On Rod Serling’s “Walking Distance”

“His name was Martin Sloan and he was thirty-six years old…”

So begins Rod Serling’s bittersweet tale of memory and nostalgia. It is every bit as tender and filled with longing as the parallel television episode. However, unlike in The Twilight Zone episode, Rod Serling’s short story actually introduces us to our protagonist ad executive, Martin Sloan, at his bachelor flat on Park Avenue and 63rd Street in New York City. He drives a red Mercedez-Benz, dons a Brooks Brothers suit, and leads a busy stressful life which has recently caused a painful ulcer in his gut. Despite the busy days, Martin lives alone and often comes home to sit in the dark or gaze in the mirror (mirrors play an important thematic role both in the story as well as the episode).

Martin regularly finds himself dreaming of escapism, longing to go back to the little town of his youth in upstate New York. One night, on a whim, Martin drives out of the city toward his childhood home of Homewood, New York –“a quiet, tree-filled little town of three thousand people” (63). It is a warm summer night and as he drives he recalls the uninhibited freedom of his childhood, summer bandstands, parks, and playgrounds. Life was simpler then and Martin feels lost. He has not visited his hometown in some twenty years.

Martin stops for gas as well as an oil change and lube up when he suddenly realizes he is only one and a half miles from Homewood –or mere “walking distance” away. While his car is fixed he steps backward in time and walks over the hill to Homewood. First, he stops into Mr. Wilson’s drugstore which sits exactly as he once remembered it. Martin orders from the soda jerk a cup which costs three scoops for a dime! It is a shockingly low price. Little seems to have changed here and the pace of life is slow and easy, but Martin notes that the people seem happy.

In reading about these halcyon days, I am left to wonder if this bygone era in American has completely vanished never again to return. Our pace of life as been radically sped up, and many small towns are almost unrecognizable after having been decimated by years of corporate plunder. These old shops, where a man might once have taken pride in his work or trade, have now been replaced with soulless big box chains, distributing cheap mass-produced goods, paying their employees a pittance, serving the shareholder class who live far away without care. Today, people seem less happy, more frantic, fearful, disconnected, often without hope of a future, spiritually bankrupt and morally hedonistic, devoid of community, absent the rootedness which makes life meaningful and joyful. In contrast, Martin Sloan’s Homewood seems not to have yet been crushed by the weight of our world. Instead children play outside unsupervised, without fear of abduction. Life is generally safe and carefree, business is slow but people are kindhearted and optimistic. This is not the snide portrayal of small town middle class American life as in Sinclair Lewis’s novels.

The “bittersweet pang of nostalgia” hits Martin as he walks down Oak Street, which has remained exactly as he remembered it. Music plays in the park over the sounds of children, and a merry-go-round spins while the tinkling sound of an of ice cream truck lazily rolls by. Why did I ever leave this dream? Martin asks himself.

Martin spots a young Marty Sloan –himself– carving his name into the wooden bandstand in the park, and he meets his parents at his old house (though in reality his parents have long since died). Something is not right here. Martin has somehow stepped back in time only to find his nostalgia-ridden childhood to be a place which he can sadly never fully grasp again. Life is fleeting and these beautiful moments are protean, impossible to hold for too long. Youth is wasted on the young as the saying goes. As Martin chases down his younger self he causes a leg injury, and then quietly whispers, “I only wanted to tell you that this was the most wonderful time for you. Don’t let any of it go by without enjoying it. There won’t be any more merry-go-rounds. No more cotton candy. No more band concerts. I only wanted to tell you, Martin, that this is the most wonderful time…” (79).

Martin then somberly speaks with his father who seems to know the truth. Martin confesses to his father that life in New York is a rat race and he yearns to come home, to ride merry-go-rounds just one more time, to eat cotton candy and live carefree like he once did as a child, to gaze up at the stars on warm summer nights, to listen to a band concert in the park, to watch the rain from his home porch, to eat ice cream and find Mr. Wilson asleep in the back of the drugstore, to play hide-and-seek in the park, to hear the sound of children’s laughter once more. He is begging for a return to innocence. But, as Martin’s father notes, perhaps there is only one golden summer for each customer in this life, and perhaps Martin might actually find those merry-go-rounds and cotton candy and band concerts today if only he might look a little closer, and focus on what lies ahead rather than gazing longingly into the past. Martin solemnly bids farewell to his father for the last time and he returns home knowing that Homewood is never truly “walking distance” away anymore.

Serling, Rod. Stories From The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling Books: 1960 (republished in 1990 by the Serling family), Paperback Edition.

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On Rod Serling’s “Escape Clause”

“Witness, my dear… the new Walter Bedeker!”

In Rod Serling’s “Escape Clause,” we meet the same insufferable bathrobe-wearing, bedridden, forty-four year old hypochondriac as found in The Twilight Zone episode. Walter Bedeker is demanding and annoying and despite his wife Ethel’s best efforts, Walter’s fears are many: “death, disease, other people, germs, drafts and everything else… In short, he was a gnome-faced little man who clutched at disease the way most people hunger for security” (33). In fact, his phobias are so severe that Walter even refuses to allow windows to be opened in the house.

He verbally berates a doctor, then a janitor, and his own wife before finally being left alone in his room when suddenly the deep, resonant, laughing voice of a man named Cadwallader can be heard in his room. Cadwallader is soon revealed to be the devil himself offering Walter Bedeker immortality in exchange for his soul. After a serious negotiation, Walter signs away his soul and begins testing his invincibility in a series of challenges, each more radical than the last. Unfortunately, his newfound freedom from fear makes him equally as insufferable a man. However, he soon faces a new kind of monotony in his life without the looming threat of death any longer. He devises a dark plot wherein he kills his wife and winds up in prison in Kansas. In despair, Walter exercises the “escape clause” of his contract with Cadwallader and he immediately dies. Life without death is empty and meaningless.

This short story closely mirrors the plot featured in its component Twilight Zone episode. Once again, the tone of this Serling tale is light-hearted, amused, and playful up until the point Walter kills his wife and winds up in jail, begging for death. These folkoric, supernatural, Faustian fables taking place in our contemporary context are simply terrific.

Serling, Rod. Stories From The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling Books: 1960 (republished in 1990 by the Serling family), Paperback Edition.

Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.

Click here to read my review of The Twilight Zone episode “Escape Clause”

Introduction to The Twilight Zone: Season 5

After experimenting with the hour-long format in Season 4, by the time Season 5 rolled around The Twilight Zone thankfully returned to its familiar collection of half-hour installments. While this was a celebrated return to form, Season 5 is often regarded as a jumbled mix of high quality episodes coupled with head-scratchingly mediocre episodes, a trend which becomes increasingly apparent as the season’s end nears.

By the time Season 5 was in production, Rod Serling was already fatigued from his extraordinary run as the show’s creative force. In addition, lead writer Charles Beaumont was now incapacitated due to the onset of his debilitating illness (Mr. Beaumont’s single fifth season script “Gentlemen, Be Seated,” adapted from his 1960 short story, was sadly never produced). Mr. Beaumont’s friends and fellow writers Jerry Sohl and John Tomerlin stepped in co-write several scripts in his stead. Other tensions emerged behind the scenes like George Clayton Johnson’s bitter spat with producer William Froug over full-scale re-writes to his fifth season script “Tick of Time” (renamed as “Ninety Years Without Slumbering”). This caused George Clayton Johnson to entirely walk away from The Twilight Zone.

On the plus side, Richard Matheson’s scripts saw much success and newcomer Henry Slesar also contributed several memorable scripts. The big shift came when producer Bert Granet abruptly departed the show after producing the first thirteen episodes of Season 5. He was replaced by William Froug, now known as the producer of shows like Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched. Mr. Froug unfortunately discarded scripts by Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Jerry Sohl and others which were already in pre-production, and instead he brought in new writers whose output was demonstrably subpar in contrast to the show’s prior greatness.

Despite background exasperations and frustrations, the fifth season of The Twilight Zone contains some absolutely wonderful episodes like “In Praise of Pip,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Living Doll,” “The Old Man in the Cave,” “The Long Morrow,” “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” “Black Leather Jackets,” “Night Call,” “From Agnes – With Love,” “Spur of the Moment,” “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Queen of the Nile,” “The Masks,” “Jeopardy Room,” and “The Encounter.”

Strangely, I picked up on a recurring theme of domestic/familial disharmony in this season which is not as prominent in earlier Twilight Zone seasons. Episodes like “In Praise of Pip,” “Living Doll,” “The Masks,” “Stopover in a Quiet Town,” and “The Bewitchin’ Pool” showcase neglectful or downright abusive parental/spousal/children characters in various ways. Some of them are drunk, verbally abusive, or exploitative in nature. In addition, episodes like “Uncle Simon,” “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross,” and especially “What’s In The Box” are simply too uncomfortable to watch as they are rife with overtly manipulative or physically abusive families. These latter three episodes represent a low-point for The Twilight Zone in my view.

Nevertheless, along with a litany of problems and certain points of declining quality, the fifth season still represents some extraordinary flashes of brilliance from The Twilight Zone.

By the end of January 1964, CBS President Jim Aubrey decided he was tired of The Twilight Zone. He felt the show was not pulling good ratings and that it was costing too much. In truth it still had solid ratings though in the top ten, and it mainly stayed within budget but “An Occurrence At Owl Creek” eventually pushed the show over its bottom line. Meanwhile Rod Serling was also ready to end the series. Discussions of selling showed took place –first to NBC which passed and then ABC which considered renaming the show “Witches, Warlocks, and Werewolves” as borrowed from a Serling anthology edition. However, Mr. Serling was not enthusiastic. He was not interested in a regular B-movie horror anthology program (at one point he considered “Rod Serling’s Wax Museum”) and so the idea was buried. Cayuga Productions, Rod Serling’s production company, officially closed its doors.

In the years following The Twilight Zone Rod Serling remained a busy man. He sadly sold the rights to The Twilight Zone to CBS who claimed at the time that they would never be able to recoup their losses with the show, but in decades of syndication that has been proven false. Mr. Serling won another Emmy in 1964 for “It’s Mental Work” which was part of Bob Hope Presents The Chrystal Theatre, and in 1965 he launched a unique character-driven Western called The Loner. While it was lauded by critics, it did not fit the typical Western formula and the show was canceled midway through its first season amidst squabbles between CBS executives and Mr. Serling.

Throughout the 1960s, Rod Serling’s celebrity grew. He hosted the Emmy Awards, as well as “Rod Serling’s Wonderful World Of…” –a show which examined various forms of prejudice and other human failings. He narrated a variety of programs from the Zero Hour radio broadcast to various Jacques Cousteau specials and he served as President for two years of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He continued writing celebrated television scripts as well as the first several drafts of the feature film script for Planet of the Apes. He appeared in many commercials which paid him handsomely but when he wrote the television movie Doomsday Flight (a movie about a skilled pilot who lands a plane amid a serious bomb threat) it was followed by real bomb threats on airplanes –this situation was described as a personal low point for Mr. Serling.

In 1969, NBC aired the pilot episode of Night Gallery, a unique anthology series of the mysterious and the supernatural which was hosted by Rod Serling (incidentally Steven Spielberg made his directorial debut on the program). However, while it was quickly renamed Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, Mr. Serling was often excluded from the production end of things and the studio tended to sacrifice quality for mere shock value. It still won a couple Emmy awards despite Mr. Serling’s constant battles with NBC and Universal about the declining quality of the program. He was contractually obligated to remain host until the show was canceled.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Rod Serling lectured at many colleges. He spoke out vehemently against the War in Vietnam as well as the rising racial tensions throughout the nation. Tragically, a lifelong chainsmoker, he died at the young age of 50 in 1975 due to heart failure.

In the 1980s, Steven Spielberg took up the mantle of The Twilight Zone by creating a multi-part feature film entitled Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) which was not particularly well-received. It was marred by all manner of production problems including an unfortunate helicopter crash that killed two illegally hired child actors. George Clayton Johnson dubbed it “a tragedy, just a bloody tragedy.” Around the same time, numerous directors tried to revive the television show with CBS, including Francis Ford Coppola. In 1985, finally CBS greenlit a new series with writers like Harlan Ellison and George R. R. Martin, and narrated by Charles Aidman. It lasted for three season (1985-1989). In 2002 another reboot was announced by UPN hosted by Forest Whitaker but this was canceled after two seasons. And most recently, CBS rebooted The Twilight Zone series (2019-2020) which was narrated by Jordan Peele, however unfortunately this series was also met with disappointing reviews. Unsurprisingly, no later remake of The Twilight Zone has been able to match the genius of the original program which continues to challenge and inspire new generations of actors, directors, and writers.

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The Twilight Zone: Season 5, Episode Thirty-Six “The Bewitchin’ Pool”

Original Air Date: June 19, 1964
Writer: Earl Hamner Jr.
Director: Joseph M. Newman

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In this final episode of The Twilight Zone, Earl Hamner, Jr. offers a story that was heavily influenced by rising divorce rates and accompanying negative impacts on children. Marc Scott Zicree quotes Mr. Hamner as describing himself in somewhat “puritanical” terms as he was watching growing numbers of affluent people from the East Coast move westward and he also used the growing popularity of personal swimming pools

“A swimming pool not unlike any other pool, a structure built of tile and cement and money, a backyard toy for the affluent, wet entertainment for the well-to-do. But to Jeb and Sport Sharewood, this pool holds mysteries not dreamed of by the building contractor, not guaranteed in any sales brochure. For this pool has a secret exit that leads to a never-neverland, a place designed for junior citizens who need a long voyage away from reality, into the bottomless regions of the Twilight Zone.”
-Rod Serling

Sport Sharewood (played by Mary Badham who was nominated for an Academy Award as Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird) and her brother Jeb (Jeffrey Byron) are young children living with their parents at a vast palatial Southern California mansion. However, their pugilistic parents have decided to file for divorce, and in doing so ask which parent the children prefer to live with. Sport and Jeb hang their heads in disappointment and walk over to the pool where suddenly a young boy appears in the deep end named Whitt (Kim Hector). Whitt, a. straw-hat wearing farmboy, describes a fantastical paradise for children which is free from troublesome things like parental divorce.

“Introduction to a perfect setting: Colonial mansion, spacious grounds, heated swimming pool. All the luxuries money can buy. Introduction to two children: brother and sister, names Jeb and Sport. Healthy, happy, normal youngsters. Introduction to a mother: Gloria Sharewood by name, glamorous by nature. Introduction to a father: Gil Sharewood, handsome, prosperous, the picture of success. A man who has achieved every man’s ambition. Beautiful children, beautiful home, beautiful wife. Idyllic? Obviously. But don’t look too carefully, don’t peek behind the façade. The idyll may have feet of clay.”
-Rod Serling

As in Peter Pan, Sport and Jeb decide to swim to the bottom of the pool with Whitt and they surface on the other side in a mysterious pond at the edge of an unfamiliar Appalachian wood filled with happy children and a kindly old woman named Aunt T. (Georgia Simmons). However after spending some time here, Sport and Deb decide to return to their parents. When they resurface in the pool, Sport and Jeb’s parents demand to know where they have been. Now, the opening scene repeats and the Sharewoods announce their impending divorce amidst a string of sneers and bickering with one another. Not wanting to deal with this unpleasantness, Sport and Jeb jump back into the deep end and escape to live with Aunt T. forever.

“A brief epilogue for concerned parents. Of course, there isn’t any such place as the gingerbread house of Aunt T, and we grownups know there’s no door at the bottom of a swimming pool that leads to a secret place. But who can say how real the fantasy world of lonely children can become? For Jeb and Sport Sharewood, the need for love turned fantasy into reality; they found a secret place—in the Twilight Zone.”
-Rod Serling

“The Bewitchin’ Pool” is a somewhat sad and somber fable. It tackles uncomfortable themes involving children and their rather nasty parents who are divorcing. In this episode, there is a noticeable tension between Sport and Jeb’s parents who are unpleasant, wealthy, urbanites whereas Aunt T. is a kindly, warm, and innocent rural cabin-dweller. The latter being preferable to the former. At any rate, “The Bewitchin’ Pool” is a bit of a disappointing episode to conclude the series on –it was plagued by casting, editing, delays among other issues.

This post officially completes my review of The Twilight Zone!

The Twilight Zone Trivia:

  • This was the final broadcast episode of The Twilight Zone, but not the last episode to be filmed. The last episode to be filmed was “Come Wander With Me” and the last episode to be edited was “An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
  • This episode was originally set for release on March 20, 1964 but it was plagued by delays and backroom issues. In fact, “The Bewitchin Pool” was dogged by so many production problems that footage is repeated to pad out the runtime, and Mary Badham’s has her voice dubbed on some scenes by June Foray, the voice of the squirrel from Rocky and Bullwinkle as back-lot noise rendered much of the outdoor dialogue unusable and they were unable to afford the cost of a flight for Mary Badham to return to the studio for voice dubbing recording (she had already flown home to Alabama). The change in Sport’s voice is unfortunately starkly noticeable.
  • Earl Hamner, Jr., developed the idea for “The Bewitchin’ Pool” while living in the San Fernando Valley region of California and witnessing rising divorce rates. Marc Scott Zicree notes that this episode was one of the first shows on television to address the problem of divorce in a unique escapist fable. Mr. Hamner expressed disappointment with the final product of this episode as did Producer William Froug who apparently blamed Director Joseph M. Newman for the episode’s shortcomings.
  • No Twilight Zone episode was broadcast on June 5, 1964. Instead CBS played a program commemorating Dwight D. Eisenhower and the historic events of D-Day. On June 12 a repeat Twilight Zone episode (“Steel”) was played before “The Bewitchin’ Pool” finally aired the following week.
  • The working title for this episode was called “The Marvelous Pool.”
  • The pool set was a re-used MGM lot was also featured in the Season 5 episode “Queen of the Nile” and the Season 2 episode “The Trouble With Templeton.”
  • The bickering parents were played by Dee Hartford and Tod Andrews.

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