Tonight’s episode was the last of the seven Hardy Boys installments in the first season, and the last appearance of Lisa Eilbacher as their friend Callie. The episode is also notable as an early credit for Rosalind Chao, who’s been in several dozen films and TV shows over the last forty years, and may be best known for her recurring role as Keiko in a couple of the ’90s Star Trek series.
The story is about a stolen jade statue that’s very important to the Chinese-American community in Bayport that climaxes with a big chase during a nighttime parade. They mixed the parade footage filmed on the Universal backlot with some very well-selected footage from the library, and they did an impressive job pulling it off, with only a couple of differences in film stock betraying the joins. Some of the earlier uses of “Chinatown” footage during the day are actually far less convincing, because we’re kind of given to understand that Bayport isn’t a particularly large city. (This article at Stratemeyer.org suggests its population is about 50,000.) But the “Chinatown” buildings and streets that we see in establishing shots is all quite clearly film footage from a major metropolis.
But it’s during the parade that our son, who was already enjoying this one a great deal, really sprang to life. He thought this was completely wonderful, and loved Frank and Joe hiding from the criminals under the skirts of a Chinese dragon. The episode climaxes with a dumb joke, as they often do, but this joke’s unlikely punch line involves breakfast cereal, and he just collapsed onto the floor in giggles.
This one’s notable for completely losing our son. He didn’t understand what was happening at all! Joe and Frank head to Hawaii, rent a Volkswagen Thing, do some surfing, get interviewed by Fred Hemmings for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, hang out with some cute girls (one of whom is played by Debra Clinger, who was Superchick in Kaptain Kool and the Kongs), and Joe sings “Surfing USA.” Then their room gets burgled and they’re matching wits with a ring of thieves.
The problem is that the audience is deliberately kept in the dark with a chunk of what happens next. We’re not initially told that Frank and Joe have volunteered to go undercover as a rival pair of hotel thieves; we just see them turning into criminals and getting in the gang’s sights. We later learn that the nice couple that our heroes ripped off are actually undercover cops themselves. Perfectly understandable, but just a shade too complex a narrative choice for our seven year-old critic. When Frank and Joe later work a job with the gang’s main heavies, he was absolutely baffled. He liked the surfing, anyway!
Tonight’s episode required a pair of pauses. The plot is about pirate LPs being pressed from stolen demo tapes, and how an influential DJ played by Dick Gautier has to do whatever it takes to get his copy of the demo back because the record company has coded the demos to find the leak. Seems like small potatoes stuff, but we can’t have the Russians stealing top secret plans every week, you know? Anyway, our son didn’t understand that at all.
We also paused so I could explain that seasons one and two of this program synched up perfectly with Shaun Cassidy’s brief but enormous success as a teen pop idol, with three top ten hits in 1977 and hundreds of pin-ups in the pages of magazines like Pizazz, Dynamite, and Non-Threatening Teen Boy. Even if the DVD packaging didn’t tell me that we’d be seeing him play “Da Doo Ron Ron,” it was kind of inevitable. Our son wasn’t all that interested in the singing, either.
On the other hand, there’s a bit in a junkyard where a red VW beetle gets flattened, and a silly climactic fight scene in a military-themed disco using sandbags, so he really enjoyed those bits of the show made with the seven year-olds in the audience in mind!
The biggest mystery about tonight’s episode is why it’s called “The Flickering Torch Mystery.” We’ve got no idea.
Actually, this was a pleasant surprise all around. I was totally expecting Universal to go all cheap like they had done a couple of years earlier, when Johnny Cash guest starred as the murderer in Columbo and they paid the performance rights for a single song to be played umpteen times over the course of the story. Here, Ricky Nelson guest stars as a popular country-tinged light rock star called Tony Eagle and we get to hear snippets of about a dozen songs, including a brief bit of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” which it turns out was a top 40 hit for Nelson in 1969.
I genuinely didn’t know anything whatever about Nelson before watching this episode. I didn’t even know that he was sadly killed in a plane crash in 1985, which was the planned fate of his character in this story. It takes the very interesting angle of having the Hardy Boys be completely wrong in their assumption about what the mystery villains are up to, and what looks absolutely like the big race-against-time climax like you get in television is a flop that leaves our heroes looking stupid. They get redeemed once they figure it out the following morning, of course, but I was pleasantly surprised to be mistaken myself. Nice to see a forty year-old kid show pulling one over on at least one grownup.
Sometimes when you’re watching an old show and visual effects technology has marched on, everything jars so much that you know something strange is about to happen. The Hardy Boys had, I imagine, a much, much greater budget than a 1971 episode of Doctor Who, and if they needed to film the actors in a room, Universal was perfectly capable of providing the room, whereas mocking up a kitchen for a single shot was a waste of the BBC’s resources, so the director elected to just blue-screen the actress into a photograph. So when Frank and Joe suddenly start walking around an environment that’s clearly not real, it’s because there are about to be special effects.
So “The Disappearing Floor” is dopey, but it’s charmingly of its time. It’s all about holograms, a science which the producers think is so unfamiliar to the audience of February 1977 that they explain it twice in consecutive scenes, and the last five minutes of the story is a one-line-after-another barrage of talk about the military applications of the missing professor’s new technology. There are even Russian agents. We are shown two of them in a car, ominously, and I said “These are the guys who say ‘blah blah blah secret plans, blah blah blah Third World War‘.”
Our son enjoyed this a lot, especially when Frank and Joe enter a room that’s been hologrammed to look like they’re outside in a forest with wolves. But he claims that his favorite part of the story was when they were in an underground passage and Joe says “Where are we, Transylvania?” At seven, he is the prime demographic for all the dumb jokes that Shaun Cassidy delivers.
Our son was particularly happy with parts of tonight’s story, which looks to be one of several in this series written by Michael Sloan, who frequently collaborated with producer Glen A. Larson in the seventies and early eighties. Sloan worked on Larson shows like McCloud, Quincy M.E., and Battlestar Galactica. The villain has a big black mountain lion to scare off any nosey teenage detectives, prompting our son to remind us that he really, really likes cats. Our heroes are out in the deep forests of Massachusetts with their gal-pal Callie and a new recurring character, a nervous, food-loving character drawn in very, very broad strokes called Chet, looking for Callie’s missing uncle.
The scene that did have our son frightened has somebody creeping up on the boys while they’re camping in the woods, while the big black cat is stalking Callie. This wasn’t a bad hour, but I think the sight of our son hopping to the other sofa to hide his face in worry for Callie was probably the high point of it!
Now we’re traveling back to January 1977 and the first episode of The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries, which ran – with a couple of alterations to its format and several cast changes – for three seasons on ABC. I only have vague memories of this show, but I remembered it being basic, kid-friendly stuff from Glen A. Larson, who wrote and directed this first episode, so I picked up the sets when I found them cheap a while back.
Despite proving his utter inability to recognize anybody – I mean, I flat-out told him that somebody he saw this morning in Barbary Coast is in this, and how many eight-foot tall dudes with a voice like gravel were in that show other than Richard Kiel – our son really enjoyed this. There’s lots of chasing around, on foot or on motorcycles, and most of the action is set around the silliest restaurant you’ve ever seen. It’s a very breezy and simple “mystery” for younger viewers. The Hardy Boys books were always for kids, and so is this.
Our heroes Frank and Joe are played by Parker Stevenson and teen idol Shaun Cassidy, and if the DVD packaging is accurate, we’ll be hearing at least two of Shaun’s pop hits in the weeks to come. Joy. Ed Gilbert plays their dad, a private detective, and Lisa Eilbacher, who we’ve seen a few times in Saturday morning shows from the era, is his secretary Callie. I think we’re meant to infer that Frank and Callie have goo-goo eyes for each other, but it’s kind of hard to tell. I didn’t think much of it, but some shows take a while to find their feet. I told our son that next time, we’d meet Nancy Drew, and he’s looking forward to that.