"A minstrel who is also an electronic genius," Commissioner Gordon remarked. "What a strange combination." He had a point. The Minstrel dressed like one of the Merry Men at the local Renaissance Faire. He wore a tunic and strummed a lute. Yet, this tuneful bad guy had the technological know-how to hack the Gotham City Stock Exchange in the Batman episode "The Minstrel's Shakedown."
How's that? "Music and electronic energy are both transmitted by waves," Robin rightfully, if vaguely, pointed out.
The Medieval troubadour / electrical engineer had no roots in the comic books. Producers created the villain specifically for the 1966 television series. As it was the show's M.O., a Hollywood veteran was cast as the criminal. Van Johnson, one of MGM's leading stars of the WWII era, was the one cast to don the Minstrel's feathered cap. However, the character was made to fit the actor, not the other way around.
The Boomer youth who were getting their camp kicks watching Batman would have recognized Van Johnson from a 1950s TV spectacular, not old war flicks like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. In 1957, Johnson starred in The Pied Piper of Hamelin, an NBC family special aired over the Thanksgiving holiday. His Pied Piper costume was remarkably similar to the one worn by the Minstrel. Swap out the flute for a lute, change the red and yellow to blue and gray, and… bingo. Jim Backus, best known as the Millionaire of Gilligan's Island, also appeared in the singing-and-dancing movie.
Feature-length musical films were nothing new on the small screen, but up to that point, the projects were either filmed live or on kinoscope. The Pied Piper of Hamelin was the first shot on motion-picture film. At the time, each network had its own technical process for creating color. NBC utilized it's "Living Color" process. However, like a true blockbuster, The Pied Piper was shot in Technicolor. That was rather remarkable, as color television sets would not take hold until at least another decade.
The musical was such a hit that a soundtrack album was released. The network ran it again the following year, and it was then syndicated, rerunning for years.
The first "made-for-TV movie," or at least the first to use that term, is often cited as 1964's See How They Run. That low-budget chase flick certainly fits the bill for what we envision when we think "made-for-TV movie," yet technically it had been beat by years.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin was finally released in theaters in 1966, perhaps to capture some buzz off Johnson's Batman appearance. However, nobody particularly cared for the Minstrel. The character never returned to the show. Not even the comic books would touch the character. And we're talking about a comic that had a villain called "Kite-Man."
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