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2015/06/14

The Munsters

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

It’s so much fun when I introduce my son to something that I liked when I was a kid and then he actually winds up liking it too. Scooby Doo? I’m pretty sure he’s on the path to being a lifelong fan, like me. Willy Wonka? Despite my love of Johnny Depp, I still definitely prefer the 1971 film version, while my son swears the 2005 Burton remake is better; still, we both agree that the story itself is great. There are more examples of mom and son mutual fandom, but hitting the mark when I try to share something with him can be tricky at times. So when a friend of mine, who’s a big fan of the band Fall Out Boy, recently shared their video for the song "Uma Thurman," a wave of nostalgia hit me and gave me an idea for something “new” that I could introduce to my son. The band uses a sample of The Munsters theme song, a show I used to watch when I was a little girl. It originally aired a little before my time, so I watched the series when it was shown in reruns. From September 24, 1964 to May 12, 1966, people could tune in to the CBS network each week to watch the antics of the Munster family, in black and white, no less. Another “quirky” crew, The Addams Family, had a TV show running on the ABC network at almost exactly the same time: that series premiered about a week before The Munsters and ended a few weeks before that show's final episode. I won’t weigh in on which one was the best (I liked The Addams Family too), but for now, I’ll focus on The Munsters. In fact. when my son asked what the show was about, I wound up using The Addams Family as a point of reference, since he’s more familiar with those characters.



For anyone who might not know the show or its spin-off movies, The Munsters revolved around an unconventional family who lived in an equally unconventional, cobweb-covered household at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Lily and Herman Munster, played by Yvonne DeCarlo and Fred Gwynne, were a married couple whose household included her father, “Grandpa” Munster (Al Lewis); her niece, Marilyn (initially played by Beverly Owen, then Pat Priest); and Lily and Herman’s young son, Eddie (Butch Patrick). One of the running jokes in the series was when unsuspecting people would finally meet the family. While Marilyn looked “normal,” Herman looked like the Frankenstein monster (there are references to him being made by Dr. Frankenstein and jokes about how he's literally pieced together). Lily, Grandpa, and Eddie all resemble vampires, and the family pet, Spot--well…it’s definitely not a lap dog.

Grandpa, Marilyn, Eddie, Lily, and Herman
One of the things that I liked about the show when I was a kid was that it was a “safe” kind of scary. By that, I mean that even though Grandpa Munster’s laboratory looked spooky and was filled with creepy things, everyone in the family seemed kind and non-threatening. When you’re a little kid and you’re still working out how things work in the world, a lot of things can seem intimidating. With The Munsters though, I could watch it and be maybe just a tiny bit scared, but I wouldn’t be lying awake all night, afraid that there was something hiding under my bed. And, recently, when I asked my son what he likes about the show, his answer was along the same lines. “It’s funny, and you’d think that they’d be mean and terrorizing people, but instead, they’re nice and always trying to help out.”

Herman and Grandpa in Grandpa's lab
The show is filled with goofy puns and tame jokes; the US still had a fairly strict production code for films at that time, limiting “questionable” material, and television had certain censorship rules in place too, but some of the humor still makes me laugh. In an episode that my son and I watched the other day, the family has a guest show up at their door on a rainy day and they go out on the porch to talk to him. When things start to clear up, Lily quips, “Oh dear; it stopped raining. I’m afraid the weather is turning bad.”

Butch Patrick, who played Eddie and still makes public appearances, created a Munsters website that includes information about the cast members; you can find it at www.munsters.com. While I was trying to find out when the show aired I stumbled upon the site, and learned some things I never knew about the actors who played all of the beloved Munsters characters. I knew that Fred Gwynne (Herman) had been in Car 54, Where Are You?, another 1960s sitcom, and it had been fun to see him in a cameo in the 1992 movie My Cousin Vinny. I had no idea that Gwynne also wrote children’s books though, or that he’d also been a visual artist. Likewise, I was surprised to find out that his onscreen wife, Yvonne DeCarlo (Lily), had an extensive film, television, and even Broadway career. DeCarlo had quite a few roles in Westerns like Black Bart, Tomahawk, and Silver City, and she appeared in the pilot of the TV series Bonanza. She also played the role of Sephora in the epic 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments. And Al Lewis (Grandpa) definitely lived an interesting life. Not only did he work in burlesque and vaudeville theaters in the 1920s, but also as a circus clown, on Broadway, and taught school, wrote two children’s books, and even had his Ph.D. in child psychology! (Lewis had worked with Gwynne before too, as another cast member of Car 54, Where Are You?)

Almost fifty years after the show’s last episode aired, The Munsters still has legions of fans who have—or are making memories of laughing at, and along with, the lovable “monsters” on Mockingbird Lane. There were so many comedic masters in the cast and they played so well off of each other that I feel the silly comedy will always be the biggest draw. The more serious undertone of the show was that The Munsters were “oddballs” in a “normal” world, but they didn’t really try to conform or fit in. They were puzzled when people had negative reactions to them, but it didn't seem to phase them for long and they kept being themselves. Intentional or not, it’s a powerful message.


The first time my son and I sat down to watch the pilot episode, I snuck glances at him, watching his face to see if his eyes were glazing over from boredom or if I’d catch a smile. I was happy when it was the latter, and when he burst out with the type of laugh that I know means he really finds something funny. Score another one for mom, nostalgia, and The Munsters. Now, if I could get him to budge on which Willy Wonka movie is better…

Let us know, readers—is there an old television show that you loved as a kid that your children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, etc. are hooked on too?



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