TV’s Original Franchise: The Story of 77 SUNSET STRIP and Co.
By John C. Alsedek:
Television franchises (i.e., TV series begetting multiple spinoff shows) are nearly as old a concept as television itself. Probably the most famous of them is Star Trek, which grew from the ashes of a cancelled late-1960’s sci-fi series to a franchise encompassing 10 follow-up shows and 13 theatrical releases (and still going!) But there are plenty of others; I mean, what’s Law & Order up to now, 7 spinoffs from the original show?
But well before Law & Order, before Star Trek, even before The Beverly Hillbillies and its "country cousin" spinoffs Petticoat Junction and Green Acres in the mid-sixties, there was the very first franchise in television history. It began in 1958 with a detective series set in an exotic locale—Hollywood, to be precise—and was so successful that it quickly spawned three more shows that were so closely related that episodes of one series are often remembered as having been on one of the others (there’s a reason for that, more in a bit).
That series was 77 Sunset Strip.
Now, 77 Sunset Strip didn’t spawn spinoffs in the way that, say, Happy Days led to Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, Joanie Loves Chachi, Blansky’s Beauties, and Out of the Blue: meaning a character was introduced and then moved on to a whole new show. No, the spinoffs of 77 Sunset Strip were flat-out copycats to such an extent that the creators might have gotten sued if not for one thing: all four programs (77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, Bourbon Street Beat, and Surfside 6) were produced by Warner Bros. Television! They were all shot almost exclusively on the same Burbank studio lot (in the case of 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye, on the same soundstage, using intertwined sets that shared office walls and doorways), featured cookie-cutter casts and scripts (you’ll see what I mean in a bit), opened with songs that sounded like variations on a theme (all four were composed by Mack David and Jerry Livingston and sure sound like they were recorded by the same combo!). And they all existed in the same "universe," with lead actors moving between shows as the same characters.
The first of the bunch (and the one I actually got to see on TV—in reruns, I’m old, but not quite that old!) was 77 Sunset Strip, which premiered on ABC in the fall of 1958. It starred Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Roger Smith as former government agents-turned-private eyes Stu Bailey and Jeff Spencer, who were based in offices on Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip, right next to Dino’s Place (the real-life nightclub of Dean Martin). They were aided in their investigations by a trio of "civilians": Dino’s Place carhop/detective-in-training Gerald Lloyd "Kookie" Kookson III (played by Edd Byrnes), gorgeous answering service operator Suzanne Fabry (played by Jacqueline Beer), and well-informed horserace tipster Roscoe (played by Louis Quinn). 77 Sunset Strip was a hit, both because of the glamorous locale and the breakout stardom of "Kookie," who made slang phrases such as “ginchiest” and “piling up z’s” part of everyday language for millions of American teens.
As a result, Warner Bros. took the same basic premise and created two more shows that premiered in October 1959. First up was Bourbon Street Beat, which was set in New Orleans and concerned the exploits of detectives Rex Randolph (Richard Long) and Cal Calhoun (Andrew Duggan). Like their 77 Sunset Strip brethren, they had a pretty "Gal Friday" in secretary Melody Lee Mercer (Arlene Howell), a young heartthrob detective-in-training in Kenny Madison (Van Williams), and a street-smart ally in club pianist "The Baron" (Eddie Cole, Nat King Cole’s brother). Just two days afterward, Honolulu-based Hawaiian Eye hit the airwaves. It featured detectives Tom Lopaka (Robert Conrad) and Tracy Steele (Anthony Eisley) filling the Zimbalist and Smith roles, aided by singer/photographer Cricket Blake (Connie Stevens) as the "Eye Candy," cabbie Kim Quisado (Poncie Ponce) as the "Comic Relief," and later hotel social director Philip Barton (Troy Donahue) as the "Young Hearthrob" (more on him in a bit).
Hawaiian Eye was as big a hit as 77 Sunset Strip, eventually running until 1963. But Bourbon Street Beat was axed after just one season, with Warner Bros. filling its time slot with the last
(and generally considered the worst) of the bunch: Surfside 6. Set in Miami Beach, it had the same structure as its three predecessors. The detective duo is Dave Thorne (Lee Patterson) and Kenny Madison (Van Williams); they’re helped out by socialite Daphne Dutton (Diane McBain), detective-in-training Sandy Winfield II (Troy Donahue), and helpful local singer/comic relief Cha Cha O’Brien (Margarita Sierra). Surfside 6 didn’t replicate the success of 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye, getting renewed but then cancelled midway through a second season.
So, did you notice that Van Williams and Troy Donahue are repeats? Yeah, this is where it all gets confusing as heck. Williams does indeed play the same Kenny Madison character (albeit as a full-fledged detective) on Surfside 6, while Donahue does end up moving from the cancelled Surfside 6 to Hawaiian Eye—but as a different character. Meanwhile, Richard Long took his Rex Randolph persona to 77 Sunset Strip as a partner in the business for one season; however, he’d already guested on 77 Sunset Strip twice previously as different characters, and would be back on 77 Sunset Strip as still other characters after Rex Randolph left the agency. Oh, and if it wasn’t complicated enough, Andrew Duggan also brought Cal Calhoun onto 77 Sunset Strip for an episode, and Van Williams turned up on 77 Sunset Strip twice: once as Kenny Madison, once as someone else. Plus, he was on Hawaiian Eye as a different character as well. Ahahahahaha . . . I need a flow chart!
In the end, the 77 Sunset Strip formula ran its course. Surfside 6 went off the air in April 1962, and Hawaiian Eye followed suit a year later. 77 Sunset Strip underwent a final season overhaul, with the entire cast save for Zimbalist being jettisoned and a much darker tone being adopted; however, that just alienated the remaining viewers, and 77 Sunset Strip went off the air for good in February 1964. However, it would live on indirectly in the "detectives-in-exotic-locations" shows it inspired, such as Hawaii Five-O, Magnum P.I., and Simon & Simon. And its leading star, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., would go on to even greater fame on the ABC series The FBI, which would air for nine seasons (and which, in a neat twist, also featured Hawaiian Eye star Anthony Eisley!).
Speaking of 77 Sunset Strip–related actors going on to other things, Van Williams today might be best remembered for a show that didn’t last any longer than Bourbon Street Beat or Surfside 6, but which had a much greater impact on pop culture. That show was The Green Hornet, and it’s the subject of the next column. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.