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: “The Monkees in a Ghost Town” (Season 1, Episode 7)
Air date: September 24, 1966
“Man, I’ve heard of out-of-town jobs before, but this is ridiculous.” — Michael Nesmith
“The Monkees in a Ghost Town” is the first episode that takes the band on the road, far from their usual beachside shack, putting them in the middle of an adventure so surreal that it could only happen to the Monkees.
We open to find our boys tired and annoyed, having driven hundreds of miles through the middle of nowhere to a gig they can’t find. After a missed turn — oh, 150 miles ago — they run out of gas and roll into an abandoned ghost town. Their red, mod sportscar (the “Monkeemobile” making its in-series debut) doesn’t exactly fit in with the surroundings; everything they see, from the deserted streets to the dead trees to the rundown buildings, makes them eager to get their gas and get out. (Listen closely to the sputtering of their car as it dies; it’s actually a voiceover done by the legendary Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and many other classic Warner Bros. characters.)
The boys split into teams to find gas, and Davy’s imagination gets the better of him as he envisions Michael dueling against himself in a good-guy-vs.-bad-guy battle to the death — though in the end, it’s Davy’s own character, Kincaid, who’s shot by bad-guy-cowboy Michael. Meanwhile, Micky and Peter discover an old triangle once used to call the locals to dinner, and the racket Peter makes with it brings on some real-life trouble.
Trouble, in this case, is in the form of two not-so-imaginary gangsters, George (Len Lesser) and Lenny (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who were hiding out in the local jail. Chaney, son of the famous horror actor, is most well known for his portrayal of Lennie in 1939’s Of Mice and Men; both the names of these two characters and Chaney’s portrayal are direct callbacks to the movie. These two make a classic comedy gangster duo, deftly using slapstick to full effect.
Lenny shows his softer side when Michael asks him, “What do you want?” but when the Monkees admit they can’t give him his idealized world of “a job and security, and a home…PTA meetings and cookouts on weekends,” Lenny gets fed up and drags Michael and Davy off to jail.
Back at the jail, George and Lenny fantasize about the treasures that await them when “the Big Man gets here” — their mysterious boss who promises them riches but whom they have never seen in person.
Peter and Micky, overhearing this conversation from outside the jail, decide to break their friends out of the slammer by pretending to be this unseen “Big Man” — who Micky plays with his customary over-the-top scenery chewing and trademark James Cagney impersonation — and his henchman, “Spider.” But George and Lenny catch on quick and chuck them in the jail cell with the other Monkees.
The gangsters leave, warning the boys that it’s not worth escaping because there’s only “miles of desert all around.” Which leads into the first musical number: a hybrid desert/beach-themed video for “Tomorrow’s Gonna be Another Day.” (When the network repeated this episode on July 17, 1967, this sequence was replaced with “Words,” as it had just been released as the B-side on their newest single.)
Meanwhile in jail, Micky has another brilliant idea, and tricks Lenny into giving them a shovel and a ball to play baseball in their cell. Lenny obliges (and in another callback to his famous role, pulls a mouse out of his pocket in addition to the ball), but the boys have other plans — to dig their way out of the cell through the floor.
Davy wonders how they can cover up the sound of all that digging. Luckily, a guitar magically appears on Michael, and the digging is masked by the episode’s second song, “Papa Gene’s Blues.” The sequence of them digging their way out, while simultaneously convincing Lenny that they’re playing baseball, and interspersed with images of everything from beaches to camels, is hilarious and random in the way only the Monkees can pull off.
George catches them in the act, but any punishment is cut short by the arrival of someone he and Lenny hope is finally the Big Man. Yet the person who arrives is a tough woman who reveals herself to be Bessie Kowalski, “The Big Woman, the Big Man’s wife” (played by Rose Marie, a legend of stage and screen who also appeared in 1967’s “Monkee Mother”). She’s taken over the title from her husband when “he got too big.” Bessie quickly convinces the skeptical gangsters that she is who she says she is and shows her dominance by throwing George to the ground.
Mildly annoyed by the presence of the Monkees in jail, Bessie orders their execution. But when the Monkees mention they’re musicians, Bessie becomes interested in them, as she was once a singer herself. Davy begs her to let them sing one final song before their execution (awwww, Davy, no one can say no to your puppy-dog face!).
Her performance is interesting, to say the least, but she steals Lennie’s heart, who confesses, “I think I might be in love with the Big Man.” George doesn’t agree with this assessment of her talent, wondering if perhaps she sang her husband to death.
Meanwhile, Davy’s using the town’s one phone to call for help, first reaching a self-described “primitive Indian chief” with multiple phone lines, and later calling a cowboy who suggests they find Bob Dylan, who could “write a song about [their] problems.” Needless to say, this is a futile effort.
For Bessie, the show’s over and she’s ready for the boys’ execution when Michael once again distracts by showing her some of the newer music happening (Bessie’s “career” was clearly in the jazz age), and she joins them in a spirited chorus of the Monkees’ theme song. Soon Lenny joins in, and eager to play in the band, trades his gun for a set of maracas. The boys take the gun and make a run for it, but not before setting the piano to player mode so Bessie can continue to sing, blissfully unaware of the escape taking place under her nose.
But the gangsters notice, and thus starts the most delightfully weird shootout sequence full of carnival games, cavalry, a warship, and of course, Bessie continuing to sing along to the Monkees’ theme song. Davy is an ace shooter and manages to shoot George’s tommy gun out of his hand. The gangsters surrender and the Monkees trap them, using Lenny’s catchphrase, “You guys ain’t going nowhere.”
The cops take George, Lenny, and Bessie away, though Bessie is thankful that the boys brought her out of showbiz retirement. She proposes starting a new act with the Monkees: Bessie and the Bullets. The Monkees’ expressions clearly say, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”
The Monkees are free to go and are commended with a reward by the police for catching these guys. Sadly, the tickets they get for parking in an unmarked space and performing an unlicensed cabaret (in a ghost town!) wipes out the reward money. “Well, that’s showbusiness!”
Unscathed, the Monkees hightail it out of town (they must have found that gas after all) and on to their next adventure.