Randy Lewis has been writing about rock and pop music for the Los Angeles Times since the 1980s, but he’s dropping by the Hero Complex to reconnect with a childhood hero — and that hero’s sweet ride.
When I saw the first billboards go up for “The Green Hornet,” I’ll confess I got a little adrenaline rush — not so much at the prospect of whatever adventure lay in store for the Hornet, a.k.a. newspaper publisher Britt Reid, or even for his martial-arts-expert valet, Kato. No, my heart jumped when I caught that initial glimpse of the hero’s sweet ride, the Black Beauty.
I was 13 when “The Green Hornet” TV series debuted in the wake of the surprise success of “Batman.” The voiced-over introduction — “Another challenge for the Green Hornet!” — that launched each episode as trumpeter Al Hirt blazed his way through “The Flight of the Bumblebee” set in motion the same wave of youthful anticipation that an earlier generation experienced, not coincidentally, at the equally thrilling opening of “The Lone Ranger.”
As a newly minted teen, I was enamored of all things automotive, and the Hornet’s ride was, well, a beauty. And thus, the sense of pleasant surprise to see that, unlike the Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan Batman films, in which each had the Batmobile reconfigured from the tire treads up, “Green Hornet” director Michel Gondry and star Seth Rogen appear to believe that the design of the original Black Beauty doesn’t need much tweaking. I can’t agree more.
In the TV series, it was described as the Green Hornet and Kato’s “rolling arsenal.” As many “Hornet” fans have long known, it was created by California custom-car designer Dean Jeffries, using a then-new 1966 Chrysler Imperial, streamlined and tricked out for the needs of its heroic owner.
What made it ultra cool to this 13-year-old was that unlike the superflashy Batmobile (which I also loved), the Black Beauty was Detroit’s version of a stealth fighter — a powerhouse built not for show, but for action, usually under the cover of night when it could tool through town with a hushed rumble.
As vividly as I remembered the Black Beauty and its gear (it’s eerie green headlights, the flip-down panels below that hid eight mini-rocket launchers and multiple other crime-fighting gadgets), the pending arrival of the new version gave me the perfect excuse to head over to L.A.’s Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard to look up close at Black Beauty No. 1 from the vintage TV show. It’s on display in the museum’s Hollywood exhibit, along with a full-size Batmobile from one of the Burton films, as well as a scale model of the version George Barris cooked up for Adam West and Burt Ward to cruise around in Gotham City during their groovy 1960s exploits.
As the museum’s information and marketing manager Chris Brown pointed out when he walked me through the exhibit last week, everything “Green Hornet” watchers saw the Black Beauty do on TV had to be executed for real in some manner, since there were no computer-generated images to supply special effects in those days.
So there’s an actual pop-up scanner that rises up through the trunk, a retractable license plate that allows an oil slick to be sprayed out the rear of the car and ports out the back window for weapons to fire at approaching vehicles as needed. Jeffries didn’t have a lot of time or a huge budget with which to craft the Black Beauty. So he added a shell over the back windows to give the impression of a limousine even though there wasn’t time to actually cut the car in half and extend the body. Another touch: straw-like broom heads in place of mud flaps behind the rear tires — clearly meant to dust the cars tracks as it moved. I thought I’d remembered that feature in at least one episode, but Brown said that feature never actually was used during the series.
I have to say don’t recall a lot of details of the different episodes. “The Green Hornet” lasted just a single season before being canceled. Mostly, my memories of the show revolve around the charisma of star Van Williams, the mesmerizing martial-arts ability of Bruce Lee as Kato — I do recall many afternoons spent trying to figure out how to throw darts and hit a target while in mid-air leap. And with Reid’s day job at a newspaper (as well as Clark Kent’s journalistic bent), I expect there’s a least some contribution the show made to my choice of careers.
Here’s a video that I found on YouTube that gives you a sense of the places and people I’ve been talking about.
After visiting the Petersen Museum, I headed not far away to the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills and watched a couple of episodes of the TV show that are part of a special series of screenings this month in conjunction with the arrival of the new film. The Paley Center’s chief engineer cued up for me some tapes from its archive of the Roosevelt-era radio serial, which are available to visitors who would like to explore the genesis of the Hornet. A great tidbit about the hero: The Hornet’s alter ego is the great-nephew of John Reid, the only Texas Ranger to survive an ambush by a gang of outlaws, hence his alter ego, the Lone Ranger. That’s right, masks run in the family.
All this history gives Rogen some big shoes to fill when his “Hornet” update opens in theaters this week. Another challenge for the Green Hornet? Here’s one former 13-year-old who’s ready for the ride.
– Randy Lewis
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