Friday, October 4, 2013

The Ultimate Road Trip: Route 66

by guest blogger Linda Thornburg  
A trail of legend, adventure, and dreams, the highway that once stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles—Route 66—is part of the American pioneering, freedom-loving, wanderlust psyche. 
One of the original highways in the U.S. Highway System, Route 66 was established in 1926 and completed in 1938. Known as "the Mother Road," it was the major route during the Dust Bowl for people leaving the plains to find work in California.  
Songwriter Bobby Troup imortalized the road in song in 1946 after driving from Pennsylvania to California. Nat King Cole's chart-topping 1947 recording made driving the hip trip part of America's cultural vocabulary. 
Now you go through Saint Looey
Joplin, Missouri,
and Oklahoma City is mighty pretty.
You see Amarillo,
Gallup, New Mexico,
Flagstaff, Arizona.
Don't forget Winona,
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernandino.

Won't you get hip to this timely tip:
when you make that California trip
Get your kicks on Route sixty-six.
In the 1950s, U. S. Route 66 became a major path for vacationing families headed to L. A.–a short hop from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon, through the painted desert, a quick detour to Las Vegas, and on to California.
In the 1960s, Herbert B. Leonard and Stirling Silliphant created the quintessential road trip, the episodic television drama Route 66.
The anthology-format program featured two continuing characters, Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) and Buz Murdock (George Maharis). After the death of his father, the Connecticut- bred, Yale-educated,  Stiles discovers that his father's business is bankrupt and his only inheritance is a new Corvette. He teams up with working-class Buz, who had worked in the Stiles' shipping company, to drive across America in search of themselves. En route they work odd jobs–logging, fishing, construction, mining, even hotel staff–where they meet people from all walks of life, usually in some kind of trouble.
George Maharis as Buz and Martin Milner as Todd 
As in his earlier television drama Naked City, Silliphant moved the series out of the studio to shoot on location. This both saved money and provided diverse backgrounds for the sundry characters and stories the two encountered each week. Silliphant scoured the country for location sites with location manager Sam Manners, writing the episodes based on the locations.  Silliphant’s writing was the core of the show. Best known as screenwriter for In the Heat of the Night, for which he won an Academy Award, Silliphant also wrote a host of film scripts (one is included in the Noir collection here).
Silliphant’s themes were socially conscious and based in reality, compassionate but dark. Though Tod and Buz are sometimes at the fringe of a story carried by guest stars like Martin Balsam, Robert Redford, Suzanne Pleshette, Julie Newmar, Robert Duvall, Walter Mathau, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Martin Sheen, and a Halloween show triumvirate of Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, they always emerge on the side of truth.
The Bobby Troup song "Route 66" was too expensive to license for the TV series, so Nelson Riddle was hired to write its theme and internal music. The theme became a hit, and Riddle’s music added to the appeal of the show. 
The remarkable thing about Route 66 is that the episodes hold up dramatically. If you are looking for interesting characters, well-written drama without gratuitous violence, fascinating performances, and bonus historic footage of the country in the early 60s from Chicago to L.A. and Boston to the Gulf of Mexico, then Route 66 is your road trip. We binge watched 3 DVDs during vacation and couldn’t get enough.
George Benson’s version of Troup’s song in tribute to Nat King Cole is here.  
Guest blogger Linda Thornburg is a filmmaker. Her current screenplay is about growing up queer and clueless in the 1950s and 1960s.


  1. The cool jazzy theme for Route 66 is one of my favorite TV themes. At the top, the bluesy Perry Mason theme, and the theme for a little-known show, Mr. Lucky, (written by Henry Mancini), which ought to be played on a swing organ.

    Compare these to the dreck that passes for themes today (the CSI Miami one for example)! Only the theme for Poirot keeps up the quality.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Listen to Nelson Riddle's Route 66 TV theme song here...

  3. I am curious to know if you have a good source for the statement that Bobby Troup's Route 66 song was too expensive to license for the TV series.

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