Emperor Norton’s Bridge: TV in 1956!

DATELINE:  Writer Jan Merlin as Writer Bret Harte

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Edgar Stehli as Emperor Norton with actor Jan Merlin.

Recently we heard from the “Emperor’s Bridge Campaign” in San Francisco and its president, John Lumea. They are a historical group that has amassed a collection of memorabilia about Emperor Norton, a 19th century citizen who was considered pixilated, but clairvoyant about the future.

It seems my old collaborator and dear friend, Jan Merlin, appeared on a TV show in 1956 that detailed Emperor Norton’s life. Jan played another writer by the name of Bret Harte.

After his acting career, Jan had a prolific writing career, even winning an Emmy for television writing. We always thought he was Bret Harte’s equal.

So, when we received a pristine copy of an old Telephone Time TV show, we were eager to view it. We had seen it 30-odd years ago. We know that Jan Merlin never really had a chance to watch his performances on television in those days.

Merlin was too busy each week, preparing for the next role, as he was active in dozens of TV shows and feature films in far-flung places like Kenya with Ann Sheridan. He saw many shows only a few years ago. Some he has never seen. This appearance was a rare sympathetic role. Usually he was a baddie in TV westerns—and plugged at the last minute of the show–and showdown.

Sixty years later, Jan still looks much the same, still youthful, but is now in his retirement, probably the only survivor of that long-ago show on Norton with the exception of a child actress, Cheryl Callaway, who had a scene.

Edgar Stelhi played Emperor Norton. We almost didn’t recognize him with his Trump-style wig. He also was quite active on television in the 1950s. His best role in movies was opposite Audie Murphy as the old judge in No Name on the Bullet. Jan also did a couple of movies with Audie—and his TV show too as a guest.

A 25-minute teleplay was chock full of intriguing moments, including a scene in which Norton is mocked in a saloon with a fake crown and seated among his detractors; it reminded one of those Renaissance paintings on the mocking of Christ by his captors.

Owing to the vigilance of Jan’s character, Norton’s past is revealed—and he wins accolades for his ideas.

Now a San Francisco group has taken up Norton’s cause, to the point of hoping to rename a section of the Bay Bridge after the old emperor.

Old TV shows never die. They end up in media museums, awaiting re-discovery. 

Among their books, Jan Merlin and William Russo have written a memoir about Frankie Thomas, child star of the 1930s to TV star of the 1950s on Tom Corbett: Space Cadet. The biography is available on Amazon in paper and e-book, for smart readers. As a team, they have written four other non-fiction works and one novel, plus several chapters in biographical anthologies.