Buster Crabbe’s Saturday cliffhangers

Published 10:29 pm Tuesday, November 17, 2015

By Frank Roberts

Back in days of yore — and a few of mine — we got a “Buck” for two bits. Saturday was the payday, the day when friends gathered together to check the exploits of a major hero of the silver screen.

You plunked change down to the lady in that tight little booth, took your seat and there it was — Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon or, Buster Crabbe as Buck Rogers.

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It was ’36, and it was an “incomplete” movie — a serial, that is. We had four theaters within walking distance in my neighborhood, and Buster as Flash was at the Bliss Theater.

We happily sat through another chapter, which ended as they all did, with the hero in the direst straits.

Buster Crabbe got in and out of situations that were tighter than Elvis’s jeans. It was a thrill-a-minute, for about 20 minutes, each week.

As far as Flash Gordon was concerned, it took 12 chapters before he righted all wrongs. The final words? You remember them: ‘To Be Continued.’

Flash went through the what-for to keep us juveniles happy and excited. Each chapter had exciting titles and when you saw next week’s title on-screen at the end of that day’s adventures, you knew you had to return.

Yes, I sat through, “The Planet Of Peril” (gulp), “The Tunnel Of Terror” (gulp), “Captured By Shark Men” (gulp), “The Destroying Ray” (gulp), “Flaming Torture” (gulp) and “Battling the Sea Beast” (gulp-gulp).

One scene I remember as if it were yesterday found Flash battling a flaming creature. All of this was typical Saturday afternoon entertainment, and it came with a double feature, news, a cartoon, selected short subjects and previews of coming attractions.

Flash’s adventures were exciting, if not sophisticated. Who gave a hoot? Us kids returned week after week to see him and the other heroes recover from near-death situations. When the 20-minute chapter ended, it looked as if there was no way out for any of the hapless heroes.

A typical situation: The hero is under a car that just sped off a cliff, in flames, crashing on the rocks below. Next week?

He crawls out from under, brushes himself off, goes about his business and, a few minutes later, gets into a similar situation.

More often than not, things were happening to Buster Crabbe, who divided his science fiction hours between being Flash and Buck Rogers. Rogers’ tales were filled with toy rockets and balloon-like planets but, we felt they were the real thing, even when the rocket ships landed with a gentle thump on a strange planet and the earthlings wandered around that rocky planet, despite the unfriendly atmosphere.

As Flash Gordon — there were three different serials — Crabbe was always battling Ming on Mongo. That sounds like a Latin song, but Ming was the villain, Mongo the planet.

There, he fought the Shark Men, the Hawk Men, Octosacs and Orangopoids. That last was a dandy — a guy in a gorilla suit with a horn, sort-of a corny unicorn. He looked like a special guest at a kid’s birthday party.

Flash was usually accompanied by Jean Rogers as his adorable girlfriend, Dale Arden; Ming the Merciless was also intrigued by the beautiful blonde who did a lot of screaming and fainting, but she wouldn’t give ugly ole Ming the time of day.

Crabbe was the king of serials. In addition to being Flash and Buck, he starred in “Tarzan the Fearless,” “Red Barry,” “The Sea Hound,” “Pirates of the Sea,” and “King of the Congo.”

He made many such flicks and, along with his son Cullen (Cuffy), he was a star in the early television days.

Crabbe was blonde, handsome, athletic, a champion swimmer, had a good build and spoke dialogue reasonably well.

Second in popularity as far as serial-goers were concerned was Tom Tyler, also handsome and well-built.

He did have a problem with dialogue. In the 12 chapters in which he appeared as Captain Marvel, he spoke the equivalent of only one page of dialogue. Well, we came for the excitement, not for the speeches.

Speaking of excitement — whatever happened to Flash Gordon in his battle with the flaming crab monster? (That almost sounds like a dish in a seafood restaurant).

I wish I knew.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.