Holy Senior Sidekicks Batman! An Afternoon with Johnny Duncan
Daytona Beach,Florida is associated with many things including Bike Week, Spring Break, and NASCAR. The motion picture industry doesn’t usually come to mind but the city is trying to change that. This past weekend, Daytona based Blue Heron International Pictures in conjunction with the Daytona Beach Film Festival brought a genuine Hollywood legend to town. While Johnny Duncan’s name may not be immediately recognizable to film fans, his career both in front of the camera and behind the scenes has given him some incredible insights into the golden age of motion pictures and he was only too happy to share his memories of Hollywood.
The Book Store in Ormond Beachmay have a rather generic moniker, but it hides a well kept secret within its walls. In the back of the non-descript looking used book shop is the Cinematique Theater, a spacious venue for digital projection that could probably seat around 80 people in an informal, café like, atmosphere. This was an ideal venue to show a chapter from one of Mr. Duncan’s best know roles, the Boy Wonder himself in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin plus the Gene Autry feature, Trail to San Antone (also starring Duncan).
Batman and Robin was the second big screen appearance of DC Comic’s famous caped crusaders, following their 1943 debut serial titled simply Batman. Unlike the earlier serial which dealt with the more serious and timely subject matter of Japanese saboteurs, this outing kept more of the flavor of the comic books. A black masked villain called The Wizard has stolen a universal remote control machine (forty years before these became popular with VCRs!) and if he can find the diamonds required to fuel it he will be almost unstoppable! Luckily Batman and his trusty sidekick Robin are on hand to get into car chases and fist fights with bad guys while keeping reporter Vicki Vale out of trouble. This was 15 chapters of pure fun.
When I arrived at The Book Store on Saturday afternoon, I was immediately impressed by the display of memorabilia related to Mr. Duncan’s career that was just inside the entrance. Before I even had a chance to take everything in, author Charlie Carlson walked up and surprised me. We exchanged greetings and Florida’s Man in Black filled me in on his connection with Blue Heron. Charlie then introduced me to Johnny Duncan with a build up that literally turned my ears red! Having already spoken on the phone a few days earlier, Mr. Duncan and I wasted no time shifting into Batman trivia and serial history until the event promoters hustled him off to start the show.
For the meager sum of only $5.00 (a real bargain compared to current theater prices), patrons could watch the previously-mentioned serial chapter and feature and participate in a thirty minute Q&A with the star himself. Following the serial and an introduction by Stephanie Mason-Teague, Director of the Daytona Beach Film Festival, Mr. Duncan took the microphone to field questions and share stories of his career which spanned decades. In addition to acting, Duncan was also a stunt man and taught Marlon Brando how to ride a motorcycle (for The Wild One) and Michael Landon how to ride a horse (for Bonanza).
After the Q&A session wrapped, Mr. Duncan signed autographs for the enthusiastic group including my 1966 re-issue poster for the Batman and Robin serial. As the feature began, we retired to a convenient couch in the book store area and chatted, Mike Douglas-style, about his long and varied career in films. The 85-year-old retired actor is still amazingly sharp and paints a vivid picture of his days in tinsel town. The highlights of that conversation and some interesting facts from the Q&A follow.
On playing one half of the dynamic duo in a serial:
I was paid $125-$150 a week for the serial but I made $1,100 a week in overtime. We worked twelve, fifteen, even sixteen hours a day for approximately three months. I made enough money to buy a 1950 Cadillac and make a down payment on a home. I did very well on that.
We did fifty-five set ups per day. One episode would run about fifteen minutes plus you had what happened the week before for a total of twenty minutes per episode. It took one to three days to shoot an episode. There were three units working at the same time. One unit did dialog and one did stunts. Then they had another unit that did run-throughs with doubles. When you see a long shot of Batman and Robin running, that was done by that unit.
We had to be at work very early in the morning. It was like five o’clock in the morning when we had to hit wardrobe. Robert Lowery and I were both half asleep, just in terrible condition. He used to call us Fatman and Bobbin because he was heavy around the waste. We would do run throughs and I had to push him up the hill because he couldn’t run as fast as I could – he was a bigger man. Then he would say “I feel like Duckman and Waddles”. He had a great sense of humor and we had a great time.
Bob Lowery was one of my dearest friends. We were both born in Kansas City, Missouri. I met him on a picture called Campus Rhythm with Gale Storm who played My Little Margie. It was a college picture and I played a college boy. The first day I got to work about 7AM and was doing a scene around 10:30. I had been to Mackintosh, a fabulous tailor on Hollywood Boulevard that most of the actors went to, a week earlier and bought a beautiful sport coat. I was wearing this sport coat, tan pants, and a kind of a light blue shirt. I did my shot and was sitting in a director’s chair when in walks this big, tall, handsome guy. Honest to God, he had my exact outfit on even down to the light blue shirt. He walked over to me as soon as he spotted me and said “What’s your name?” I said “I’m Johnny”. He said “Well I’m Bob and one of us is going to have to go and change their clothes”. I said “It’s not going to be me” and he said “It’s not going to be me”. Then I said “Wanna bet? I just did a scene and I’m already established”. After that we became good friends. That was 1943, years before Batman and Robin.
After the film was released, we made personal appearances and we had cops in the middle of the street directing traffic because of the crowds. It was really very popular at that time. We did the one serial though and that was all. There was never any talk of doing a sequel and nothing else got done with Batman until the television series in 1965. They called me for that series because even in the 60’s I was still playing eighteen year old kids. They were offering $700 a week for the role but I felt I was already established. My agent and I wanted $1,500 a week but we didn’t get it and they got Burt Ward. Adam West sent me an 8X10 photo and signed on it that I was the best Robin there ever was. I had only met him one time when I went to Fox to test for the series. I sent him back a picture and said he was the best Batman ever.
On his start with the Bowery Boys:
I did a bit part at Hal Roach Studios where I played a gang member called The Cherry Street Boys. Sam Katzman was on the set and he said he wanted me to come over to the studio when we were finished with the picture so he could run some tests on me. I went over to the studio the next week and did the tests. At that time they had just dropped Billy Halop because he was too tall. They were the East Side Kids then. They were the Dead End Kids first, then the East Side Kids, then the Bowery Boys. I did a picture called Million Dollar Kid and then did eight or nine more of the series with them. It was, I believe, between 1940-41 and 1950.
On making Bedtime for Bonzo with future president Ronald Reagan:
Bonzo was played by a chimp named Clown. I played a newsboy in that one and we shot it at a ranch. We had box lunches that were sent out to us by truck. Ron and I would get our lunches and eat together. This damn chimp would get away from the trainer and always come up and try to bother him. He was really getting sick of having to deal with this chimp. He had a scene in his house by a second story window and the chimp was giving him all kinds of trouble. He grabbed the chimp, on one take, and said “I’m going to throw this chimp out the window”. The trainer was behind him and grabbed him. He did not like that chimp and I don’t think the chimp liked him!
On Plan 9 from Outer Space (and finally figuring out what part he played):
It’s the worst picture I have ever seen in my life! I just saw part of it that my friend Gary Lester showed me. He said “I think this is you” but I didn’t even remember the dang picture. He put it on and, lo and behold, it is me and this other guy and we have a dead guy lying on this rack we’re carrying. Then here come these God awful models of saucers flying in there and we throw this dead guy out in the cemetery. We dive down because we think these saucers are going to kill us or whatever. The reason I probably forgot doing this film is because sometimes when things in your life are so bad you just want to blow them out of your mind! I got through that days work and I went home and told my wife “Oh my God, I want to forget this forever. I don’t even want to remember that I did this” and I did, I forgot it!
On playing one of the title creatures in The Mole People:
I don’t remember this film that well and I am not certain on the title. I know my daughter was a teenager at the time, probably thirteen, and had a project to do in school in the art department. She came to the studio with me. I had maybe two or three days on the picture because it was a small budget. I would go to the makeup department and it took them about two hours to put this hair all over me, it was awful. She sat there and took pictures of me in the makeup chair getting made up. She got an “A” in school and I got enough money to pay the rent that month. Rent was cheap in those days!
I had to climb up a wall with another mole man. It was almost like a Tarzan picture where all we did was make these odd noises at each other. The director said “make any noise you want as long as it’s nothing anyone can recognize”. We tried grunts but the director said that was too much like apes so we just came out with these stupid noises and they made the movie.
Special thanks to Marian Tomblin of The Book Store for providing the excellent location for this event. Thanks to Blue Herron Pictures and the Daytona Beach Film Festival for sponsoring this nostalgic afternoon and here’s hoping there will be more. Most of all though, thanks to Johnny Duncan for sharing his experiences and giving the audience a taste of Hollywood history.