The Time Capsule | Roy Marshall
About 10 years ago, I did a column suggesting Villisca modify its water tower to resemble the rocket ship in which Judd Holdren, a native son, journeyed to the moon.
The idea came while watching tourists snap pictures of Stanton’s skyline coffee pot. Making that one resemble a coffee pot took some doing, but the tower on the north edge of Villisca already has the basic rocket appearance. A little paint, fins, a sketch of Holdren in his space suit; something a high school art student with a tall ladder could do on a Halloween evening would do it.
That ship didn’t fly, though, so I offered to loan my entire collection of Captain Video and Commando Cody serials to the city if it would have a Judd Holdren Day at the Rialto. I have dozens of episodes, all as exciting as the Sci-Fi Channel but without commercials. Episode #4 of “Nightmare Typhoon,” which has the world teetering on the brink of destruction due to alien-made global climate change, is a plot that would sell tickets today.
The Rialto idea didn’t get off the ground either, causing me to ask if a spotted hog rated higher than a one-time resident who helped pave the way for “Star Wars.”
Most readers know the basics: Villisca-area farm boy, large family, Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, military. On the West Coast when the war ended, Holdren landed a Hollywood screen test and did well. Bit parts were followed by a couple of starring roles. He had looks, voice, screen presence – he was a potential leading man. Then he was cast in a sci-fi serial and the spiral began. Mediocre roles turned to bad ones leading to worse – disappointment to depression and eventually a bad ending.
Initially, I assumed he’d been successful. I read the hype from his studio and concluded he was a trailblazer in outer space film adventures.
I would learn otherwise; that he felt himself a victim and a failure – and I did not understand what his serials were. I bought tapes of several. They were not feature films. They are instead ongoing episodes of 25-30 minutes each, made to be shown between the news reel and cartoons. The plot takes the hero and mission to a crisis. There it ends, a nail-biter to be continued at the next matinee.
Holdren, often playing Captain Video or Commando Cody, did what he could with the parts he was dealt. Just how many space serials he appeared in is unknown, as he went from being the star to ever-diminishing – and sometimes uncredited – roles.
I’ve watched 10 in which he played the lead, and doing so took some time. Each has from 10 to 20 episodes, meaning I watched about 120 half-hour segments. That’s a lot of films, and Holdren made nearly all of them between 1951 and 1954.
Generally speaking, they’re awful. Plots are thin, camera work sloppy, props and costumes cheap. As “Sky Marshal of the Universe” Holdren battles creatures on a distant planet, there are telephone poles in the background.
Bad as the serials were, kids of the 1950s flocked to theatres and idolized their super-hero. When this happened the studio put him in a mask. The mask was absurd, worn without plausible reason.
In “Typhoon,” Commando Cody confers with scholarly scientists to plan a way of thwarting aliens who were destroying the world with extreme weather. Scientists know who he is, the aliens don’t care, and yet he leads a strategy session while wearing a goofy mask. This was to prevent his face from becoming so identified with a role that he would attain ownership and therefore some control. Directors could put anyone behind the mask. Even so, his brother told me decades later, Holdren continued to receive fan mail from kids around the world.
His roles went from bad to non-existent. In 1953 serials, Holdren is the star with Richard Crane as his bumbling side-kick. Just a year later, in the Rocky Jones Space Ranger TV series, Crane has the lead and Holdren has been relegated to a minor role. He was being ushered out.
Holdren’s decline, his fall from grace with studio bosses, was not because he was a bad actor. He wasn’t Cooper or Cagney, but after watching his films I’ve no doubt he made a better space ranger than those who replaced him. Although Don Holdren didn’t know why doors closed for his brother, he believed studios missed an opportunity by taking so long in recognizing the potential of outer space.
At about the time 20th Century Fox started filming the first Star Wars feature movie, a frustrated Judd Holdren, who years earlier had made “Zombies of the Stratosphere” with Leonard Nimoy, took his own life.
Roy Marshall is a local historian and columnist for the Red Oak Express. He can be contacted at email@example.com.