Thursday, February 12, 2009

“Oh zephyr winds which blow on high/Lift me now so I can fly…”

Back in January, I posted (thanks to BobH) that a sale on BCI-Eclipse DVDs was going on at due to the company’s impending closing-up-shop, and while there were bargains a-plenty to be had, most of what was being offered I already made space for in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives—with one notable exception, a 3-DVD collection entitled The Secrets of Isis. This set contained all of the twenty-two episodes originally telecast between 1975 and 1977 on CBS’ Saturday morning schedule, and while normally it wasn’t something for which I’d necessarily go out of my way, the price was pretty sweet…and I thought, if push comes to shove, I’d watch the set once and then bestow it upon my niece Rachel in an attempt to further warp her impressionable young mind with the delights of nostalgia.

The origins of the Isis TV series can be traced to a live-action show that premiered also on CBS’ Saturday morning schedule a year earlier: Shazam!, which brought to the small screen the low-budget adventures of the Big Red Cheese himself, Captain Marvel—played in Billy Batson form by Michael Gray and in Marvelistic fashion by Jackson Bostwick (replaced in Season 2 by John Davey). Over the span of three seasons, Shazam! presented half-hour morality plays featuring kids and adults who had somehow strayed off the straight-and-narrow and were befriended by Batson and his sidekick Mentor (Les Tremayne) who tooled around this great land of ours in a Winnebago…though this “great land” looked as if it were just up the street, near the 7-11. Whenever a situation threatened to escalate into a full-blown crisis, Billy would simply have to shout the title of the series to transform himself into the World’s Mightiest Mortal and bring the situation under control.

Shazam! was a monster hit for the Tiffany network in its first season, and it was decided in its sophomore year to introduce a companion series with a female super heroine to work on grabbing the young “bobbysoxer” demographic. That show was Isis, and the two programs combined to become The Shazam!/Isis Hour. The origin of her Isis-ness was told in the show’s memorable opening:

As a kid who grew up watching this series, I often had difficulty figuring out why they never filmed an episode that expanded on the opening credits origin…which left a lot of unanswered questions. For example, why exactly was Andrea Thomas (JoAnna Cameron) on that expedition, anyway? Was it funded by some big muckety-muck museum, or did Larkspur High School (where she and her pal Rick Mason [Brian Cutler] taught) have to hold a bodacious bunch of bake sales to generate the scratch? It seemed kind of odd that your average, run-of-the-mill high school science teacher would be allowed to go milling around excavation sites and pyramids and someone not say anything. How’d she get that amulet past Customs? (I know these seem like heavy issues for a kid to think about, but I never said I was normal.) Now that I’m much, much older I realize it was because the show’s budget was so low I’m surprised the cast and crew didn’t spend Saturday and Sunday afternoons looking for empty soda pop bottle empties to return for the deposit. Both Shazam! and Isis were produced by Filmation Associates, a studio best remembered for bringing the Archie comic book gang to Saturday morning television—and whose animation made Hanna-Barbera look like Disney.

The Secrets of Isis DVD collection, I have to admit, is a very impressive piece of work. I glanced at its contents last night and most of today, and I was amazed at the flood of memories these episodes brought back of the days when I would spend hour-after-nonproductive-hour in front of the family TV set turning my mind to mush. Naturally, most of the shows don’t hold up well; the first episode, “The Lights of Mystery Mountain,” is a boring little affair about a pair of practical jokesters (Kenneth Wolger, Michael Maitland) who are scaring off landowners with some makeshift “UFOs”; completely ignorant of the fact that the real estate broker (Kelly Thordsen) they’re working for is buying up the deserted land since he’s learned there’s a vein of gold running underneath. (I recognized Thordsen right off the bat because he plays the crooked sheriff in 1974’s The Parallax View, a film it can be safely said I’ve watched quite a few times.) But the second episode (and actually the first to be filmed), “Fool’s Dare,” is pretty hooty—student suck-up Cindy Lee (Joanna Pang) is biking around with a pair of her goofball friends, one of which (Josh Albee) has had his ego bruised because she whipped his ass in a bike race. He goads Cindy into agreeing to climbing the fence of an auto parts junkyard and staying in there for an hour—but unbeknownst to our little delinquents it’s the home of a pair of car thieves (Frank Whiteman, Charles Cyphers)…who as it so happens, have made off with Andrea Thomas’ ride. Cindy ends up spraining her ankle and revealing to the two hoods that she’s in there with them; fortunately, Thomas arrives to pull the amulet out of her tits and turn into Isis, thus saving the day.

One of the things I enjoyed about watching these shows was seeing familiar actors just trying to make the rent—many of which were former child stars who had the misfortune of having their cuteness repossessed from them due to the ravages of time. A good example of this is “To Find a Friend,” an outing that features former Bobby Brady Mike Lookinland as a goony kid who bribes a kid for a ride on a motorbike by showing off his father’s antique WW2 pistol. The kid on the motorbike grabs the roscoe and makes off for points unknown—Andrea and Company must locate him ASAP when they learn from Lookinland’s old man that the weapon is so rusty it’s liable to blow up in someone’s face should they be stupid enough to fill it with shells. Lookinland is a real mess here; his hippie-ish hair is something even a Brady perm couldn’t cure and he’s got an acne problem that would give Proactiv fits. Actually, this episode is a regular child star reunion: the little menace who steals the gun is Tommy “Flipper” Norden, and another pal of Lookinland’s—who also tells him to take a hike when asked for a ride on his motorbike—is none other than Mayberry R.F.D.’s Buddy Foster (brother of Connie and Jodie).

Other actors who show up in Isis segments include Debralee Scott (of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman fame), Lou Frizzell, Leigh McCloskey, Philip Bruns (another Hartman alum), Mitch Vogel, Thomas Carter (The White Shadow), Brian Nash (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies), Scott Colomby, Neil J. Schwartz (Happy Days), Christopher Norris (“Ripples” on Trapper John, MD), Barry Miller, Laurette Spang, Colleen Camp and Victor Sen Yung. Albert Reed, a distinguished character actor who appeared on series like Good Times (as Alderman Davis) and The Jeffersons, had a recurring role as the high school principal, Dr. Joshua Barnes—doing essentially what Les Tremayne did on Shazam!; namely adding a bit of class to the show. John Davey also made three appearances on Isis as Captain Marvel, notably in the final two episodes which also featured Evan Kim, Randi and Craig Wasson as a trio of kids known as The SuperSleuths. (Filmation used this two-parter to promote a possible SuperSleuths series, which thankfully went nowhere. The Isis character returned the favor by reciprocating on three episodes of Shazam!)

In addition to all of the Isis episodes, the DVD set contains some first-rate extras: promotional and behind the scenes photos of the show, a look at the Isis merchandise (comic books, puzzles, coloring books, dolls), an Isis comic book and a bonus episode of a series called The Freedom Force, which featured an animated Isis. In the 1990s, the company who owned the rights to the series inexplicably edited out the “morals” segments of the episodes and an attempt has been made to include as many as there are available as rare footage, along with “bumpers” for The Shazam/Isis Hour.

But the big bonuses are interviews with some of the cast and crew, with the cast members (Brian Cutler, Joanna Pang Atkins, Ronalda Douglas Lombardo) providing some interesting insights. Cutler discusses the “Lois Lane” aspect of his character and jokes at how a “suspension of belief” was required to swallow the premise that Rick Mason never seemed to be able to piece it together that Isis and girlfriend Andrea (well, I assume she was his main squeeze; they went out to dinner a lot) were never seen together in one place. (Come to think of it, no one else seemed bright enough to put two-and-two together, though a character in “The Seeing Eye Horse” comes close; a newly blind student, upon meeting Isis, remarks: “You sound like my teacher, Miss Thomas.”) Atkins remains surprisingly chipper even today, especially when she talks about how she never really got the straight dope about why her character was dropped after the first season (her agent asked around and got the standard answer “We want to go in a new direction”). (She was sort of bummed, however, that the show’s producers kept her in pigtails and overalls in every damn episode...maybe that’s why they canned her, she was "difficult.") Lombardo, who replaced Atkins in Season 2 as the equally chirpy Rennie Carol (I preferred the Cindy Lee character, but Rennie was cute—with sort of a Butterfly McQueen-like quality about her), takes time out from her interview to thank practically everyone involved with the production as if it’s the only time she’ll ever get the opportunity to do this. Carol, a renowned singer who has performed at a great many Southern California churches, had a very impressive set of pipes which she was allowed to put to use singing a song in the SuperSleuths two-parter.

The only thing that disappointed me about this set was the non-participation of star JoAnna Cameron—after all, I didn’t watch the show for pigtailed Cindy Lee; I was in love with the woman in the mini-skirt and go-go boots. Cameron, a former Vogue model who at one time held the Guinness World Record of having appeared in the most television commercials, played the role of Saturday morning TV’s first super heroine and played it bloody well; particularly in the second season when she got a bit more playful with the alter-ego (in one episode she cries out: “Faster, zephyr winds!”) despite the fact that her Isis hair in the sophomore season looked like a really bad weave. According to the DVD liner notes, Cameron dropped out of television and now works at an exclusive Hawaiian resort hotel…so if you’re in need of a night auditor, your Isis-ness—634-5789.


Scott C. said...

Speaking of child stars appearing well past their Sell By date...The one episode of Shazam!/Isis I saw featured Danny Bonaduce at the apex of his Awkward Years. I can't remember which of the two shows he appeared on, but he left a stain on the screen that was like the unwiped residue of a particularly hyperkinetic Winky Dink and You episode.

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Anonymous said...

Nice Job on this blog. I have both dvd's and cannot believe I loved this junk as a kid. What I would like to know is who narrated the ISIS shows. His voice sounded like a young Ted Knight but I am sure I am wrong.