TV Kicks on Route 66
By: Linnea Crowther
2 years ago
The words "Route 66" are some of the most evocative of modern American history. They conjure up images of leisurely road trips along quiet byways, traversing the country in the days before the interstate was king and speed limits reached 70 mph and more. Route 66 brings to mind roadside attractions, the good old kind: diners and drive-ins, giant balls of twine, kitschy motels, gaudily painted statues and the Cadillac Ranch.
For some, Route 66 is more than a nostalgia-strewn highway – it's also a unique 1960s television show. Starring Martin Milner as Tod and George Maharis as Buz (later, Glenn Corbett replaced Maharis, playing Linc), two young men driving around the country in a Corvette convertible and experiencing the people and sights America has to offer, Route 66 ran from 1960 through 1964. It was like nothing else on TV at that time, and few programs have captured its special breed of wanderlust since.
In TV's early days, anthologies were popular programs, focusing on new stories and new characters each week rather than following the adventures of a regular cast. But serial dramas also did well, following beloved characters from week to week. Route 66 combined the two formats, presenting an anthology-style show, set in different locations and situations each week, but centering on two regular characters and incorporating them into each of the anthology's stories. It was a new formula in 1960, but it would be reflected in later shows including The Fugitive, Doctor Who and Supernatural.
What makes Route 66 stand out from its followers is that it was shot on location, all around the country. This was remarkable for a weekly series, and it still would be today. Typically, dramas that take place in nationwide locations are actually filmed close to their main studio, using props and clever filming to make Los Angeles or Vancouver look like a wind-swept Midwestern plain, a lazy Southern river town or a spooky New England forest. Route 66 went to the plains and the rivers and the forests, bringing cast and crew along each week to film the real deal.
Over four seasons, Route 66 took us on a tour of early-1960s America, showcasing a diversity that was already beginning to die out as the media age advanced. Regional accents were more pronounced then than they are today, and the different parts of the country had vastly different cuisines and styles of architecture and cultures. TV and movies smoothed out those differences, making New York's culture not that much different from Alabama's, with a few exceptions (one has hoagies; the other has po'boys).
The Route 66 boys discussed this concept themselves in one of their episodes, one that would take them down the back roads of rural Maryland. Despite the show's title, they didn't always follow the iconic U.S. highway, but traveled all over the country, hitting points to the north, south, east and west. As they traveled, they took odd jobs and got to know the folks they briefly lived among, allowing viewers to see the sights of the U.S. through the eyes of travelers and locals alike. Here are a few of our favorite Route 66 locations, diverse spots all over the U.S. that Tod and Buz visited and showcased.
In "The Mud Nest" from season two, the boys traveled to Maryland and ran out of gas in the seriously rural (but fictional) hamlet of Hester. As they approached Hester, which may have been based on nearby Hess, Maryland, they discussed their love for seeing these out-of-the-way locations, lamenting that you just don't see the real America when you travel on the turnpike. The episode showed us the Maryland countryside and brought us the big-city sights of Baltimore, including impressive edifices like the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Washington Monument and Enoch Pratt Free Library. But Buz and Tod didn't just take the nickel tour of historic places – they also visited a seedy neighborhood called the Block and stopped by the Circus Bar, where visitors can get a drink and a meal as well as see a risqué show.
Season one's "The Beryllium Eater" saw Tod and Buz working for a mining operation in Page, Arizona, near the Glen Canyon Dam that spans the majestic Colorado River. Page borders the Great Basin Desert and the Colorado Plateau – a geographic feature that's highlighted in this episode. Guest star Inger Stevens, one of an impressive roster of stars who made appearances on Route 66 over the years (including Joan Crawford, Boris Karloff and Robert Redford), showed Buz the impressive scenery of the Plateau, noting that the vista spans many miles … as she flirted with him. It wasn't too unusual for the boys to find a bit of romance as they traveled the country.
Though Route 66 visited some glamorous stops and some immensely scenic locales, they weren't what carried the show. It was the look at America in all of its facets that was the heart of Route 66's travels. One of those facets was the Midwestern manufacturing belt – before it became the Rust Belt in the wake of 1970s and '80s decline. Season one's "The Opponent," guest-starring a young Ed Asner as well as Al Lewis, who would go on to play Grandpa Munster, and Darren McGavin of A Christmas Story, took Tod and Buz to Youngstown, Ohio, one of the greatest steel towns of the pre-Rust Belt era. As Tod and Buz drive into town in the episode's opening scenes, on their way to track down an old friend of Buz's, we see Youngstown's factory smokestacks spewing smoke next to the road, an iconic sight from the days of Big Steel.
The season three premiere, "One Tiger to a Hill," opens on a sweeping seascape, ocean meeting sand on the glorious Pacific coast of Oregon. Buz and Tod are in Oregon on their way to fishing village Astoria, and they're cruising right along the sand in the Corvette. Their unusual route highlights another of those bygone bits of Americana that crop up all over Route 66 – when the show was filmed, the ocean beaches of Oregon were considered highways, the only north-south highways in the area. Unpaved and somewhat dangerous – a driver could easily get stuck in the sand or even swept away by strong waves or high tide – the beaches were eventually mostly closed to car traffic, with only a few still allowing it today. But Buz and Tod made the beach drive look incredibly cool and easy as they made their way to the salmon fishing boat they would crew for a while.
Broadcast late in season three, "The Cruelest Sea of All" was one of the first episodes of Route 66 to feature Tod and Linc instead of Tod and Buz, Maharis having abruptly departed the show a few months prior. But Linc was just as game as Buz for visiting gems of Americana, like the classic Old Florida tourist town of Weeki Wachee. It's known for its Weeki Wachee Springs, a tourist attraction that features mermaids inhabiting its pools and streams … that is, lovely swimmers dressed to look like mermaids. Tod falls in love with one of the swimmers – or is she really a mermaid? The faux-fantasy plot is cute, but the natural beauty of Gulf Coast Florida's outdoors is as much a character in the episode as is the finned Elissa.