The Yellow Submarine Chronicles Part One: In the Town where I was Born…
My first exposure to what could be termed “popular” music came at the tender age of about 4-5 when The Monkees television series was rerun on Saturday mornings. While I was more into the show for the visual gags at that point, things were different a few years later when it went into weekday syndication across the country, including WTOG 44. By this time I had a greater appreciation for the music and it led me to seek out the albums, which were now almost all out of print. This would be the first of many quests I would undertake to find something that wasn’t easily accessible to the general public rather than being satisfied with whatever the current fad was (this one was completed a few years later thanks to a used record store in Gainesville).
As a youth in the mid to late 70’s, telling people that you liked The Monkees was usually met with one of two responses – complete dismissal for having no musical insight whatsoever or the quick admonishment that they were nothing more than a cheap copy of The Beatles. It’s true, I probably didn’t possess much musical insight at the time, but I knew what I liked and, in the end, history proved The Monkees to be talented entertainers in their own right. The repeated references to The Beatles still stuck with me though and intrigued me enough to want to know more.
On Friday, November 17, 1978, music was probably the last thing on my mind. This was the night that the Star Wars Holiday Special premiered on the CBS television network and every science fiction fan in the country was propped up in front of their TV fully expecting something on par with the first Lucas motion picture. At just shy of twelve years of age, it would have been a tremendous social transgression on my part to miss this show and not be able to discuss it amongst my peers for weeks to come. Unfortunately this special was a piece of tripe so far removed from the film that even my young senses felt insulted by the “phoned in” cameos of the stars and unwelcome guest stars like Art Carney and Bea Arthur trying to sing! It was during an early channel flipping of mercy that I discovered a bizarre looking cartoon on another station (quite possibly WTOG again) and quickly realized the accompanying music was none other than The Beatles I had heard so much about.
If memory serves me correctly, I came in on Yellow Submarine for the first time just a few minutes before the Nowhere Man sequence. By the time that song was over, I can safely say that I was starting to see what everyone was talking about. I spent the next 60+ minutes furiously flipping between the two programs, watching only enough of the Star Wars special to be on conversational terms with the material. My adolescent mind had moved into brand new territory and was busy absorbing a unique spectacle of music and animation. By the end of the film, a new Beatles fan was born!
From that point forward I was on a new quest to experience everything there was associated with The Beatles. Unlike The Monkees, The Beatles were still extremely popular and considered cool in 1978. Their records could be found even on chain store shelves, their films were still shown fairly regularly on television, and a variety of books were available in almost every bookstore and library. An important part of this immersion included regular screenings of Yellow Submarine on WTOG 44 and the Dialing for Dollars Movie (remember that phenomenon kids?) on WFTV Channel 9 from Orlando. I even managed to talk my mother into letting me stay home from school a couple of times just to watch this film (thanks mom!) and audio tape it with a cassette recorder (the only option you had in the barbaric pre-home video days).
A few years later in the early 80’s, I received an almost unfathomable piece of information. A friend of my mother’s who worked for the local newspaper, The Ocala Star Banner, informed me that one of the people who created Yellow Submarine actually lived in my home town! A few days later a copy of a newspaper article titled “His American Dream was a Submarine” appeared in my mailbox. The article was about the career of King Features Production Manager extraordinaire Abe Goodman and how he had chosen to spend his golden years in our little town of Ocala. In addition to overseeing the production of almost every major cartoon series for King Features (including Popeye, Beetle Bailey, Krazy Kat, and The Beatles cartoon show for television), Goodman had served as Production Coordinator on Yellow Submarine. As overwhelming as all this was, nothing could prepare me for the note that was stapled to the top of the article. It contained a phone number with the advisement “give him a call, he is a really nice man and would love to talk to you”!
I wish I could say that I almost broke my neck trying to reach the phone that day but I didn’t. In fact, as hard as it still is to believe in retrospect, I never called that number and never spoke to Abe Goodman. In hindsight, I chalk it up to youth and just being a little too embarrassed to admit that I liked this decade old cartoon movie as much as I did. It just didn’t seem cool at the time. The only defense I can offer of my actions is that I learned dearly from my mistake. I have always credited my regret at not making that phone call for fueling me, even now, when I have an opportunity to interview someone, no matter how big or how small. The chance to meet Abe Goodman may have slipped past me but, to paraphrase the conclusion of Saving Private Ryan, I have tried to make every opportunity since then count.
Yellow Submarine continued to be a major obsession for me. By the time home video recorders became popular in the mid 80’s, The Beatles films were now a rarity on television and pre-recorded copies were not readily available. I finally lucked out when a friend of mine managed to tape Yellow Submarine for me off an Illinois station that broadcast it on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death. The original home video release of the film by MGM was only available to rental stores (at a $50+ price tag). Even the VHS and DVD releases from a few years ago, to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the film, are now sadly out of print. I was fortunate enough to see both the original and restored versions of the film on the big screen thanks to revivals and re-releases. When I bought a 16mm projector, Yellow Submarine was the very first feature film I purchased and I have proudly shown it more times than I can count.
Now in the year of the fortieth anniversary of this incredible voyage of sight and sound, I am taking this new opportunity to pass on some of my obsession to old fans and hopefully make new ones of future generations. In the articles to come I will revisit some of the factors that make this film so unique and the phenomenon that has surrounded it. We’ll take a look at what made the film what it was, what it almost was, and what it could have been. I hope you will join me as we set sail for Pepperland with stops at all points in between!