September 21, 1957 – Perry Mason’s First Case

Hamilton Burger, Arthur Tragg, Della Street, Perry Mason, Paul Drake. Photo: CBS

On September 21, 1957, defense attorney Perry Mason tried – and won – the first of many cases in the Los Angeles County Courthouse, as one of television’s most successful and longest-running legal series premiered on CBS.  Broadcast from September 1957 until May of 1966,  Perry Mason featured Raymond Burr as cool, brilliant, masterful Mason, Barbara Hale as his attractive, husky-voiced, confidential secretary, William Hopper as blond, handsome, semi-playboy private detective Paul Drake, William Talman as hapless, clownish District Attorney Hamilton Burger, and Ray Collins as smug, thick-skulled police Lt. Arthur Tragg.

Each episode title began with the familiar phrase “The Case of the . . .” and the show progressed following a formula, as well.  The first part of the show set up the audience for the murder of a disagreeable, deserving victim and the presence on, or near the scene, of a likable, innocent, soon-to-be defendant to the crime.  Perry would take on the case, Drake would investigate (dropping into the office through his private back entrance and calling Della “Beautiful”), and soon the courtroom drama would begin.  Over-confident DA Burger would present his case, with evidence from gloating Lt Tragg, Perry would call witnesses, examine and cross-examine, the real killer would get uncomfortable, Drake would arrive at the courtroom in the nick of time with an important envelope, and all of a sudden Perry would force an anguished or angry, emotional confession from the real murderer.

It was formulaic, but it worked.  Perry Mason was highly popular.  Most everyone could hum the show’s theme song, “Park Avenue Beat”.  Many famous actors and actresses appeared as guest stars over the years, including (just to name a few) Robert Redford, Bette Davis, James Coburn, George Kennedy, Angie Dickenson, Louise Fletcher, Burt Reynolds, Barbara Eden, Ryan O’Neal, Diane Ladd, Fay Wray, Cloris Leachman, Lee Meriwether, Dick Clark, Jackie Coogan, De Forest Kelley, Werner Klemperer, Harvey Korman, June Lockhart, and Marion Ross.  Erle Stanley Gardner, the detective fiction author who originally created the story’s characters, played a judge in the final series episode on May 22, 1966.  From 1985 to 1995, 30 made-for-television movies aired on NBC, most starring Burr and Street, with other actors filling in the main roles.  The original episodes are in syndication to this day.

KPTV in Portland, Oregon – where I was born – continuously carried reruns of Perry Mason from its final episode in 1966 until September 4, 2012, when Perry adjourned to another local Portland station, KPDX. Appearing at noon (except for a brief period in the mid-70s when it was moved to 12:30 PM), Perry was a daily lunchtime staple for faithful fans in the Rose City, who will now be co-sleuthing with Mason & Co. at 8:00 AM over coffee, eggs and blueberry granola. For many years, I was one of those faithful fans. As a young adolescent, I found much to love about Perry, a strong, mature man who could always be counted on to protect the good and the innocent. I have to admit that Paul Drake added his own special, erotic thrill.

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