Imagine, if you will... an episode from Rod Serling's childhood "Zone"
By Michael A. Schuman
San Diego Union-Tribune
"Everyone has to have a hometown. Binghamton's mine. In the strangely brittle, terribly sensitive make-up of a human being, there is need for a place to hang a hat, or a kind of geographical womb to crawl back into, or maybe just a place that's familiar because that's where you grew up.
When I dig back through memory cells, I get one particularly distinctive feeling, and that's one of warmth, comfort and well-being. For whatever else I may have had, or lost, or will find, I've still got a hometown. This, nobody's gonna take away from me."
Submitted for your approval: the tangible ghosts from the life of the late, esteemed screenwriter and "The Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling, manifestations found in the upstate New York town of Binghamton. One need not penetrate the fog of any grotesque zone to encounter the shadows of Serling's past; they can be visited by anyone with access to the key of imagination.
In Binghamton's Recreation Park is a carousel. To the eyes of a "Twilight Zone" fan, it's where Martin Sloane fell and permanently injured his leg. That's Martin Sloane the elder and the younger, who if you recall the classic "Zone" episode, were one and the same.
As a child, Serling rode this carousel, within walking distance of the bandstand on which both young Serling and Martin Sloane carved their initials. The park was the setting for "Walking Distance," which, according to many critics, was the acme of the entire "Twilight Zone" anthology series.
"The Twilight Zone," which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1964 and has aired in reruns ever since, was beyond science fiction, beyond melodrama, beyond fantasy. It has achieved cult status and is still a part of our world four decades later.
Consider, if you will, the fact that a new generation is getting to know Serling via videotape at Disney MGM Studios' "The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror" ride in Orlando. To this day, the show's premise, along with classic episodes such as "The Eye of the Beholder," is periodically lampooned on "Saturday Night Live." "Zone's" premise is used in television ads and comedians' jokes. And that eerie theme still raises thoughts of the weird guy you knew who is now likely living in a cabin in the wilds of Montana.
In "Walking Distance," 36-year-old, harried Manhattan ad exec Martin Sloane returns to the small town of Homewood, where he grew up. Nothing has changed in 25 years. It's a sweet summer afternoon, with laughing children and a musical carousel. The metaphor is clear: childhood as a carefree summer day.
Martin chances upon himself as an 11-year-old boy carving his initials on the town bandstand. He then visits the home where he lived as a child and encounters his parents, who think this grown man claiming to be their son is a lunatic. Martin later tries to confront his young self once more, on the carousel, frightening the boy who runs and falls in agonizing pain; simultaneously the adult Martin feels the same wrenching pain.
His father finds the adult Martin and tells him that he doesn't belong here anymore. But why? His father answers, "I guess we only get once chance. Maybe there's only one summer to every customer."
Martin Sloane's Homewood is Binghamton, mid-1930s, and on the floor of the bandstand is a marker commemorating this famous "Twilight Zone" episode.
Robert Keller, of Binghamton's non-profit Rod Serling Foundation, was a boyhood friend of the writer. They ate dinner at each other's houses and pretended to be Greek shepherds in a local cemetery. "The mausoleums looked like Greek temples to us," Keller remembered.
Keller led me on a summer Sunday afternoon to Recreation Park, past the carousel to the bandstand on which Serling carved his initials more than 60 years ago.
On this day, I rode the carousel as its brassy sounds entertained me. At 3 in the afternoon, a band concert began, and the live sounds of big-band and swing music that young Serling once heard penetrated my ears.
Ice cream was sold from Good Humor and Mr. Softee trucks. Yet the marker that reads "Rod Serling Walking Distance" needs cleaning and seems ignored. Keller sadly notes that his hometown has yet to promote Serling the way that Fairmount, Ind., does James Dean and Lowell, Mass., honors Jack Kerouac.
"It's like that quote about a prophet who is without honor in his own home," Keller said.
The Rod Serling Foundation is the main force behind keeping Serling's legacy alive. The foundation is at the forefront of a major lobbying effort to create a commemorative postage stamp in Serling's honor.
The foundation also maintains a display titled "Diary of a Playwright" in the lobby of the Forum theater downtown. Visit, and you can see boyhood photos of the future television icon riding a motor scooter at age 8, posing with his mother, Esther, and brother Bob and assembled with his Hebrew school confirmation class.
You will also see a teen-age Serling with the staff of his high school newspaper, Panorama, circa 1942, and in his Air Force uniform somewhere in the Pacific on V-J Day, 1945. And you see the writer as playful father and husband, with his wife, Carol, and two young daughters in 1959.
Peruse the exhibit and you learn that Serling had a respected writing career well before "Zone." His dramas from the infant days of television, such as "Patterns," "A Town Has Turned to Dust" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" are today regarded as gems from the mine of television's Golden Age.
Yet "The Twilight Zone" stills raise the most memories from the recesses of visitors' minds. On view here are stills of innumerable "Zones," including Art Carney as Santa Claus in "Night of the Meek"; a then-unknown Robert Redford as Mr. Death in "Nothing in the Dark"; a young William Shatner as the petrified airline passenger in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"; the legendary Buster Keaton in "Once Upon a Time."
Near the theater are the landmarks of Serling's life. His boyhood home at 67 Bennett St. still stands a few blocks from Recreation Park. Privately owned, it's a handsome, white wood-frame house with dark shutters, in a neighborhood filled with other old, well-kept homes.
There is no historic marker at the house, but there is one at Binghamton High School, where as editor of Panorama Serling wrote pieces supporting the allies in World War II and condemning Nazi persecution. These may have planted the seeds for classic "Zone" stories about the hell of war and the shame of prejudice, such as "The Purple Testament," "Judgment Night" and "Deaths-Head Revisited." Today, the high school is the home of the Rod Serling School of Fine Arts.
Close by is the Walk of Stars, where entertainers with a local connection are honored a la Hollywood Boulevard. Serling has his own star, as do cartoonist Johnny Hart ("B.C.") and Richard Deacon (who played Mel Cooley on another '60s television classic, "The Dick Van Dyke Show.") There is another exhibition, four miles away at Binghamton Regional Airport. It is considerably smaller than the one at the Forum, and it shares space with a similar tribute to Hart. But this is the place to see Serling's high school yearbook.
It is also here that young writers read a Serling quote offering solace: "I collected forty rejection slips in a row. Nobody but a beginning writer can realize just how crushing this is to the ego."
I can relate. I always wanted to be Rod Serling. As a young writer, I regarded him as my hero. I wanted his creativity. I was a television-radio major in college, and I wanted to someday create my own "Twilight Zone." In time, I realized I'd never be Rod Serling.
But not even Serling could be Serling. Yes, he did go on to write the movie "Planet of the Apes" and have spotty success in the early 1970s with another anthology series, "Night Gallery." But as Bob Keller says of his friend, after "The Twilight Zone" "he had gone into a type of a writer's block. He may have exhausted his ideas. The trend he started had been copied to the point of being cheapened."
Then there was hounding from critics. Why couldn't he write more "Twilight Zone"-quality material, they asked.
Rod Serling died in 1975 of a heart attack at the age of 50.
Like Martin Sloane, maybe the stress had gotten to him, maybe he was vainly searching for the band concerts and carousels and the summer of his youth, not in "The Twilight Zone" but in very real Binghamton, N.Y.
If you go:
Rod Serling's hometown
* The exhibit "Day of a Playwright" is in the lobby of The Forum at 236 Washington St. Hours: weekdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. during theater season (September through May), sporadic hours in summer. Call in advance; one can also make an appointment to see the exhibit. Free. Call (607) 778-2480.
* The exhibit at Binghamton Regional Airport north of town is open 24 hours daily.
* The Walk of Stars is at the corner of Court and Washington streets.
* Binghamton Central High School is at 31 Main St.
* The carousel and bandstand are in Recreation Park off Beethoven Street. Carousel rides are free.
* Best Western Regency, 225 Water St., (607) 722-7575.
* Holiday Inn, 2-8 Hawley St., (607) 722-1212.
* Comfort Inn, 1156 Front St., (607) 722-5353.
Contact the Rod Serling Foundation, P.O. Box 2101, Binghamton, NY 13902, or the Broome County Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 995, Binghamton, NY 13902. Call (800) 836-6740.