The news that two of Gene Roddenberry’s made-for-TV movies from the 1970s are coming to DVD got me to thinking about the Great Bird of the Galaxy‘s first foray into the science-fiction genre on television. The script he wrote, known alternately as “The Secret Defense of 117,” “The Secret Weapon of 117” or simply “The Defense of 117” (perhaps a working title), is mentioned in many biographies of Roddenberry, including his entry in the Museum of Broadcast Communication’s Encyclopedia of Television. It is said to have aired in March 1956 as an episode of the syndicated anthology series Chevron Hall of Stars.
It also aired, apparently, in parts of the country as part of two other syndicated anthology programs: Don Ameche Presents the Drewry’s Play of the Week and Stage 7. How is this possible?
The story starts with an entirely different anthology series called Stage 7, one that premiered on CBS on Sunday, January 30th, 1955 at 9:30PM. The series was produced by Four Star productions. A total of 26 episodes were broadcast (some sources say 24), with the last airing on September 25th. But that’s not really important. What is important was the news, reported in Billboard on November 5th, 1955, that Four Star Productions would soon begin filming a new version of Stage 7 at the RKO-Pathe Studios in Hollywood . It would be a co-production with Television Programs of America resulting in 39 filmed half-hours.
Furthermore, Four Star’s Don Sharpe had sold the series to Standard Oil for use in 14 markets on the West Coast where it would likely air under the Chevron Theater name (Standard Oil had previously used that title for its sponsorship of Revue Production’s Gruen Guild Playhouse) . Stage 7 would replace the current series Standard Oil was sponsoring: Waterfront.
When the series premiered on the West Coast (or at least on KTTV Channel 11 in Los Angeles) it was called Chevron Hall of Stars. The premiere episode was broadcast on Tuesday, January 3rd, 1956 at 7:30PM and starred Angela Lansbury as a Broadway star whose marriage is falling apart. On January 20th, Walter Ames reported in The Los Angeles Times that Alan Young would star in an episode of Chevron Hall of Stars titled “Defense of 117,” to be directed by William Seiter . He would play “a man from an unknown planet who likes the life he finds on earth and battles to remain here” .
When the episode was broadcast on March 6th, however, not only had the title been changed to “The Secret Weapon of 117” but Alan Young had apparently been replaced by Ricardo Montalban, with Susan Morrow co-starring. It’s possible he was still in the episode or perhaps Ames was mistaken. Young is credited as appearing in another episode of Chevron Hall of Stars, “I Killed John Harrington.”
Meanwhile, on March 10th Billboard reported that Television Programs of America would begin selling Stage 7 in syndication during the last week of the month . The company had retained the right to syndicate the series outside of those markets where Standard Oil was active. It premiered in New York City (as Stage 7) on Monday, June 4th on WPIX Channel 11, running from 8-8:30PM. Three days later, on Thursday, June 7th the series bowed on WABD Channel 5.
Then, on December 15th, Billboard revealed that Drewry’s Beer had purchased the rights to Stage 7 for use in its 11 Midwest markets starting in April of 1957 . The company decided to hire Don Ameche to host the series, which would be titled Don Ameche Presents the Drewry’s Play of the Week. Television Programs of America would film special “continuity” with Ameche (introductory segments). Counting the Drewry markets, Stage 7 would be seen in a total of 120 .
Chevron Hall of Stars appears to have last aired in Los Angeles on February 7th, 1957; Stage 7 was last seen in New York City a month later on Friday, March 1st. Don Ameche Presents, as it was known, premiered in Chicago on Tuesday, February 19th, 1957 at 9:30PM local time. The debut episode, “Eminent Domain,” was the same episode that kicked off Stage 7 in New York City.
“The Secret Weapon of 117” first aired as part of Don Ameche Presents on Tuesday, April 23rd, 1957 (at least in Chicago on Channel 9). The last broadcast of Don Ameche Presents was on Tuesday, March 8th, 1958. Stage 7 was repeated in syndication, under a variety of titles, and the last airing I know of for “The Secret Weapon of 117” took place on Friday, April 14th, 1961 under the Short Story name on WNBC-TV Channel 4 in New York City.
“The Secret Weapon of 117” wasn’t Gene Roddenberry’s first television script. But more than a decade before Star Trek premiered, it was his first attempt at science-fiction on television. Does the episode still exist? Considering that it aired under so many titles I’d like to think there’s a print somewhere. But I haven’t come across it yet.
3 Ames, Walter. “Regular TV Series for Rosemary Clooney; Leo Durocher Out as Emcee.” Los Angeles Times. 20 Jan. 1956: B6.
5 “TPA ‘Stage 7’ To Syndication.” Billboard. 10 Mar. 1956: 10. (Read online at Google Books).
6 “‘Stage’ Into Eleven Markets for Drewry’s.” Billboard. 15 Dec. 1956: 8. (Read online at Google Books).