Some parts of this article were written by Martin Grams Jr. They have been extracted from his excellent book: CAR 54, Where Are You?
Press Here or simply use the add to cart button for details of how to order this must have book for any Car 54 fan.
Nat Hiken, the comedy ace behind Car 54 Where Are You?, recalled, "To me the most beautiful sound is the sound of people laughing. But comedy is a terribly serious business. I never thought of doing a melodrama or adventure series."
Nat was born within the city limits of Chicago and spent his childhood in Milwaukee. Nat went to school in Milwaukee along with around 49 other related members of the Hiken clan. At the Roosevelt Junior High School, Nat started turning out a column for the school paper about the students' grievances against the world. He majored in journalism at the University of Wisconsin.....where he was a member of the editorial board, and did a column, where he parlayed his earlier idea, and called it Griper's Club for the Daily Cardinal. After graduating in 1936 he headed west for Hollywood and he also tried writing a column for Wisconsin newspapers, but this venture didn't click. After a short while he joined up with announcer Jack Lescoulie to do a morning radio show. Remembering his college column, he transformed the radio show into the daily 6-8 a.m. Grouch Club. The show was a success, grossing a whopping $5 a week for its author. An aspiring actor named Alan Ladd later joined them and the show grew in popularity. "Most of the morning shows at the time were of the 'wake up and live' type....we featured 'wake up and gripe' - had people write in about their irritations," Nat would later say. This was a big hit -- all except financially that is. To make out, Nat took a £10-a-week post as a doorman at a Los Angeles produce warehouseThis job collapsed when his boss heard Nat on the radio, pretending to be a buyer of a piano in an advert. The produce man wanted to know how Nat could buy such luxury items on the lowly wage he paid him and promptly fired him for being on the radio instead of on the job..
By 1937 the network gained control of the Grouch Club show, forcing Nat to find another steady form of employment.
Two years later Hiken joined Warner Bros. Studios and it was during this time (circa 1939) that he met Fred Allen. Allen, it seems, had been a fan of the Grouch Club and signed Nat as a writer for his popular radio show. Those were the golden years of radio, and his fellow writers included Roland Kibbee, Herman Wouk (author of The Caine Mutiny), and Arnold Auerbach (author of Broadway's Call Me Madam). Nat wrote and co-wrote jokes for Allen's show on and off for approximately seven years.
For two years, during World War II, Nat joined the Winged Victory troupe in the Army Air Force. Hitting his full stride with the end of the war, Nat returned to scripting radio programs. Nat left Fred Allen to "develop a radio show for Milton Berle, which ran for two years." While it has been proven that Nat was writing scripts for Berle's radio show, The Texaco Star Theater, from early 1947 through June 15, 1949, no proof has been unearthed that Nat created the series. Next up, he created a radio program for Monty Woolley titled The Magnificent Montague, a situation comedy about a Shakespearean actor forced to make his living in radio. Nat Hiken not only produced
and directed the show, but also wrote most - if not all - of the radio scripts. The series was broadcast
over NBC from November 10, 1950 to November 10, 1951.
Meanwhile, he started getting into television, first as producer-writer of the short-lived The U.S. Royal
Showcase starring Jack Carson, in 1952.
Nat and Artie Hershkowitz - a brother-in-law of Fred Allen - bought a racehorse called Colony Page......
laying out £100-a-week for its upkeep.......plus the bets they lost. Summer faded into winter, and even
the two owners quit betting on the nag. For the jockeys who rode him even they turned theitr heads
away from the grandstand as they rode by. They were so ashamed. Nat said, "The way that we got
sucked in is that a Maryland friend of ours said the horse deserved a chance...Schmoes that we are,
we said ok. He's been so bad lately, they won't even let him enter in races in Florida. And such feed
bills as we're getting. He must be staying at the Roney Palace! We're bringing him home and retiring
him"...........Then shock of horrors, the horse put its best feet forward and won the ninth race at Hialeah.
Paying 48 to 1. Asked how much Artie and he had won Nat said, "Not a dime. I don't believe it. It must
have been a case of mistaken identity."
While writing for The Martha Raye Show in 1955 and '56, Nat created a series of comedy skits that startled show biz, using former prize fighters, like boxing champion Rocky Graziano as the comedienne's foil. This gimmick would also be used on his next project........
Then Nat conjured up a fast-talking con man/Master Sergeant named Ernie Bilko, and
television history was made. Originally telecast as You'll Never Get Rich, the name
of the series was changed to The Phil Silvers Show less than two months after its
premiere. (When syndicated, the series was re-titled Sgt. Bilko.) The character was
supposedly named after Los Angeles Angels minor-league slugging star Steve Bilko,
one of Hiken's personal heroes. The weekly comedy premiered in September of 1955,
and it put Nat Hiken's name in hundreds of favorable reviews in newspapers and
magazines. In 1956, Time magazine voted Nat "the funniest writer in television."
Of the boxing extras Nat said this, "Fighters are used to taking orders, they work easily
in our show, which is based on regular army life. Phil is a good-natured sergeant.
He barks orders and the boys, the leather pushers, fall right into the mood and act
naturally. Besides, when I coach them in their speeches and scenes they listen
attentively, grasp the situation readily and snap to it. I like 'em."
"Nat was the best," recalled Aaron Ruben, a script writer for The Phil Silvers Show.
"When he was working for Fred Allen, there was a guy named Doc Rockwell, who
would come in with off-the-wall ideas. Once, he came in with a notion that the city
is getting so over-populated, you can't just keep building skyscrapers up, up, up.
'You have to start building down.' So we wrote this stuff and gave it to Nat, and he put
in an incredible joke. Why didn't it occur to us? Because we didn't have Nat's mind.
He said, 'Ground scrapers, you see, you're building the building into the ground, and
then if somebody dies, you just throw him out the window."
"Nat's point of view pervaded on Bilko," script writer Coleman Jacoby recalled, "which
was very realistic and very satirical of human nature."
"Only in television is there this compulsion to tell the truth as a public service," Nat wrote for a column in the New York Herald Tribune. "The public,during the quiz show scandals, have already demonstrated how they feel about how this service rendered them. As one, they rose with a roar of outraged anger. Not against the quiz fixers, but against those who had to go and tell them about it."
When he got home Nat's family life included music sessions with his wife, Ambur, and their girls Dana and Mia.......Ambur played the piano, Nat the clarinet and the girls recorders. His hobbies included making model ships, full-sized boats and woodworking - he produced a southern-mansion type doll house for his daughter Mia.
Before long Nat Hiken was pitching series ideas to the major networks and studios. His name and the Bilko success carried plenty of weight. One proposal, a comedy about two patrolmen in the New York police department, would only last two seasons, but garnered the same amount of critical acclaim that the Bilko series accomplished during its four seasons.
The Snow Whites
When exactly Nat created the series has not been established, but the earliest-known time frame was during the autumn months of 1960, when Nat visited a New York precinct house. He was amazed that policemen sounded just like any other group doing a job. “I’d never seen a policeman on TV talk or act like these guys. I began to think about the possibilities, particularly for humour,” Nat recalled. He began researching Car 54 by sitting around the New York precinct squad room for several weeks, listening to the banter and gossip among the men. “I spent hours there watching what went on. It was a neighbourhood atmosphere. Many of those persons brought in were repeaters who were greeted by first names. I never once saw a cop grab anybody by the collar, which is what television normally shows them doing. I found it a very warm, friendly atmosphere,” he said. “They never mentioned any ‘grim, humourless‘ aspects of their jobs.”
After summarizing the idea of a pair of Mutt and Jeff cops in two paragraphs, Nat submitted an expanded outline (eight pages) entitled The Snow Whites to Proctor & Gamble in mid-summer 1960. The company and its ad men liked the offbeat notion. Encouraged, Nat prepared an expanded outline for Pete Katz, Program Production Manager of Eupolis Productions, Inc. in late October, 1960. A number of correspondences and meetings began taking place between Howard Epstein, President of Eupolis Productions, Inc. and Richard Zimbert of the Leo Burnett Company, Inc. an agency representing Proctor & Gamble Productions, Inc.
On November 18, 1960, Pete Katz wrote to Nat: “Your plans and story outlines for The Snow Whites sound delightful and extremely interesting.” Nat agreed to certain terms related to the production end of the series. Most of the terms were standard, but one stipulation was that the pilot was to be finished by the end of January.
Since that premise had been documented in detail and accepted by Eupolis, Nat composed a storyline for the pilot, as well as a finished script, and delivered it to Pete Katz by December 7. During the week of December 12, Nat presented the script and a general show presentation to the networks, in hopes that one would accept the proposal. Eupolis could have had anyone on their payroll do the job, but with the Bilko show under his belt, Nat took the chore, under the assumption that this credit would lend credence to the proposed series. NBC showed the most interest, and verbally expressed a desire to view the finished product.
On November 21, a commitment letter was drafted by Leo Burnett Company, Inc., the advertising agency representing Proctor & Gamble Productions, Inc., referring to the series as The Snow Whites. The agreement between P & G and Eupolis clearly stated that Proctor & Gamble would finance the entire pilot, for no more than $75,000.
Proctor & Gamble had the option, after viewing the pilot, not to pick up the series. If that option were chosen, P & G had the right to recoup the financing expenditure from any subsequent licensing of the pilot – either alone, or as part of a series. If the pilot was licensed alone, Proctor & Gamble would receive 50 percent of that license fee and 50 percent of any subsequent fees thereafter until the investment was repaid. If the pilot was licensed to others as part of a series deal, Proctor & Gamble’s entire investment would be returned to them, amortized on a per show basis over the first year’s commitment.
After delivery of the pilot, Proctor & Gamble had 45 days to choose whether or not they would agree to pick up the series for a fall 1961 start based on a commitment of 26 new episodes (one of which could be the pilot), and pocket five percent of the proceeds. The commitment between P & G and Eupolis dated November 21 also granted the sponsor the option to add new episodes to the fall line-up, up to 32 episodes maximum.
The cost factor for the series would be $55,000 per episode (maximum) and the price could be increased to cover Eupolis’ actual out-of-pocket increased costs arising out of contract escalators and/or union increases. If the series was going to be carried out in Canada, Proctor & Gamble insisted that any sponsors who were considered to be “competition” to the Corporation not sponsor the Canadian airings.
Eupolis had creative control over the series, coupled with a duty to listen to any view Proctor & Gamble may have regarding the content in the scripts. (During the entire two years of production, Car 54 never received suggestions for improvement or change to any of the scripts before they were filmed.)
Proctor & Gamble did retain the right to use the title of the show, and any of the elements of the shoes, names and characterizations of performers, as well as articles and items of personal property referred to in the show for use in connection with packages, premiums, contacts and advertising.
On November 22, 1960, it was agreed by all parties (Howard Epstein of Eupolis and Richard Zimbert of the Leo Burnett Company) that Nat Hiken would be assigned as head writer and supervisor for the entire production. This was made formal under contract that same day and signed by Nat.
The announcement went public when Variety reported in their January 11, 1961 issue: “Nat Hiken has sold a series of comedy half-hours to Proctor & Gamble for next season. Sponsor and producer are now whopping around for a network berth of the show, called Snow Whites. All three webs – ABC-TV, CBS-TV and NBC-TV – have been pitched by the bankroller. It’s understood that for the moment, NBC-TV has the inside track on placement of Whites.”
Production for the pilot began January, 16, 1961, and lasted six days, completing January 23. Filming on the first day took place on location outside Vin-Syd Mold Shoes, Inc., located at 1191 Jerome Avenue, in the Bronx. The owner and operator of the company agreed to allow the production company to film the exterior of his premises (the street scene in which you see Toody and Muldoon calling the patrolman over to inspect the shoes in the window display) under the condition that the name of his store remain intact and on camera, for publicity purposes. Robert Sylvester of the New York Daily News wrote in his February 18, 1961, column of “Dream Street,” that “Nat Hiken shot the first of his new TV series at a place called Vin-Syd Mold Shoes in the Bronx. Must have gotten a lot of feet of film…….”
In mid-February, the pilot film entitled The Snow Whites was previewed to all three networks, four agencies, and three divisions of Proctor & Gamble. But the pilot had competition. Apparently there were other pilots commissioned by P & G and all were previewed as fairly as The Snow Whites. According to an inter-office memo directed toward Bill McIlvain of the Leo Burnett Company, the pilot was generally favoured when compared to the other pilots. “I can tell you that I don’t think many would survive such an ordeal,” the memo stated.
NBC agreed to transmit the series on their television station……one problem remained, the name of the show…
Everyone in the world knew of Snow White and more often than not they would associate the name with the fairy tale by the Grimm Brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, or the classic 1937 Walt Disney-made animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs…The title of the show The Snow Whites was now officially dropped, which probably came as a huge setback to the Proctor & Gamble Company, soap manufacturer…..By March 26, 1961 a new title for the show had still not been decided upon….
Whilst collaborating on the opening credits, Composer John Strauss and lyricist Nat Hiken, inadvertently stumbled across the title for their new show…….deciding to use the final line of the opening ditty….and so Car 54 Where Are You? was born.
September 1961 the Friars Club in New York give Nat a razz night as he launched Car 54. In his acknowledgement Nat said,: "I'm glad I have such warm wonderful friends none of whom are here tonight."
Sunday September 17th, on NBC a new weekly comedy series began, opposite the second half of the formidable Ed Sullivan. That show was called Car 54 Where Are You? created, produced and directed by Nat Hiken the man who performed the same services with such brilliance for the Bilko series. Nat was not an effusive nor an overly optimistic man, but despite the subduing effect of the August heat, he expressed guarded hope for his new creation.
Nat said: "How can you tell about a show? I wasn't sure about Bilko. Phil knew from the first that it was going to be a hit, but I didn't. I've got the same feeling about this. It looks good to me, but I can't be positive. We're missing one element we had before, Phil Silvers. Nobody can act with people like Phil can. Nobody can bring people to life like he does." Was Nat worried about being up against a national institution in the ratings war? "You bet I'm worried about being opposite Sullivan (Ed) but I get the impression that a good many people watch television on sunday nights. I'll settle for just my share.
The premise of the new series was delightful. It is cops without robbers: realism without a shred of violence. It was a human comedy about two precinct policemen, Toody and Muldoon, and their private, everyday lives.
Car 54 made the point which no other television series about cops had ever indicated, that 98% of all police work is humdrum, did not concern the big bank robbery and the man hunt down rain slicked streets at dawn. Most of the policeman's day was concerned wwith the petty offenders picked up for being drunk and disorderly, or such problems as what to get the desk sergeant for his 25th anniversary.
Joe E. Ross, plump, gravel voiced, a former night club comic, who played Sergeant Rupert Ritzik on the Bilko show, plays the role of Toody. Fred Gwynne, a lanky Harvard graduate, who for a time gave up acting to work as a commercial artist in an advertising agency, plays Muldoon. He also appeared a few times on the earlier Bilko show.
Nat Hiken regarded these two as a fine comedy team, a perfect foil for each other........boy did he ever have an eye for comic talent......
"There's no kidding around with comedy. It's hard, hard work. Maybe one more series after this one and then I'll quit for good. Oh boy, will I quit? This is no romance, I won't even look back." Nat Hiken speaking in 1961. Just seven years later, in 1968, this great comedy genius of a man died of a heart attack at just 54 years of age...........
Some parts of this article were written by Martin Grams Jr. They have been extracted from his excellent book: CAR 54, Where Are You?