Here, Girl!

TV Eye

Lassie, Lassie, Lassie... what is the secret of your enduring appeal?

Once upon a time, a bunch of us from the Chronicle went to the circus. Our publisher Nick had been excited about seeing the Pink Panther in person and was getting out of hand about it. Finally, I smugly informed Nick that it was not really the Pink Panther but a man dressed in a Pink Panther suit. Nick was bitter and sulked through the elephants' appearance. I am lucky he didn't fire me. (He would wreak vengeance for this some years later during a birthday trip to Natural Bridge Caverns, but that's probably a story for "Day Trips.")

There will be no such disappointments at Highland Mall on Saturday, July 12 when Lassie appears in person... er, animal, on behalf of the new Lassie series. For those of you who have not been on the Animal Planet (APN) network lately, the Nineties version of America's beloved collie made its premiere in March on this subsidiary of the Discovery Channel (DISC), also parent to The Learning Channel (TLC). APN, which began its run on Austin's Time Warner Cable system in April, not only runs the new Lassie but programs several additional hours of Lassie programming throughout its weekend schedule.

APN features "all animals, all the time," but a lot of it is really cutesy stuff, so it's not surprising to see them collar Lassie to fill time on the weekends: That bitch has gotten her tail on TV in every single decade since the Fifties! Lassie made her first appearance on TV in 1954 (which means the old girl and I have a lot in common but I'll leave those jokes to the gentle reader). Since then, over 500 episodes spanning the Fifties to Nineties have followed the benign adventures of the sweet pet that began with a 1940s novel titled Lassie Come Home. Lassie Come Home was turned into a very successful film in 1943, due in no small part to its engaging juvenile leads, Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor. Six more Lassie films (including Son of Lassie and Courage of Lassie) were released theatrically between 1943 and 1954, when Lassie debuted on September 12 on CBS. The show remained a Sunday night staple through 1971, when it went into first-run syndication until fall 1974.

Lassie wasn't always the story of a boy and his dog; originally, the book and film were about a family too poor to keep the animal as a pet. The 1954 TV series reinvented Lassie as the companion of a young boy named Jeff Miller (Tommy Rettig) who lived on a farm. In 1957, Lassie brought the Millers a runaway little boy named Timmy (Jon Provost); the following season the Millers sold the farm to the childless Martins (June Lockhart and Paul Reilly), who bizarrely retained the orphaned Timmy as well as Lassie. In 1964, the Martins moved to Australia and Lassie soon had a new home with a forest ranger named Corey Stuart (Robert Bray). All of a sudden, Lassie was the story of a big boy and his dog.

Lassie was not very hip during the late Seventies and Eighties, which seems odd because in her own funny way, she was pretty damn feminist. In the final 1970-71 season, Lassie had found true love and exceeded the recommended limits of zero population growth by delivering seven puppies -- and she was unmarried. Furthermore, this female leading role was portrayed by a series of males! Not even Mary Tyler Moore was that liberated in 1971!

An animated but lame children's show called Lassie's Rescue Rangers ran on weekends September 1973-August 1974, but between the 1973 TV-movie Lassie: A New Beginning and a 1989 syndicated series called The New Lassie, America's favorite dog kept a low profile. The New Lassie, interestingly, starred none other than Jon Provost, and in the kind of let's-make-up-for-the-past-with-improbable-solutions thinking for which the Seventies was so noted, it was revealed that he was Timmy, and had reunited with his biological parents and changed his name. (Provost did not follow the time-honored path of former child stars growing into criminals, but Rettig found himself in hot water for marijuana in the early Sixties. Top that, Todd Bridges!)

Confession: I have not seen the new Lassie series on APN. The press release for Lassie's appearance notes that her "exciting adventures" include "the modern challenges of rollerblades, surfing the Internet, and more...." Wow -- I'm on the edge of my seat! The new Lassie shows Saturdays (7pm; repeats 4:30am Sundays). Vintage Lassie shows on APN include Jeff's Collie (Saturdays, 6am) and Timmy and Lassie (Saturdays, 7am), which are the syndicated names for the hour-long blocks that include two episodes from each of those eras. Sundays has something called Lassie Theatre (1-3am) but I can't find any info on it.

I also probably won't be attending that Lassie in-store at Highland Mall's Center Court, but for those of you interested, the famous collie will be appearing from 3-5pm. Kids can have a free Polaroid photo taken and receive Lassie's "pawtograph." In addition, the Austin Zoo will be exhibiting five exotic animals including a giant snake and an Australian Red-bearded Dragon.

When I started writing this column this week, this whole Lassie thing was one paragraph long and filled with smirking jokes. As I began to read up on Lassie, I became rather enchanted by the durability of her appeal (I also developed a great deal of respect for Rudd Weatherwax, Lassie's original trainer, and his son and successor, Bob) and got sort of warm and fuzzy over her. By the end of it, I started thinking how nice it would be to have a puppy. Is this not how trouble begins?

If you're sick of Lassie, Old Yeller comes on TV Saturday also. (KTBC, noon). Walt Disney's enduring 1957 tearjerker based on a Fred Gipson novel has tugged heartstrings for years too, mine and most likely yours. Yet another story of a boy and his dog --two boys, actually -- Old Yeller is set in 1869 Texas. Its heartwarming cast includes Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Dorothy Maguire, and Chuck Connors. I just know I'm not the only person who still weeps over this as an adult.

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