30 January 2012

When Route 66 Came Through Town

It ain't St Augustine but it's close

Glenn Corbett's Pullover (as opposed to Popover) via Instagram

All photos from Ohio 66

Graphic designer and friend of 37 years, David Belmonte, remembers the filming of the '60s television show, "Route 66" in St Augustine, FL. The episode, "This is Going to Hurt Me More Than it Hurts You" starred Soupy Sales and featured a pie fight in my college dining room.

If, from the title of this post you thought that the famous U.S. highway went through my hometown, you’d be forgiven. No, the Mother Road unfolded west. Gloriously West. From Chicago to The Coast. But Route 66, the television show went everywhere, including south by southeast, for at least part of a broadcast season. And ultimately snaked its way over to my neck of the coastal woods, St. Augustine, Florida. It was the early 1960s. It was very cool. And I was there.

Sometime in the warm fall of 1963, and shortly after our family moved there, the show series made a filming stop. It happened at about the same time as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. With that exception, the early 1960s was a rather quiet time. And to be honest, I actually liked it that way.

It was to be my only peek, however brief, at our nation that, for the most part, was still unified. And that also meant everyone was unified around the television watching Route 66 on its appointed night. Tellingly, it was also as if our culture was on the eve of great fracture, while on the show, the central characters were trying to keep it all stitched together with an asphalt thread.

Never mind that we were too young to always get the plots. They were going places! The actors weren’t locked into some stage set, so the show had a much more realistic look and feel to it. We’d see establishing shots of them rolling into towns from then very empty highways.

When Tod (Martin Milner) and Linc (Glenn Corbett replacing George Maharis) drove into our own town onscreen, past the conquistador statues with their swords held high in welcome, we shouted with recognition. They were actually driving on the same concrete roads we drove on! How cool was that? And it only got better as scenes of a pre-boutique, pre-Disney era St. Augustine flickered by.

When the Route 66 film company came to town, we all wanted to get a glimpse of the two stars, somehow resembling better versions of our average selves in that peculiar way that only Hollywood can conjure up. It was announced that a public press conference/public greeting would be held at the hospital where they had been filming. We headed to the lot next to the side of the building where a sizable crowd had gathered.

There were lights on stands, lots and lots of cables and big moving vans of equipment, on the sides of each were emblazoned the show’s name. Standing in the middle of it all were Milner and McCord. They smiled and waved and answered a few questions. They were trim, pressed and polished.

Local society women wearing whipped-up do’s and their Sunday best pushed close and flirted and asked for autographs. Men in dark suits nervously shuffled, trying not to look embarrassed at being fans of the show. It was the first time ever that I saw news cameras and reporters.

But what everyone wanted to see was The Car. Especially with the two actors in it. A Corvette, any Corvette would have been so rare in a small town in those days that it might as well have been a UFO. The Car wasn’t at the press conference, and I was very bummed. My memory tells me that during filming we would catch glimpses of their ‘63 or new model ‘64 Sting Ray skimming around town, with or without film crew in pursuit.

I can’t square that in my mind because what I would have seen was a tan Corvette, not red, not blue. (A tan version was used later in the series because it reflected less contrast on black and white film.) I still want to remember seeing it somewhere, though. Maybe around the central square, cruising under the live oaks hung with Spanish moss, so bright and otherworldly it would have looked as if it was lit by its own sun. So did I ever see it? I don’t remember.

While they were filming at the hospital, a friend of the family was cast as an extra. Her part was to walk out of one room, head down the hall, and walk back into another room. For a while the whole town sort of felt like we were at the center of the TV universe. Then it was over and the film company was gone.

When the highly anticipated St. Augustine episode finally aired we were of course excited, but also a little puzzled that the writers decided to go campy with it. Something about idle yachting types and Soupy Sales and pie throwing. Why had they chosen such a silly plot? Surely there were other more interesting ideas to be explored.

It seemed out of character for both the show and our sublime city. But as the episode played out, it actually managed to work okay, with a sprinkling of hero shots of “the ancient city” throughout. We eventually spotted our friend in her scene, barely recognizable with her back to the camera, walking away. More shouting and pointing at the TV set. Everyone was happy, and it generated a lot of local buzz.

So what of Route 66’s influence, if any, on style? The show occupied its pop culture spot at the very zenith of trad. At the precipice of a giant cultural shift, clothing style may have gone arguably downhill from there. But if you view trad style through the prism of Mad Men, it’s no wonder each generation puts its stamp on couture, having followed for years the fashion dictates-—read conformity—of its parents. In the show the two actors often wore slim jeans-cut chinos. And white socks with black loafers. Or boots. And cropped canvas jackets. Did Tod and Linc wear sunglasses? Maybe. Hats, never.

This much I know: It was Tod and Linc whom Tintin had in mind twenty years after the show ended when he was allowed by the owner of a venerable St. Augustine men’s shop to explore the back stockroom for authentic trad wear. Tintin let me in on his find with a big treasure-finding grin. He’d discovered several shelves of original 1960s madras plaid shirts from exactly that Route 66 era. Tags, cardboard, tissue and cello wrap: all original.

Interestingly, the Route 66 theme music was not the “Get Your Kicks On Route 66” song written by Bobbie Troup that pops up every now and then in your head, but was in fact a lilting piano theme by Nelson Riddle. And that theme was very “of the era,” especially compared to TV themes that came later like Lalo Schifrin’s more urgent “Mission Impossible.” Distopian times called for strident themes, and we had not yet arrived.

For Tintin, with his depth of experience with clothing and style, this blog site is self-explanatory. We can explore and take subtle style cues from those earlier days. And chuckle to ourselves, smug in the knowledge that an unnerving number of men today dress like they’re about to mow the lawn. Or just did. Even at restaurants—a vulgar notion that never would have occurred to most men of Tod or Linc’s era, the early 1960s. The trad sixties.

Etched forever in my memory is an old yet modern TV show about two sharp young men and a cool car shimmering on a hot road and heading to our little corner in this vast and confident nation. David Belmonte

Route 66 Credits


Brohammas said...

The joys of pre reality TV.
The idea that these were the days of a unified America are part of what led to the following fracturing.
There was a predominating idea of what it was to be an American that ignored, and thereby excluded, large swaths of the American population... then they started riding Greyhound's through "America" and trying to eat lunch at American counters and everything blew up.
Glad it did.
Though it is a shame if this is in fact why "we" now dress for yard work at restaurants.

VermontPrep said...

Fantastic post! Savored every word.

ann said...

That was a wonderful theme song & I totally loved the show. Two cute guys driving around in a corvette, going who knows where, solving everyone's problems as they travelled about–social workers on wheels.

I remember the show having a kind of new frontier feeling (this is the new frontier! sang the Chad-Mitchell Trio, or whoever it was.)

So true that shows like this were touchstones for our culture, such as it was. We need that again somehow. How cool that they came to your town.

Anonymous said...

Is that a pair of engineer boots that Glenn Corbett is wearing with his pop over shirt?

Steven L. Sears said...

What are the odds I'd be internet surfing and end up reading something about/by David Belmonte. I went to school with him at SAHS. And I well remember the tennis ball fly routine.

He's not half bad as a writer, either.

Steve (Sears)