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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Making a case for C.A.P.E.R.: A diligent "Kids" show devotee delves deep to uncover artifacts from, interviews about and fan love for a long- lost '70s Saturday morning live-action series

By Linda Kay
Retroality.TV Guest Shot columnist

There’s no doubt that the most impressionable time of our lives comes during our youth. Our real-life experiences may shape who we are, but our media exposure creates many of our memories. How else can you explain those of us in our mid-40s who can still recite the Preamble of the Constitution (but only if we sing it in the Schoolhouse Rock style?)

The ‘70s were a wonderful time for Saturday morning television; the worlds presented to us through the boob tube were colorful and crazy, outrageous but moralistic, twisted yet innocent. Even those who did not grow up during that era of getting up early on the first day of the weekend, sitting down with a bowl of sugary cereal in front of the set and indulging in hours of extreme bizarreness are familiar with such animated fare as Scooby-Doo and live-action wonders like H.R. Pufnstuf. Indeed, many of the shows from that time are well-ingrained in our current culture. Syndication and programs which thrive on cultural references, such as The Simpsons and Family Guy, definitely help perpetuate those nostalgic gems.

But there are those shows which somehow slip through the nostalgia net of mass culture and fall by the wayside, sometimes almost immediately. When I was twelve I loved a live-action show that premiered in the fall of 1976 on NBC at twelve noon (late for Saturday morning!). It was called The Kids from C.A.P.E.R. and it was a zany, bizarre program much in the style of The Monkees (which had also run in syndication on the networks’ Saturday mornings for a number of years!). Oddly enough, I knew very few people who watched the show then, let alone even heard of it. Apparently most of my friends were outside playing by the noon hour. It didn’t help that the program disappeared from NBC’s schedule mid-season, only to turn up again in 1977 for a while before being cancelled permanently.

With only 13 episodes, C.A.P.E.R. was never rerun on American television.  Over the years, I would have pangs of nostalgia for the show, but any mention of it to those in my age group usually brought confused looks. I was not prone to buying teen magazines, but I did buy one issue which had an article on C.A.P.E.R. and though I discarded the rest of the magazine pretty quickly (not having much interest in the Bay City Rollers or Leif Garrett) I held on to that one C.A.P.E.R. article, clinging to what felt like my only proof that the show actually existed.

The Kids from C.A.P.E.R.
followed the antics of four teenaged police interns who battle bad guys and, of course, sing (C.A.P.E.R. was an acronym which stood for The Civilian Authority for the Protection of Everybody, Regardless . . . think along the lines of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to understand the title).  It was an interesting mix of the super hero (the Kids each possessed a special ability: Bugs had super strength, P.T. could smell out clues, Doomsday could talk to animals and Doc had a computer-like brain), comedy, musical and crime genres; all the most popular elements of Saturday morning television rolled into one. The Kids drove a delivery van with a hot dog on top called, not surprisingly, The Big Bologna, and got their directions from a radar-sensing shark named Mr. Featherstone (you can begin to understand the confused looks when trying to explain this to people who’ve never seen it!).

Many years later and along comes the Internet. Soon I realize I’m not alone. There are actually other fans of the show out there, but we’re few and far between. A number of dedicated fans who were much more diligent about collecting on the show back in the day have set up web pages for the show. A Yahoo! group (called The C.A.P.E.R. Room) ( gives us a place to talk about the series.  And yet the episodes are nowhere to be found, not even circulating amongst fans (although we hear stories about 16 mm prints of at least two episodes lurking about somewhere).

At last someone posts a couple of clips on YouTube: the show’s memorable theme song (which many of us can still remember by heart despite not having seen or heard it since we were kids) and one song from the first episode. Not a lot, but for C.A.P.E.R. fans it was like an exhibit of artifacts from King Tut’s tomb. Every few years something compels me to look around online and see if anything else has turned up. In 2009 I realize someone has finally posted one episode of C.A.P.E.R. on YouTube.  I spend some time sitting in front of the computer and re-familiarizing myself with an old friend from my past. It’s so bizarre, so unique and so strange. Not just from a nostalgic viewpoint but from a modern point of view. And a spark is lit.

I want to know more about the show. Not just the names of the episodes and when it aired but how it came to be . . . from whose minds came this wonderfully wacky series? I knew it had been produced by Don Kirshner, the music mogul whose reputation has become somewhat besmirched by his ultimately volatile working relationship with The Monkees (which I’ve come to believe has been grossly over-exaggerated against Kirshner over time). But who else was involved? What became of those who worked on the series? And why was the show really canceled?

The few C.A.P.E.R. sites which existed and the Yahoo! group provided some answers, but none of them delved as deeply into the history of the show as I wished to learn. After much soul-searching and debating I finally decided the only way to really learn the answers was to set up a website of my own, and so The C.A.P.E.R. Project was born. I wanted it to be a catch-all site of information for fans, as well as a means to let those who might be able to get the show released on DVD know that there is definitely an interest for it out there!

My biggest concern was starting a site for something I really didn’t know very much about. Sure I was a fan, but I had no collectibles and no inside information to share. I had never set out to create a website on a subject I was so unfamiliar with!  So I started collecting, and eBay came to my rescue. After several months I had amassed a nice collection of teen magazines from 1976 and 1977 and realized pretty quickly that C.A.P.E.R. wasn’t as unknown as I’d thought . . . there was actually quite a following for it! Laufer Publications (whose Tiger Beat magazine still provides fantasy fodder for the walls of lovesick teeny-boppers to this day) featured the “Kids” often. There were far more articles about the show published than I ever could have imagined (and I was able to finally join the ranks of teen magazine buyers some 33 years late!).

I drew inspiration from the wonderful book Love to Love You Bradys, written by Ted Nichelson, Susan Olsen and Lisa Sutton.  Covering the incredibly bizarre story of The Brady Bunch Variety Hour (which was exactly in the same time period as C.A.P.E.R.), the book showed that while that program has garnered the reputation of being one of the worst television shows ever made, the story behind it is nonetheless fascinating. The book acknowledged the fact that the unique variety series was not altogether successful but that the people who worked on it were dedicated and deserving of respect. The same could be said of C.A.P.E.R. . . . the elements were all there for a successful show but somehow they never quite gelled.  Given a second season the show probably would have become much tighter and more successful, but it was never given that chance.

After much research online, I managed to put together a picture of many of the people who worked on the series, and I was continually impressed with the caliber of talent which went into the show. This intrigued me even more!  On the television side there was producer Alan Landsburg, whose programs such as In Search Of . . . and That’s Incredible! lead many to refer to him as the creator of reality television, as well as director Stanley Z. Cherry, who directed such classic sitcoms as Dobie Gillis, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Addams Family and Gilligan’s Island. The show was created by Romeo Muller, whose name may not be familiar but whose work certainly is . . . he was the creative genius behind a vast majority of the Rankin / Bass animated Christmas specials we’ve all grown up with, including Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.

On the music side was Kirshner, who had previously performed the same musical magic he’d done for The Monkees for the animated band The Archies and who was attempting the same level of success with C.A.P.E.R. The songs, while fairly being categorized as bubblegum music, are solid tunes. Kirshner brought into play his incredible stable of songwriters for the project, including Ron Dante (lead singer of The Archies), Jake Holmes (who penned the C.A.P.E.R. theme song with Ron Dante), Jay Siegel (whose amazing voice you hear on The Tokens’ song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”), Rob Hegel & Carol George, Neil Sedaka & Howard Greenfield, Gene Allan & Gary Knight and Phil & Mitch Margo (also from The Tokens). The Kids from C.A.P.E.R. album was arranged by none other than late-night swingin’ cat and Letterman sidekick Paul Shaffer!

Unlike the cast of The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, the on-screen talent in C.A.P.E.R. was well-prepared for their roles as both musical and television stars. Each of the principles came from solid entertainment backgrounds: John Lansing (Doc) had been acting on stage for years, most notably playing the lead role of Danny Zuko in the Broadway production of Grease (you may also remember him as Laverne’s cousin Anthony in the two-part Laverne & Shirley episode “The Festival”).  Cosie Costa (Bugs) was both a singer and actor who also appeared with the national touring company of Grease (for a time with John Lansing) and was trained at the Pasadena Playhouse. Steve Bonino (P.T.) had studied both acting and music and was already an accomplished musician and songwriter. Biff Warren (Doomsday) was probably newest to the industry but had studied acting in college and had already made appearances on television series such as The Waltons and The Streets of San Francisco.

It was a common practice in the ’70s to use veteran actors alongside young performers in children’s programming, and C.A.P.E.R. was no exception. Added to the cast were Robert Emhardt, whose list of movie and television credits is both impressive and extensive (he had a notable part in the classic western 3:10 to Yuma), as well as Robert Lussier, who epitomizes the “I know his face but what is his name?” character actor syndrome.

These were all people I could really respect and which I felt should be acknowledged.  I was able to put together biographies of those in front of and behind the cameras for the site. And I pieced together the history of the show as best as I could from the information available both online and in the magazines I’d amassed. Finally the website was launched in March of 2010 to great fanfare . . . well . . . okay . . . actually, to more of a hushed, warm reception from die-hard fans.

But already The C.A.P.E.R. Project has been successful in uncovering information and materials related to the show. Fans have come out of the woodwork, sharing wonderful stories, photos and articles, as well as memories and acquired information they've possessed for years. The American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming was pivotal in providing us with information about the NBC Saturday Morning Preview special featuring the Kids introducing all the new Saturday morning shows from 1976 with co-host Freddie Prinze (a mere five months before his tragic suicide) as well as clips from the rare first two episodes of the series. And we have been able to post clips from many of the "Kids"’ other movie and television appearances on our YouTube Channel, as well as two complete episodes of The Kids from C.A.P.E.R. provided generously by C.A.P.E.R. Kid Steve Bonino himself (who now performs with The Trip, one of the most successful cover bands in the U.S.!). We were also thrilled to interview Steve Bonino, as well as singer / songwriter Rob Hegel, who provided us with fascinating insight into the making of both the show and the album.

But the launch of The C.A.P.E.R. Project is only the beginning.  There are still have so many questions we would like to have answered. We still don’t know exactly why NBC abruptly cancelled the series mid-season. We would like to know where C.A.P.E.R. Kid Cosie Costa currently is (John Lansing has just co-executive produced the series Scoundrels for ABC Television and sadly Biff Warren passed away in 1993). We would love to interview more of the people who worked on the series and learn their stories.  And of course we hold out hope that the lost episodes of C.A.P.E.R. will somehow be found and that the show will eventually be released on DVD.

Unraveling the show’s history is proving to be a complex mystery indeed.  But rest assured, C.A.P.E.R.’s loyal fans will remain hot on the trail until it is solved!


genagirl said...

Hey! I was just reading about Davy Jones' death and it got me to thinking about my other childhood crush - John Lansing. I don't know anyone else besides myself and my sister who loved the Kids from C.A.P.E.R.!! Great blog, I'm bookmarking this so I can enjoy it fully when I'm not at work!!!

CHRIS MANN said...

So glad you like the blog, genagirl! We will be paying tribute to Davy Jones in our next "Retroality.TV presents Reimagine That!" podcast in mid-March. We'll have a link here, but you might also want to bookmark our official podcast page at : )

Thanks for your comment!!

Bluejay Young said...

Hey, you're really strong, Bugs!

Yeah, and would you believe it I used to have a weak back?

When did you ever have a weak back?

Oh, about a week back.

Yep, I saw the first episode! I was babysitting and they had the TV on, Sept. 11, 1976. They had it turned way too low for me to really hear it, and I never managed to see any more episodes, but I never forgot that routine, the guys' names, or the name of the show. Thank you!