Friday, August 25, 2017

Sing a Song of Villainy

This is my first entry in the Van Johnson Blogathon hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood

Everybody, and I mean everybody, wants to jump on the bandwagon when its on its way up the hill.  And Batman was not an exception.  The show was hot in it's first season, and even through most of it's second season.  As such, with its potential for "guest villains", many of Hollywood's elite sought to be one of the premiere guest villains on the show.  Besides the recurrent quartet of The Joker (Caesar Romero), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and Catwoman (variously played by Julie Newmar, Lee Meriweather and Eartha Kitt), there were occasions when other Hollywood stars were able to play their own versions of Batman's storehouse of nemeses.

Among these were Vincent Price (as Egghead),  Maurice Evans (as The Puzzler), Michael Rennie (as The Sandman) and Joan Collins (as The Siren).  Van Johnson, a prolific actor from about 1940 until cancer laid him low in the early 90's, was a guest villain early in the second season, playing The Minstrel, a charismatic and virtuoso singing talent who used his electronic genius to play havoc with the Dynamic Duo.  Johnson died just a few years ago, but he left behind a legacy of his own.  I am particularly fond of his appearances in some of my favorite WWII movies such as Thirty Seconds over Tokyo and Battleground.

Batman:  Episodes "The Minstrel's Shakedown" and "Barbecued Batman?"

There is something fishy going on at the Gotham Stock Exchange.  Some members are flat busted while others become multi-zillionaires due to the freaky way the stocks are being sold.  But wait, is it really stocks being bought and sold at unprecidented levels?  No, actually it is super-villain-of-the-week, The Minstrel (Van Johnson), a musical genius and an electronics wizard, who has manipulated the stock quotes.  And he has plans to make the most out of it.

Batman and Robin are called in to investigate, and they find that The Minstrel has been planting microchips in the computer system that allows him to manipulate the system.  Of course, Batman being the resourceful character that he is, he plans to catch The Minstrel retrieving his chip.  But he is thwarted, first by a washer woman (Phyllis Diller), who may  or may not be in The Minstrel's employ. (Note:  I don't know for sure whether she is or not, but its highly suspicious that she is whistling the minstrel's tune...)

Then The Minstrel himself shows up and through electronic wizardry stuns Batman and Robin and makes his escape.

The Dynamic Duo manage to create a Bat Drone that will locate from where The Minstrel's television signal is coming.  And, as usual they end up at a warehouse, and as usual they decide to use the Batarang and Bat rope to climb up the side of the building , and, as usual (again), they are captured and put to an elaborate death sequence, this time roasting over an electronic radar grill.

Side note:  Just out of curiosity why don't these lame-brained villains do what I would do first if I captured Batman and Robin?  That is, unmask them to reveal who they really are...  Anyway we tune in "tomorrow" same Bat-time same Bat-channel as our narrator exhorts, to find that our heroes find a way to escape, as they always do.

The Minstrel and his henchman manage to make their escape, but leave behind The Mimstrel's main squeeze, Amanda (Leslie Perkins) to delay them.  She expects to be arrested, however,  Batman lets her go, but unbeknownst to her, has planted a bug in her purse.

When The Minstrel finds the bug, he informs Batman that he plans to use his electronic genius to bring the stock exchange bulding down via vibrations attuned to the frequency of the stones in the building, much akin to the way a singer can hit a high note and shatter glass.  Bat man and Robin go to the building, and the building does indeed shake, despite and attempt by the duo to shut off the power in the building that The Minstrel needs to accomplish his task.  The climatic battle at the end results in, as expected, The Minstrel's capture, but The Minstrel delivers a warning as he is taken away that a jailbreak is imminent and he will return to do in the Dynamic Duo.  (Which may have happened, eventually, but the character never returned during the series' run.)

The Minstrel is a bit of a dilettante.  He remains on the sidelines and watches his cohorts try to take out Batman because he "abhors violence".  Personally, I think it's just because he is a wimp.  Hey, even Catwoman gets her knocks in once in a while.  Is The Minstrel the most ridiculous concept of a villain ever to face the Dynamic Duo in the series?  I wouldn't go so far as to say that.  (I think that honor would probably go to "Shame", a parody of western outlaws, played by Cliff Robertson. )

Van Johnson is charismatic as usual in this episode.  And he can sing pretty good.  The Minstrel was a villain created specifically for the TV series and was not in the original Batman comics.

Well, folks, that wraps up today's entry.  Tune in tomorrow, same Van Johnson time, same Van Johnson channel for a review of one of his dramatic roles in Go For Broke!.



  1. I rather liked the concept for The Minstrel, but probably because I like Van Johnson. I could listen to him sing all day. I have an album with Van as the lead in The Music Man that is a treasure.

    PS: You're right. The worst is "Shame". What were they thinking?

    1. Some of the villains seemed to be a stretch. The likelihood of a singer becoming a crook seemed to be implausible...Oh wait, I forgot about Sinatra and Martin and Davis, Jr... At any rate it seemed more plausible than a few of the others, but thats what makes the show fun. Thanks for reading.

  2. I love this show, especially because of its villains. They always look like they're having the best time. I think Vincent Price and Frank Gorshin tie for my favorite, but I also really enjoy Van's Minstrel.

    1. Frank Gorshin had way too much fun playing the Riddler, but thats what made him so likeable as a villain. Thanks for reading.

  3. I find all the 2-episode Batmans funnier and funnier with time. Adam West's timing was priceless and Burt Ward ... well, even though I suspect he didn't understand what he was doing, is also amusing with his earnestness.

    In this episode, Van Johnson seems to having such fun. But like Adam West, he always stays in character. What a deft comic actor he could be! (And you're right, what a wimpy villain.)

    PS I liked "Shame." The worst guest villain was Zsa Zsa Gabor as Minerva.

    1. I thought Zsa Zsa was too easy a target, as was Liberace. Thanks for reading

  4. I found a clip of "BBQ Batman?" on YouTube, and I must say Van Johnson is rather fetching in his minstrel garb.

    I haven't seen very many of these episodes, but I've got to change that based on terrific classic film celebs you mentioned. YouTube offers an online subscription to this series, which I'm seriously thinking about...

    1. I bought the entire three season series for $70.00 last year. Not the deluxe one with all the special features, however, just the episodes, but it is a great series. Thanks for reading.

  5. Fantastic! I've seen bits of Batman episodes, but never one with Van Johnson as a guest star. Well, your post made me curious, now!
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. I think a few complete episodes might be on youtube. Better yet see if you can scare up one of the DVD collections. You won't be disappointed if you like campy stuff. Thanks for reading.


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