The Spark Of Life
Every story whether documentary, fiction or outright lie starts with a spark of imagination. In the case of The Adventures of Spin and Marty that spark was struck in the mind of Lawrence Edward Watkin, him being one of those rare individuals from whom ideas and words just seemed to pour.
As far as I know there is no record of what triggered the spark which led Watkin to write Marty Markham. Perhaps it was a memory from his childhood or something he had recently seen or a casual remark during conversation at dinner. Whatever the source that spark found tinder in Watkin's mind which made him put pen to paper creating the story of a snobbish city kid being sent -against his will- to a dude ranch with a group of typical all-American boys. Reading between the lines I suspect he drew from personal experience for at least several of the incidents portrayed in the book.
Walt Disney was always looking for story material on which to base his animated films. And yet I for one cannot imagine this story as an animated film. It fairly requires live action to do even basic justice to it.
For five years the story lay on a shelf gathering dust, but not forgotten. Then sometime in 1954 Walt Disney decided to jump into children's television with the creation of the Mickey Mouse Club. The plan was to create a program divided into four distinct and very separate parts one of which would be a cliffhanger series aimed squarely at the youth of the day, both girls and boys, which in itself would be revolutionary. Several stories were dusted off and considered for inclusion in the MMC program, and one of these was Watkin's book.
From Book To Script
April 1955. Now it's Jackson Gillis' turn to add sparks of imagination to the story. At the studio the search for a location for the Triple-R Ranch had been underway for a month, and casting calls were set for the 15th of that month, with rehearsals to begin on June 28th and actual filming to begin on July 13th.
It is interesting to note that the original 211 page story was spread over 500 or so pages in the various episode scripts. To be fair it there's a lot less writing on a page of script than there is on a book page. A lot less indeed.
Entirely new situations were dreamed up, massaged into shape and committed to paper for approval by producer Bill Walsh. It was a lightning fast process during which Mr. Gillis, like Watkin, had to dip into his personal background for ideas. It is an undeniable fact of life that the vast majority of men have once upon a time been boys. Boys who went camping, fishing and swimming. Boys who climbed trees, went to summer camp, had snipe hunts, got homesick, had fights, dreamed of high adventure and endured long hot summer days with nothing to do.
Help was forthcoming also in the choice of set locations for the Triple-R ranch, with which Gillis was obviously very familiar. The production company had searched far and wide for the setting for the Triple-R, as far afield as Sedona, Arizona, but decided on Placerita Canyon just thirty or so miles from the studio. Give any first rate writer a physical surrounding and he can construct a story around it easily.
Writing descriptions of scenes becomes a whole lot easier if one knows what will be available for the director to utilize. The Jaurequi ranch could not have been a better pick. A working ranch at the time it naturally had everything a ranch should have. Indeed everything and more, for the Jaurequi spread had been utilized as a location set by the motion picture industry since the early 1930's.
From Script To Film
And now the third evolution of the story, from script to film, commenced. The chosen director had to read and accept the script outline as a project he would undertake. Not simply read it, but visualize in his mind's eye how the finished product would look. And again it would be a conspiracy of many to reach that finished product. The director had his ideas and his word, like that of a captain aboard a ship, was final. He would consult with the cameraman to create the visual effects, camera angles, lighting -or lack thereof for all night scenes would be filmed in broad daylight due to the age of the actors-- while script assistants would keep track of on the spot changes, modifications and just plain suggestions when the action encountered an unexpected obstacle.
Nothing in a script is carved in stone unlike the unyielding word on a page in a book. Scripts can be changed on the spot. A very good thing, when for example (as in episode 13, scene 2) the script calls for the boys to ride across a stream, but when the cast and crew arrive the stream has dried up. Nothing there but a dusty gully. Streams in books never dry up, unless the author says so.
They could of course have trucked in thousands of gallons of water and created a flowing stream just for the shot but that would cost both money (and this series was already very expensive) and time of which there wasn't enough. So whip out the portable typewriter and have the boys ride off in the opposite direction, out the front gate and along the fence-lined road to the left. A fast, simple, cost-effective solution.
Ad-libbing is also inevitable when your actors are just fourteen years old and, well, full of the attitudes typical of that age. Something perhaps forgotten by the best adult actors, long since removed from the halls of education, Saturday night sock hops, and Little League.
Now had this been a Cecil B DeMille production every word on the script page would have to be uttered precisely as written, in the manner directed, and with on-camera feelings prescribed. But this story is about typical teenage boys of the 1950's acting like teenage boys and doing so in places and situations the rest of us city kids back east in audienceland could only dream about.
Kids have a natural, undeniable and almost compulsive tendency to goof off even under the most strenuous circumstances. A sort of automatic built-in safety valve for their emotions. Stress relief we'd call it today. Mischievous perhaps and definitely not malicious. Just plain fun to a kid. Like the campfire scene where the boys are singing the Triple-R song and one or more of them decide to change two words to the well rehearsed tune. Two words which sound very much alike but have completely different meanings.
The results were that the three boys in on the gag smile broadly as they sang but another actor caught unawares jerked his head sideways to stare at the offenders. A 90-degree turn accomplished in two frames (a single frame being 1/28 of a second long on film). William Beaudine Sr had been directing the series for some time. He was later nicknamed "One Shot" for his alleged (and not so accurate) reputation for getting what he wanted in a single take. And so it was up to the editors to cut the offending footage and replace it with a short clip. But the audio had to be left intact and can be heard today, if you listen carefully to the DVD version of the series.
Of course it could well be due to William Beaudine's expert direction but then again he might also have just told them to get it done regardless of spouting the lines exactly. Only the actors know for sure and they're not talking. One at least has said on camera that he doesn't have much in the way of memories of those hectic filming days. However, he does recall those events which made an impression on him, like the time his horse stepped on his foot.
The Jaurequi ranch was used almost exclusively for the common everyday around the ranch scenes. In the barn, in the bunkhouse, the blacksmith's shop, the ball game and that wild chase after the illusive groundhog. All were filmed at the Jaurequi ranch and within a radius of 200 yards from the center of what would become the Triple-R.
The rugged, rocky and very western looking scenes were filmed at the Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, another thirty miles in the opposite direction from Placerita Canyon. Over 2,000 'B' movies -mostly westerns- were filmed there before the state of California drove a freeway through the ranch and the rest of the property was sold off for upscale condominiums and apartments. Fortunately the state did manage to preserve the Garden of the Gods area as a park which is open to the public. If you get a chance and have the desire, you can walk its many paths winding through a giant piece of motion picture history.
At the time the first Spin and Marty series was being shot there was another very popular kids TV series being filmed there. So popular in fact that one of the large rock columns is named for it, the Lone Ranger Rock. In one of the first episodes Marty takes his horse Skyrocket for an early morning bareback ride along a winding dirt road which ends at the base of that monument. That was the stagecoach road seen in countless westerns from the 1930's to the 60's.
Yet locating this relatively small piece of soil begs another question, why choose that particular location when there were so many other suitable places to be had? Without being able to dig through the Disney archives it is impossible to know the answer to that question. Yet, there are a few details which may offer possible answers.
William Beaudine Jr lived not far from the location. It is possible that he either owned the ranch in question or knew the people who did. A number of actors lived and owned property in the area so its not a far fetched idea. And second, because they were already shooting just four miles away it would be a simple and cost effective location for the rodeo. Pack up after the last scheduled shoot at the Iverson and drive four miles to the next location, straight down Topanga Canyon Road no less. And in those days there was scarce little automobile traffic on that road during the day.
From Film To Television Screen
There comes a time when the director calls a final "cut" and "that's a wrap". The filming is complete, the equipment stored, and the actors all go home to return to their normal lives. As normal as any young actor's life can be with the celebrity title weighing more heavily on some than others at fourteen years of age.
Meanwhile back at the studio there is another group of people messing with the story. These are the film editors who, in conjunction with the director are cutting and splicing the various scenes into the finished product. It is here in the editing room that the real story comes to life. It is also here that we find scripted episode 13 scenes being placed within and titled as episode 16. And scenes originally written for episode 19 got chopped up into two other episodes, 23 and 24, both set during the rodeo so viewers never know the difference.
What I would also like to know is whether or not the boys, the then child actors had any sense of place while they were off riding around to be chased down by assistant directors so they could perform their next scene. Any thought of the hundreds of prominent actors who had stood precisely where they were standing. Did David Stollery realize when he was riding his Skyrocket bareback on that hot dusty dirt road that he was in fact standing right beside the Lone Ranger rock?
Gone But Not Forgotten
The success of the Spin and Marty series caught everyone by surprise. Yet those most caught off guard must have been the Disney marketing department for there was a real lack of items on the store shelves for Christmas shoppers in 1955. Does it take a genius to see that they made a special point of handing out Triple-R cowboy hats in the series and just how many of us kids wanted a Triple-R t-shirt for Christmas? And, again whatever became of those Triple-R belt buckles?
Those well-worn western style belt buckles had the 3_R brand in a triangle and two stars at the bottom. I wanted one as a kid but never got it. Don't remember if they were ever actually mass produced but I can tell those of you interested in the filming of the series, of shooting sequences and schedules, that if you watch closely you can see where many of the scenes were re-shot to incorporate merchandise not available the first time around.
Scenes for example where Bill Burnett is seen walking across the grounds to the bunkhouse wearing a smallish western buckle and in the next scene as he enters the bunkhouse he's sporting that 3_R buckle, only to exit the building a few scenes later wearing the old buckle once again. Many such scenes if you look carefully for them, which give clues to the filming sequences.
And yet, if one is patient and lives long enough, you might just see an original copy of The Adventures of Spin and Marty scripts offered. There were 26 script episodes after all, and copies of five were offered for auction not that long ago. I have two, someone else has the other three.
And as a parting note, Ollies favorite saying, "I'll be a blue nosed gopher" does not appear in either of my copies of the scripts.