Andy Devine would introduce the series’ main characters; Squeaky The Mouse (actually a hamster), Midnight The Cat, and “that mystical, magical Froggy The Gremlin.” And that was pretty much it.
But what made this introductory sequence all the more peculiar was that once again – literally – the exact same footage was used week after week, year after year, complete with the same obligatory “audience” cutaways.
After this brief segment, Andy would grab a huge bound volume off the night table on the set, conspicuously labeled Andy’s Stories, and offer a generic introduction such as “yes sir, this is an exciting story. It seems that …” and we would be off to the filmed Gunga and Rama segments, and again, these intros were recycled week after week. To his credit, Andy would jump in and offer brief voiceovers to move the story along, but still, these sequences were formulaic and tedious in the extreme, seeming very much like Sabu the Jungle Boy knockoffs (which, of course, is precisely what they were), and home viewing audiences more or less endured them until each week’s segment mercifully came to an end.
Now we’re roughly at the 18-minute mark in a half hour show, and nothing has really happened. The phantom children continue their stock footage clamor, Andy closes the story book with a satisfied smile – again, this wrap-up footage was recycled for each “new” show – and in the particular episode I viewed, moves on to introduce a singing chicken, Midnight the Cat being contorted into “playing” a toy piano through the use of all-too-obvious wires, while Squeaky accompanies on harmonica, a live rabbit is forced to play the violin, and another mouse takes a stab at hammering away at a tiny set of drums. The sight is so bizarre as to defy description.
The “audience” oohs and aahs on the soundtrack, but of course, there’s really no one there; even more eerily, these audience “audio” reactions (laughter, giggles, expressions of awe) are also lifted from the Smilin’ Ed McConnell shows, circa 1952-54, so these “reactions” are just as synthetic as the sense of false camaraderie engendered by Andy Devine’s admittedly enthusiastic performance. Yet, as with the 1950s teleseries Ramar of The Jungle, which used miles of stock footage to convey the false impression that the series was shot on location in Africa, the effect is never convincing.
When this segment of animal torture grinds to an end, Andy walks over to the grandfather clock, and commands Froggy The Gremlin to appear with the magic incantation “plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!,” and the gremlin obligingly appears in a puff of smoke mouthing his catch phrase “Hiya, kids, hiya, hiya!!”, only to then torment whatever guest “star” the show might have that week, often comedy veteran Billy Gilbert, playing a variety of characters, such as “Mr. Jim Nasium.” Froggy’s shtick is simple; as the guest stars attempt to present a straight lecture on a given topic, Froggy constantly interrupts, invariably leading them off track.
As Robbins Mitchell wrote in TVParty.com, Andy would then have to,
“correct his outlandish behavior […] to which [Froggy] invariably replied in all insincerity, ‘I’ll be good, I will, I will, I will,’ then [lie] in wait to toss his next verbal hand grenade into the mix […] as events turned more and more ridiculous with the guest ‘expert,’ and tension and irritation mounted, the [stock footage] audience of kids would also grow more and more agitated, howling with delight, until finally Froggy would begin suddenly vibrating furiously left to right and suddenly disappear with a loud bang and a huge puff of smoke, return to whatever nether realm he inhabited, only to return the following week to stir up yet more mayhem. Undoubtedly the most outrageous side character ever to appear on any kids’ TV show, Froggy the Gremlin pushed the envelope in a way not seen again until Soupy Sales a few years later.”
Or, as Arthur Schatz observed in a comment on a YouTube video clip from the show, “Froggy is my hero. He taught an entire generation that adult authority figures are basically morons who deserve no respect whatsoever!”
Or, as a female viewer, now in her 60s, remembered of Froggy’s continual stream of abuse on the TVParty.com website,
“I’ve been telling my husband and kids for years about this horror called Froggy. My husband, who has a superb memory of everything TV, couldn’t recall the show when he was a kid so he thought I was making it up or was having some sort of weird 50’s hallucination. My kids just thought it was too bizarre to be real! [Yet] it was as weird as we all imagined. The Froggy voice has been the subject of my kiddie nightmares. It was an absolutely frightening and disconcerting show for children to watch […] was it an early attempt at brainwashing? Was it a cult? All I know is that it was so weird and frightening to me that I must have blocked it out. Glad to hear I wasn’t alone. And for that matter, what is a Magic Twanger anyway? Sounds obscene to me!”
Finally, with Froggy having humiliated his weekly victim, the show would come to an end. Suddenly standing behind his huge armchair – again, this footage was used again and again for five straight years without variation – Andy would offer a closing benediction to his non-existent audience. “Yes, sir” he would intone portentously, “we’re pals. And pals stick together. And now gang, don’t forget church or Sunday school. And remember, Andy’s Gang will get together right here this same time next week. We’ll have another exciting story, and lots of other fun, too! So long, fellas and gals!” To which the non-existent off-screen children would reply “so long, Andy!” – the only new piece of audio recorded from an audience for the entire Andy Devine iteration of the series.
As the credits rolled over the stock footage of the same children, and the same end titles every week, incidentally crediting an Indian stock music house for the fragments of music used in both the story segments and the show itself – an early example of outsourcing to save a few more bucks – the week’s “new” episode of the series would stagger to the finish line.
I don’t know if I’ve managed to convey even a fraction of the utterly warped phantom zone Andy’s Gang inhabits, with its live animals manipulated by wires, cheap plastic puppets and smoke bomb effects, canned music, canned audience reactions, canned audience footage, endlessly recycled into infinity, but if not, perhaps the sight of Midnight the Cat being forced to mime playing the organ to the tune of “Yes, Jesus Loves Me,” while Squeaky the mouse / hamster is manipulated into beating out a dirge like rhythm on a bass drum and Andy Devine drones tunelessly along in the background – you can see the clip here – will convince you that perhaps this is a show that deserves a bit more examination as a unique and deeply disturbing cultural exemplar of the 1950s.
If you want more, there are a lots of clips on the web, including one from 1960 when the show made a brief and abortive switch to color. Interestingly, and as far as I am concerned quite fittingly, there’s no audience at all here, because the black and white stock footage of the youthful audience could no longer be spliced in at will. The production company was apparently loathe to film new audience reaction footage in color, and so while the laughs and murmurs of children of nearly a decade earlier still reverberate on the soundtrack, they are now completely absent from the screen as a visual construct.
Shortly after the switch to color, the series ended. And what happened to the series after it ended – all five seasons’ worth of episodes. Well, according to Wikipedia, “the entire inventory, over a ton of filmed programs and presumably the broadcast rights, are the property of Hubbard Broadcasting, St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota.” So what will happen now? It seems that the negative still exist. But is it worth reviving? It is worth viewing? Is it worth being stuck in an empty studio with a host who is talking to no one at all, no one except perhaps the viewer, and the camera crew recording his actions? I don’t know the answer. All I know is this – Andy’s Gang scares me to death.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); A History of Horror (2010), and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009).
Andy’s Gang, complete episode in three segments: