Original Air Date: October 30, 1959
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Robert Stevens
Walking Distance is Rod Serling’s magnum opus, it is perhaps the greatest piece of writing ever broadcast on network television. In addition to a perfect cast and script, Bernard Hermann (of Hitchcock and Citizen Kane fame among many other classic films) composed the score and cinematographer George T. Clemens delivers extraordinary visual delights through mirrors and looking glasses as we unknowingly travel back in time through a dream-like vision of one man’s quest to regain his lost childhood.
As the episode opens a man drives up to a gas station along a country road on a summer afternoon.
“Martin Sloan, age thirty-six. Occupation: vice-president, ad agency, in charge of media. This is not just a Sunday drive for Martin Sloan. He perhaps doesn’t know it at the time, but it’s an exodus. Somewhere up the road he’s looking for sanity. And somewhere up the road, he’ll find something else.“
Martin Sloan (played by Academy Award winner Gig Young) is escaping his busy life in the city to return to his childhood hometown. Since he is not in a hurry, he decides to walk about a mile-and-a-half from the gas station to his hometown of “Homewood” (the town is based on Rod Serling’s hometown of Binghamton, New York. It was shot on the set that was constructed for Judy Garland’s film Meet Me In St. Louis).
Upon arrival in Homewood, Martin is struck by how little has changed. He visits his old drugstore where he orders an ice cream soda with three scoops -it is still only ten cents! He muses upon the reflection of Old Mister Wilson who once spent the lazy days sleeping in the back room (when Martin leaves the store the clerk opens the backroom door to reveal Old Mister Wilson still asleep in the back).
Martin takes a walk through his old neighborhood. A local boy (interestingly played by a very young Ron “Ronnie” Howard) on the street curiously calls Martin’s childhood home “the Sloan house.” In the park he spots a little boy carving his name onto the bandstand -the boy turns out to be Martin, himself. Adult Martin calls out and follows him home where he confronts his parents. In shock, they turn him away.
“A man can think a lot of thoughts and walk a lot of pavements between afternoon and night. And to a man like Martin Sloan, to whom memory has suddenly become reality, a resolve can come just as clearly and inexorably as stars in the summer night. Martin Sloan is now back in time. And his resolve is to put in a claim to the past.“
A neighborhood boy brags to Martin about his brand new car, made in 1934 -the first of its kind in town. Again, Martin tries to confront his younger self on the merry-go-round at the park but the boy flees in fear and injures his leg. Martin tried to reclaim his youth only to wound himself in the process. As the light begins to fade around Martin, he calls out to his younger self -“Martin I only wanted to tell you that this is a wonderful time of life for you. Don’t let any of it go by without enjoying it.”
Martin’s father (played by Frank Overton) finds his adult son at the park’s carousel. He returns Martin’s wallet which was previously dropped on the porch. Somehow he knows his son’s secret, but he tells him to leave: “…we only get one chance. Maybe there’s only one summer to every customer. That little boy, the one I know, the one who belongs here, this is his summer just as it once was yours. Don’t make him share it.”
Martin listens and takes one last spin on the carousel one last time. It returns him to the present-day where ice cream is now thirty-five cents. He walks back to his car at the gas station having left the fantasy of his childhood town behind him, never again to return.
“Martin Sloan, age thirty-six, vice-president in charge of media. Successful in most things but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives—trying to go home again. And also like all men, perhaps there’ll be an occasion, maybe a summer night sometime, when he’ll look up from what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past. And perhaps across his mind there’ll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he’ll smile then too, because he’ll know it is just an errant wish, some wisp of memory not too important really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man’s mind, that are a part of the Twilight Zone.“
Nostalgia is a powerful elixir. The idea of childhood memories being mere “walking distance” away is intoxicating, but sadly it is always just out of reach. “Walking Distance” is a beautifully shot episode, the story is a deeply personal reflection on Rod Serling’s youth. We cannot return and relive our old memories, but perhaps we can look around and find the cotton candy, merry-go-rounds, and bandstands right where we are. Most of us will never get the chance to walk back in time like Martin Sloan, but perhaps there are faint echoes of his journey that we all feel deep within us -this is the genius of The Twilight Zone, the pinnacle of ’50s Golden Age television.
In many ways “Walking Distance” was Rod Serling’s most personal Twilight Zone episode. Like Martin Sloan, Serling had a deep longing to reconnect with his father who died prematurely of a heart attack. “Going back was something he really would have liked to have done,” his daughter Anne Serling confirmed. “He was very close to his father. He always used to say to me, ‘I wish you had known your grandfather.” Serling’s brother later commented: “I think where Rod got the great love for the small town was in the Arms; when he was overseas. It was the ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’ syndrome. Everything he had taken for granted as a child had suddenly become preciously dear to him. He thought he’d never see it again. This was true, too, when he got into the hectic world of television. Yellow Springs and Antioch [where he attended and taught school] were the same kind of small village ivory tower existence, where everything was peaceful. The [Homewood] thing ran through much of his writing.”
“Walking Distance” brought Serling back to his youth growing up in Binghamton, New York. “My major hang-up is nostalgia,” Serling once said. “I hunger to go back to knickers and nickel ice cream cones. One time, I went walking in a recreational park in my home town called ‘Recreation Park: There’s a merry-go-round in it which I spent one given night staring at.” Later, when The Twilight Zone was in production, he strolled through a set at MGM and was hit by the similarity to his home town. “It struck me that all of us have a deep feeling to go back as we remember it. It was from this simple incident that I wove the story.”
Director Robert Stevens (1920-1989) later won an Emmy for “The Glass Eye” on Hitchcock Presents. As years went by, Stevens would still get letters at his New York flat from fans praising “Walking Distance.” He later said: “There was a lot of loving care put into Walking Distance: I still get letters about it. I never realized at the time that it would touch so many people. I wish I could have done more shows for Rod.”
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- Robert Stevens also directed the pilot episode “Where Is Everybody?” but because he went over time and budget on “Walking Distance” he was not invited back.
- The setting of “Homewood” was the set design for the Judy Garland film Meet Me In St. Louis. The idea of “Homewood” was based on Serling’s hometown of Binghamton, New York.
- A young Ron “Ronnie” Howard appears as a neighborhood boy in this episode.
- Bernard Herrmann composed the score for this and five other Twilight Zone episodes, as well as the classic opening and closing music.
- This episode was shot at night on an MGM backlot.
- Rod Serling told cinematographer George T. Clemens to shoot Martin Sloan’s parents as if they were “ghosts.” He gave particular attentiveness to this episode and its production.
- Currently in Recreation Park in Binghamton, New York the indoor carousel is painted with scenes from Twilight Zone episodes, and a plaque at the center of an outdoor bandstand honors Rod Serling’s “Walking Distance.” Rod Serling’s carved initials were renovated away years ago.
- Although playing a 36 year-old man Gig Young was actually age 46 during shooting. He was 5 years older than Frank Overton who played his father in the episode.
- One of the names Martin mentions that he remembers from his youth is “Dr. Bradbury” -a nod by Rod Serling to Ray Bradbury.
- This is one of four Twilight Zone episodes to include mid-episode narration by Rod Serling.
- The service station in this episode reads “Ralph N. Nelson” -a reference to production manager for most Twilight Zone episodes.
- There is a terrific essay entitled “The Many Fathers Of Martin Sloan” by Christopher Conlon which covers various accusations of plagiarism against Serling by Gore Vidal and Ray Bradbury and others.
- One of the chief industries in Rod Serling’s boyhood hometown of Binghamton was a shoe-manufacturer called Endicott-Johnson. Being a local philanthropist, Mr. George Johnson donated six carousels to local parks for the benefit of children. This is all relayed by Anne Serling in her introduction to Stories From The Twilight Zone.