Rod Serling, Binghamton, New York: Star Trekking
Road Trips to Hollywood Across America
When does a writer become a TV star? When his work is so distinctive that he cannot be ignored, plus he has a voice as resonant and seductive as any actor's. And when, furthermore, the legendary Orson Welles (the network's first choice) turns out to be too expensive for the sponsors to hire as the narrator/host of the black & white fantasy series the Twilight Zone. That is how Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling became a CBS star who is still coming onto video screens in our homes 54 years after the show first aired.
Serling was born in Syracuse, NY in 1924; but his family moved to the small city of Binghamton when he was a toddler. All his life he remained upfront about the feeling of well-being that he associated with Binghamton. The city is warm and fuzzy right back at him and pulls us to our third stop on the Star Trekking tour.
The Twilight Zone became a catchphrase in the English language for a psychological or metaphysical area of weirdness and unreality. If you want to feel like you're there - in a good way - you can feel it with a trip to Serling's childhood world as preserved and honored in this upstate New York town. The most vibrant, the most fun and, at the same time, the most poignant attraction has to be a certain carousel.
Thanks to a local benefactor in the early part of the 20th Century, Binghamton can boast that it has the only carousel collection of its kind in the world. There are fewer than 150 wood carved, antique carousels remaining in North America; six of them are in the Binghamton area and all six are on the National Register of Historic places. Every mount on all the merry-go-rounds is a "jumper;" you know, the horses (and a few surprise animals such as a pig!) that rise and surge slightly forward as you circle. There are also chariots, of course, for those who wish to ride like royalty in repose. If you ride all six carousels you can receive a special button, proving that you've completed the circuit. No matter what the budget, a whole family can afford to complete the circuit because all merry-go-round rides in Binghamton are FREE.
If you are a Twilight Zone fan, however, there is one particular carousel that harbors the most magic.
You may remember the ...Zone segment in which a beleaguered media executive named Martin Sloan has a life-altering encounter with his childhood self during a brief visit to his hometown in "Walking Distance." Many fine writers wrote scripts for the show but Serling wrote, by far, the most; and though he was already a successful, award-winning writer of realism before the Twilight Zone series began in 1959 and went on to write some outstanding screenplays such as Planet of the Apes after production of the series ended in 1964, "Walking Distance" is possibly his most autobiographical work. It reflects not only his upbringing but also his internal landscape.
In her recently published memoir Rod's daughter, Anne Serling, says that her father made a pilgrimage back to Binghamton, "every summer until his death," in 1975. She says he related that the idea for "Walking Distance," "came from walking through the streets of my home town and then taking a long evening stroll to a place called Recreation Park three blocks from my old house and seeing the merry-go-round which was condemned years ago and remembering that wondrous, bittersweet time of growing up."
STRICTLY FOR ZONIES - A QUIZ:The answers to these quiz questions lie "...between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge;" in other words, at the bottom of this page.
easy: In addition to the bandstand in the fictionalized Binghamton of "Walking Distance," a summertime bandstand is the central focus of a nostalgia-fueled fantasy town in which other episode?
harder: The character played by actress Inger Stevens in "The Hitch-Hiker" has a seemingly minor accident in Pennsylvania on what byway that passes through Binghamton, NY?
hardest: Two of the founders of the Binghamton-based Rod Serling Memorial Foundation bear the surname "McNulty." In which episode did Serling give this name to the main character?
The Recreation Park carousel was clearly part of the inspiration for the episode but was not the actual shooting location. In the TV segment, a soda jerk tells Martin Sloan that the old condemned merry-go-round was torn down years ago. Fortunately, this is where fact leaves fiction. Not only was the carousel NOT torn down, it has been restored more than once - most recently when a series of panels painted by artist Cortlandt Hull, depicting Twilight Zone episodes, was unveiled around the cupola in the summer of 2011.
The house where Serling grew up still stands, looking very much from the outside as it did when he lived there. I do not want to mention the number and the street name because the house is occupied by residents unrelated to the home's past history. But the address is splashed all over the Internet if you really wish to find it and the walk from there to the park is about the tree-lined distance that Serling described. The carousel there has 60 horses, chariots and the original Wurlitzer Band Organ that emanates that fabulous, familiar metallic clash of fairground-style music. The bell clangs and warm park breezes from the ride start to melt any stresses that come from the tensions of adulthood - at least for the duration of the eight minutes or so of circling.
The bandstand, like the one the child-Martin carved his initials into in one pivotal scene, is still there too, with a plaque for Rod set in stone in the center.
Downtown Binghamton has a bit of the urban feel evoked in many ...Zone episodes. It's where you will find a Walk of Stars strip of pavement - like a very mini Hollywood Boulevard - where Serling is honored with a star bearing his name along with other local notables such as actor Richard Deacon (of The Dick Van Dyke Show fame and much, much more) as well as B.C. cartoonist Johnny Hart.
[The stars from the Walk of Stars, mentioned above, were refurbished in 2015 and have become a Wall of Stars in the lobby of the Forum Theatre. The Twilight Diner, mentioned below, drifted into another dimension in July 2013. It has been replaced in the transport station by another retro but non-Twilight Zone-themed eatery.]
A few blocks' walk from there will take you to the retro-inspired Twilight Diner on Chenango Street, housed in what was the old Greyhound Bus station, now renovated into a transportation center. (If you are a true ...Zone fan, right about now you are getting a flash of the haunting "Mirror Image" segment in which a bus traveler trying to get from Binghamton to Syracuse meets another passenger about to encounter her malevolent, parallel self. Also, you'll understand what I mean when I tell you that the only thing missing from the Twilight Diner is fortune-telling napkin dispensers.) The walls there are graced with photos of Rod Serling, at various ages, living in or revisiting Binghamton. It was there that a server told me that one bus passenger said she has been listening to the Twilight Zone on the radio. Contemporary actors such as Luke Perry and Jason Alexander and new 21st Century tweaks on original scripts. Who knew? Click here for radio listings.
Still within walking distance, on Washington Street there is the "Day of a Playwright" exhibit of Serling memorabilia in the Forum Theatre lobby, and a plaque in front of Binghamton High School on Court Street commemorates the institution's cherished alumnus. The school houses the Rod Serling School of Fine Arts. The education district uses some of the Twilight Zone episodes to teach 5th graders about human issues such as prejudice and scapegoating and has, for years, organized a Rod Serling Video Festival providing student talent with a focus for developing film arts.
So I felt a slight irony when I made some inquiries of a young Recreation Park carousel attendant and he kept pronouncing the name as "Sterling." When pressed as to whether or not he really knew who Serling was he broke into a warm smile and answered, "I'm from Binghamton." Then he added, "I know he wrote that Twilight stuff." I suppose the young guy was just a touch zoned-out.
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Quiz Answers - Easy: A Stop at Willoughby
Harder: Highway 11 (now called US Route 11)
Hardest: A Kind of Stopwatch