One of the great experiences associated with this blog is finding people who share my interests in the fantastic. One of the people I discovered was Jim Benson, host of the radio show TV Time Machine, and co-author with Scott Skelton of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour (Syracuse University Press, 1998). I was pleased to connect with Jim recently to learn more about Serling’s work on this series.
TheoFantastique:Even though I am a huge fan of Rod Serling, and his work with The Twilight Zone, I know very little about The Night Gallery. Am I unusual in this regard or is Night Gallery a neglected part of Serling’s career by and large?
Jim Benson: Yes it is. It has always been like the red headed stepchild of The Twilight Zone, normally because the show didn’t run as long, it didn’t have as much of a cultural and societal impact, also it did not become a syndication phenomenon like The Twilight Zone did because Night Gallery was originally an hour-long program. In syndication Universal decided to cut it down to half an hour. So that basically eviscerated the show and much of the dramatic impact was lost. The show had three initial years of strong ratings in syndication and then fizzled out and was only seen intermittenly, hit and miss, for a period of twenty years (1977-1997). So it was essentially lost to time and memory before it was finally released on videotape through Columbia House.
TheoFantastique: I’m assuming Night Gallery is now available on DVD. Has that helped resurrect Serling’s work in this regard?
Jim Benson: The reason that I was able to meet my co-author Scott Skelton was that he was on a mission to find uncut episodes of Night Gallery and also start a campaign to get uncut episodes released on videotape. This was back in the mid-1990s, and he started his website www.nightgallery.net, and that’s how I found him. I emailed him and we started a correspondence, and to make a long story short we decided to write a Night Gallery book together which Scott had already started. He realized I had a lot of connections and a lot of knowledge, and I was as fanatical about the show as he was, so he knew I could help and ease his load, so I joined him on the mission to not only write the definitive book about Night Gallery but also see to it that the uncut episodes would eventually be released, and they were released on videotape through Columbia House Video.
TheoFantastique: How did Night Gallery fit within Serling’s overall career in television?
Jim Benson: It fits in a very unique way because people like me and Scott believe it is a significant part of his career. Others look upon Night Gallery as representative of Serling’s career in decline. This is something we dispute because most people have not taken the time to become familiar with its history and few people are scholars and experts of the show. There are experts on The Twilight Zone but very few on Night Gallery. The more Scott and I researched the more we talked to people associated with the show, and especially when we got access to the uncut episodes, we could see that Night Gallerywas a significant part of Serling’s career. One of the episodes that Serling wrote is probably one of the finest things he wrote for television, and he actually pointed it out as one of the best things he ever wrote, if not the best thing he ever wrote, and that was an episode titled “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” which was nominated for an Emmy Award for an outstanding single program 1970-1971. So we discovered that Serling wrote nearly a third of the episodes that represent some of the finest writing of his career, because at the time he was writing for Night Gallery he was in his late 40s, and he only lived a couple years after the show went off the year, but he had become a much more sophisticated, mature, adult writer at this point. His characters, in my mind, sounded more authentic and gentuine at that point in his career. Some of his characters that he wrote earlier in his career for live television productions and The Twilight Zone sometimes come across as a litte caricature-ish and stiff, and Serling himself actually characterized his own writing in that regard. He felt he improved in his writing later in his career as opposed to the conventional wisdom that he was in decline.
TheoFantastique: What was the inspiration behind the series, when did it debut?
Jim Benson: The inspiration for the series actually goes back to The Twilight Zone when CBS cancelled it in 1964. Serling came up with another concept for The Twilight Zone and approached ABC about resurrecting the show. But ABC wanted more of a horror-type show so they suggested that Serling host a show called Witches, Warlocks, and Werewolves, which was the title of an anthology that he edited in the 1970s. Serling didn’t particularly like that so he proposed an alternative concept which he titled Rod Serling’s Wax Museum in which he would walk through a wax museum, approach certain figures and those figures would represent that evening’s story. Later on when he wrote a series of stories which was an anthology called The Season to Be Wary, he decided to take those three stories and tie them together with paintings, so in that sense he came up with the concept of Night Gallery.
TheoFantastique: This leads me naturally to ask about the paintings used to introduce each story. Was there much serious consideration given to the art as an essential part of the storytelling process or was it something that just provided an entry way into the story itself?
Jim Benson: Well, actually the paintings were a very, very important part of Night Gallery. Many people consider the paintings the soul of the show. In many quarters the paintings became more popular than the episodes themselves. When Serling wrote the original Night Gallery pilot which was inspired by The Season to Be Wary stories, those three stories consisted of three stories which had a painting within the stories that became an integral part of the tale. So in that sense there was no separating the stories from the painting, whereas for Night Gallery the series the stories did not necessarily require the element of an actual painting to be part of the story itself, they simply used the paintings as a vehicle to introduce that particular story. But absolutely, the paintings were critical to the storytelling aspects of Night Gallery.
About a third of the paintings exist, two-thirds of them we don’t know what happened to them. They are available at times on e-Bay. The painting for the pilot sold for I think $26,000, which is the highest ever gotten for a Night Gallery painting. There are original prints still available that Universal Studios created in 1972, lithograph posters that represented at least 12 original paintings, and you can find these on e-Bay from time to time.
TheoFantastique: What was Serling’s contribution to the program beyond serving as host, and writing a third of the episodes as you mentioned earlier? How much creative control did he have?
Jim Benson: This is probably the most controversial element of the history of the series, because originally Serling had a fair amount of control in the first season. The majority of the stories were written by him. However, in the second and particularly the third season Serling lost virtually all creative control to producer Jack Laird, who at the start of the second season took control of the show, cast it without consulting Serling, chose all the stories to be adapted, he really was in total control, and only occasionally referred to Serlingon certain issues. The reason this happened is because Serling did not have a creative control clause in his contract. He essentially had been an executive producer on The Twilight Zone and didn’t want that kind of stress on Night Gallery because Twilight Zone really burned him out and he didn’t want to be a day-to-day functioning producer. But he assumed that Laird and others would defer to him on creative issues because it was his show, he created it, he was writing the majority of the scripts the first year, so he assumed something that didn’t happen. That led to a series of events where he eventually became something of a gadfly when it came to Universal Studios’ attitude toward him, and it got to the point where he would call the studio and they wouldn’t even accept or return his calls. By the end of the second season he was largely shut out from the program, and by the third season he wanted his name and presence eliminated from the program entirely but Universal wouldn’t let him out of his series and so they continued with the title and he continued hosting it, but he only wrote four episodes for the third season.
TheoFantastique: What kind of impact has Night Gallery had?
Jim Benson: At the time it aired it had tremendous impact because it appealed to the young, hip generation. It has a huge cult following at the time. There were actually Night Gallery viewing parties at Yale and Harvard on Wednesday evenings for the students. Even before videotape people were bootlegging 16mm prints and viewing them. The show was incredibly popular with young people and it even though the ratings were only fair, if there had been more emphasis on demographics at the time like there is now in television the program probably would have run five to seven seasons. At that time they didn’t place the same premium on young audiences as they do now. So the show has always had this main core, cult audience, even to this day. And people who are Night Gallery fans are very passionate and many have followed the show for forty years.
And another thing, there were individual episodes that have had a lasting impact, and one of them is called “The Caterpillar,” which is basically known as the earwig episode which was the last episode of the second season. That episode and others still resonate and people remember them even though they’ve only seen them once or twice over forty years. These are the types of stories and images that have lasting impact.
TheoFantastique: Where can folks learn more about your book and The Night Gallery?
TheoFantastique: Jim, thanks again for sharing your passion and expertise in this great television program.