Route 66: the road and the television show

July 27, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism, reporting.

Our recent trek to the West took us along the old Route 66, nicknamed the Mother Road for its role in getting people to a new life during the Depression and giving people the pleasure of a road trip in the two decades after that. All along Interstate 40 — some of which was built literally on top of the old Route 66 in the 1960s — are signs declaring that this was the location of the famous highway.

In Elk City, Oklahoma, we stopped at the self-declared National Route 66 Museum and spent a pleasant hour viewing the exhibits and pictures of old gas pumps, trailers and campers of the bygone days, and even some Cadillacs and Hawks.w

In Tucumcari, New Mexico, we left the Interstate for a few miles and actually drove along the old Route 66. There we could see the declining hulks of motels and gas stations that once served the thousands of motorists who traveled the road west toward California and east toward the highway’s origin in Chicago.

All of that got me to thinking about how I know anything about “Route 66,” a road I had never been on but a phrase I had heard for most of my life. One way was the song, (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66, by Bobby Troup, written in 1946 and destined to become a standard of the Rhythm and Blues genre and recorded by many artists such as Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby along with the Andrews Sisters.

My other source of impressions about Route 66 was the television series Route 66, which ran for four seasons from 1960 to 1964. It originally starred Martin Milner and George Meharis (Meharis was later replaced by Glenn Corbett when Meharis fell ill). The show was created by Herbert B. Leonard and Stirling Silliphant, and ran for 116 episodes. You can find some of those episodes on YouTube, and they are still very watchable.

But doing the research on the television series, I found some interesting and odd items:

  • Route 66, the television series, didn’t have much to do with Route 66, the highway. The episodes of Route 66 were shot in 25 different states and Canada, and the highway itself was only referred to in three of the early shows. The producers did not think that the scenery around Route 66 provided a good backdrop for the television series.
  • The song (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 was not the theme song of the show. The producer did not want to pay Bobby Troup royalties for the use of his song. The series had an original theme written by Nelson Riddle. It was one of the first television theme songs to make Billboard top 30, and it was nominated for two Grammy awards in 1962.
  • Route 66 was a spinoff of the hit show Naked City and the concept of two young men traveling around finding themselves was piloted as a Naked City episode. The original title that the producers had in mind was The Searchers.
  • The episode scheduled to air November 29, 1963, was titled “I’m Here to Kill a King” and was about a potential assassin and filmed at Niagara Falls. It was pulled because of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy a week before (November 22, 1963) and was never seen until the show went into to syndication.

A lot of insider stuff about the show can be found in this interview with George Meharis by Ron Warnick of the website

Here’s an episode of Route 66 from YouTube:


Note: This is the first of an occasional series I am doing on The Great American Road.

Photo above: The National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma.


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