Back in the days before there were 24-hour cable channels dedicated to the kiddies, children's programming was pretty much confined to a few hours in the early morning and a few hours in the late afternoon... those very narrow windows of opportunity before and after school, after which the TV shifted into "grown-up" mode (chatty talk shows, soap operas, news, and old movies during the day, more news and the prime-time lineup in the evening).
Strangely, the format didn't change during the summer vacation months, which meant after the early morning cavalcade of Little Rascals, Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Speed Racer, etc. ended, you were left with the grim choice of either widening your viewing habits to include more adult-leaning programs, or, you know, actually turning off the TV and going outside.
Which is how I ended up becoming a regular watcher of The Dick Van Dyke Show. In fact the local programming block of Dick Van Dyke at noon, followed by The Andy Griffith Show, and then I Love Lucy, saw me through many, many summers spent home alone as a latch-key kid.
Sometimes The Dick Van Dyke Show would wander into spooky territory (well, never REALLY spooky. It was a sit-com, after all) and these are some of my favorite episodes.
IT MAY LOOK LIKE A WALNUT (Season 2, 1963)
This season 2 episode starts with Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) and wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) watching a late night movie on "Insomniac Theater", an alien flick sounding vaguely like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which human-like aliens from the planet Twylo are taking over the planet Earth.
Rob explains the plot to a frightened Laura. The Twylo-ites, who look human except for a second pair of eyes hidden under their hair, plant walnut-looking alien eggs, filled with "absorbatron", in grocery stores around the world. Once a person opens one of these alien walnuts, they begin to take on the characteristics of the invaders. They are led by Kolak, whom Rob describes as looking like actor Danny Thomas.
Rob seems to get a real kick frightening Laura with the story, even slipping into a Boris Karloff accent while explaining that the aliens' plan to enslave mankind is to remove the humans' thumbs and their sense of humor.
The next morning Rob wakes up to discover a living room littered with walnuts. He suspects an angry Laura is trying to get revenge, but she plays innocent... even while preparing his breakfast, "scrambled walnuts."
That morning at work, Rob (who is a television writer for The Alan Brady Show), becomes suspicious when he finds writing partner Buddy (Morey Amsterdam) eating walnuts. In one of the funniest lines of the episode, Rob asks, "Did Laura call you this morning and tell you to eat walnuts?"
After finding more walnuts hidden around the office, an increasingly agitated Rob demands that they end the joke.
Buddy suggests ominously that Rob has lost his sense of humor...
When Rob finds an unusual glittering substance inside one of the walnuts, then notices his thumbs have disappeared, he panics, before assuring himself he must be dreaming.
He rushes home and is knocked over when Laura, surfing on an avalanche of walnuts, bursts out of the closet.
Laura claims she is now Lolak, a Twilo, and reveals her second set of eyes to a disgusted Rob (unfortunately the audience doesn't get to see them as well...)
Finally all of Rob's workmates emerge, walking zombie-like and laughing maniacally, including the real-life Danny Thomas.
Of course the whole thing is a dream, and Rob wakes up and comforts his wife, who had her own nightmare--that Danny Thomas was throwing walnuts at her, and every where they landed on her, a new eye would grow.
THE GHOST OF A. CHANTZ (Season 4, 1964)
The next spooky episode is of a more traditional variety. Rob, Laura, and Rob's writing partners Buddy and Sally (Rose Marie) are spending the weekend at a lakeside retreat to work on some new television show their boss Alan Brady has cooked up. But due to a reservations mix up, no cabins have been reserved for them.
There is only one cabin left, but they are warned that it is thought to be haunted by the ghost of Amos Chantz, who disappeared from it three years earlier, presumed murdered.
The quartet takes the cabin anyway, and spend the night being spooked by a fireplace that lights itself...
...a creaky door that opens and closes, and a rocking chair that rocks on its own...
...and a mysterious face appearing in a mirror.
Eventually Buddy, Laura and Sally are abducted by hooded figures while Rob's head is turned...
Finally, with Rob the last man standing, his boss Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon) appears in the haunted mirror to reveal the whole thing was a set-up for a new hidden-camera program "Sneaky Camera".
LONG NIGHTS JOURNEY INTO DAY (Season 5, 1966)
The final spooky episode is also the scariest. Laura is spending the weekend home alone with a cold, while Rob, their son Richie (Larry Mathews), and their neighbors Jerry and Millie Helper (Jerry Paris and Ann Morgan Guilbert) go off on a fishing trip.
Millie leaves Laura with a personal security alarm disguised as a pen (in case a maniac breaks into her house to "bash her head in"). She further advises her to stack cans of food at the front door to serve as an alarm, and to never take a shower... because of that Alfred Hitchcock movie! None of this advice is very comforting to Laura.
Once alone, Laura puts on a one-woman show of suspense and paranoia, with every creak of the house and shadow in the window making her uneasy. She is further frightened when the phone rings and no one speaks on the other end.
Convinced she saw someone through the window, she pulls the shades.
Later, she is startled by Millie, who returned early from the fishing trip and let herself into Laura's house with her key. Laura brings Millie into her circle of fear after describing the creaks and shadows and phone calls that have set her on edge.
When they think they hear footsteps in the other room, Laura and Millie engage in a loud conversation to try to scare the intruder. "WHY-DON'T-YOU-GET-THE-GUN, DARLING?"
But the girls get really terrified when the power fails and the house goes dark.
They make their way to the garage, hoping to sneak out of the house. Meanwhile, Rob has also unexpectedly returned early, and sets of the tin-can burglar alarm, terrifying both the girls and himself.
The Dick Van Dyke Show is available on DVD here.
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