Thursday, August 17, 2017

WORKPLACE IN FILM AND TV BLOGATHON: Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-1963)

Debbie Vega of  Moon in Gemini is hosting the Workplace in Film and TV Blogathon running from August 18 - 20.  Day 1 recap    Day 2 recap    Day 3 recap       

Nat Hiken, the genius comedy mind behind The Phil Silvers Show chose as his next television project to focus on policemen; not just quirky characters, but police officers as people. These people were not the dedicated, focused, law and order at any cost, characters of TV dramas. These co-workers liked each other, fought with each other, knew each others families and foibles, and did their work as best they could without getting anybody in too much trouble.

"I worked for three geniuses in comedy writing --- George S. Kaufman, S.J. Perelman, and Nat Hiken."  
 - Al Lewis (Officer Leo Schnauser)

807 East 107th Street in the Bronx is the real-life location of the old Biograph Studios which, in the 1960s, became home to the various homes which made up the world of the 53rd Precinct. Like a Russian matryoshka doll, hiding other dolls inside, a studio is a home to many worlds. The cock-eyed comical world of Nat Hiken's Car 54, Where Are You? came to life within these walls.

From David Everitt's King of the Half Hour, published 2001:

"By the early sixties, though, there was little about the studio that suggested movie industry glamour. More in keeping with the tone of its current project, the Biograph was now surrounded by mostly Jewish, working-class neighbors. Many of the show's company would commute to work on the subway, exiting at the 174th Street station, perhaps picking up a coffee and bagel at a corner candy store before walking to the studio entrance where neighborhood kids played on the sidewalk."

Sixty episodes of laugh-out-loud comedy served up by an impressive ensemble of acting talent with worthy material created a workplace any of us would recognize and enjoy. Friendships extend outside of the patrol car, and events like weddings and bar mitzvot bring families together. Social outings are planned, and even the hereafter is given consideration. Much of this activity is through the 53rd Precinct Brotherhood Club, and it is by looking at four of the episodes concerning that organization that we learn about the heart and soul of the precinct.

Season 1, episode 13: December 10, 1961

Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross) is the new treasurer of the Brotherhood Club. The post must be on some sort of a rotation because no one, and I mean no one, is happy about the new treasurer.

Officers O'Hara, Wallace, Nicholson and Schnauser express their dissatisfaction.

Officer Wallace (Frederick O'Neal): We got over $800 in the treasury. We're going to let him handle it?

Officer Nicholson (Hank Garrett): You gotta be kidding.

Toody: Fellow members, I'm perfectly thrilled at being elected your new treasurer, but I wouldn't be honest if I said I was happy about the lousy way you guys are taking it.

Officer O'Hara (Albert Henderson): Gunther, you know we love you, but you're not the guy to be handling money like that.

Toody: Oh, yeah. Give me one reason why I won't make a good treasurer.

O'Hara: You can't count!

Toody: Besides that.

The mistrust of his fellow officers is well placed. Toody is a comic mess-up and incredibly susceptible to suggestion. When he sees guys, without even his brains, making a killing in the stock market, Toody is convinced he can make the Brotherhood Club rich. Eventually, the club agrees to take a flyer on the market. They chose a very safe, blue chip stock in International Sulphur. After all, they plan to use the money to build a summer camp for the poor kids of the neighbourhood. Toody's constant hovering over the head office of the company leads to rumors which have the head of the company, guest star John Alexander (Arsenic and Old Lace), brought before a senate committee. Upon returning from Washington, he buys back the Brotherhood Club's stocks, at a profit to the delighted officers, and advises them to "put the money in the bank."

Season 2, episode 13: December 9, 1962

A meeting of the Brotherhood Club and the Ladies Auxiliary is convened to determine the annual summer outing. If they don't reach a decision soon, it will be winter!

A civilized discussion.

Sylvia Schnauser (Charlotte Rae): I've been sitting here quietly listening to all your suggestions and I must say I am shocked. Beer parlors. Boat rides. Don't you honestly think it's time that we did something cultural?

Ed Nicholson (Hank Garrett): Aww, Sylvia.

Leo Schnauser (Al Lewis): My wife is talking! Go ahead, Pussycat.

Sylvia: Thank you, Daddy Bear. Well, think of it. Here we are in the Bronx, just a stone's throw away from Broadway, the theater center of the world and not one of you has suggested that we organize a theater party and go and see a Broadway play.

Toody: That's a good idea. Let's all go and see Oklahoma!

Schnauser: Oklahoma? Oklahoma has been closed for fifteen years.

Toody: I haven't been following the papers lately.

Muldoon: Any discussion on Sylvia Shnauser's suggestion that we have a theater party?

Lucille Toody (Beatrice Pons): Mr. Chairman, I am a Hunter College graduate, and, as you know, I am one hundred and ten percent for culture. But the plays they're showing on Broadway these days - well, I certainly wouldn't want my husband to see them.

Sylvia: Lucille, stop being such a bluenose.

Lucille: Bluenose? My sister Rose saw a play by Tennessee Williams last year and she had to go to bed for two weeks with the door locked.

A bargain for something you don't want, is not a bargain.

All agree on a theatre party and the committee is charged with purchasing 142 tickets for a play from  an agreed upon list. The committee plans to take care of it on their lunch hour.

Leo Schnauser:  We want 142 seats. 106 in the center. 23 on one side, 10 on the other side and one in the balcony. That's for Officer Coogan. He's a mounted patrolman. He likes to sit up high. And two in a box for the captain and his wife, that makes 142 seats.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is sold out until next August. There's nothing until September for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Our out-of-luck committee gets the same answer at every box office until someone suggests they might have luck for a play called Little Miss PioneerLittle Miss Pioneer is a dog. Critics hated it and audiences stayed away. The producer is idealistic enough to believe his perfectly clean play will find its audience and the prospect of 142 policemen and their wives in attendance keeps his hopes alive.

When the denizens of the 53rd leave their home base and enter the outside world, something  inadvertent and unexpected always happens. In this case, it is the presence of their uniforms which leads to a rumor that Little Miss Pioneer is a lewd production that was raided by the police, and this does wonders for its box office.

Behind box office bars and the eight ball.

However, the Ladies Auxiliary is not going to be happy to discover that, once again, the Brotherhood Club is stymied at the box office by another "sold out" sign. There's always next summer!

Season 2, episode 18: January 20, 1963

Officer Nicholson cannot face the prospect of being next to a jerk like Toody for eternity.

Francis Muldoon has been the president of the Brotherhood Club for the last few terms, elected unanimously and running unopposed. This doesn't sit well with some of the brotherhood as Francis is becoming something of a dictator, especially when he starts choosing plots for fellow officers in a proposed cemetery purchase.

Officers Anderson, Schnauser and Sgt. McBride have given Toody the presidential itch.

Schnauser: You had to open up the mouth. You had to open up the mouth.

Nicholson: All I did...

Sgt. Jim McBride (Jimmy Little): All you did! Here we have a friendly Brotherhood Club, now we gotta have an election.

Officer Omar Anderson (Ossie Davis): Yeah, and nothin' will break up a nice democratic organization like an election.

Hail to the Chief!

Someone must run against Francis, but it must be someone for whom no one in their right mind would vote, to ensure Muldoon remains in the position. Toody is convinced to run and Sgt. McBride is his campaign manager. However, they didn't count on the presidential itch being so easy to catch. McBride pictures himself as a mastermind and Toody's delusions of grandeur are very grand indeed. They pull out all the stops, including lies and dirty tricks, and it is working!

Has Schnauser overestimated Captain Block's influence?

Captain Block (Paul Reed): Now, now boys, take it easy. I know you're in the heat of a political campaign, but I want you to know that as far as I'm concerned the two of you are just police officers under me. I'm absolutely neutral. Toody, button your blouse. You look like a slob. How's your mother, Francis? I want the two of you to come over to my house tonight.

Muldoon: Thank you, Captain.

Captain Block: Just like his father - honest, hard-working, courageous. Toody, pull up your pants, you're a disgrace to the Force. Yes, boys, I'm absolutely neutral.

Francis' good guy tactics are no way to win an election. Even the unabashed backing of Captain Block is not having an impact on the voters of the 53rd. It is only by miking Toody's own words of praise for his friend and partner, do the ballots reflect the sensible outcome.

Season 1, episode 15: December 24, 1961

Click on highlighted text to see the performances of the songs.

Captain Block greets guests to the annual Brotherhood Club Christmas Party.

It is a coin toss as to what holds the coziest part of my sitcom loving heart - Christmas episodes or shows highlighting the musical talents of a cast. When a series combines the two, then "Heaven, I'm in Heaven".

Officer Dave Anderson has help on the switchboard this Christmas Eve.

Dispatcher Anderson (Nipsey Russell): How's my boy (Duane Harper Grant)? Let me show you what Daddy does. Take this. Plug it right here. That's it. We'll make a policeman out of you yet. Hello? Hello?

To Mrs. Anderson (Billie Allen): Okay, have it your way. He'll be a nuclear scientist.

 Kids run amuck at the precinct on Christmas Eve.

Joe: 53rd Precinct. This is Eliot Ness.

Sergeant Feldman (Phillip Carter): Joe, will you sit down and let me get this call?

The happy audience.

Once everyone is settled, the entertainment begins including comedy bits by Mickey Deems on the well-dressed police officer, and Carl Ballantine's magic act. Ballantine plays Toody's brother-in-law Al, and he is assisted by Lucille's sister Rose played by Martha Greenhouse, pictured above next to Beatrice Pons as Lucille.


Bonita Kalsheim is not Francis' girlfriend.

Alice Ghostley returns as "pretty Bonnie Kalsheim" performing a faux chanson francais by Nat Hiken called Irving. Joe E. Ross, accompanied on guitar by Fred Gwynne, serenades Lucille with You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You.

Roll call!

The big bow on top of the sitcom gift is a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan spoofs. Fred Gwynne leads the troops in contemporary version of A Policeman's Lot is Not a Happy One from The Pirates of Penzance. I could listen to Paul Reed all day as Captain Block proclaims I Am the Captain of the 53rd, taken from HMS Pinafore.

You really should attend all the meetings.

As the snowflakes fall gently on the 53rd precinct and its environs, we leave you with the four lambs of the Brotherhood Club and their shepherd, Leo Schnauser, recounting the all important The Golden Principles of Brotherhood.


  1. I had no idea this show was so New York-centric - and that it had so many future stars. I may have to look at a few episodes.

    1. As you can tell, I'm a huge fan. It's silly and smart at the same time, and there are terrific moments throughout. There's a bridge game in the episode I Hate Captain Block where the overlapping dialogue is a treat and performed perfectly.

  2. I'm not much of a fan of this show, but you make it sound pretty appealing. Nice job!

    1. I'm a regular Harold Hill!

      Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.

  3. I vaguely recall watching a couple of episodes of this show. Must've been on reruns since I would have either still been in my mother's womb, or still pi$$ing my diapers when it was on TV. (I can't remember most of the early 90's... Maybe it was then...)

    1. That's it! Musta been the nineties.

      I was a toddler when this show first aired and didn't really catch up with it until this century. What can I say? It's my happy place.

  4. I have never seen an episode of this show, even though it has a famous title. Like Rich said, above, I also didn't realize it was a show made in, and about, NYC. And in the old Biograph building, no less! How cool is that?

    Happily, I see there are a few episodes on YouTube, a.k.a. the best website EVER. ;)

    1. The inestimable YouTube. A boon to humanity.

      If these episodes are available, may I suggest I Won't Go, Occupancy August 1, and Joan Crawford Didn't Say No. All guest star Molly Picon and she's adorable!

      Thanks so much for reading. I think you'll get a kick out of the show.

  5. It's so much fun to see Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis before THE MUNSTERS. Fred was one of the great supporting stars...loved his judge in MY COUSIN VINNY!

    1. Both actors are a joy to watch.

      I saw Fred in Anthony Shaffer's Whodunnit on Broadway in '83. It was a very funny spoof of country manor mysteries, and Fred was marvelous as the Inspector.

  6. I LOVE this show and am SO happy you chose 142 Tickets on the Aisle as one of the three you focused on. I thought it was a rather silly show before I saw it. This episode made me realize it was actually very smart and I began paying closer attention to it.

    Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon!

    1. Thank you so much for hosting this blogathon. As soon as I saw the premise I knew I had to visit the 53rd.

      I think the show sneaks up on us that way. Good for some silly laughs (always), but so much more. The definition of classic.

  7. I have never heard about this series until now, but it sounds cool. I laughed out loud at the treasurer who couldn't count! I'll try to find out more things about this series.
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. This was a fun blogathon.

      This is one of my all-time favourite programs. I hope you enjoy it when you get a chance to sample an episode or two. Check YouTube.



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