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March 13, 2007

Kiddies' Serials - Late 1940s

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Serials have been around a long time, but the genre strikes me as fading. Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Dolye in the 19th century were serialized in magazines. Today there are still some daytime television soap operas. Those were for adults. But what about serials whose audience is young children?

I'm admittedly out of touch -- my kids were young in the 1980s -- but it's my impression that children's serials are essentially dead. The main medium is TV and for whatever reasons (production or re-run considerations?) episodes seem to be self-contained. (Yes there are Japanese multi-episode Anime animations, but aren't these aimed at people older than 10? I don't watch them, so could someone please help in Comments.)

Though I'm ignorant of today's serials, I was plugged into that scene in the late 40s, when serials were still in their glory.

Although there might have been print medium serials, I wasn't aware of them. Where one usually found them was in movie theaters, on the radio and to some extent television.

Some theaters catered to the kiddie audience with Saturday matinees. Normally there would be a feature film -- perhaps a cowboy movie -- and the lead-ins would be a cartoon and a serial. Sadly, my parents seldom were willing to haul me over to the theater for the Saturday entertainment so I never got to see many episodes of Batman (let's say) in sequence. I'd be left hanging at the end of the reel with the hero or another important character in seriously serious trouble, seemingly with no possible hope of survival. And I seldom found out how they escaped alive.

I'm more familiar with radios serials because I got to listen to them daily. ABC and, I think, the Mutual network had kiddie serial ghettoes filled with 15-minute programs that ran from around 5 to 6 in the late afternoon: after school but before dinnertime.

Programs I recall hearing included Superman, Terry & the Pirates, Jack Armstrong (The All-American Boy), Captain Midnight (an aviation theme), Hop Harrigan (ditto) and Tennessee Jed (a western). Half-hour-format kids' programs such as the Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid and the Green Hornet were aired after dinnertime, at 7 or perhaps 7:30. These half-hour shows ran weekly (I might be wrong on this) and normally had complete episodes for each airing, so they can't be classed as serials.

As you can probably tell, these serials were aimed more at boys than girls. I have no idea what girls did if they didn't want to listen to Hop Harrigan, et. al. And I can't recall the sex split of the audience for Saturday matinees.

The content of the radio serials included a lot of action and gunplay -- probably enough to make today's gender-blenders and safety freaks wet their pants -- but it wasn't hardcore. For example the Lone Ranger (okay, not a serial, but with the same kind of audience) would blaze away with the result that the target would invariably either receive a flesh wound or have his six-gun shot out of his hand.

I remember one episode that did upset six or seven year-old me. It was on the Terry & the Pirates program. One of the evil ones in a block of episodes was a woman who retained her youth by taking a serum. Finally, the serum bottle broke or disappeared so that she missed her dosage and aged in a couple of on-air minutes, her voice getting creakier and creakier. I don't remember if she died, but it nevertheless was very upsetting to me at the time and remains in my memory.

Television didn't come to Seattle until late 1948 and my family didn't get a set until nearly three years later. That means I have nothing to say about kiddie TV serials of the late Forties. I do recall the Space Cadet serial of the very early 50s and that it aired twice a week -- not daily (in Seattle via kinescope recording, anyway). Given the fact that television production is much more expensive and complicated than that for radio, it isn't surprising that kiddie serials never really stuck on TV.

In a way it is surprising that serials of all kinds seem to more rare than they were between 1850 and 1950. Using plot to hook an audience to return week after week or (better, from the standpoint of the medium or advertiser) daily is a powerful tool that plays on human psychology. Television seems to mostly use character continuity rather than plot to keep viewers returning week after week; audiences like the characters and want to keep seeing them in new situations. Movies exhibit a weak form of the same phenomenon in the form a sequels ... how many Rockys are we up to now?

Apologies that I'm not totally firm on details in this post; I wasn't taking notes for future blog articles at the time. My hope is that I was at least able to give you a sense of a long-dead era.



posted by Donald at March 13, 2007


Reality shows such as American Idol and Top Chef are serials of a sort. Their storylines continue over a period of time, although they are driven much more by character rather than by plot ... indeed, shows such as American Idol scarcely have a plot.

You are correct that Anime is not primarily aimed at children. There is even a pornographic version, known as Hentai.

Posted by: Peter on March 13, 2007 2:39 PM

Serials have in fact made a huge comeback in TV form. 24, Lost, Heroes, Jericho, Veronica Mars, Battlestar Galactica... the list goes on and on. What inaugurated this resurgence? I trace it back to the TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- not a huge hit show in its own right, but very influential on subsequent serialized hits like Alias and Lost. And Buffy in turn may have been influenced by the story "arcs" in comic books dating back to at least the 1980s.

Posted by: Steve on March 13, 2007 4:13 PM

Thanks for the info on current TV. I have access to it, but seldom watch ... haven't watched a series since the late 80s. I viewed a lot as a 12-17 year-old, but not much since for various reasons I should blog about.

Bottom line: I'm worthless on TV since the 50s.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 13, 2007 5:22 PM

Your post made me nostalgic for those Saturday matinees...and the collapsing buildings, rooms whose walls closed in, cars falling off cliffs, and explosions of every sort--all of which the hero impossibly escaped from. (Indeed, that was the fun in the intervening try to figure out what the escape method would be...and then to evaluate its reality when we saw it the following Saturday.)

But anyway...serials exist today, not only in the forms previous posters have mentioned, but also in the daytime soaps, which have been alternatively called: serials. They're daily, not weekly, but there's the same leaving the hero/heroine in a fraught situation. Granted, it's usually emotional danger, although sometimes it's actually quite physical (heroine buried alive, held at gunpoint, etc.).

Posted by: david on March 13, 2007 6:09 PM

I can remember a British radio serial of the 50s - Journey into Space. It was so gripping that the real journies into space later on were tedious by contrast.

Posted by: dearieme on March 13, 2007 6:31 PM

I was thinking of comic books ("it's a graphic novel, Joel!") myself. They are not as popular as they were, but they do live on, at least among the uber-geeks.

Posted by: CyndiF on March 13, 2007 8:49 PM

All I remember about those Saturday matinees was the continual uproar, near mayhem really, in the kid filled "audience." You were either up to it, or you weren't. I weren't. And I didn't even have the excuse of being an only child. It was...just...too...much.

Posted by: ricpic on March 13, 2007 8:53 PM

Very intersting post on something that, as a thirtysomething, I never really got to experience. Not to make anyone feel old, but my dad used to be a huge Lone Ranger fan back in the day. :-)

IMHO, there aren't any serials aimed at kids these days because of the demand for eyes and ears in a 24-hour-info society, as well as the demand for profit over quality (which leads to uncertainty about how long a show will last).

It's a shame since, as you point out, it'd be a great hook for advertisers and could give kids something reliable in an increasingly unreliable world.

Posted by: Mark D on March 13, 2007 9:33 PM

Yeah, WTF is up with those daily comics with three lines of decontextualized dialogue, part of a single massively cliched plot device spread over a couple of weeks? How many fogeys have to die before Mark Trail does?

Posted by: J. Goard on March 14, 2007 2:02 AM

The closest today's children come to experiencing the serial format is in their video games, which is not inconsiderable given the popularity (especially among girls) of The Sims and Sims-like spin-offs. Even "shooter" games have narrative chapters that keep a young lad hooked until he's spent a few days solving the game.

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on March 14, 2007 6:21 AM

I well remember the serials, since I went to the movies every Saturday since I was four years old. They scared me. There was one called Fu Manchu, which caused me to hide under the seat every week until someone called the all clear.

Posted by: miriam on March 14, 2007 10:04 AM

I think there are some childrens' anime serials, aimed at the 6-10 age group, but none come to mind at the moment. Most of the plot-oriented stuff is sort of targeted at the 13+ or 16+ age groups, I think.

In a way it is surprising that serials of all kinds seem to more rare than they were between 1850 and 1950. Using plot to hook an audience to return week after week or (better, from the standpoint of the medium or advertiser) daily is a powerful tool that plays on human psychology.

Serials may be out of fashion out in the United States, but elsewhere, they remain popular. Korean TV is filled with drama serials running 16 or 20 episodes or so, with a single continuous plotline. Korean dramas have proven popular across Asia. "Korean-wave" and all that.

Japanese TV dramas are typically shorter (9-12 episodes or so) and often somewhat more episodic, but they too tend to have a continuing plotline for the entire series (although often it seems to be sort of tossed together, as in the various seasons of Trick, or more recently, Jikou Keisatsu -- these were more like American series, although they were still very enjoyable). Chinese TV series seem to be longer, but I don't watch them with any regularity, so I don't really know.

Posted by: Taeyoung on March 15, 2007 4:34 PM

I remember that when I first got into comics fandom at the age of 15, in 1967, a lot of the older fans I knew had grown up in the '30s and '40s, and the serials were a big part of their personal nostalgia. Not only the amateur fanzines but even newsstand magazines catered to it with articles about the great serials of yore, with lots of photographs. The problem for us young'uns was that we didn't grow up on the serials ourselves and they were no longer shown much or at all. Occasionally you'd hear that some TV station somewhere was showing, say, a Flash Gordon serial, or a theater in some town you didn't live in had a weekend midnight movie fest for the college crowd that included serial episodes for their campy appeal, but for the most part they might as well have been locked away in some secret chamber of the Great Pyramid for all the chance you'd ever have to actually see all this great stuff your older fan friends were getting dewy-eyed about.

Eventually, as the '60s wore into the '70s, and serials would be shown at science-fiction conventions, and later, when home video opened up the studio vaults, I did manage to see some of the serials. And came to the conclusion that you really had to be 12 at the time they were coming out...

Not that I'm immune to the appeal of serials of some sort. I recently came by a 52-episode DVD set of an anime series probably aimed at an audience much like the heroine herself (i.e., 12-year-old girls)...and at 55 I still got caught up in it, to the point I didn't get much else done for a couple of days. At least the old movie serials could ration it out at one episode per week. When you've got the whole works right there in front of you, and you're going from one episode to another without any really clear stopping points, and the drama is ratcheting up with things just getting worse for the main character... well, it's a bit dangerous if you have other things you should be doing!

Posted by: Dwight Decker on March 17, 2007 2:30 AM

Hi, Donald.

I loved this article. They don't make'em like the 1940s serials anymore! Thought you might be interested in this:

I am now prepping to make my first feature film, 'The Scarlet Avenger', based on my student short. The picture is a rip-roaring tribute to all the 1940s action/adventure serials, especially 'Spy Smasher', 'Secret Service In Darkest Africa' and 'King of the Royal Mounted'.

You can download the student short here:

I've also started a blog that will chronicle my journey to make the feature.

Finally, I was recently interviewed on 'The Paunch Stevenson Show' podcast. I discuss the making of the short, the planned feature, my love of the old serials and my adventures in the film biz.

Hope you enjoy it and would love to hear from you.


Scott C. Clements
Toronto, Canada

Posted by: Scott C. Clements on March 18, 2007 7:45 AM

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