Even though it’s listed in the copy on the back of this four-disc DVD set, it takes a minute, much longer than recognizing Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis, who I’m sure could have easily been picked out amidst a Grandpa Munster lookalike contest. He was always that distinctive, with his slightly pinched rubber face, good for continuous laughs when pinched further by his own efforts, just scrunching it up.
At the beginning of the episode “A Star is Born in the Bronx,” while Officer Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne) rehearses his actors for his play, “Tempest in the Tropics,” it looks like her, but it’s not certain. There’s the recognizable hair, but when she’s just sitting there, it’s impossible to know. Then she gets up, demanding the role of the maiden princess in a friendly manner underlined with just a dash of venom, in a funny way as befits a Nat Hiken show. The glance looks familiar, then the stare, and there’s that not-yet-weathered voice that wavers briefly in a low tone before rising back up, not yet weathered as it would be twenty years later. Then the semi-halting usage of words, strategically here, but just a part of her life later on. Yes! It’s her! It’s Charlotte Rae! It’s Mrs. Garrett long before she was Mrs. Garrett! Here, in Car 54, Where Are You?, she plays Sylvia Schnauser, wife of Officer Leo Schnauser of the 53rd police precinct in the Bronx, played by Al Lewis. What a pair. Hiken, who created The Phil Silvers Show, a.k.a Sgt. Bilko, before this, knew that a great pairing can make for even greater comedy, as well as every scene being important. Throwaway lines or bits are just a waste of valuable time on his shows. Every line, every scene, every character moment is important.
The central duo of Car 54, Where Are You? is decade-long partners Officer Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross) and Muldoon (Fred Gwynne). Now, looking on IMDB, it turns out my instincts were right, as much as I was questioning them while watching this second-season DVD set. I knew Al Lewis right away as being on The Munsters, but Fred Gwynne looked like he might have been a member of that cast too. I wasn’t sure at first. And he was, playing Herman Munster. He has the long face for it, and is as much a straight man as he can be in this series, exasperated at times by Toody, but not overly so. It always begins in the patrol car during the theme song, which is one of the greatest in television history (“There’s a holdup in the Bronx, Brooklyn’s broken out in fights. There’s a traffic jam in Harlem that’s backed up to Jackson Heights…”), with Toody either having donned a bad womanly mask in order to try to catch a “kissing bandit,” or setting up for lunch with a placemat and fork and knife and a flower in a thin vase, only to find that that’s all he packed in his lunchbox, or offering Muldoon a can of nuts, and out spring the snakes. Gwynne has a long face that not only worked well for Herman Munster, but also as a contrast to Ross, who benefits greatly from having wide comedic eyes. They’re always at the ready.
These episodes are lessons for future sitcom writers in the buildup of situations. My favorite episode of the set is “Occupancy, August First,” on the first disc, the sixth episode of 30, about Mrs. Bronson (Molly Picon, a great Yiddish performer later known as Yente in the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof), who moves into her high-rise Bronx apartment on August 1, as her lease stipulates. The problem is that the building itself has not even been fully constructed, and there’s Mrs. Bronson, making honey cake in a surprisingly-furnished kitchen, against no windows. Not even glass. Picon is the Jewish grandmother I wish I’d had, but never did. The closest I got to the warmth of that kind of relative was my maternal great-grandfather, who I knew briefly as a toddler before he died. Picon certainly inspired that kind of reaction in countless other Jewish people, and still does, as the evidence attests.
Mrs. Bronson worries about nothing. Oh, in certain things, sure, but not overly. She makes sure the construction workers she’s invited up to eat have enough, she consoles many men worried about her sudden occupancy as best she can, and her honey cake is always available to whoever wants it. Though she can’t do much for a young Charles Nelson Reilly as the incensed young architect of the building who will not see his designs sullied by Mrs. Bronson’s polite demands for radiators and a pipe on which she can tap loudly to tell the janitor to come up, she still tries. Everyone is welcome. In this episode, Picon is the absolute star. Hiken and company build the episode gradually. Toody and Muldoon are sent to the scene and then it begins. She teaches both to sing the Yiddish song she sings, and when Muldoon gets it right, Toody says that that was good, and she replies, “Good? For a Muldoon it’s fantastic!” You have to see this episode. And you have to see “Schnauser’s Last Ride,” which flashes back on Sergeant Schnauser’s introduction to the 53rd precinct, after having a horse for a partner for years. When choosing a new partner, he checks each one out like they were horses and it’s the nonchalant way in which he does so that causes huge laughter. And you also have to see the final episode of the series, “The Curse of the Snitkins,” You may have only seen Jack Gilford in Cocoon, or as Max Weinstock in three episodes of The Golden Girls, or as Saul in six episodes of Soap. Here he is with a younger face, and the same talent, as Officer Luther Snitkin, who, in 18 months of service, has been in 32 different precincts, because he’s a jinx, total bad luck to anyone who comes across him. To Luther, it’s always been who he is. He’s never won anything, been lucky in anything, so he just takes it in reluctant stride. It’s no big deal to him, though it is to everyone else he meets. And the 53rd precinct finds that out soon enough.
I’ve never heard of the Shanachie label before receiving this four-disc DVD set. According to its website, the two seasons of Car 54, Where Are You? are not the only releases, having handled music DVD releases as well, including one of Muddy Waters from 1968-1978. They know what restoration is. These episodes are pristine. It makes you wonder how this season, having aired from 1962-1963, has lasted all this time to arrive here. Where was the show’s film stored? Who kept watch on it? What were the negotiations involved to bring it to Shanachie? And how did they do such a good job of remastering it? There is such deep care evident here. Even the only extra in this set, on the fourth disc, of a stand-up comedy routine by Joe E. Ross after Car 54 ended, is clear enough and bright enough that if it weren’t for the fact that Ross died in 1982, as well as the curtain behind him (not at all in use in stand-up comedy routines today), you might think it was something relatively recent, test footage of some kind for a possible new show, shot by someone who’s so in love with black-and-white, that they were going to use it no matter what. Ross’s routine is funny enough, about how even though the show ended, he still thinks he’s a cop, just taking fruit for free from a stand, and imagining that other actors so ingrained in their roles have the same problem. He goes through a list that is remarkable in detail.
The only problem with Shanachie’s presentation is the DVD set itself. The second and fourth discs are laid above the first and third discs, and each disc, at the bottom, states, “To remove disc from tray, push down, pull up.” If you are patient enough and are very careful with DVDs in general, and you like to collect DVD sets as they are instead of putting individual DVDs in binders, then keep this set. Otherwise, store the DVDs safely elsewhere, because this DVD case is a menace at times. You have to make sure the DVD clicks in just right for tight storage, but to get it out takes some negotiation. And though it’s straight plastic backing, there’s the constant worry of these discs being scratched. It reminds me of the first season of The West Wing on DVD, stored in holders so tight that when you tried to take out a disc, even as carefully as you could, it never came out right away and it seemed like the disc would snap in half before it came out. This set isn’t as bad, but the same risky feeling applies. I understand that more elaborate DVD packaging, such as separate plastic backing for each DVD, to be flipped like a book, would likely have cost more, but it promotes a more easy feeling. If you are a fan of this show, store these DVDs elsewhere. The lists of episodes are available on both sides of the DVD set as well as on the DVDs themselves and online, so you won’t miss anything if you get rid of this set after storing the DVDs. It’s a matter of safety, of keeping the show intact for your enjoyment.
Outside of that, Shanachie has done a great mitzvah with this DVD set, in having these shows available, to introduce people to sitcoms as they were back then. They were funny. They took time to watch. There was only one story for each, to give characters more time to breathe, for people to know them. Hiken was one of the best at this. Everything comes together so well, and it’s history well-worth studying and enjoying.