Debuting in 1960, Diver Dan was a strange and distinctive kids' show that featured two live-action characters and a large cast of fish marionettes. The show was a continuing serial that was produced as a series of 7-minute shorts that aired in syndication on local stations, mostly NBC affiliates, around the country. Some stations combined several shorts into half-hour programs. In New York City, Diver Dan shorts ran as part of Felix & Diver Dan, a 30-minute children's show airing from 1960 to 1962, which also included Felix the Cat.
The show looked as if it was taking place underwater by having the camera shoot through an actual aquarium with real live goldfish, which seemed to be mingling with the live actors and fish marionettes. It featured the adventures of a deep-sea diver in an old-fashioned diving suit with a large bell helmet, who interacted with the passing fish. There was also a beautiful blonde mermaid, Miss Minerva, a live-action character who spoke to the fish the way that Miss Francis talked to her child audience on Ding Dong School about manners and morals. Diver Dan and Miss Minerva had a thing for each other, but their relationship didn't progress beyond the stage of mutual attraction.
The puppet cast consisted of a veritable school of fish marionettes with funny pun-like names, including the villainous Baron Barracuda, his dumb henchman Trigger Fish, Finley Haddock, Doc Sturgeon, Georgie Porgy, Gabby the Clam, Gill Espy, Glow Fish, Goldie the Goldfish, Hermit Crab, Sam the Sawfish, Scout Fish, Sea Biscuit the Seahorse, and Skipper Kipper.
The fish marionettes had human voices (all done by Allen Swift, who did the voices on the Howdy Doody Show) and the personalities of stock TV or movie characters. Baron Barracuda wore a monocle in one eye and spoke in a Transylvanian accent. Trigger Fish, the Baron's accomplice, always had an unlit cigarette jutting from the side of his mouth. Scout Fish was an ethnic stereotype who carried a tomahawk and spoke in pidgin American-Indian dialect. Gill-Espy was a bongo-playing beatnik.
The plot lines generally consisted of Baron Barracuda and Trigger Fish hatching various schemes to take over the bottom of the sea, and being foiled by Diver Dan, Miss Minerva, and the other fish.
Diver Dan was a strange and enchanting show, but because it aired only in syndication, it never got the national exposure that other puppet-based shows like The Howdy Doody Show or Kukla, Fran, and Ollie received. Nevertheless, the show still has an enthusiastic and dedicated, if small, fan base among former viewers. Watching videos of the show today, one can't help but see it as a precursor to Sponge Bob Square Pants, right down to its sweetly goofy atmosphere.
Episodes of the original Diver Dan series are available on DVD in Diver Dan Classic TV Series Collection: Vol. 1 and 2 and Kids TV of the 50's and 60's.
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