A Rod Serling Christmas
by John C. Alsedek:
At the end of my last column, I said I’d be talking about Rod Serling and his early days as an aspiring radio drama writer. But then, Flapper Press’s (and our esteemed SUSPENSE compadre) Elizabeth Gracen suggested doing holiday-themed columns for December . . . and it occurred to me that I could do that AND the planned Serling story, and do so pretty organically. At least, that’s the plan.
The obvious tie-in between Rod Serling and Christmas his date of birth: December 25th, 1924. As Serling himself put it, “I was a Christmas present that was delivered unwrapped.” He was fascinated by radio drama from a very young age, in particular thriller/horror programs such as Lights Out!, Inner Sanctum, and Suspense, and he idolized radio wunderkinds Arch Oboler and Norman Corwin. Already an aspiring writer, Serling went from listener to staffer during high school, working at a local Binghamton, NY, radio station.
Following his life-changing service in WWII (as a paratrooper in some of the Pacific Theater’s worst fighting), Serling continued on his chosen career path. He volunteered at WNYC as a writer & actor in 1946 and was promoted to paid intern the next year. Moving to Ohio to attend Antioch College, Serling quickly became the focal point of the school’s radio program, which was broadcast on WJEM in Springfield; writing, directing, and acting as needed, he created the school’s entire radio output in 1948–49. The experience proved invaluable. Within a year, he was a professional radio writer; five years after that, he won his first Emmy for the teleplay "Patterns;" and four years after that, The Twilight Zone premiered. The days of agonizing over having scripts rejected by radio shows like the original SUSPENSE were now long past.
Yet, even after Serling had become a major player in TV and film, he never forgot where he'd come from—both in terms of his radio roots and his schooling. In the early 1970's, as production of his second TV series, Night Gallery, was wrapping up, he created The Zero Hour, an anthology series that—along with the previously mentioned CBS Radio Mystery Theatre—was at the forefront of the brief radio drama renaissance. Aired by Mutual Broadcasting, The Zero Hour ran for two seasons, with Serling hosting and writing some of the scripts.
As for his college days . . . well, Antioch was the inspiration for one of Rod Serling's three Christmas-themed episodes of The Twilight Zone, the Season 3 closer "The Changing of the Guard." Serling had an affinity for Yuletide stories; in addition to "Guard," there was "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" and the heart-wrenching Art Carney story, "Night of the Meek," plus one for Night Gallery, ("The Messiah on Mott Street") and the teleplay "A Carol for Another Christmas."
"The Changing of the Guard" is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. It tells the tale of Professor Fowler (played by Donald Pleasence), an English teacher well past mandatory retirement who is let go just before Christmas. Depressed by the thought that he has made no difference in the world, Fowler is about to commit suicide when he is stopped by the ghosts of his former students, ones who had died young but were able to face their ends with courage & grace because of what Fowler had taught them.
Part of what makes "The Changing of the Guard" so powerful is the performance of Pleasence. Just 42 years old when the episode was filmed, he plays a character 30+ years older—and does so absolutely seamlessly. But it’s the script by Serling that really makes it memorable. I remember a Serling biographer once referring to him as a misanthrope, but I couldn’t disagree more. I think Serling’s experiences in World War II had shown him to what depths human beings could sink; yet, in most of his best writing, he still shows not just a love of his fellow humans, but faith in their better angels and a great fondness for the underdog. He sure does all of that in his writing for "The Changing of the Guard," which takes a very "Christmas Carol" sort of path to educating the gentle, bookish Professor Fowler, demonstrating to him that words—the right words—can make all the difference in the world.
And with that, I bid you adieu till 2019. Happy Holidays to all!