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“Space Patrol”: This early 50s “space opera” set in the 30th Century aired on “Night Flight” in the mid-80s
In May 1985, an episode of the hugely popular early ’50s TV show “Space Patrol“ aired on “Night Flight” — you can see it streaming on Night Flight Plus — and so we thought we’d take a look back at the show, which was set in the 30th Century, that paved the way for all the TV space operas to follow.
“Space Patrol” was a live, action-adventure saga, and one of the first of what came to be called “space operas.”
The crew — Commander-in-Chief Edward “Buzz” Corry (Ed Kemmer), Cadet Happy (Lyn Osborn), Major “Robbie” Robertson (Ken Mayer), Carol Carlisle (Virginia Hewitt) and Tonga (Nina Bara) — dealt with 30th Century-type threats, including the hazards of space travel, mad scientists, evil robots and whatever else you’d expect to see in a 1950s-era television show.
The entire crew were depicted as a tight-knit family-like unit built on caring and mutual respect, each willing to sacrifice his life for a fellow crewmember.
The very first episodes were just fifteen minutes long at first, and began as a local daily TV show airing in Los Angeles, California, debuting on March 9, 1950 on station KECA, and running five days a week (KECA — now KABC, Channel 7 — held the call sign KECA-TV from 1949 to 1954).
The show was an instant hit, and made television history by being the first regular live west coast morning program beamed by satellite to the east coast.
The show made history again when a 30-minute episode was the subject of the first U.S. experimental 3D television broadcast on April 29, 1953.
Eventually, the show morphed into a fast-paced drama with an action peak every five minutes.
Within ten months, kinescopes of the show were being picked up for national distribution by ABC TV and radio (which aired the audio itself as a program) and sent to selected affiliates around the country.
The show was eventually expanded to a weekly half-hour Saturday morning network show on December 30, 1950, and two (later cut down to one) radio episodes per week, and was soon was a huge nationwide hit, running for five years (1950-1955).
For those same five years, there were three major space opera-type shows — in addition to “Space Patrol,” viewers also loved to watch “Captain Video” and “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” in addition to a bunch of smaller, regional space-themed shows that also focused on heroic astronauts battling their enemies in space.
Space Patrol came along at a time when Americans were becoming obsessed with space travel, aliens and pretty much anything to do with astronauts, but they were also infatuated with the future, and with futuristic societies, and “Space Patrol” satisfied their curiosities about all of these things at a time when even having a television set was considered a luxury item.
As far as TV was concerned, space was definitely the next frontier, if not the “final” frontier.
“Space Patrol” was created by TV producer William “Mike” Moser, who had flown as a pilot during WWII (so had the show’s director and lead actor), and he once told Time magazine that he’d conceived the show as an interplanetary police force fending off cosmic marauders and keeping the space lanes clear while he was flying for the U.S. Navy Corp on a mission over the South Pacific.
While in his plane high above the ocean, Moser got to wondering about the universe and began thinking about the future and a solar confederation called the United Planets, who were devoted to keeping the peace but willing to fight when menaced by alien foes whose morals had not caught up with their technology.
Kemmer, before becoming the Commander in Chief of the Space Patrol, was also a fighter pilot, for the U.S. Army Air Corps, during WWII.
On June 17, 1944, eleven days after the Normandy Invasion, he was shot down in his P-51 fighter plane over German Occupied France in the middle of a German patrol and was slightly wounded.
He was then shot down over France in 1944, and spent eleven months as a Prisoner of War in a German prisoner-of-war camp, in Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Germany, in the British compound, with 2,500 British officers.
Kemmer was later awarded the Air medal with three oak leaf clusters, the European campaign ribbon with two battle stars and the Purple Heart.
Even though he’d pitched the show as a “cop show in space,” Moser thought of his “Space Patrol” as a children’s show.
He was determined to create a children’s TV show that was as exciting as “Buck Rogers” and “Flash Gordon” had been to him during his youth.
Somewhat curiously, his writers (Norm Jolley wrote for TV; Lou Huston wrote the radio scripts), the director and the actors themselves considered it more of a soap opera for adults.
By the way, the first official TV soap opera — “The Guiding Light” — started on radio in 1937, but didn’t cross over to television until June 30, 1952, two years after the 5-days-a-week local TV debut of “Space Patrol.”
One of the more important elements to the each episode was the fact that they typically ended with a cliffhanger, which got viewers excited about tuning in the next day to see how the conflict was resolved, which is exactly the formula that most soap operas rely on to hook their viewers.
Most episodes carried such pulp-magazine titles as “Revolt of the Space Rats” and “The Menace of Planet X.”
Sometimes the writers made an attempt to write about something that was happening in the news by taking the current events of the day and putting a little spin on them, like one episode which had the “Space Patrol” flagship — the Terra IV — travel back in time to the Salem witch hunts.
When a female character spoke about seeing the spaceship, she was thought to be a witch, and was going to be tried and burned at the stake. At the time, the McCarthy era was in full swing, and the show clearly was trying to send a message to the audience watching at home.
Mostly, though, the cast and crew mostly relied on telling simplistic stories that Moser and the writers thought would be entertaining to kids, but adults picked up on the show by watching it with their kids, and eventually adults became more than sixty percent of the viewing audience (the show’s sponsor, Ralston Purina, the maker of Chex cereal and “good, hot Ralston cereal,” had conducted a survey that determined that parents had become hooked on their kids favorite TV show). Another sponsor was the Nestles company.
The marketing deals that ABC and Moser made with Ralston included breakfast cereals (Wheat and Rice Chex and Hot Ralston cereals), for sure, but it was soon expanded to games and toys.
Space Patrol flashlights and emergency kits, rocket dart guns and blasters, flight suits, boots, space helmets and pup tents flew off the shelves (and many more were sold via mail order).
There was even a two-foot inflatable “space bunny” named Cosmo from some far reach of the galaxy that Commander Corry dealt with in one episode, and it was immediately marketed for sales.
Some of the nifty gadgets the crew got to use on the show — such as “miniature space-o-phones” and “atomolights” — apparently were never created as actual toys, not that we could find.
“Space Patrol” clothing items were so popular with several demographics watching the show that department stores across the country stocked spacesuits and cadet uniforms in both children’s and adult’s sizes.
A LIFE magazine article, published in an issue dated September 1, 1952, estimated that the viewership for the show was seven million regular viewers, and predicted that sales the the merchandise that year alone would peak at $40 million (that’s more than $357 million in today’s dollars).
The cast of actors frequently appeared in the pages of not only LIFE, but also Look, Collier’s and all of the popular film fanzines of the day, which was the 1950s version of the internet, of course.
Two of the actors — Ed Kemmer (Commander Corry) and Lyn Osborn (Cadet Happy aka “Hap”) — were swamped nearly everywhere they went in public, and it was their faces on the front sides of those boxes of Chex cereal, becoming role models for an entire generation.
The entire cast, however, would spend their weekends promoting the show, touring the country and working telethons, appearing at grand openings, promotions and benefits.
One thing to remember is that “Space Patrol” was a “live” TV show, and so occasionally key lights went out, cameras got tangled in cables, special effects didn’t work properly and guest actors forgot their lines (some of the guest actors included Ray Bolger, Gene Barry and Lee Van Cleef).
Still, during the 1328 episodes (a number representing an estimate of both radio and TV shows combined), audiences couldn’t get enough of the show.
ABC’s “Space Patrol” developed and aired 210 thirty-minute episodes, the last one airing in February 1955 (the original 800-plus episodes that had aired locally in L.A. had ended in 1953).
The radio show ran from September 18, 1950, until March 19, 1955, producing 129 thirty-minute episodes.
Mike Moser was killed in a car accident in 1954, and for a time his wife Helen became executive producer.
Moser’s plans for another, more adult-oriented sci-fi series called “Report to Earth” would never happen as the result of his sudden death, and after the Russians launched the Sputnik, “Space Patrol” was hurriedly syndicated under the title “Satellite Police,” with new titles and credits spliced onto the old kinescopes.