The Mystery of Charles Showsby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
What connection do Bozo the Clown, Gort the Robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still, and Los Angeles television station KTLA have with a trilogy of Disney space shows? Charles Shows.
Shows has always been mentioned in connection with the early development of the first Disney television space show, but never received an official credit and there has been considerable confusion about what he actually did.
While Shows had many significant accomplishments as a writer for a variety of studios over the decades, his tendency to overstate his contribution to many projects diminished the validity of all of his claims.
It was not uncommon, especially at that time, for a performer or writer to enhance their involvement in a project on their resume, because there simply wasn't the resources that exist today for a reporter or potential employer to check closely. Of course, the nature of assigning credit, especially writing credit, in the entertainment industry has always been problematic, especially on projects that are highly collaborative.
In his book, Walt: Backstage Adventures with Walt Disney (1980), Shows devotes an entire chapter to the Disney space shows. According to Shows, Walt was impressed with his writing on the popular Time for Beany puppet program and thought Shows was better than any of the writers Walt had currently working on his staff so he personally hired him. According to Shows, he was the only one with the courage during a story meeting on director Jack Kinney’s proposal for a possible Tomorrowland segment to speak up and suggest that Walt should go in a different direction.
“Fortunately, I had with me the new issue of Life magazine I had bought that morning," Shows wrote. "The cover of Life featured a drawing of a dramatic new space rocket designed by Werhner von Braun…. Nervously, I learned forward and handed the magazine to Walt. For the next 10 minutes, all of us sat in rapt silence as Walt carefully read the entire article."
If Shows handed a current magazine to Walt, it would have had to have been an issue of Collier’s—not Life— that only had Chesley Bonestell space art in some of its 1940s issues and didn’t spotlight von Braun until three years after the time of this meeting. According to Shows, he spent weeks of research on the project, storyboarded the entire thing by himself and then pitched the board to Walt, who was so excited about Shows’ work, including his sketches, that he decided to do three shows.
Ward Kimball is never mentioned by name in the entire chapter.
Frederick Ordway, who has written several books about the early U.S. space program and specifically the work of von Braun, contacted Kimball, who is officially credited with co-writing, directing and producing the trilogy of space shows in 1986. Kimball responded to Ordway’s question about Shows' involvement in the first space show in a letter dated June 24, 1986:
"If it's OK with you, I would like to delete any mention of Charles Shows in connection with our space programs as his contribution was absolutely zilch. Shows had a local TV amateurish kid-vid program when I first got the idea of doing something about outer space for our Tomorrowland slot in the Disney hour. I invited him to come in early-on when many other different Tomorrowland ideas were being kicked around—before we settled down to the serious, ‘science-factual’ approach. Shows proved to have absolutely no affinity for this type of thinking and embarrassingly for me, I had to terminate his relationship with the project.”
So what is the story behind Shows and the Disney space shows?
After a couple of years with the El Paso Police Department, Shows decided, in 1940, to go to Hollywood to find his fame and fortune. Specifically, he wanted a job at the Disney Studios because he had some of his cartoons published successfully in local newspapers and, later, magazines. He was not accepted at the studio.
He did get a job at Paramount Studios, writing on a specialty theatrical series called Speaking of Animals, an unusual combination of live-action and animation where various animals seemed to have the ability to speak, tell stories and jokes, as well as sing. Some episodes had animals in full costumes on miniature movie sets.
Paramount Pictures, at the time, owned local Los Angeles television station KTLA (Channel 5). When Speaking of Animals ended, Shows moved to that television station, writing for a variety of series. He was involved with a lot of local television shows, including The Adventures of Patches. It was a daily puppet show that featured an imaginary rabbit known as “Wacky Rabbit” (voiced by Larry Harmon) who took a young boy named Patches (voiced by Don Messick) on many strange adventures. Bill Oberlin did the sets and Eddie Baxter provided background organ music for the live show. The show ran for two years and Shows turned out close to 500 15-minute scripts.
During this time, Shows was also one of the writers on Bob Clampett’s Time for Beany puppet show that also aired on KTLA. However, despite Shows' claims that he was the “creator, writer and director” of the series, he was just one of several writers, including Lloyd Turner and Bill Scott, and often puppeteers Stan Freberg and Daws Butler were “self-directed” and came up with their own dialogue in the frentic atmosphere of local television.
Harmon was born Lawrence Weiss, but changed his name after college graduation to pursue a career in entertainment. He pitched a pilot to KTLA for a local kid’s television space program called General Universe that wasn’t picked up. However, that concept, along with the contributions of Shows as a writer, became the largely forgotten program: Commander Comet. Five 30-minute shows per week for 560 shows for two and a half seasons beginning in the early 1950s.
Shows claimed to have created, written and directed all the episodes, although, even in his own book, he states he hired another writer to continue the series when Shows was first hired at Disney. Harmon played the title role of the heroic spaceman, but also did the voices for six puppets, read the commercials and booked the guests, including famed pilot Chuck Yeager. The ever-faithful companion to Commander Comet was Rotar the Robot, who was the 9-foot-tall stationary model used for certain scenes of Gort the Robot in the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) with some minor additions.
In 1952 Harmon auditioned at Capitol Records to be one of the Bozo the Capitol Clowns in public appearances. Getting that job led to a historic career for Harmon. Shows later went on to work with Harmon on other projects, including writing episodes of the syndicated animated series Bozo: The World’s Most Famous Clown television series in 1958-1962.
Shows apparently spent some time working on the True Life Adventures and People and Places series at Disney. He had been hired in 1954, but, by 1957, he was working with Hanna-Barbera on the launch of their new animated television shows Ruff and Reddy and Huckleberry Hound. Shows was part of a 1958 award won by the Writers Guild against the Disney Studio in what seems like a clarification dispute involving writers and researchers.
In the local El Paso newspaper, the Herald-Post on June 12, 1963, local boy hero Shows told the interviewer:
“The best outfit I worked for was Walt Disney. He believes writers and producers are a class apart from the rest of his people. I produced 22 shows for him and enjoyed it very much. At first I worked as a writer, then moved on up until I was one of the few writer-director-producers in the industry.
"When you have an idea for Walt Disney you go in and tell him what you want. If he likes it you have the authority and budget in a few minutes. From there it is up to you. You make a good show your own way. If you think it takes a three-day week to do it, you work that way, but it had better be good. Disney will not tolerate a failure. The first bad one and out you go.”
Shows died in Cathedral City, California on October 27, 2001. He left behind a grandson—a motivational speaker named Tony Robbins.
The other side of the Charles Shows story and the Disney space programs came from Kimball in an interview with Disney Archivist Dave Smith:
“Charles Shows was doing some sort of phony space thing on TV on KTLA. I guess if we saw it now it would look awfully amateurish. I figured, ‘Well, maybe we can do this with his advice.’ He was doing this live show… and they would get the feeling of movement in space by having the camera continuously moving. To get the drift, they’d take a still of a rocket ship, and just move the camera, and pull some star background… It was all done very cheaply. And I said, ‘Well, as Walt says we’ve got to bring these in for a low price, so we’d better find out all the tricks.’
“So we called up Charlie Shows, and he came over, and he seemed a far less sophisticated guy than I thought he was going to be. We talked to him about it, and we had to get started somewhere. He said, ‘I’ll do some treatments. You want something on space, huh? Ok.’ I said, ‘Here, read these articles.’
“But Charlie Shows proved in the very early days that he was unnecessary, because after he’d spent a week working it, I went into his room. He had one of the large director’s rooms across the hall, and he had these huge pieces of paper that said, ‘Open,’ and then he’d say, ‘Story of Space.’ And then every once in a while he ordered something like 25 8-by-10s of Walt smiling, a fan photo, and these were placed on floor-to-ceiling storyboard on all four walls almost like a checkerboard. Every so often you’d see so much white with scribbling on it, and there’d be a picture of Walt with a big sign under it, ‘Cut to Walt.’[Laughs]
“And the more I discussed things with him the more it was apparent he wasn’t going to do us any good. It was at that time I told the guys, ‘Hell, we can do our own research. We know more about this already than Charlie Shows will ever know about it.’ It was at that point that I used Bill Bosche to start to layout the areas we wanted to talk about and then, because time was of great importance, to get this Tomorrowland thing on, because we were all ready to go ahead with the show, I figured that everybody should work on all parts of the picture. So we finally filled up three walls with The Story of Space,’ and we carried it from the very beginning, which would be a man in space, through A Trip to the Moon.”
Shows wasn’t the only person involved with developing an idea for the Tomorrowland segments. Director Jack Kinney and his unit were the first ones assigned to that task. He wrote about it in his book Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters (1988):
“I had developed a six-hour program called The History of Aviation, going from Icarus to outer space. We’d done plenty of research, with tremendous support from the entire aviation industry, including Archives of Aviation, the FAA, Lockheed, and McDonnell-Douglas. It was a beautiful undertaking, including all the old films, stories and personalities from the Montgolfiers to the Wright brothers, and beyond. I was amazed at all the glamour, heartbreak and breakthroughs in the stories of these pioneers.
“When we presented the material to ABC, we got what amounted to a standing ovation. Even Walt was impressed, and the picture was rushed quickly into production. Then, lo and behold, the ultimatum was handed down. An animator who had just been promoted to director was assigned to Man in Space, while I was left ‘holding the bag’ with the history section. Walt was so intrigued with the space material that he gave it preference. Without much of a buildup, I was ‘painted into a corner’ with no place to go. That’s when I knew my Disney days were numbered.”
As writer Bill Bosche, who would later work on the three space shows with Kimball as a co-writer, recalled, “I first started out with Jack Kinney, John Dunn and Lance Nolley there as one little story unit investigating [the topic]. John and I started a storyboard on the principles of rocketry, in which we showed the old cliche about it being a continuous recoil, a machine gun and a hand car.”
Kimball told respected Disney historian Michael Barrier in 1969 that from his perspective:
“We first came in, and we didn't know really what to do. Walt was opening up Tomorrowland and he had to have something, and we were going to have something with Daws Butler—very amateurish ideas, everything was being thrown out, and Jack [Kinney] was going to work on it also. But Jack was not necessarily interested in the fact that we were going out into space, and I was always a UFO fan anyway.
“So when I went to Walt with the Collier's [article on space exploration] and he said, ‘Hey, this is the way we should go,’ it was sort of mutual agreement, I think. Jack realized that this was the sort of thing that wasn't his bag. I was probably the most enthusiastic one, and I was going to take it very scientifically; it wasn't going to be a comedy hour. I think Walt sensed that, and gave Jack something else to do.”
“My recollection is that before we contacted these people [Ley, von Braun, Haber], we had put together some storyboards, just research material, about space travel and about the whole subject and initially it was to be one show,” Bosche told Dave Smith in a Seventies interview. “But that was the original concept: only enough material for one show. But when Walt came in, we started picking it apart. It was decided right in that meeting we would do three shows.
“It was really based on scientific principles. That was true of every one of (the three space shows). This again was at Walt’s insistence, that we start with the material, get it as correct as we could and…he afforded us the luxury of the time to really develop these things, to really work with von Braun, to go just as far as we could with it.”
However, despite his self-publicity, Shows was not part of those historic shows, although he did make significant contributions at other studios that shouldn’t be forgotten.