Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Saturday, December 19, 2015


With the death of actor Al Markim late last month, my thoughts turned to Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, the television series that helped informed my childhood and the one in which Markim portrayed Astro the Venusian in all 58 episodes that aired from 1951 to 1955.

Tom Corbett had a lengthy inception before being born on television.  Tom was the brain child of writer Joseph Greene, the first glimmering of the space cadet was in a proposed comic book, circa 1945.  When that idea did not get anywhere, Greene worked on a radio script tentatively titled "Space Academy."  This drew the attention of Rockhill Studios, which worked with Greene to develop the script into a television show.  Robert A. Heinlein, in 1948, published his juvenile SF novel Space Cadet, and it was felt that "Space Cadet" would be a far more commercial title than "Space Academy, so the rights to the words "Space Cadet" were purchased from Heinlein.  (For many years now, it has been hinted that the Tom Corbett series and character were based on that Heinlein novel, but only those two words directly came from the noted SF writer.  There are, however,,a number of similarities between Corbett and Heinlein's book.  Coincidence? )  By 1949, Tom Ranger and the Space Cadets (Tom Ranger being the original name for Corbett) was developed as a syndicated newspaper comic strip -- but again, nothing came of it.

By 1950, however, CBS used the unpublished strip and, changing the name of the character, premiered Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.  A year later, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet began a run as a newspaper comic strip.  Betwen 1952 and 1954, Greene wrote the Dell comic book based on the character.  Also in 1952, Grossett & Dunlap began published a series of Tom Corbett novels by the pseudonymous "Carey Rockwell," who may or may not have been Greene, who otherwise may or may not have had input in the writing and/or editing of the series.*  There were eight Tom Corbett novels in the series, which listed Willy Ley as "scientific advisor."  The television show, meanwhile, moved to ABC** and ABC also aired a short-lived Tom Corbett  radio show.  The show moved to the Dupont Network for its fourth season and to NBC for its fifth and final season.

Tom Corbett's popularity with kids of the early Fifties ushered in a tsunami of promotional items.  There was a musical recording, original cast records of the Cadets' adventures, a View-Master program, a lunch box, a pocket watch, coloring books, a pop-up book, Marx toys, Pep cereal tie-ins, and so on and so on.

So, who were Tom and the Cadets?  Tom is a cadet at the Space Academy, training for a career inthe Solar Corps.  Fellow cadets Astro and Roger Manning join Tom in his adventures, many of which are aboard the training ship Polaris and on nearby planets...and distant star systems.  Heady stuff for a child of the Fifties.

On television and radio, Tom was played by Frankie Thomas, Jr., Astro (as noted above) by Al Markim, and Roger Manning by Jan Merlin.  In 1954, Merlin was replaced by Jack Grimes, playing Cadet T. J. Thistle.  Semi-regular cast members included Ed Bryce as Captain Steve Strong and Carter Blake as Commander Arkwright.  Frank Sutton, who went on to become Gomer Pyle's Sergeant Carter, appeared in six episodes as Eric Raddison.  Other familiar faces included Tom Poston (uncredited) and chimpanzee J. Fred Muggs.

Back to the comic books.  Dell Comics dropped the title after issue #11 in 1954, after which Prize Comics picked up the option, publishing the issue linked below -- the first of three from Prize.  This issue has a cover by Marvin Stein and interior art by Stein and Mork Meskin; at least two of the stories were scripted by Greene.

In this issue, Tom and his pals find themseles on an experimental spaceship in "The Spaceship of Doom," encounter a strange being in the Venusian swamps in "Octopus Tree," and try to mediate a dispute in "The Spaceways of Peril."


* Another theory has Richard Jessup as the man behind the "Carey Rockwell" name.

** For some reason, the show's run on ABC was interrupted mid-stream with a three-month sojourn to NBC before bouncing back to ABC.

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