“What is your blood type?”
It’s tricky sometimes, in this postmodern lit-crit racket of mine, to fully explain why one pop culture artifact was embraced by the populace at large while another was not.
Why was Star Trek cancelled for low ratings in its original run and then become a seminal science-fiction classic, while Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was popular at the time and is now utterly forgotten? Why did the Pac-Man cartoon click, while Rubik the Amazing Cube was a step too far? Did you know that America’s Best Dance Crew is still on the air, currently in its eighth season? It’s difficult to fully account for the vagaries of public taste.
Except in the case of the 1969 ABC game show The Generation Gap, obviously, which failed because it was terrible, and that’s all there is to it.
I mean, this is one of those shows where you can basically picture the entire three-martini lunch where they pitched it. “Everybody’s always talking about the generation gap,” they said, polishing off martini number one. “The kids don’t understand the grown-ups, and the grown-ups don’t understand the kids,” they concurred, getting martini number two under their belts. “We should make a game show where we ask teenagers about old movies, and the parents about pop music,” they cheered, with good ol’ martini number three batting cleanup.
And then they went ahead and made that show, and they put it on Friday nights, and it was unbelievably grim.
I mean, right from the start, you can see the concept already slipping out of their grasp. The show begins with a 45-second montage of young people and old people, which the studio audience greets with 12 seconds of applause, followed by 33 seconds of increasingly frosty silence.
To represent the older generation, the montage includes countless shots of lonely old men and dowdy matrons sitting on park benches. The younger generation is represented mainly by fashion models dancing in trendy nightclubs. There are zero teenagers, zero hippies, and one barely visible black person. So that’s an issue.
While this week of Dark Shadows episodes airs in March 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono are doing their week-long Bed-In for Peace at the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam, which is exactly the kind of thing that the “generation gap” idea was meant to express.
John and Yoko knew that their wedding would get a lot of press attention, so they decided to hold a week-long protest in their honeymoon suite, and invite the press to come speak to them about peace, specifically about ending the Vietnam War. The reporters came, of course, because they thought John and Yoko would be having steamy marital protest sex, and instead they just sat there in their pajamas and said things like,
“Imagine if the American army stayed in bed for a week and the Vietnamese army. Or Nixon, and Chairman Mao. Imagine if the whole world stayed in bed. There’d be peace for a week and they might get to feel what it was like.”
That’s the generation gap right there, that yawning chasm between the people who understand what the hell John and Yoko are trying to say, and the other 100% of the people who don’t.
The late 60s generation gap was about peace and drugs and sex and hair and civil rights. It was about young people doing bold and strange things to see if they could persuade the world into becoming more interesting and beautiful, and adults discouraging them from doing that with the use of tear gas, riot gear and disapproving Newsweek cover stories. It was therefore not a very good subject for a Friday night game show on ABC.
So what they did was get a bunch of kids from Barnard and Brooklyn Tech, and a bunch of housewives, bus drivers and art teachers, sprinkle a few celebrity guests into the mix, and then ask them questions about Little Orphan Annie, Alice’s Restaurant, Mr. Peepers and Yummy Yummy Yummy I’ve Got (blank) In My Tummy.
The exciting moment every few minutes was to see an adult just absolutely faceplant on a popular reference. You show Mrs. Brandon a wall of Peter Max psychedelic art, and ask her if she can name the designer, and Mrs. Brandon can’t, obviously, because she is hopelessly square, and she says, “I think his name is Frank. Or George Robinson.”
And then the host chuckles a little, and he goes, no, it’s Peter Max, and Mrs. Brandon goes, oh, and then a little shard of time passes from linear human experience, and we move on to the next depressing exchange.
It didn’t last, of course; nothing truly beautiful ever does. The Generation Gap ran for 16 weeks, and then I guess all those people went and did other things.
The odd thing is that this prime time Friday night slot was actually a tryout to see if the show was good enough to go on ABC’s daytime lineup, along with Beat the Odds and The Anniversary Game and Funny You Should Ask and Dream House and The Children’s Doctor. So this was a world where daytime shows got tryouts on Friday nights, which I just can’t get my head around. That is the concept that breaks me.
Anyway, Jonathan Frid and David Henesy were on it, is the point I’m trying to make. Frid was actually on the show twice in consecutive weeks in March, once in character and then as a panelist, and David Henesy was a panelist in another episode with his mom on the opposing team.
Frid and Henesy are both adorable as panelists. Frid is just sweet and earnest and incredibly Canadian about the whole thing. He doesn’t know that “Back in the U.S.S.R.” is a Beatles song, and he just barely manages to recognize Gladys Knight and the Pips at point-blank range thanks to it being a multiple choice question.
When he gets the Gladys Knight question, he quips, “Remember, speaking of the generation gap, I am a hundred and seventy-five years old,” which gets a laugh and a warm round of applause from the audience. He is seriously delightful and utterly charming, and this is clearly before he got exhausted with his Dark Shadows fame. 1969 Jonathan Frid is a vintage year.
When David Henesy introduces himself, he leans forward because he’s not used to microphones unless they’re hanging three feet above his head.
He says, “My name is David Henesy, I’m thirteen and I go to Lincoln Square Academy,” and then the host has to say, “And let me add that David may be familiar to some of you. He’s one of the stars of Dark Shadows.”
The kids in the audience cheer at that, and David breaks into a grin. He hasn’t done a lot of promotional appearances before, so it’s a chance for him to get a little studio audience love.
The most interesting clip for our purposes is the first one, where Dark Shadows is the quiz question.
The host says to the panelist from the older generation, “You may notice some fog drifting in from backstage here. You’ll understand why — and we ask the audience not to give any help on this — you’ll understand why when you see the gentleman who needs no introduction to the younger generation.”
They open the curtains, and there’s a graveyard set with a wrought-iron gate and a fog machine, and they play a little spooky electric organ music as a familiar figure comes into view.
The kids in the audience instantly go nuts, just from the silhouette, and the panelist — who is Barbara Cowsill from the Cowsills, by the way — gives a cry of recognition and claps her hands.
The creature gives a marvelous little flash of his fangs as he comes onstage and approaches the host, because he is a professional and this is what he does for a living.
Now, Jonathan Frid is not actually playing Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows here. He is playing Barnabas Collins from the novelty joke book Barnabas Collins In a Funny Vein, and he is doing a masterful job at it.
Extending a hand to the grinning host, he growls, “Mr. Wholey, what is your blood type?” And then he asks it again because the audience squeals are so loud that Mr. Wholey didn’t hear him the first time.
The host says, “I think it’s O,” and Barnabas does a frustrated little comedy snap. It is entirely gorgeous.
So the host says, “Back to the hearse!” and thanks Barnabas for being here, and Barnabas gives a friendly wave to the audience, which erupts into another chorus of squeals. The whole thing is super cute, and all is forgiven between me and The Generation Gap.
Asked to identify the character, Mrs. Cowsill says, “That is Frid from Dark Shadows,” so that’s 25 points for the older generation.
Now, the really interesting bit for our project here is that this is presented as a question specific to the younger generation.
Like Alice’s Restaurant and Peter Max, Dark Shadows in 1969 has transcended the normal association of soap operas and housewives. As of right now, it is universally recognized by the American people as the rebellious, psychedelic Bed-In for Satan Worship that it has somehow managed to become.
Tomorrow: Mommy Weirdest.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the middle of act 3, Rachel leaves Dirk on the front porch, and heads for the Old House. A minute and a half later, she’s standing outside Nora’s room, with no explanation of why she came back.
Behind the Scenes:
The time-travelling Raggedy Ann doll makes an appearance today in Nora’s room. We first saw the doll in Sarah’s room in 1795. It appeared in the present day in November 1968, first in Windcliff and then teleporting to Maggie’s room. Now it’s here in 1897. Raggedy Ann dolls were first produced in 1915.
Tomorrow: Mommy Weirdest.
— Danny Horn