‘Zowie!’ Childhood memories

The tie-in joke book “Batmensch and Rubin” (above) was one of many confusing results of the TV superhero craze ignited by TV’s “Batman.”

Following are excerpts from “Zowie! The TV Superhero Craze in ’60s Pop Culture” by Mark Voger ($43.95, TwoMorrows Publishing, ships July 31).

TV Guide’s preview for the “Batman” premiere. The writer knew his or her comic book lore.

Save the date: Jan. 12, 1966

If, in January 1966, you hadn’t heard about the TV show “Batman,” you were probably in some cave still waiting for World War II to end.

The Hype Machine did a real good job hyping the show’s premiere on Wednesday, Jan. 12 at 7:30 p.m. During recess, every kid in the parking lot of Holy Rosary School in the Diocese of Camden, N.J., was asking the same question: “You watchin’ ‘Batman’ tonight?”

The answer was a resounding yes in every case but mine. I’d pledged my loyalty to “Lost in Space,” which would air in the same time slot. I was committed to the dauntless Space Family Robinson, the intrepid Major West, the conniving Dr. Smith, and even the weird alien chimp Bloop. I needed to see what gnarly, bulbous monster they would encounter next. Seven-year-olds love monsters.

That evening, the Robinsons met all kinds of monsters, with Michael Rennie guest-starring as an intergalactic zookeeper. But as I watched “Lost in Space,” I was thinking about “Batman” every moment, wondering who he was, what he was. I felt this overwhelming dread that I was missing out on something important. When “Lost in Space” went to commercial, I thought: “What would be the harm in sneaking a peek and then switching back?”

I wrapped my small, second-grade hand around the channel-changing knob on our big, boxy, black-and-white TV set. The knob made a “chunk” sound as I changed it from Channel 10 (the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia) to Channel 6 (the ABC affiliate).

What I saw next is seared into my memory. There was Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) clutching a rope as they “climbed” up the side of a building. Man, their costumes were so cool. I was instantly hooked. From that moment on, I did a flippety-flop. I watched “Lost in Space” only when “Batman” went to commercial. Sorry, Will Robinson.

I’ve sometimes wondered if by watching “Batman,” a generation of kids was introduced to cross-dressing. Batman wore periwinkle tights. Robin wore green underpants over “nude” stockings. The Riddler’s costume looked uncomfortably form-fitting. (I sometimes felt embarrassed for Frank Gorshin.) And the Joker? White face, green hair, red lips, striped magenta suit with tails, lapel flower. I was so disappointed the first time I saw Cesar Romero in civvies. He was on a game show. Without the Joker getup, he just looked like a nice old man.

Julie Newmar’s Catwoman costume appeared as if she was dipped in molten black rubber, although no complaints spring to mind here.

Kram and Nairb made their neighborhood safe — for candy.

Kram & Nairb

For Halloween 1966, when I was 8 and my little brother Brian was 5, we decided to trick-or-treat as superheroes. But instead of being Batman and Robin, we dressed as original superheroes Kram and Nairb. (That’s “Mark” and “Brian” spelled backwards because, you know, we were very clever children.) As Kram and Nairb, we wore dime-store domino masks to conceal our identities (yeah, right) and bathing suits over long johns embellished with capes, gloves, and boots. I drew Kram and Nairb chest emblems with crayon on cardboard, affixed with tape.

Like the Dynamic Duo, Kram and Nairb had no superpowers. We just remained “vigilant” (a word I picked up from watching “Batman”) for criminal activity in our little microcosm for Gotham City — that being our hometown of Woodcrest. As we went door-to-door collecting candy in pillowcases, we saw more than one kid wearing Ben Cooper’s crinkly Batman costume.

But for me, being Kram wasn’t a Halloween one-and-done. It stayed with me. My next foray into Kram-dom is a bit embarrassing. Um, I kind of fantasized that I really was a superhero, and my secret identity was Mark Voglesong, an unpopular Catholic-school boy who sucked at sports, but once in his guise as Kram, could miraculously knock three bad guys to the ground with one fleet, powerful kick.

One day, I was invited to the birthday party of a friend. A thought occurred: “What if a mean kid at the party hits a girl or pulls her hair?” To be on the safe side, I wore my Kram costume (which I’d tucked away after Halloween) under my civvies. That way, if a mean kid hit a girl — you’ll notice that all crime in Woodcrest was age-appropriate to 8-year-old crimefighters — I’d be ready. I would duck into, say, the laundry room and reappear out of nowhere as Kram. First, I’d punch the mean kid, who would immediately skeedaddle. (As Batman would say: “All bullies are cowards at heart.”) Then I’d return to the laundry room; get back into my normal clothing; rejoin the party; and listen knowingly as fellow attendees marveled, “Who was that masked boy?” No one would be the wiser. Superheroes don’t require accolades. Fighting crime is its own reward.

Well, if a mean boy did harass a girl that day, Kram wasn’t there to protect her. I was driven to the party by my father Charles, who was a Marine during World War II. Charles didn’t know Batman from Adam, and I don’t mean Adam West.

As we reached the house, Charles noticed my cape protruding from my collar. “What in the world …” he muttered. My cover blown, I decided to confide in my father, the way Bruce Wayne confided in Alfred the butler. I blurted out the perfectly reasonable explanation that I had a costume under my clothes so, in case there was trouble, I could change into a superhero. Like Batman.

Charles narrowed his eyes as he took in my frantic words. His expression wasn’t one of someone trying to follow what I was saying. He looked like he was trying to figure out what, exactly, was wrong with me. My punishment was swift. There would be no more of this Kram nonsense, and no birthday party. We left without informing our hosts that unforeseen circumstances precluded my attendance. What kind of cake did they serve? I’ll never know.

Two very important things happened on March 1, 1967.

Batman vs. the bishop

Batman’s incredible popularity blazed a TV trail for other superheroes. Another costumed hero greenlit for television was “The Green Hornet,” which reminds me of a milestone in my childhood: my Confirmation night. (It’s a Catholic thing, a sacrament that takes place some time between your First Holy Communion and Holy Matrimony.)

I recall clearly, clearly, the night I was confirmed: March 1, 1967. It was the same night Batman and Robin would be fighting the Green Hornet (Van Williams) and his sidekick Kato (Bruce Lee). We knew this because, as a cliffhanger, the narrator would always announce who Batman would fight the following week. Holy Rosary School was abuzz! Like, weren’t Green Hornet and Kato good guys? Why would Batman and Robin fight them?

But mainly, we wanted to see Kato clean Robin’s clock. Long before movies like “The Chinese Connection” and “Enter the Dragon,” “Green Hornet” fans knew Bruce Lee could kick anyone’s butt.

Kato was a cool customer. The Green Hornet threw his share of punches, to be sure, but Kato swiftly dispatched burly henchman like they were rag dolls. Kids were imitating Kato’s roundhouse-kick technique in backyards across America.

At the Confirmation ceremony — with its fragrant incense, clanging bells and fervently sung hymns — the nuns watched us like hawks for any slip-ups. Bishop Damiano himself was here to confirm us, wearing the tallest hat I’d ever seen. I sat in the third row of candidates. Bishop Damiano, aged and kindly, pointed a finger at us boys and said, “You are about to become soldiers of Christ.” But all we could think about was Batman fighting the Green Hornet. I was constantly looking at my watch. At around 7:50 p.m., I whispered to the kid next to me, “They’re probably fighting right this second.”

Sure, I finally got to witness the historic faceoff between Batman and Robin and Green Hornet and Kato years later in reruns. But ya know what? It’s never the same.

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