Chapter 10: Entering the Zone (1959)

“ROD SERLING, one of television’s most famous playwrights, brings you an extraordinary dramatic series, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, defined by the author as “The land that lies between science and superstition, between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. You will find the bizarre, but the believable; the different, the shocking that is yet understandable. Its tales must be shown; they cannot be told. And each carries with it its own special surprise.” In tonight’s drama, a small-town main street lies deserted at midday. . . and a frightened man asks, ‘WHERE IS EVERYBODY?’

– CBS newspaper ad for the premiere of “The Twilight Zone,” October 2, 1959


The years 1959 to 1961 were a period of creative turmoil for American politics and culture, as the country went from the Fabulous (and rather complacent) ’50s to the Scientific ’60s, from Eisenhower to Kennedy, from black-and-white to color.

Television was an American institution by 1959, with sets located in nine out of ten American homes. The television industry itself, though, was in a state of upheaval, the result of the public uproar over the unfolding quiz show scandals. Americans were deeply shocked on November 2, 1958, when Charles Van Doren, a Columbia University history instructor, scion of one of America’s great literary dynasties, and star contestant on “Twenty-One,” admitted to Congress that he had been given the answers to the questions asked on the quiz show by the program’s producers. Even President Eisenhower was disturbed, and he called for further investigations. For the first time in its short history, the television industry was on the defensive. To brighten their tarnished public image, network executives hurriedly provided money and time for news and public affairs programming. Indeed, 1959 to 1961 were great days for the network news divisions.


The process of getting “The Twilight Zone” on the air had actually begun — none too auspiciously — two years before, when CBS, which had a prior first-purchase-rights deal with Serling, had bought a script for a time travel fantasy from him entitled “The Twilight Zone”: “The Time Element,” with a view toward possibly expanding it into a series. Serling’s story, an expansion of the same script he had concocted for The Storm, was about a man who dreams that he goes back in time to Honolulu just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He tries, in vain, to warn the Army of the imminent debacle — and winds up getting killed in the attack. At the time — 1958 — the story was considered too “far out” by the West Coast CBS brass […] To Serling’s keen disappointment, it was shelved.


“I’m not making any supernatural claims in this story,” Serling said before the telecast. “What my central character experiences is just an extension of something that’s happened to all of us. For example, who hasn’t had that chilling moment of recall in which a new occurrence seems to be something that’s happened before?”

Apparently, a lot of television viewers had. The show caused a minor sensation. Within days “Desilu Playhouse” was deluged by over 6,000 letters of praise. The critics were also approbative. “Rod Serling is one of the pioneer television writers who still stays in the medium, even though he is as articulate as video’s expatriates about TV’s limitations,” Jack Gould noted approvingly in The New York Times.


“When he first said he wanted me for a science fiction show,” remembered Holliman, “I thought I would be one of twenty guys on a spaceship.”

General Foods liked “Where Is Everybody?” and in February 1959 signed on as principal sponsor. Kimberly-Clark, the Kleenex manufacturer, later joined on as alternate sponsor after Serling pitched in with a sales campaign of his own that emphasized the story-telling qualities of the show. People watch television to be entertained, Serling said, and “The Twilight Zone” entertains them. Serling only wanted to do “The Twilight Zone” if he could have total creative control of the show, and thanks to some hard bargaining by his agents at Ashley-Steiner, that is exactly what he got. […] “You wouldn’t believe how happy he was.”


Meanwhile, he had put together a first-rate production team […] Later in the show’s run, many others, including Serling’s old friend Ethel Wynant, would join the “Zone” production team for a time.


Visitors who encountered Serling in midcreation would often leave open-mouthed in awe at Serling’s sheer prodigiousness. One of those visitors was Chester Erion, Serling’s East Coast Dictaphone repairman. “It was something to behold,” said Erion. “When he was writing and talking into the machine, he was not only giving the story line right out of his head without any notes or anything, but at the same time he was saying ‘Camera One will move in from this side’ and adding in all of the directions for the cameras and everything, including the movements of the actors. I’d be working on one machine while he was recording on another. ”


Unfortunately, not all of the ingredients in Serling’s mania for work were natural. “My image of Rod is with a cigarette and a Coke bottle in his hand — the original Coke with all of that caffeine,” Del Reisman said. “He must have stimulated the Coke rather than the other way around. Obviously, he wanted that constant stimulation that he got from it. ”


The only person who continued to exercise any control over him, he happily admitted in press interviews, was his wife. “She uses a rapier to puncture my ego,” he told The New York Times. “Although she has no part in this business and wants no part of it, she’s an unerringly accurate critic. She also picks flaws in my grammar. When she says, ‘You used a conjunction there and it’s wrong,’ she destroys you.”


“I certainly respect her critical opinions,” Serling continued affectionately. “You know she never criticized my work until after we were married.” “You didn’t do any writing until after we were married, dear,” she chided.

Her obedient husband didn’t correct her.


October 2, 1959, was premiere night-the date of departure, Serling joked. That Friday night at ten, NBC’s “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports” was back for its eleventh season. ABC, inspired by the popularity of NBC’s “Peter Gunn,” introduced “The Detectives,” a hard-driving, New York-based action program starring Robert Taylor. CBS countered with “The Twilight Zone.”

[…]The show was not a ratings hit, nor would it ever be. But, surprisingly, it did gradually build up a loyal following, particularly among teenagers. “The appeal to children was a complete surprise to us,” said Buck Houghton. “We never thought of that. I don’t think CBS did, either; it was on at ten o’clock. We got a lot of nasty notes from parents saying ‘You’re keeping the kids up!’”


Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the first season of “The Twilight Zone” to viewers, and indeed about the show in general, was the degree to which Serling was able to use the show to make statements about the current human condition — without being explicitly “controversial.” As Carol Serling put it, “Rod felt that drama should be an assertion of social conscience. He found that in “The Twilight Zone,” through parable and suggestion, he could make the same point that he wanted to make with straight drama.”


The first season was, all in all, another knockout performance. Serling and his crew had proven that television could be both commercially successful and worthwhile. On June 21, 1960, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded Serling, who had written twenty-nine of the season’s 36 episodes, his record fourth Emmy for Outstanding Dramatic Writing. Serling’s gamble on launching his little oddball show had paid off. Later, he called it “the happiest moment of his professional career.”

Once again, congratulatory telegrams poured in from all over the country.

Ominously, there was no telegram from Serling’s own network.


Leon Uris, author of the novel Exodus, led the charge against a surprised Serling with a telegram to CBS president Frank Stanton, demanding that the negatives of the production, which he called “the most disgusting dramatic presentation in the history of American television,” be burned. Serling promptly jumped into the fray with his own broadside, a scathing but respectful letter to Uris in which he claimed he had been maligned and personally offended by Uris’s suggestion that his work was anti-Semitic. Charles Beaumont, a writer for “The Twilight Zone” and a personal friend of Serling’s, rallied to his defense, saying that Uris’s accusations were “hysterical, vicious, and wholly irresponsible. As for his demand that CBS burn the film, the author of Exodus would do well to remember that that sort of thing was one of Herr Goebbels’ specialties.”

Amidst the uproar, few noticed that “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” was the last production of “Playhouse 90,” which had been canceled thanks to an edict from CBS’s new chief executive, James Aubrey. With the show’s demise, the golden age of live television dramas officially came to an end. Meanwhile, to the envy of his former colleagues, Serling seemed to be having his dramatic cake and eating it too, in that “middle ground between science and superstition. . .”


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