Roddy McDowall asthe Bookworm
Roddy McDowall as
the Bookworm
Hey, whatever happened to the Batman musical that was supposedly in the works? I've been thinking of it because this week marks the 36th anniversary of the final first-run broadcast of the Batman TV series that was white-hot in 1966, ice cold by 1967, and frozen stiff on March 14, 1968.

Still, it was fun while it lasted. While we musical theater enthusiasts think of "camp" as a word and a rhyme in "I'm Still Here," the first time many of us ever encountered the term was in reviews of TV's Batman soon after its premiere on January 12, 1966.

One of the best aspects of Batman was its villains, and I've always maintained that the reason they became the darlings of the nation is that they were so well played. And why was that? Because most of them -- virtually all, in fact -- were theater actors first and foremost. From performing on stage and needing to reach the second balcony, these guys knew how to go over the top, and that was a definite requirement of the series.

So, if that Batman musical does eventually get on, it's a shame that so many of the stars who did the TV series won't be around to reprise their roles. David Wayne -- who made his reputation as Og, the leprechaun who loved the girl he was near in Finian's Rainbow -- can no longer be The Mad Hatter. Remember him? He loved wearing hats, all hats, any hats, and would have immediately raised his hand if Joanne in Company had ever asked him a certain question.

Nor can we again have Tallulah Bankhead, who was a joyous widow in The Little Foxes and the Black Widow in Batman. (I can still hear her saying to both Batman and Robin, "You may be caped and you may be dynamic, but you are a crashing bore.") And let's not forget Burgess Meredith, one of the most respected theatrical actors of his time, who made that odd but somehow endearing sound as The Penguin.

Many of the Batman villains managed to star in a musical or two before they appeared on the series. Maurice Evans was the Puzzler in the series, but only after he'd been the Minister in Tenderloin -- at the same time that Roddy McDowall, the bespectacled Bookworm-to-be, was the original Mordred in Camelot. Some years earlier, Walter Slezak, the Clock King, was billed right behind Ezio Pinza in Fanny. (Remember the Clock King? He used to spread watch oil over the floor to make Batman and Robin slip and slide all over the place.)

The Sandman was played by Michael Rennie, who was Henry Higgins in a few companies of My Fair Lady and was in the original cast of Mary, Mary (and Any Wednesday, too -- until he quit that hit-to-be in Boston). The Minstrel -- who put his demands to Gotham City in lyrics -- was Van Johnson, a Harold Hill in a Music Man or two. Rudy Vallee, the original J.B. Biggley in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, was Lord Marmaduke Ffogg, who fogged Batman into submission (at least for a while). And Lady Ffogg? Joan Collins, whom we're still trying to forget in Private Lives. Ffogg's sister was Lady Penelope Peasoup, portrayed by Glynis Johns, whose Desirée Armfeldt in A Little Night Music was not characterized as a great actress but, at least, never had stoop to portray anyone as eccentric as this dame.

Frank Gorshin as the Riddler
Frank Gorshin as the Riddler
The most beloved Batman villain was the Riddler. Who played him? Figure that out by solving this riddle: Who couldn't jimmy his way out of his contract and just had to portray Mayor James J. Walker in a 1969 musical? Ma Parker (who hid smoke bombs in her hair) was Shelley Winters, a few years before she was the Marx Brothers' ma in Minnie's Boys. Vincent Price -- the Egghead, who used expressions like "egg-sactly," "egg-cellent," and "egg-sample" -- would soon do Darling of the Day, though his singing would get egg-scruciating reviews. By the way, the Egghead had two assistants. One was played by Edward Everett Horton, whose character was named Chicken (though he was certainly no spring chicken by that point in his career); the other was Olga, Queen of the Cossacks, portrayed by Anne Baxter, who'd soon be Margo Channing in Applause. (That might be considered stunt casting, for Baxter had played Channing's nemesis Eve Harrington in the musical's source movie, All About Eve.)

Even many of the Batman baddies who were first and foremost TV stars had theatrical pedigrees. Milton Berle, the unforgettable Louie The Lilac (who tried to enlist hippies during the flower-power era to help him in his nefarious schemes) may have been known as Mr. Television but, in 1951, he produced the Broadway musical Seventeen. When Art Carney played the Archer, it was his first job after leaving the original Broadway production of The Odd Couple as its original Felix. (Don't you think it's highly ironic that the actor who created the role of the ultimate neatnik had been known by virtually every American as a guy who worked in a sewer?) The Archer's assistant, Maid Marilyn, was Barbara Nichols, the billed-above-the-title star of the 1961 musical atrocity Let It Ride! (Listen to her big number on the cast album -- "I Wouldn't Have Had to Shake It" (guess what she shook?) -- and you'll sense the level of that show's vulgarity.)

Interesting how the series' two Catwomen -- Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt -- are still around. The former showed up in the Encores! L'il Abner a few years back, displaying a body not unlike the one she exhibited on Batman, while the latter just finished a short run in Nine on Broadway. Their recent appearances both suggest that Catwomen do, indeed, have nine lives.

Granted, not all of the Batman villains were stage stars. The most famous of them all -- the Joker -- was played by Cesar Romero, whose last Broadway appearance had been in 1932 in Dinner at Eight. Also better known in Hollywood were Carolyn Jones (Marsha, Queen of Diamonds), Victor Buono (King Tut), and Ida Lupino (Dr. Cassandra). And some of the villains did little or no theater, thank God, such as Liberace (Chandell Fingers) and Zsa Zsa Gabor (Minerva), who called Batman and Robin "you dynamic dahlings." Mr. Freeze was portrayed over time by three actors, one of whom we most associate with theater (Eli Wallach), one of whom at least attempted a musical (George Sanders), and one whom we associate with film (Otto Preminger). The Devil, meanwhile, was Joan Crawford -- and wouldn't you have loved to have seen and heard Christina Crawford's reaction when she heard that news?)

Ethel Merman as Lola Lasagneand Burgess Meredith as the Penguin
Ethel Merman as Lola Lasagne
and Burgess Meredith as the Penguin
I've saved the best for last. Did you know that, just before Ethel Merman took over the lead in Hello, Dolly!, she was a Batman villainess? Alas, I never saw the lady in Dolly!, so I'm hoping someone out there can answer a question that's been burning in my mind for decades: Did The Merm mention in her program bio that she once played Lola Lasagne?

But here's the real kicker: Lasagne was Lola's married name. The former Lola Schultz was wed to Luigi Lasagne -- for all of three weeks, according to the script. Now how's that for art imitating life? For, as we all know, Ethel Merman was no stranger to the three-week marriage.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]