TERRY GROSS, HOST:
In case you're too young to remember, "Car 54, Where Are You?" is the TV comedy series about a mythical police station in the Bronx created by Nat Hiken in 1961, his next brainchild after "The Phil Silvers Show" and "Sergeant Bilko." "Car 54" ran for only two seasons, but some people regard it as one of the funniest shows on television. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says he has many reasons for being a fan of the show. The show is now available on DVD.
(SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG, "CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU?")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) There's a hold up in the Bronx. Brooklyn's broken out in fights. There's a traffic jam in Harlem that's backed up to Jackson Heights. There's a Scout troop short a child. Khrushchev's due at Idlewild. Car 54, where are you?
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: I grew up in New York City, but I didn't watch "Car 54, Where Are You?" until I got hooked on it in syndication long after it was originally aired. So I was very happy to see the complete series of 60 episodes released on two DVD box sets.
The episode in season two, "I Hate Captain Block," about trying to teach a recalcitrant parrot to talk and the way people are not much smarter than parrots is one of the most hilarious things I've ever seen on television - maybe as inspired as Sid Caesar's foreign film parodies or Carol Burnett's version of "Gone with the Wind."
I love the show for a couple of other reasons, too. For one thing, it was filmed on location in New York, but even more important, it was aware of what was going on in New York, starting with the line in Nat Hiken's memorable theme song about Khrushchev being due at Idlewild, which is what JFK Airport was called in 1960 when the Soviet premier had his legendary outburst at the U.N. And how many other television comedies would refer to Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic?
One of my favorite episodes - the show's fifth - hits even closer to home. An elderly Jewish lady, played by Molly Picon, the enchanting musical star of the Yiddish theater, is being forced by the city to move from her apartment in the Bronx because her neighborhood is being torn down for an urban renewal project. That's exactly what happened to my family in Brooklyn. Picon's Mrs. Bronson became a prescient spokesperson for preserving real neighborhoods.
My other reason is Picon herself. My mother had a couple of old Molly Picon 78s, so I grew up listening to her bright singing voice and delicious comic timing. In the second season of "Car 54," Mrs. Bronson is back. In order to get her to move out of her old building, the city has given her a lease for an apartment in a new building. So she moves in, even though that building does not have walls yet.
She, of course, charms all the officials trying to get her out, from the two police officers, Toody and Muldoon - Joe. E. Ross and Fred Gwynne - to the housing commissioner himself. She gives them homemade honey cake, and teaches them the touching, turn-of-the-century Yiddish song "Oyfn Pripetshik." Songwriter M.M. Warshawsky's refrain can be loosely translated as: In the fireplace, a little fire's burning. Warm the house must be, and the little rabbi helps the little children learn their ABC.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU?)
MOLLY PICON: (Singing in Yiddish)
SCHWARTZ: My grandmother used to sing me that song when I was a child. On the show, the words are never translated. However funny "Car 54" was, it was built on a bedrock of day-to-day reality that was one of the things that made it so deeply endearing.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.