Rocky King (Roscoe Karns), "chief of homicide of a metropolitan police force,"
talks to his wife (the always unseen Mabel) in a 1952 episode of Rocky King, Detective
Appendix Seven: Rocky King, Detective
One of the longest-running programs on the DuMont network was Rocky King, Detective, known in its early years as Inside Detective. In many ways, Rocky King represents both the good and bad of DuMont programming. Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh (see Channel 11) describe Rocky King as:
probably the most popular continuing dramatic show to
come out of the DuMont network...it (attracted) a loyal
and enthusiastic following which kept it on the air for five
years, nearly until the end of DuMont operations.
At the same time, Rocky King, telecast live on DuMont, was full of miscues and flubs, and was produced on a small budget. Video Yesteryear described Rocky King as having a "lighthearted, 'nobody's watching anyway' attitude." Brooks and Marsh also mention its "touches of humor", and add:
It never had the chance to attain top nationwide ratings, due
to DuMont's limited station lineup and severely restricted
production values (you never saw a big-name guest star
acting in a Rocky King episode!)
Of the hundreds of Rocky King programs which were telecast by DuMont, only a handful of kinescopes survive today, most of them at the UCLA archive. Over the years, the author has managed to find copies of two shows, "Return for Death" and "Murder in Advance." Here, then, is Rocky King, Detective, as seen through the eyes of the author.
As the program opens and the opening titles are shown, Roscoe Karns (as Rocky King) walks toward the camera from the opposite end of a long, dark hallway. This is too realistic and atmospheric to be a set or flat, and the author believes it must have been an actual hallway at the DuMont Tele-Centre in New York. The theme music plays (composed and performed on the organ by Jack Ward; most of the low-budget "live" DuMont shows seem to have organ music as accompaniment), and the voice-over sets the tone for the next half-hour:
ANNOUNCER: Rocky King, Detective! Starring Roscoe Karns as Rocky King, chief of homicide of a metropolitan police force, in an exciting fight against crime! Brought to you by Geritol!
(There is something incongruous, if not downright amusing, about this "exciting fight against crime" being sponsored by a product which repeatedly touts its effectiveness against "tired blood" throughout one of these kinescopes, but this is just one of the charms of Rocky King.)
Rocky's wife, Mabel, was the subject of considerable audience speculation because she was never seen on-camera. Brooks and Marsh explain why:
This began as an economy measure (typical of DuMont), when
an actress who was playing a role in a mystery was asked to
double as Rocky's wife at home. Since there was no time to
change clothes or makeup (the show was live), she spoke from
offscreen. Viewers liked the touch, and Grace Carney became
a permanent fixture, her off-camera presence always bringing
Rocky back to earth with her problems around the house. For
a time there was also an unseen son, named Junior.
In "Murder in Advance", Rocky and Mabel are discussing Junior's infatuation with a new girl who has just moved into the neighborhood, and speculating as to where it might lead in a few years:
MABEL: As time marches on, and life progresses, Junior's junior will have a Junior, and then I'll be a great-grandmother!
KING (ribbing the writers): I'll rest in peace if, along the line somewhere, they just change the name of Junior.
These exchanges between Rocky and his unseen wife are invariably interrupted by a call from his office:
HART (on the phone): Detective Hart, sir. Sorry to bring you out this time of night...
KING: Oh? And why do you sound so happy about it?
HART: Well, this call we got sort of matches the graveyard shift we've been working...
KING (deadpan): We're going to a cemetery.
HART (nonplussed): Correct. How'd you know?
KING: It isn't hard to figure out your jokes.
In "Return for Death" (which features a young Jack Klugman in a minor role), Rocky and Mabel discuss the fact that they aren't so young any more, and that they probably should put their wills in order and buy some land in a nearby cemetery. Mabel is worried about Rocky's assignment in the graveyard:
MABEL: Do you think you should go there, dear, after our conversation?
KING: Yes, dear. We should plan on having a little plot somewhere.
The "fourth wall" between camera and audience is broken down constantly on Rocky King. In "Murder in Advance", King and Hart investigate the death of a famous mystery writer:
HART: You know, I really go in for those mystery stories.
KING: Hey, you got a television set?
HART: Yeah. Do you look at them once in a while?
HART: Which one is your favorite?
KING (knowingly): Well, I'd rather not say. It's kind of personal.
Later, when Hart (played by Roscoe Karns' real-life son, Todd Karns) is about to depart to collect more evidence, Roscoe Karns again winks at the audience:
HART: Well, I guess I'd better get started, then.
KING (with emphasis): Nothing stopping you, son, you know what to do.
At one point in the show, the sound is left on a little too long (or perhaps the music crescendo is not loud enough), and an open microphone catches Karns dropping into a stage whisper. In a different kinescope of the same program, however, the mistake has been overdubbed, indicating that DuMont made an effort to correct problems with its kinescopes in post-production.
"Murder in Advance" also has its number of flubbed lines (even during the "live" Geritol commercials) and illustrates Roscoe Karns' inability to keep the characters' names straight:
KING: When's the, um, last time you saw the dead man alive?
WOMAN: Oh, well, I...
KING (realizing he's given her the wrong cue): What can you tell me about the dead man, too?
KING: Well, I wonder if I could talk to Mr. Gray and Miss Stanley.
WOMAN: Certainly. And Mr. Paul...
KING: Oh. Mr. Paul. That's right. I had it wrong.
As "Return for Death" draws to a close, an on-camera scuffle with the perpetrator accidentally sends his gun sailing off into the wings:
KING: Get his gun, Hart, quick! Give me his gun!
HART (ad-libbing): It's over there, sir. We can pick it up. I'll get it later.
KING: Where is it?
(Todd Karns slips off-camera to retrieve the gun, probably to get it from a stagehand)
In the end, the criminals are always caught and brought to justice. As the show closes, Rocky is sitting at his desk at work, talking with Mabel on the phone. This is Roscoe Karns' monologue, and Mabel's voice is not heard. The ending, however, is always the same:
KING: (hangs up the phone, glances toward the camera) Wonderful girl, that Mabel. (gets up from his desk and walks off camera, stage left, as the music rises to a crescendo and the credits start to roll)
The program ends much as it began, with Karns walking away from the camera down the hallway. As the credits roll, he turns to face the camera, and tips his hat to the audience. In the credits is the brief notation "Additional Dialogue by Roscoe Karns". In a 1954 magazine interview, Karns explained that he wrote the dialogue himself for the domestic scenes between Rocky and Mabel.
According to Brooks and Marsh, Roscoe Karns was grateful for his role as Rocky King, saying that it had "rescued" him from enforced retirement. Some viewers may remember him in a rather similar role as Capt. Walter Shafer on the NBC show Hennessey in the 1960's. He died in 1970. His son, Todd Karns, is best remembered from the movie It's a Wonderful Life as George Bailey's younger brother Harry, who shows up at the end of the film to toast George as "the richest man in town." Today, in spite of all its flaws, Rocky King, Detective stands as a charming and entertaining example of DuMont's "live" programming.
Go to Appendix Eight: Locations