Sunday, January 15, 2012

Captain Midnight and the Secret Decoder Ring

Saturday Morning Television back in the late 50s and early 60s was a wonderland to my generation; cowboys, Indians, aliens, space cadets and cartoon characters bounced off the screens and into the homes of America’s heartland. Along with them, came all kinds of toys and goodies used as marketing tools to get the kids of America to pester their parents for a particular cereal or other food product that were aimed at kids.

The first time I ever saw a secret decoder ring was on Captain Midnight and the Secret Squadron. You could become a member of the secret squadron by getting a jar of the “Official Secret Squadron Drink”, delicious Ovaltine, their words, not mine, and sending the wax paper disk that seals the jar off to the producers of the show and they would send you a membership card, club manual and the Secret Squadron badge. On the back side of the badge was the decoder ring that could be used to decode messages sent out over the airwaves every week. The message would be a word on the screen and a combination of a number and a letter. Once we had our rings, we could line up the number and the letter and decode the secret message which was usually some morally uplifting message like the show’s tag line “Justice, through strength and courage.”

Of course it worked! We bought two jars of Ovaltine in order to get a membership for my brother and me, despite the fact that neither of us particularly liked Ovaltine. We never ‘fessed up to Mom, but both pretended to like it until we got our decoder rings. Yes, we had to have two, one could not share something as secret and important as the messages we got from Captain Midnight. Fortunately, the rest of our family was really Nestle’s Chocolate fans and we quickly went back to the old standard of the family.

Captain Midnight was a comic book and radio show first then a movie serial, then eventually a TV show. By the time the franchise moved to TV Captain Midnight was no longer a military man but now ran a private organization. The TV show featuring Captain Jim "Red" Albright, who was played by Richard Webb, began on September 9, 1954, on CBS, continuing for 39 episodes until January 21, 1956. The only other character of the radio show held over into the TV show was Ichabod Mudd (played by Sid Melton), who was used for comic relief. Another regular character was Dr. Aristotle "Tut" Jones, Midnight's resident scientist, played by character actor Olan Soule. Soule was the only actor to perform in both the radio program and the television program. In the radio program, he played Agent Kelly.

We enjoyed the show as kids, the local stations reran the program in syndication later in the 60s as we began our love/hate relationship with Ovaltine. We liked the chocolate products better but Ovaltine had the best goodies. Sometimes we would beg our neighbors who did not have kids but drank Ovaltine if they would share their wax seals with us. Soon we had a hoard of them and could get any of the prizes we wanted. The score was now kids 100, marketers 2.

Eventually the allure of Saturday morning television waned as girls became more central to our lives and mornings lying on the floor in front of the television like goofballs… (you can see it coming, can’t you?) gave way to mornings lying on the beach watching girls, like goofballs. Oh MY!

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