Tod and Buz, leaving Pittsburgh, almost have a head-on collision with a car driven by a gravely ill old woman. After the woman is stabilized at her home, Tod and Buz learn she does not have long to live. Her last wish is to re-unite with a jazz band she last sang with 30 yrs before. Tod and Buz agree to seek out the members. Written by
Suddenly the boys are in Pittsburgh, or rather leaving it after a disappointing stay there, (we don't know why but stay tuned). Suddenly a car veers at them from the other lane. They barely avoid it. An Angry Buz gets out to yell at the driver, who proves to be an old black lady having a heart attack. She's played by Ethel Waters.
I then realized that I was now about to watch the most famous and best remembered episode of Route 66. It's just wasn't remembered by me. I might have seen it as a kid but don't recall seeing it when the series was rebroadcast on Nick-at- Nite. When I bought some episodes from an internet collector some years later, this was not among them. But my friend who considers this the best TV series ever also considers this the best episode ever, so I was glad to get the chance to finally see it. (The IMDb agrees with him, listing it as the most popular episode.) Having just watched it, I can see why everybody likes it, although my favorite remains "The Mudnest", which is coming up in four more episodes.
The set-up is reminiscent of the first season's "Most Vanquished, Most Victorious", where Todd's Aunt wanted him to find her daughter before she died. And like that one, (and the show itself), the journey means as much if not more than the result. Ethel wants her old band back to play for her once more time before she dies. She's saved up plenty of money and the boys agree to search for them and try to get them back as soon as possible. This is the only Route 66 episode I know of that doesn't take place in one general location. The boys wind up as far away as New York and San Francisco, (although it was probably all filmed in Pittsburgh), to convince the old band members to reunite in Pittsburgh for their old singer. One of them is dead: his son, who has a reputation as a neighborhood tough guy, remembers the kindnesses the old lady gave him as a child and agrees to go. Another is in prison and Buz has to get him some leave, complete with a prison guard who poses as his "manager". Another lost his career and almost his life in a bottle. He hocked his trumpet and is afraid to get it back because he lacks the confidence that he could still play it. But even he reluctantly shows up.
They wind up playing with Ethel, who sings a couple of classics with them but slips away while they were playing, (but she blinks when she's supposed to be dead!) They finish the number they were playing, (at Tod's emotional urging). It's like a New Orleans funeral, using the music to remember the joy the deceased brought. This segment should have gone on longer than it did. Instead they break away from it as her daughter goes sadly outside and the camera zooms in on a church steeple. This probably should have been at least a two -parter. With all the individual stories, there's so much more to it than "Fly Away Home", the series' one two- parter so far, which probably should have been a single episode
Just before that final shot, there are some scenes of some members of the band playing and adults and children in the neighborhood dancing to it that bring out the importance of music in people's lives, especially economically disadvantaged people. I've often observed that innovation in society tends to come from the bottom of the economic scale because those people have to innovate to survive and find joy in life. It's true in music. It's true in cooking, (it's where the recipes come from). It's true in sports and other forms of entertainment. The joy produced by these innovations is really an act of defiance against the circumstances these people find themselves in: "You aren't going to prevent me from being happy."
This comes through strongly in this episode which was an innovation in itself in 1961, a time when black people and black neighborhoods were unrepresented on TV, even in the crime shows. This episode probably employed more black actors than any TV episode had to this time. And most of the members of the fictional "Memphis Naturals" band are legitimate jazz legends, including Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and Joe Jones. Here is an excellent article on them and this show: http://mleddy.blogspot.com/2013/06/jazz-on-route-66.html
When the episode is over and the credits roll, we hear again Nelson Riddle's classic theme for this show- and remember that it had its roots in the music these men played.
One more thought: I love episodes that you'd be unlikely to see on any other show. How many other shows could have done this episode, with no crime, not bad guys, etc.? Maybe Dr. Kildare, Lou Grant not many others. They wouldn't have done it better.
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