A Leisurely Look @ “Emergency!”

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I can’t honestly say that I remember watching Emergency! during its initial run, when I was a child. The show – which charted the origin of the paramedic program which took place in Los Angeles County in the early 1970’s – ran from 1972 until 1977. I was born in ’72 so I doubt I watched the episodes new. But when I stumbled on the show quite by accident late one night in 1997, it felt like I had run into an old friend.

Screen Shot 2020-05-07 at 9.41.04 AMThe end of 1996 marked a turning point in my life. Long story short, I saw the movie Swingers in November and the film helped usher in major changes for me. One change that came was in what I listened to. I had always listened to classic rock and oldies but Swingers and Harry Connick helped turn me on to “Sinatra and Friends”; jazz, jazz vocal, pop vocal, etc. Also, I moved from the city I had spent my teenage years in to a small town. The town has grown since and now they refer to it as “rurban”. Back then, though, most of the television came courtesy of local channel CKVR which then ran mostly vintage shows.

When I moved to this small town, I met a local girl and we started living together almost immediately (take it easy; we got married and we’re still together). We first lived in a trailer and we combined all our furniture and set up housekeeping. Actually, the way it went was she moved her stuff in; I had nothing. My stereo. Anyways, I distinctly recall one night just after we had “our” TV set up that I tuned in CKVR, the only channel we got. And there was Emergency! I had a sort of instant recall. Perhaps I had watched the show in reruns in the late ’70’s. The opening credit sequence seemed familiar. But what really struck me was the cast.

I was slack-jawed as I watched the opening credits and saw both Julie London and Bobby Troup were on this show. Having recently discovered lounge-type music, I was well aware of Julie as a singer. Thanks in part to Capitol Records’ Ultra-Lounge series of CD’s, Julie was one of the first artists I encountered in this idiom. Starting with the 1955 single “Cry Me a River”, Julie released a series of smoky ballad albums through the ’50’s and into the 1960’s. She had been married to actor and director Jack Webb but the two had divorced and Julie and Bobby Troup were wed in 1959. Julie acted in smaller films, generally westerns. Bobby Troup wrote the jazz standard “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66”. ‘Nuff said. Beyond that, though, he wrote many other songs and often performed them himself on stage and records, usually with a small combo. Seeing them together, older, on the ’70’s show Emergency! was quite a revelation to me. While I was discovering Julie the songstress, I hadn’t put her together with Julie the TV nurse of my youth. Then, I learned that the series had been co-created and was produced by Jack Webb; who cast his ex-wife and her husband on the show! (Webb, a jazz lover like London and Troup, had also created Dragnet and Adam-12.)

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Emergency! was part-medical drama, part-action/adventure show that realistically depicted the origins of emergency medical services and the paramedic program, a program that the show helped to spread across the country. The pilot episode – a TV movie – dealt with the actual passing into law – signed by then-Governor Ronald Reagan – of the Wedworth-Townsend Paramedic Act of 1970, a law that “allow(ed) personnel other than doctors and nurses to render emergency medical care, a law met with much opposition. Hard to believe that, before this, guys that were nothing more than “ambulance drivers” would pick up people who had been in accidents and hopefully get them to the hospital in time. Emergency! featured two firefighter-paramedics that formed Squad 51 and who worked out of and along with the firemen of Station 51. The action sequences came when the Squad would head out on a call and face all manner of accidents, injuries and sicknesses and also when Engine 51 and its crew battled fires. That night when I stumbled on the show, I recognized the two actors who were portraying the paramedics; I must have seen them before on reruns. Randolph Mantooth played John Gage and Kevin Tighe played Roy DeSoto.

Mantooth portrayed Johnny Gage as a cool ladies man. He is best known today for his portrayal of Gage but also went on to star in five soap operas in the 1990’s. He played John as a light-hearted, hip kind of guy who nevertheless was all business in the field. Tighe’s DeSoto originally recruited Gage into the paramedic program and is a sedate family man. Quiet and unassuming, he often talks Johnny down from some of the crazy ideas Gage gets on his off-hours. Tighe had previously been active on episodic TV and went on to a film career somewhat more substantial than Mantooth’s. Tighe notably appeared in one of the greatest movies ever to feature a throat-ripping scene, Patrick Swayze’s Road House and he can also be seen in Eight Men OutAnother 48 Hours and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

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Robert Fuller portrayed Dr. Kelly Brackett, M.D./F.A.C.S./A.C.E.P. Fuller had actually appeared as a non-speaking extra in some pretty notable films; Come Back, Little ShebaJulius Caesar (1953), Gentlemen Prefer BlondesCalamity JaneThe Harder They FallThe Man in the Gray Flannel SuitThe Ten Commandments and Spartacus. He landed recurring roles on TV westerns Laramie and Wagon Train. Watch for him in the 1994 feature film Maverick.

So eventually I got into a routine; every Saturday night, I’d make myself a pizza or some such snack and watch Emergency! at midnight on CKVR. At first, my wife would also watch with me. As a registered nurse, she would comment on the medical procedures depicted on the show. We came to realize as we watched that it was good; it was a quality show that was earnest in its depictions of the dedicated doctors and the brave firefighters. It was serious in advocating for the furthering of the paramedic program. Some things about it, sure, were outdated but it was good at showing you how things worked at the time. My wife and I would try to predict what was wrong with a patient and argue about how they should be treated. I – ridiculously – fell in love with Ringer’s Lactate. Ringer’s is a solution injected into a victim of blood loss caused by trauma. Every time the Squad pulled up to a traffic accident, I’d yell at the screen “get out the Ringer’s!” And, no lie, every time I’ve been in a hospital in the last 40 years I’ve asked some poor nurse where the Ringer’s Lactate is. Yes, they always think I’m nuts.

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And then we had kids. As you parents can attest, kids wreck everything. Not really but us having kids meant that my wife was beat on a Saturday night and could no longer stay up until one watching Emergency! with me. That was sad. But this started a new era in my life. Again as you parents can attest, kids take a lot out of you. They brighten your lives and our boys are everything to us but your life sure changes. After having kids, making it to the end of the week was a major achievement and finishing the week with a pizza and the gang at Station 51 became a reward for a week well navigated. Oftentimes, midweek I’d start thinking about Saturday night; it represented a goal, a treat. The show began to take on large meaning to me.

Something else about the show appealed to me, a feeling I get from many shows from the 1970’s. It’s Saturday night. I’m watching my show, eating my pizza, listening for the boys upstairs. And on the TV I see grass, lawns. I see people’s yards, people’s living rooms, furniture and cars. I’m seeing what life looked like in the 1970’s. This part of the show was a recall of sorts for me. Every Saturday night I was seeing what the world looked like when I was a child, before life got serious with my parents’ divorce, with teenage angst and eventually with marriage and child rearing. It was a trip back to a simpler time. Look at that coffee cup Johnny’s using. We had one like it. This feeling made the show take on a positively magical aura.

Through the years, it has been fun to search the internet and discover sites and Facebook groups devoted to Emergency! There are lots of behind-the-scenes things to learn about the show, it’s filming and also about the real life equivalents of things depicted on the program. On the show, Station 51 was actually Fire Station 127 in Carson, California; at the time of the show, there was no Station 51. I learned that Engine 51 was made by the Ward LaFrance Truck Corporation, a company that made trucks and fire apparatus for 60 years until it shuttered in 1979. I got to know that “KMG365”, which was used to acknowledge calls at the station, was an actual FCC call sign.

At the station, Michael Norell portrayed Capt. Hank Stanley and Norell was also a screenwriter who wrote four episodes of Emergency! before going on to write many TV movies and series episodes. Real life fireman Mike Stoker played himself on the show. An actual firefighter was needed to drive the truck on the program and Stoker had a SAG card. Stoker stayed with the LACFD until he retired with the rank of captain. Tim Donnelly played goofball Chet Kelly who often served as a nemesis of sorts for John Gage. Tim’s brother, Dennis, directed many episodes of the show. Rounding out the crew of firemen was Marco Lopez who also used his own name on the show.

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Rampart General Hospital was actually what is now referred to as the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. At Rampart, Dr. Brackett was the head physician and worked closely with Dr. Joe Early (Troup) and Head Nurse Dixie McCall (London). Also on staff at the hospital was stern Dr. Morton portrayed by Ron Pinkard.

I was always impressed by the action on Emergency! They portrayed varied and harrowing rescues on the show. I would marvel at the set-ups of the auto accidents and the intensity of some of the blazes and explosions. On top of this, Mantooth and Tighe were quite good at appearing natural, engaged and earnest as they fought to save lives. And the various locations where these rescues took place were always fascinating, even when it was just an average street corner. I would often head to Google Earth to see if I could find the locations and see what they looked like now.

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The show’s legacy is no joke. Much of the equipment used on the show has made it to the Smithsonian and in the 1970’s the show was referenced in many reports and reviews and in debates about the necessity to have widespread EMS programs in cities across the country. The show is often credited with convincing the public at large that such services were vital to their safety. After all, week in and week out television audiences were seeing people trapped and hurt and in common accidents, the tragedy of which would surely be lessened by the speedy dispatching of paramedic teams. Today, of course, there are paramedic stations on almost every corner of even the smallest cities and towns.

After years of enjoying my well-earned Saturday night reward, suddenly, to my horror, there was no Emergency! at midnight on channel 5. CKVR was bought by a larger network and rebranded as an appendage of that network. So, no more Emergency! to end my week. No more CKVR Classic Television. As a result, I did the only thing I could do; I started buying the show on DVD. This would be good for many reasons, I figured, not the least of which was the fact that now I could have all the episodes at my fingertips and watch them whenever I wanted – Saturday night at midnight, for example – and not be beholden to the changing vagaries of the communications industry. I started obviously with the pilot movie, The Wedsworth-Townsend Act, directed by Jack Webb and guest-starring Adam-12‘s Martin Milner and Kent McCord from January 15, 1972, and marvelled at how young everyone looked. I won’t get too much into my viewing habits but a binge-watcher I ain’t. Comes the weekend and I scan the shelves for what I’m in the mood for and this changes constantly, often with the seasons. Emergency! I seemed to gravitate to during the spring and summer and I would watch a single episode on a Saturday night and maybe stick with this for several weeks. In the early going, my two young sons would sometimes join me. So, at the rate of maybe a dozen or so episodes a year, the seven seasons of the show lasted me a long time. I watched the series finale – one of the disappointing “final rescues” that aired as TV movies in 1979 – in April of 2020. I figured it took me about 15 years to get through the series. Which is the opposite of bingeing but what this gave me was a long journey spent with characters that have become friends and adventures that have taken me to the lawns and living rooms of my youth.

We all have “those” TV shows; at least I hope you do. Those shows you hold dear with characters you find yourself bonding with, characters you become so familiar with. When you think about it, we spend years with these people, even decades. I feel such warmth for Emergency! and the people on it, for the settings, the situations and the adventures. More than just a show I watched, it has literally been a part of my life, lo, these many years. I guess I’ll have to start watching again from the beginning; only this time I’ll really take my time getting through the series. The longer I spend with this show, the better.

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2 comments

  1. I’m one of those who watched Emergency! during its initial run. It was must-see TV for me. I was always that way about Jack Webb shows.

    Watching later medical or police procedural programs I noted that the personnel was following the same procedures as the earlier actors but they were shouting, talking fast, and had dramatic music behind them. I would rather have the calm professionalism of Station 51 or Adam-12. Even on television.

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