The Husband and I indulged in a bit of nostalgia recently. The TV show, Emergency!, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Honestly, I didn’t know it started that early in the 70’s… I would have sworn it was the late 70’s… Anyway, being a process/procedural kind of girl, I always enjoyed that show, seeing the elaborate rescues, mostly, but also the medical techniques of both the paramedics and the doctors in the hospital.
A few months ago, I saw the 50th anniversary show listed in a schedule for the Cerritos Performing Arts Center and I thought that would be fun, so we grabbed tickets. I noticed that earlier in the day, there would also be festivities at the LA County Fire Museum nearby. I had no idea what a big deal this really was, though, until we heard the whole story of Jack Webb’s call for a new show.
Here’s what happened:
Jack Webb, known best for Dragnet, recognized that his show, Adam-12, was beginning to fade in the ratings and assigned a producer on his team to go to an emergency hospital to try to find a story they could develop into a series. When the producer spotted a couple of guys standing off to the side of the emergency room, he asked about them and a nurse told him, “Never mind them, they won’t be here long.” She meant that their pilot program was destined to fail. But he spoke to them anyway and they introduced him to the relatively new world of paramedics, a perfect focus for a new series.
What I didn’t realize was that at the time of the first season of Emergency!, there were only two or three paramedic teams in California, enabled by a bill signed by then governor Ronald Reagan. Additionally, there were only one or two other cities running trials with this new concept of emergency care at the scene of the accident or illness. If you’re my age, you barely remember a time when paramedics were not part of the local fire department and if you’re just a bit younger, you’ve always had them to depend on. But when Emergency! originally aired, it served not only as riveting entertainment for the public, but also an enthusiastic marketing campaign for these new emergency services.
Jack Webb was a stickler for detail. His one overriding edict about the show was that if the Los Angeles County Fire Department wouldn’t do it, they wouldn’t do it. The technical advisors were current paramedics and rescue officers whose instructions were to quietly tell the director when something wasn’t right and the director would stop and make corrections. Accuracy was the most important aspect for both the producers and the LACoFD, who provided equipment and locations for the filming.
Emergency! is often cited as the inspiration for young men and women who have become firefighters and paramedics. Indeed, during the show, members of the audience were asked to stand up if they were first responders and nearly half the auditorium rose from their seats. And of those, probably three quarters acknowledged Emergency! as an influence with a show of hands.
During the interview with Randy Mantooth, who played John Gage, he was asked if he realized how much of an impact the show had on viewers. He said that he hadn’t truly understood until the Smithsonian Institute inducted the show into the museum in 2000—in the public service section, not entertainment.
The Cerritos Event
On the walkway into the theatre, a bagpiper served as greeter.
People swarmed the vehicles in the courtyard.
The lobby had several photo ops and pictures of the cast.
The first half of the event featured Randy Mantooth and Kevin Tighe, who played Roy DeSoto, being interviewed by Mantooth’s younger sister, Tonya Mantooth, who was 12 when her brother started the show. She said she would have long conversations with Kevin, who would start their talks with the question, “What are you reading?” Gotta love that!!
The actors have stayed close over the years, evidenced in their easy manner and repartee. Mantooth has had a career in theatre and soap operas and supports firefighters and paramedics with his work on Project 51. Tighe, when not having fun playing villains, taught drama at USC.
They both had to take paramedic training to look as natural as they could for their roles. Mantooth said at the end of a scene, he would look to the technical advisor, not the director, for approval. They also told stories about their fears and how hard some scenes were—Tighe hated heights and Mantooth wasn’t comfortable in deep water scenes. They also told stories about Robert Fuller, Bobby Troup and Julie London, who sounded like quite a broad. Both The Husband and I envied Tighe’s story of accompanying Troup and London to Duke Ellington’s house for an evening filled with other jazz luminaries.
After a break, they brought out a female writer for the show and the emergency room doctor who served as a technical advisor. Then several of the paramedic technical advisors were interviewed, talking about their own initial training only several years before and the opportunity to work on the show. One man told the story of a director who did not want to make the changes he was advising, so after two attempts, he called the producer, Robert A. Cinader, whose name he finally had to invoke to get the director to change the scene. Some people just don’t want to cooperate!!
Mantooth and Tighe came back out for more interviews and tributes to James O. Page, a pioneer of Emergency Medical Services and a legend in firefighting circles who served as a technical advisor, and Robert A. Cinader, the producer responsible for the show, who was so well respected in the EMS community that the station shown in the opening credits of Emergency! was named after him in his honor.
It was quite a night of, yes, nostalgia, but also a lot of history and great stories about a show that was much more than the entertainment I’d taken it for.
If you feel like reading more about the show or the LA County Fire Museum:
Article about the Smithsonian
Detail about the show and equipment
Current Reads and Watches
What I’m reading now (paper): The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
What I’m reading now (Kindle): To Redeem One Person is to Redeem the World by Gail S. Hornstein
What I’m binge watching: Murder in Provence on Britbox