Who you gonna call?: The original “Ghost Busters” was a Saturday morning live-action kids show in 1975

By on July 18, 2016

The 2016 remake of the supernatural blockbuster comedy Ghostbusters didn’t quite have the box office success during its opening weekend that Sony Pictures had hoped for, selling roughly $46 million in North American ticket sales and $19.1 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $65.1 million against an overall budget of $144 million.

Even if the movie doesn’t ever turn a profit and audiences decide they don’t want to see top Hollywood comediennes as the proton pack-wielding ghost hunters, it’s likely they’d prefer the most recent bunch (Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones) to the original original “Ghost Busters,” which wasn’t even a movie at all, it was a Saturday morning live-action show that aired on the CBS network in 1975.

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That’s right, nine years before theater audiences rushed out to see Ivan Reitman’s beloved 1984 movie starring Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, there was a series about “ghost busters” (two words) that came along first, and as it happened, the studio behind the live-action show weren’t too happy about the movie Columbia Pictures were making and even threatened legal action if producers didn’t change the name of their new film.

That’s exactly what happened… after they paid a licensing fee to use the name and agreed to make their “Ghostbusters” one word instead of two.

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So, you may be asking yourself, why haven’t I heard of this original TV series before? Well, there’s no reason for the single season of the original TV being buried other than it wasn’t too memorable to begin with, unless you just happen to be a fan of live-action Saturday morning kid shows and enjoy seeing perfectly good actors like Larry Storch and Forrest Tucker of the TV sitcom “F Troop” as a couple of bumbling paranormal private investigators — named Eddie Spencer and Jake Kong — who’ve partnered up with noted science-fiction fan and collector Bob Burns III, playing a character in a gorilla suit named “Tracy” who can’t speak or write, but he can draw, and express himself through the use of pantomime (Burns is credited as Tracy’s “trainer” — he also worked as a film editor at KNXT, a local CBS station in Los Angeles).

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Storch plays it all for laughs to Tucker’s straight man character as his zoot suit-wearing sidekick, and he’s the one who really gets something to do in each episode. For instance, in first episode, “The Maltese Monkey,” he plays two parts, Spencer and a ghost named Big Al, a gangster who looks just like Spencer (right down to the colorful zoot suit), and Storch gets to show off his best Brando Godfather impression in the episode.

Each week they investigate a new ghostly occurrences, getting their assignments from an unseen Chief (named “Zero”) who delivers his messages to them in whimsical disguised recording devices — just like TV’s “Mission: Impossible” did in the previous decade — sending them off to do battle with Count Dracula,the Wolf Man, and Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, just to name a few, although technically they’re not catching “ghosts” — meaning floating apparitions that fly and spew slime — they’re fighting Count Dracula’s ghost, the Wolf Man’s ghost, etc.

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“The Ghost Busters” was one of six fully live-action shows made by the Filmation Studios television facilities, located in Reseda, California, in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles. They also made “Space Academy” (and its spin-off “Jason of Star Command”),” “Ark II,” “Shazam!” (based on the DC Comics character Captain Marvel, which we recently mentioned in this post), and “The Secrets of Isis.” (If you’re a fan of corny live-action kiddie shows, be sure to check out our post on The Lost Saucer).

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Apparently all fifteen episodes of “The Ghost Busters” were taped at the Filmation Studios every other day for nine weeks in 1975, and the show had done well enough in the ratings to merit a second season, coming in at number two during the ratings during their particular time-slot behind Filmation’s “Shazam/Isis” hour-long block, but the studio decided to pull the plug on the “Ghost Busters” in order to focus on their #1 show.

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To further complicate matters, in 1986, Filmation Associates — the production company behind the live-action show — capitalized on the popularity of the Ghostbusters movie by also producing a new animated cartoon based on their earlier live-action series.

The show was revived in animated format with Kong and Spencer’s sons, Jake and Eddie Jr., inheriting their fathers’ business (and Tracy the Gorilla) in “Ghost Busters”‘ Kong’s first name was never mentioned in the original series. Spencer is named as Eddie in the second episode, “Dr. Whatsisname.” (The animated studio Universal’s new studio chief, Frank Price, who had come from Columbia and original green-lit the original film in ’84, helped smooth over any hurt feelings between the two studios).

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The animated series, by the way, used stock footage heavily; in one episode, character designs and animation sequences were recycled from the “Groovie Goolies” series of nearly fifteen years earlier (o avoid confusion, the animated series based on the film was called “The Real Ghostbusters” (one episode even had them investigated a group of fraudulent ghost fighters, trying to steal the “real” Ghost Busters’ business).

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“The Ghost Busters”was created by writer Marc Richards, who didn’t seem to put a lot of thought into the scripts (we read they might have been written the night before production), which are chock full of slapstick chases and silly props (like bowling ball-sized bombs with the word “BOMB” painted on them), really obvious see-it-coming-a-mile-away mysteries to solve, and the same damn castle set appearing in nearly every episode (imagine a live-action “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” and you get sorta the idea).

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One of the best things about the show, if “best” isn’t stretching it too far, are the guest stars appearing along with the regular cast, including Billy Barty, Jim Backus (The millionaire Mr. Howell on “Gilligan’s Island”) and Ted Knight, who was at the time best known for his genius Ted Baxter on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

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Here’s another full episode, “The Vampire’s Apprentice,” which originally aired on November 8, 1975:

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.