This past summer, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Monkees as a band by counting down our top 50 Monkees songs. Now, we’re celebrating The Monkees TV show by profiling each and every episode — exactly 50 years after it first premiered.
Tonight’s episode: “Royal Flush” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Air date: September 12, 1966
Though “Royal Flush” served as the premier episode of The Monkees‘ TV series on NBC, it wasn’t, as many other premier episodes are, the pilot. In fact, the pilot tested so poorly that it was relegated to the back of the line, er, season. But we’ll talk about that later.
In testing that ill-fated pilot, however, show creators Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson learned one invaluable lesson: it was vital that audience members get to know the TV actors as people, not just as their characters onscreen. And with four young, cool, good-looking dudes to exhibit — namely Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and especially the handsome, charming, and most notably English Davy Jones — those introductions were just one more stepping stone (heh) to generating the Beatlemania-esque frenzy that Rafelson and Schnieder had envisioned after seeing A Hard Day’s Night.
Thus, the recurring gag of episodes “running too short” was born out of the gate. That extra time filled with interviews in which the four Monkees feigned indignation about being harassed by “dumb questions” helped viewers connect with the “real” Mike, Micky, Peter, and Davy when they weren’t acting out a zany plot. And with relatable, witty, and importantly distinct personalities, fans could connect and choose their favorite Monkee — just like they chose their favorite Beatle.
“Royal Flush” centers around Princess Bettina, the Duchess of Harmonica (Katherine Walsh) and her uncle, Otto (Theo Marcuse), who has a dastardly plot to do away with the young royal so he might usurp the Harmonican throne himself. He’s on a deadline though: Bettina becomes queen upon her eighteenth birthday, which happens to be at midnight.
After rescuing Bettina from nearly drowning from a faulty raft (a gift from her uncle, naturally), Davy unravels the evil plot and vows to save her life — with the help of his bandmates. Micky discovers that that Bettina and her uncle are staying at the “Rich Swank Hotel,” so the Monkees check into an adjoining suite and listen in as Otto describes his plan.
Acting quickly, Micky lures Otto to the adjacent room under the guise of selling royal paraphernalia, mainly a throne fashioned oh-so-quickly from an old chair and velvet curtains. With Otto indisposed, Davy sneaks over to the royal suite, finding Bettina and playing for her, after much trial and error, a tape recording of Otto detailing her fate. (By the way, how convenient — a tape recorder!) Davy urges her to call the police, but of course, Uncle Otto has diplomatic immunity. They all do.
By the time Otto realizes he’s been had, Davy and Bettina have escaped, the Monkees hot on their heels. He orders his chauffeur, Sigmund (Vincent Black), to find them, which results in The Monkees‘ first romp sequence: a scene or two choreographed to one of the band’s songs. (These romps would later be credited as the first music videos on television.) This particular one features Sigmund chasing Micky on the beach, Davy and Bettina, er, getting to know each other, and Peter digging a hole, into which Sigmund eventually falls.
The Monkees hide Bettina back at their “pad,” a beachfront bungalow that’s probably worth several million today. Sigmund tracks them down and, fearing an appearance by Uncle Otto, the Monkees rig a booby trap above the door: a safe suspended by rope. You know, the kind of safe we all have just laying around the house.
Hoisting it high, Peter begins to file away at the rope, and when Otto storms in, collecting Bettina and threatening the Monkees with certain peril, it’s Sigmund left standing under the safe after Otto and Bettina leave. The Monkees try to trigger the trap by jumping up and down, finally succeeding and escaping past a now-knocked-out chauffeur.
Imagine Otto’s surprise at the fancy reception for Bettina’s eighteenth birthday when he looks around the room and sees the four Monkees staring daggers at him. Anxiously, he grabs Bettina and tries to weasel his way out of the room, but is confronted with Davy. Seeing Otto withdraw his sword, Micky thinks fast and tosses one to Davy from a wall display.
Cue the second romp of the episode (“Take a Giant Step”), an Errol-Flynn-for-beginners type sword fight complete with refined costuming and lots of stepping in party food. Jones would later say he loved filming these types of almost-acrobatic fencing scenes.
The fight is stopped abruptly. Peter has called the telephone operator: “When you hear the tone, the time will be midnight — beep.” Bettina, now the queen, orders her uncle arrested and, we can only surmise, goes back to Harmonica where she’s still ruling to this day.
The Monkees‘ premiere garnered modest ratings on September 12, 1966, up against CBS’ Gilligan’s Island, but the reviews from critics at the New York and Los Angeles Times were positive. Other publications, namely Time and Newsweek, were more tepid, clearly drawing the line from the Beatles on the big screen to the Monkees on the small one. Newsweek, in particular, noted that “television is a medium that thrives on thievery.”
Regardless of inspiration, Royal Flush garnered the series two Emmy Awards at the 1967 ceremony — one for Outstanding Comedy Series and one for Direction (going to James Frawley). The series premiere also signaled a changing of the guard: before The Monkees, older folks could change the radio dial and escape the long-haired weirdos of the day. Now that they were on network television, it was clear that something was shifting. The Monkees‘ theme song said it all: they were the young generation, and they had something to say.