Sunday, December 11, 2011

Car 54, Where Are You?

Since the Car 54, Where Are You? television program is now out on DVD commercially, and two new Snow White movies available in theaters this winter, we should take a quick moment and look back at how the television program came into being.

When exactly Nat Hiken created the series has not been established, but the earliest-known time frame was during the autumn months of 1960, when Hiken visited a New York precinct house. He was amazed that policemen sounded just like any other group doing a job. “I’d never seen a policeman on TV talk or act like these guys. I began to think about the possibilities, particularly for humor,” Hiken recalled. He began researching Car 54 by sitting around the New York precinct squad room for several weeks, listening to the banter and gossip among the men. “I spent hours there watching what went on. It was a neighborhood atmosphere. Many of those persons brought in were repeaters who were greeted by their first names. I never once saw a cop grab anybody by the collar, which is what television normally shows them doing. I found it a very warm, friendly atmosphere,” he said. “They never mentioned any ‘grim, humorless’ aspects of their jobs.”

After summarizing the idea of a pair of Mutt and Jeff cops in two paragraphs, Hiken submitted an expanded outline (8 pages) entitled “The Snow Whites” to Procter & Gamble in mid-summer 1960. The company and its ad men liked the offbeat notion. Encouraged, Hiken prepared an expanded outline for Pete Katz, Program Production Manager of Eupolis Productions, Inc. in late October, 1960. A number of correspondences and meetings began taking place between Howard Epstein, President of Eupolis Productions, Inc. and Richard Zimbert of the Leo Burnett Company, Inc., an agency representing Procter & Gamble Productions, Inc.

On Nov. 18, 1960, Pete Katz wrote to Nat Hiken: “Your plans and story outlines for ‘The Snow Whites’ sound delightful and extremely interesting.” Hiken agreed to certain terms related to the production end of the series. Most of the terms were standard, but one stipulation was that the pilot was to be finished by the end of January. Since the premise had been documented in detail and accepted by Eupolis, Hiken composed a story outline for the pilot, as well as a finished script, and delivered it to Pete Katz by December 7. During the week of December 12, Hiken presented the script and a general show presentation to the networks, in hopes that one would accept the proposal. Eupolis could have had anyone on their payroll do the job, but with the Phil Silvers Bilko show under his belt, Hiken took the chore, under the assumption that this credit would lend credence to the proposed series. NBC showed the most interest, and verbally expressed a desire to view the finished product.

On November 21, a commitment letter was drafted by Leo Burnett Company, Inc., the advertising agency representing Procter & Gamble Prod., Inc., referring to the series as “The Snow Whites.” The agreement between P&G and Eupolis clearly stated that Procter & Gamble would finance the entire pilot, for no more than $75,000. P&G had the option, after viewing the pilot, not to pick up the series. If that option were chosen, P&G had the right to recoup the financing expenditure from any subsequent licensing of the pilot - either alone, or as part of a series. If the pilot was licensed alone, Procter & Gamble would receive 50 percent of that license fee and 50 percent of any subsequent fees thereafter until the investment was repaid. If the pilot was licensed to others as part of a series deal, Procter & Gamble’s entire investment would be returned to them, amortized on a per show basis over the first year’s commitment.

After delivery of the pilot, P&G had 45 days to choose whether or not they would agree to pick up the series for a fall 1961 start, based on a commitment of 26 new episodes (one of which could be the pilot), and pocket five percent of the proceeds. The commitment between P&G and Eupolis dated November 21 also granted the sponsor the option to add new episodes to the fall lineup, up to 32 episodes maximum.

The cost factor involved for the series would be $55,000 per episode (maximum) and the price could be increased to cover Eupolis’ actual out-of-pocket increased costs arising out of contract escalators and/or union increases. If the series was going to be carried in Canada, Procter & Gamble insisted that any sponsors who were considered to be “competition” to the Corporation not sponsor the Canadian airings. Eupolis had creative control over the series, coupled with a duty to listen to any views P&G may have regarding the content in the scripts. (During the entire two years of production, Car 54 never received suggestions for improvement or change to any of the scripts before they were filmed.)

Procter and Gamble did retain the right to use the title of the show, and any of the elements of the shows, names and characterizations of performers, as well as articles and items of personal property referred to in the show for use in connection with packages, premiums, contacts and advertising.

On Nov. 22, 1960, it was agreed by all parties (Howard Epstein of Eupolis and Richard Zimbert of the Leo Burnett Company) that Nat Hiken would be assigned as the head writer and supervisor for the entire production. This was made formal under contract that same day and signed by Hiken. The announcement went public when Variety reported in their January 11, 1961 issue: “Nat Hiken has sold a series of comedy halfhours to Procter & Gamble for next season. Sponsor and producer are now whopping around for a network berth of the show, called 'Snow Whites.' All three webs - ABC-TV, CBS-TV and NBC-TV - have been pitched by the bankroller. It’s understood that for the moment, NBC-TV has the inside track on placement of Whites.” (The October 1962 issue of Pageant reported that CBS and ABC had their chances to land the show, but claimed they couldn’t find the right time slot.)

Production for the pilot began Jan, 16, 1961, and lasted six days, completing January 23. Filming on the first day took place on location outside Vin-Syd Mold Shoes, Inc., located at 1191 Jerome Avenue, in the Bronx. The owner and operator of the company agreed to allow the production company to film the exterior of his premises (the street scene in which you see Toody and Muldoon calling the patrolmen over to inspect the shoes in the window display) under the condition that the name of his store remain intact and on camera, for publicity purposes. Robert Sylvester of the New York Daily News wrote in his Feb. 18, 1961, column of “Dream Street,” that “Nat Hiken shot the first of his new TV series at a place called Vin-Syd Mold Shoes in the Bronx. Must have gotten a lot of feet of film . . .”

In mid-February, the pilot film entitled “The Snow Whites” was previewed to all three networks, four agencies, and three Divisions of Procter & Gamble. But the pilot had competition. Apparently there were other pilots commissioned by P&G and all were previewed as fairly as “The Snow Whites.” According to an inter-office memo directed toward Bill McIlvain of the Leo Burnett Company, the pilot was generally favored when compared to the other pilots. “I can tell you that I don’t think many would survive such an ordeal,” the memo stated.

The National Broadcasting Company agreed to broadcast the series, and air the series following the popular Disneyland program, but a major suggestion was made, which proved to be a valid point: not to use the “Snow Whites” title. “Nobody who saw the film knew what it meant,” the same memo explained. “While we know we can explain it, we don’t think that kind of title is much of an asset in this competitive scene. Following Disneyland, we face the ridiculous possibility of attracting people to a wonderful cartoon which they might be disappointed not to see. We plan important publicity for the show before, during and after its debut in the fall. It will be a burden to have to explain the title in publicity.”

Just a month before, Howard Epstein approached the law offices of Johnson & Tannenbaum, located at 1619 Broadway, New York, N.Y., to inquire whether or not it would be practical to keep the “Snow Whites” title or create a new one. “We wish to advise you that this title, SNOW WHITE or SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, is in the public mind,” explained Samuel W. Tannenbaum, “associated with the fairy tale by the Grimm Brothers, Jacob, who died in 1863, and Wilhelm Carl who died in 1859. The tales of the Grimm Brothers are in the public domain throughout the world. The title is practically wholly associated with the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, adaptations, dramatizations and picturizations thereof.”

This five-page letter addressed to Epstein, dated January 24, 1961, broke down every known book, periodical, dramatic presentation, motion picture, radio and television presentation and notice in both newspapers and trade papers in the United States and abroad. While most of the 32 entries and numerous trade paper excerpts were related to dramatic stage adaptations and copyrighted motion pictures, one entry revealed a “possible” conflict with Walt Disney and Eupolis Productions. Almost a year before, in March of 1960, Chanford Productions had found itself to be the meat in the sandwich when it announced plans for an upcoming Frank Tashlin comedy, Snow White and the Three Stooges, registered with the MPAA. Chanford received protests from both ends - Columbia Pictures filed protest on the strength of their “Three Stooges” properties, and Walt Disney had come up with an MPAA protest, with their Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

On June 29, 1960, 20th Century Fox and Chanford won the title arbitration involving the Stooges movie, still planned as an exploitation feature to be made by Frank Tashlin, under the argument that the ‘Three Stooges’ portion of the title prevented any confusion with the Disney film. Walt Disney, however, still regarded the title as conflicting with its Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs release. The matter gained momentum when, on November 15, Chanford Productions began preparing Snow White and the Three Stooges, in association with 20th Century Fox, and laid groundwork for a sequel to the fairytale. Vice President of Chandford, Charles Wick, registered ten “Snow White” titles with the MPAA. “Snow White and the Three Stooges is being blueprinted as a classic fairytale,” Wick explained to the press, “noting further that the Stooges will play ‘lovable oafs’ who act as they would have in the period depicted.”

The Nov. 23, 1960 issue of Variety reported in their usual slang: “While Chanford Productions veepee Charles Wick anticipated no title conflict problem caused by his registration of ten Snow White titles for a projected sequel to his Snow White and the Three Stooges, the problem has arisen. Walt Disney strenuously objects to the registrations and has filed protest with MPAA’s Title Registration Bureau.”

According to the March 1, 1961 issue of Variety, the time slot for the comedy series was discussed in great detail between Procter & Gamble and NBC. The network apparently provoked intra-product fussing and feuding. Procter & Gamble made an all-out pitch for a Wednesday evening time slot in which to install the new Nat Hiken comedy series. But when Lever Bros., which had been sponsoring The Price is Right in that period, tentatively agreed to move to Monday to accommodate, along with it went the proviso that no rival product - meaning P&G - would get the same time slot even if it were a different day of the week. Since the NBC-Lever Brothers deal was $25,000,000 in NBC billings, the Nat Hiken series was given a Sunday evening time slot that kept P&G content.

The same issue of Variety reported that (including the cost of productions of “The Snow Whites”), the total bill of sale to NBC for sponsorship would be $4,275,000. This was economical considering the cost factor for other series - Disney sponsors would be paying about $12,000,000 per annum, and Chevy was paying $21,000,000 for Bonanza. (This budgetary figure is equally impressive when you consider that in 1955, CBS invested a cool $1,000,000 in Nat Hiken’s judgment for The Phil Silvers Show, and that budget was for the first 16 episodes produced!)

The March 26, 1961 issue of The New York Times featured a column by Val Adams, reporting: “The National Broadcasting Company plans a daring step next fall. It will televise a police show without crime. This is even more daring than a newspaper drama in which no one yells, ‘Stop the press!’ . . . The title for Mr. Hiken’s show has not yet been decided. Initially, he had planned to call it ‘Snow Whites’ (because of the white tops of New York police radio cars), but this has been abandoned. One reason is that Walt Disney will have a Sunday night show on NBC next season and the public might confuse ‘The Snow Whites’ with Mr. Disney. The dropping of the title of ‘The Snow Whites’ may have been quite a blow for Mr. Hiken’s sponsor - the Procter & Gamble Company, soap manufacturer.”

While the question of what to call the series continued, Nat Hiken spent the months of February through June preparing for filming - the first episode set to go before the cameras in July. While the cast for the series was put into place for the pilot, weeks would pass before the actors could commit to a weekly filming schedule. Fred Gwynne, for example, was currently appearing on Broadway in Irma la Douce. But by March 26, a New York newspaper was already reporting Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne were signed to play the leads (they had signed back in January), and Nathaniel Frey was the only name mentioned in the same article, for playing a supporting role. Harold Reidman, a retired New York detective who maintained direct contact with old buddies still on the force, was hired as a technical advisor for Car 54. “The hardest part of a policeman’s job,” he explains, “is to overcome the onus of meeting the public only in unpleasant situations, like giving out tickets. As they see it, Toody and Muldoon help to overcome this impression with kindness and understanding, and they feel that, by being depicted on the screen as likable human beings, Toody and Muldoon are putting over the message that other cops are ’nice guys’ too.”

Years before his involvement with Car 54, in 1942, Reidman was involved in a controversial incident involving Wallace Armstrong, a 30-year-old mentally unstable man who was armed with a knife. Conflicting reports about the details prevent the true facts of the case to be revealed, but the result was that Reidman shot and killed Armstrong in what Reidman claimed was self-defense, when Armstrong attacked a police officer with a knife. When news of his death circulated, an angry crowd surrounded the Harlem Hospital, and pushed into the lobby shouting abuse at Reidman. Fearing a possible riot, the NYPD dispatched 46 officers and mounted units to disperse the volatile gathering.

The series title was changed to Car 54, Where Are You? and the rest as they say.... is history.

The information contained in this blog post was excerpted from the book, Car 54, Where Are You? by Martin Grams, from Bear Manor Media Publishing. For more information, visit