Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Creating the Original OUTER LIMITS Trading Cards


Gary Gerani chats with 1964 Topps writer/editor Len Brown…

INTRODUCTION

It’s amazing.  To this day, there are still some fans who mistake the colorful, ‘50s-flavored storylines written for the 1964 OUTER LIMITS bubblegum cards for the actual teleplays (“You mean there wasn’t a ‘Jelly Creature”?).  This unforgettable 50-subject product was an outrageous, delightful hybrid of colorized bears from the TV series (the actual name of this set is MONSTERS FROM OUTER LIMITS) matched with far-out original stories on the backs by a certain fellow named Len Brown. 

The original '64 box and wrap: Chill Charlie (never actually used in the TV show) became MFOL's front man.
Serial buff, comics fan, rockabilly rebel (with a radio show to prove it), Len Brown is like a beloved big brother to me.  As Creative Director of the Topps Chewing Gum Company, he hired Yours Truly back in 1972 as an “idea man,” and even helped me sell FANTASTIC TELEVISION to Crown a few years after that.  But in ’64, he was best known for his involvement with Wally Wood’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R AGENTS comics, and as the guy who wrote the copy for Topps’ infamous MARS ATTACKS! cards two years earlier.  Getting THE OUTER LIMITS set off to a typically disrespectful start, Topps didn’t even want to be associated with another “space invader” product (MARS had been controversial without being commercial), so it released MONSTERS FROM OUTER LIMITS under the alternate company name “Bubbles Inc.”  Nothing personal, OL!

Anyway.  I reconnected with Len recently – he now lives in Dripping Springs, Texas – and he offered to polish up his “rusty” brain for some MFOL-related questions, just for this blog.  So, here goes…

GG: Len, it’s funny to be discussing THE OUTER LIMITS with you after all these years.

LB: Seems like yesterday, almost.

GG: Len and I used to have rather spirited “STAR TREK vs. OUTER LIMITS” battles in the Topps office.

LB: Well I have to admit, the original STAR TREK with William Shatner hasn’t aged very well.

GG: Neither has Shatner.  He’s beginning to look more and more like Jabba the Hutt every day.  Let’s talk about the birth and development of MFOL.  Licensing was very different back in the early ‘60s.  Although OL was a United Artists TV show for ABC, I’ll bet a smaller outfit handled the merchandising.

LB: That’s right.  I forget the name of the company who handled the whole thing.  There were two partners who represented the property, and they had a small licensing company in Hollywood.  I went out there (Topps was based in Brooklyn at the time) and met with Al Schmittman.  I forget the partner’s name.  I seem to recall it was Schmittman who also introduced me to Mary Tyler Moore on the set of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, as he was showing me around the lot.  I believe we had already done some business with A.S. when he told us about THE OUTER LIMITS.

GG: Who was it at Topps that decided OL was a strong enough property for the company?  Were you and (Senior Creative Developer) Woody Gelman pushing to do the show BEFORE it even went on the air?

LB: The thing that got Woody and I interested was that Schmittman promised a different monster in every episode.  Since we had success with monsters in the past (FUNNY MONSTERS, UNIVERSAL MONSTERS), we were very interested in securing a license for THE OUTER LIMITS.  The show was not on the air and I believe I flew to California to look at the photos they could supply us with.  They had very little color photography, so I believe we accepted their black and white stills and had them painted.  United Artists had even less.  I think we used every picture they had.

Here's a page from Topps' long-defunct archives; cards from all series were literally pasted into loose-leaf books.
GG: Who came up with the idea to do the set in “color”?

LB: I don’t know who or why we came up with the idea of colorizing the photos, except there was a general feeling that kids would enjoy full color cards more than they would black and white pictures.

GG: I’m assuming veteran Topps art director Ben Solomon was involved.

LB: As you know, Ben always liked to have his re-toucher go over photos to improve the quality for reproduction.  In the case of OUTER LIMITS, I guess that would have been Ray Hammond.

GG: I remember Ray – a grouchy-looking guy who was actually very nice.  And for the record, both Ben Solomon and Woody Gelman used to work on the old Fleischer POPEYE and SUPERMAN cartoons of the 1940s.  Often in a meeting, I’d notice Ben doing a Popeye doodle when he got bored.

LB: That’s right.  They both worked on those cartoons.  They even got credit.

GG: Back to OUTER LIMITS…  Let’s talk about the text.

LB: I seem to think we originally thought we could automatically adapt the actual storylines from the TV series, but before we went to press, we were told that the writers of the scripts would want a piece of the action, which Topps couldn’t afford.  So that’s why we came up with those ludicrous stories to describe the front of the cards.

GG: Listen, they have their own special charm!  My favorite is “The Brainless Glob,” your version of Joe Stefano’s “Don’t Open Till Doomsday.”  When I showed Joe the card, he joked that he preferred your storyline to his own.

LB: My God, how embarrassing for us.  This is the screenwriter of PSYCHO, and we re-wrote his story in such a ridiculous way.

GG: Did you write the entire set, or did Woody pitch in?

LB: Woody might have read a few of the card backs, but I pretty much had the freedom to write ‘em all.  Of course, we had to send the copy to California for approval, and since they wouldn’t let us use the stuff from the TV series in story form, they just quickly approved the silly stuff I wrote, without any changes.

GG: How did the set sell?

LB: When we first tested OUTER LIMITS in stores, it only sold fair.  But I seem to recall that ultimately, it was looked back as a successful item.  Initial orders seemed slow, but one day Woody came in looking very happy, and he said that the item had sold about 13,000 cases.  Anything over 10,000 in the early ‘60s was considered a nice hit.  So we never regretted having issued OUTER LIMITS cards.


GG: You’re a huge sci-fi fan.  What were your favorite episodes of the show itself?

LB: I remember really loving “The Galaxy Being.”  That was Cliff Robertson, wasn’t it?  Always a fan of his.  One of my favorite OUTER LIMITS episodes was the Adam Link one (I, ROBOT).  It had previously been adapted for comics by EC in the 1950s, and there was nothing I loved more than WEIRD SCIENCE and WEIRD FANTASY comics back then.  In fact, I still do.  I was buying the hardcover reprints and was heartbroken when they stopped in the middle of reprinting the books.  I understand they are still hoping to continue someday…

GG: You and I used to have all kinds of fun OUTER LIMITS debates back in the ‘70s, when I was writing about the series.  I remember walking into my office and seeing a black and white photo of all the creatures from the kiddie show, SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS, sitting on my desk.  Written below this photo, in grease pencil, was the description “OUTER LIMITS MONSTERS.”

LB: God, I forgot about that.

GG: You also said the Zanti Misfits had “Sterling Holloway faces.”

LB: I don’t remember equating the Zanti Misfits to Sterling Holloway, but I trust I did.  I know you really liked that episode.  To me, it was just “talking ants” and I didn’t care for it.

GG: Not a problem.  We used to spar over the “talking rocks” episode (“Corpus Earthling”), as well.  I even stayed over your house in Piscataway NJ one weekend, so I could watch that particular show during a telecast on Channel 48 from Philadelphia.

LB:  I remember.  We also used to watch Jack Benny reruns on Channel 29.

GG: Absolutely!  They hadn’t shown them on NY TV for years.  And I couldn’t pull in the Philly stations from Brooklyn, not without a parabolic antenna.  This is all wonderful memory lane stuff for me, Len.  Thanks so much for the look-back.

LB: My pleasure, Mr. G.  Yes, they were the good old days.  The ‘60s were especially sweet.  Elvis was still alive and recording #1 hits.  And I was in my 20s…  Ahhh!  Hope some of these memories helped…


SUMMING UP:

There were two additional, officially licensed OUTER LIMITS trading card sets that appeared decades later.  I edited/wrote one of these for Comic Images in the mid-‘90s.  This set provided all the unit photography (b/w and color) from the original TV series, a Season One Episode Guide at last, along with a handful of Topps ’64 reprints… complete with my explanation of the altered storylines.  

(click cards to enlarge)
A few years after this set hit the market, Rittenhouse jumped in with their own incarnation.  They focused on a half-dozen or so episodes with fan-friendly actors; frame grabs and autographs (Shatner, Nimoy, etc.) were the selling points this time around.  But to most pop historians, it’s the 1964 Bubbles Inc./Topps version that resonates to this day.  They were indeed a significant part of the original OUTER LIMITS experience, and I for one was delighted to collect them as a kid – bogus storylines and all.

19 comments:

  1. Thanks, Gary, for setting all this down for us. My own erroneous timeline and your dealings for Topps on things like WONDER WOMAN (correct?)---abetted by that fabulous album of TOL stills you loaned me for TOLAIR---kept me perpetuating the myth that you were in on the TOL gum-card set. In fact, I didn't collect them (none of my circle did, being veddy, veddy serious about THE OUTER LIMITS!). So I lost the sense of their provenance and always mentally associated you with them much later.

    A nice piece. Great that you could track down Len Brown and fill in this bit of TOL subsidiary interest with authority.

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  2. Is the "second set" the DuoCards set?

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  3. Yes, DuoCards and Comic Images are one and the same. Comic Images continued to do movie/TV trading cards for some time, before throwing in the towel around 2004 or so (they still do licensed products). CI had a good relationship with Topps, which explains why they included a handful of '64 reprints in that set. CI wanted to combine both old and new LIMITS, so I said, "let's go the 'Season One' route," knowing I could focus on the classic episodes we all loved. The follow-up set (which never happened) would have had a 'Season Two' theme, for both original OL and the Showtime incarnation.

    Ted: Because I started working for Topps in the early '70s, which is also considered 'the golden age' for boomers, many people assume I had something to do with the original OUTER LIMITS cards and 1968's PLANET OF THE APES movie set... But no, that was just a little before my time. As a kid living in Brooklyn, I collected this stuff like everyone else my age. Ironically, we (Topps) never wound up doing those WONDER WOMAN cards, because Lynda Carter said "no." A painted WW set would have been cool (that's the way BATMAN was handled after Adam West and Burt Ward refused -- at first), but it was never meant to be. Sigh. Adventures in the bubblegum trade...

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  4. Hey Gary -

    I think I read an interview where you said (and may the 50-somethings forgive this 40-something) that there was a book coming out reprinting the Topps Star Wars cards, much like the recent Wacky Packages book.

    While everyone one else was getting their first exposure to you via The Monster Times, Starlog, etc., I can assure you I was reading your words over and over and over again on the fronts and backs of those blue, red, yellow, green and orange cards!

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  5. Abrams, the company that published the WACKY PACKAGE book(s), has been telling me for some time now that they want to reprint every single STAR WARS card in a series of similarly-formatted volumes. I was approached to provide commentary and such. Considering how many SW sets I've edited over the years, this would be quite an undertaking for Abrams. But I haven't heard anything lately, so who knows? They may want to cover all the "gleefully subversive" humor products first, and I know MARS ATTACKS! was also on heir agenda (paging Len Brown!). We shall see...

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  6. Aha--here't the place for me to re-ask the question I asked after John's "Titles of the Outer Limits" post. I collected the original set of the Bubbles Inc cards as a kid, but lost them a few years later (don't ask). They now are worth quite a lot of money. However, I found an inexpensive reprint set on eBay a few years ago that I bought for the sake of nostalgia. The seller claimed they were printed by Topps in the late 1960s, but the cards themselves have no identification on them, other than a tag that says they are an "official" reprint, and that it was limited to 5,000 copies. The fronts look just like the originals; the backs have the same stories but against a white background, rather than the original yellowish-greenish. I can't find anything on the Net to verify their origin with any real authority. Do you happen to know who printed these, and when? Many thanks (and thanks for this cool post, too--this was the one missing item the blog needed to make it complete--well, aside from other OL merchandise such as board games and so on).

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  7. I know there were one or two "bootleg" reprints of the set over the years, but something officially from Topps, in the late '60s? Sounds a little strange to me... What would the company stand to gain? Interest in OL was deader than a doornail during this period. Then again, you never know... maybe this 'limited reprint' tied into some kind of special deal or promotion (wild guess). I'll ask Len about it...

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  8. Great stuff, Gary. I see now that DCH and I judged Brown too harshly in our long-ago parody of the MFOL cards (in the intro, not so much in our card knock-offs). We should've guessed it was a money shortage -- the bane of The Outer Limits existence, even in the merchandising. Give him our best.

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  9. Len is very proud of his text for MARS ATTACKS!, but embarrassed by what he was forced to do with THE OUTER LIMITS. For what it's worth, the original b/w STAR TREK cards (not from Topps -- Leaf, probably) also featured made-up story backs. I seem to recall a card of Shatner with a typically intense expression on his face, graced with the caption "Mindless Man." The text on the card back explained how Captain Kirk had been stunned in an accident or something, and was now wandering aimlessly on a barren planet. Guess inspiration is where you find it...

    No problem with LB I'm sure, Mark. He'd probably get a big kick out of your OL parody cards. I know I did!

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  10. >>I seem to recall a card of Shatner with a typically intense expression on his face, graced with the caption "Mindless Man."

    I believe the text actually read "Mindless...Man..."

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  11. Gary --

    Any idea why the British cards were different in size & colour? Did the story text remain the same, or get snipped to accomodate the smaller footprint?


    Also, completely off topic (but we're almost out the door, so I don't know where else to go w/ it), check out the 3rd paragraph of this article . . .

    http://www.slate.com/id/2283940/

    . . . and picture Ronald Reagan going in & out of a twilight sleep in front of the TV on 30 Sept 1963 . . . then "remembering" The Architects of Fear (as an original idea) to impress Gorby 24 years later, ala Barney Hill & The Bellero Shield (or was it Children of Spider County?).

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  12. I'll trade you 20 Mikey Probe cards for a Thetan rookie........

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  13. I liked Topps version of 'Second Chance,' way better then the original story. Too bad that wasn't the one filmed.

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  14. UTW---

    Reminds me of the exchange between the two kids in GENTLEMAN JIM:

    "Wow---ten John L's! I'll trade ya twelve Corbetts for one."

    "Whaddaya take me for?!"

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  15. Ted-

    LOL! Warner Bros. did a great job when they released that DVD. I'm not sure which I liked more, the movie or the fairy tale cartoon spoof that was included. THE CORBETTS ARE AT IT AGAIN!

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  16. I have a few of these cards; I can't remember where I got them, but I used to hide them from anyone I wanted to introduce to OL for fear they would roll their eyes, etc. Now I'd pull them out along with the serious stuff; it'd be tough to come up with captions more funny!

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  17. Gary, thanks for illuminating this mystery. As a kid collecting these cards, I didn't know about any such nonsense as writer royalties, and just couldn't understand why the stories on the cards didn't match the series. But, of course, we only cared about the monsters on the front and traded them religiously until we had the whole set. I still have it. And, as previousl related, showed it to my son when he was collecting Monster Yu-Gi-Oh cards, which led to me terrifying him with the Jelly Man screening.

    I also had The Monster Times and the Fantastic Television volume, so thanks also for satiating the appetites of those of us who just couldn't get enough back in the day. I'll look for the 100 volume when it appears. Best of luck!

    Brain burp note: If I had to come up with alternate names of alien beings or creatures today, I think I'd use some of these Word Verification abominations.

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  18. AWC---

    Great point about the Word Verifications! There are some really creative aberrations that could easily be used in fiction!

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  19. Greetings! I'm LATE here--all these entries dated 2011. Enjoyed the feature IMMENSELY, as I have always had incredible luck scoring OL cards from former colectors at little or no cash. A beautiful set, nothing really like it until 1976's ST and all that SW. (yES, 1974 'Apes' televersion was fun, too). Have these to offer: 1. Color OL cards were said to have been influenced by 'Mars Attacks' tint, otherwise they'd have been monochrome. 2. So THAT's why we didn't get any WONDER WOMAN cards. I've heard that Linda was a 'tough cookie', but THAT'S a disappointment! 3. Through the bubblegum card collecor's paper, THE WRAPPER, somebody offered a marvelous batch of nicely made REPRINT ses of several vintage TV Series, including OL, LOST IN SPACE, possibly GILLIGANS ISLAND and perhaps a few others. Again,nicely done, not cheapskate by any means. And decently priced. I got marvelous sets from people advertising in THE WRAPPER, and learned that the abundance of some, like THE MUNSTERS and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, was based on enormous output for penny arcades.
    Thanks again--I loved this article and these cards. I'm grateful too for all those former '60s kids who had so many sets to pass on to me much later.

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