Car 54, Where Are You?

Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne as Gunther Toody and Francis Muldoon

Pros: You can let your kids watch Car 54! There isn’t any adult language or violence. Sexual situations, if any, are hinted at. You can all laugh together!

Cons: I can’t find any at all.

Some people will rarely admit to watching some silly things on TV when sleep escapes them. I am not one of those people. I’m proud that I discovered my old, silly favorite, Car 54, Where Are You?, nestled between The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show (originally aired under the title You’ll Never Get Rich).

Most people who watch these old shows (like my brother) on YouTube brag that they can watch snippets of them whenever they want on their computers or tablets. I don’t understand chasing down 10 and 15-minute segments of shows online when you can watch the entire show on a large screen, and not lose continuity. Watching on a full-size TV screen also makes it easier to see facial expressions. You can always use your computer, tablet, or smart phone to get guest stars’ names if the credits go by too fast for you.

Loveable Characters
One of the reasons I love Car 54 is the way the characters are written. They’re allowed to be ethnic without exaggeration. The main characters are Officers Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne, who later became famous as Herman Munster) and Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross, who was also featured on You’ll Never Get Rich/Phil Silvers Show). Muldoon is smarter and better educated than Toody, but he doesn’t treat his partner like a putz. The two are squad car partners and friends. Toody is married to Lucille (Beatrice Pons), who often invites bachelor Muldoon to a home-cooked meal. Other officers at the 35rd Precinct in the Bronx include Officer Leo Schnauser (Al Lewis, who later became Grandpa Munster and even ran as a Green Party candidate for Governor of New York in 1998) and his partner, Officer Ed Nicholson (Hank Garrett), and Captain Paul Block (Paul Reed) were in the majority of episodes. Charlotte Rae, who my now-adult kids know as Mrs. Garrett on Facts of Life, played Sylvia Schnauser – wife of Leo Schnauser and nosy confidante to Lucille Toody.

Favorite Episodes
An episode that centered on the cops’ home life was one of my favorites! Titled One Sleepy People, the episode opens with Francis spending the night with the Gunther and Lucille. After dinner, Francis and Lucille watch a spicy TV show while Gunther snores in his favorite chair. The show they watch is about a man who has an affair with his best friend’s wife as the unwitting husband dozes in his favorite chair. Lucille and Francis suddenly believe that each has eyes for the other. Every innocent moment becomes a torrid advance, as Lucille clutches at her faded house dress’ snap closures. If Lucille wore a negligee or low-cut dress, it wouldn’t be as funny. Francis is equally hounded, colliding with Lucille in the kitchen where they both went to escape each other’s “advances.” Lucille runs to Sylvia for advice, but Sylvia is mostly interested in details. The scenes between Lucille and Sylvia are pee-fully funny!

There are three episodes starring Molly Picon, the Helen Hayes of Yiddish Theater. For those who are too young to have seen her in anything but Fiddler on the Roof, Picon was an actor/comedian/singer who was popular in Yiddish Theater and movies for many years prior to a second career as a character actor in English-language productions.

In all three episodes, Picon played Mrs. Bronson, a clever and resourceful Yiddishe Momma. We first meet her in a condemned tenement, where every legal agency in New York has unsuccessfully attempted to serve eviction notices. The demolition crew waits, and construction of a new entrance to the George Washington Bridge is suspended while Toody and Muldoon attempt to reason with Mrs. Bronson. She serves her adversaries tea and cake as she files each notice in the proper location – with all the other notices she ignores.

Mrs. Bronson’s next visit from Toody and Muldoon is at her new home, a hi-rise airy apartment. She brags that she actually slept with a blanket even though it’s August. Of course it’s airy. The building isn’t finished yet! Mrs. Bronson is happily living among the I-Beams and girders that form the skeleton of her abode. When the officers try to convince her that she can’t live there, she responds that her move-in date is August 1 and she has every right to move in.

In her third encounter with law enforcement, Mrs. Bronson takes up professional matchmaking. There isn’t any law against it, but the trouble is that she is matching the bottom-of-the-barrel Bronx singles with the likes of Joan Crawford and Tuesday Weld. Toody and Muldoon visit Mrs. Bronson to explain that she can’t give people false hope. She pulls out a folder filled with cease and desist letters from Joan Crawford’s attorneys as proof of a match in progress. Muldoon points out that all the letters are threats of litigation. Mrs. Bronson isn’t impressed: “You see, Francis, she’s just playing hard to get.”

I can cite so many more episodes that have me go from laughter to tears within a half hour:

  • There’s the hated landlord’s son who needs a minyan (a quorum of ten Jews – at those days, men only) for his Bar Mitzvah, but no one will attend the service because his father is the landlord.
  • Another great episode involves President Kennedy’s motorcade. News footage of a Kennedy motorcade from LaGuardia Airport to the UN Building was inserted for realism. Because of his assassination, the episode only aired once with Kennedy’s image. In reruns, similar footage with President Johnson was substituted.
  • Toody miraculously knows details of crimes scenes, which lands him on the promotion list for detective. However, he’s actually remembering the true crime TV episode he watched the night before. Coincidentally, the thieves based their heists on the same TV show.

Watch, laugh, and make sure you can get to the bathroom on time in case your bladder is like mine.

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