The Day I Almost Met Luke Halpin
March 11, 2017 by Larry Grinnell
In the mid-1960s, the kids-oriented drama Flipper was a fairly popular network show. It ran for three seasons. Flipper was based in South Florida, and like other shows set in mostly outdoor South Florida, it was produced by Ivan Tors, who also did Everglades, Sea Hunt, Gentle Ben, and other shows that exploited the beautiful outdoorsy lifestyle of South Florida.
Flipper was filmed partly in the Florida Keys, but a lot of it was filmed at Wometco Enterprises’ Miami Seaquarium, an early water-themed park that featured the albino porpoise Carolina Snowball. It served as the home for TV’s Flipper, a bottle-nosed dolphin (actually a porpoise). There were actually several porpoises used for the show, the first of whom was named Mitzi. The Seaquarium had a fairly large aquarium (as you might expect), and there was a flashy (and sometimes splashy) performing porpoise show. It was also the first place I saw the infamous and iconic, not to mention kitschy Florida souvenir, the molded waxy plastic castings of dancing porpoises that were manufactured right in front of you in the famous Mold-a-Rama machine.
But I digress. Ivan Tors’ production company had some small sets on the Seaquarium property for things like the TV family house, the stars consisting of single parent and Chief Warden Porter Ricks (played by Brian Kelly), younger son Bud (played by Tommy Norden), and older son Sandy (played by Luke Halpin, subject of this story). As Wikipedia describes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flipper_(1964_TV_series)), the TV show was a spinoff of a 1963 movie starring Chuck Connors and the young Luke Halpin.
When I was 11 years old, I was a student in Mr. Thomas Brennan’s 6th Grade class, at Oakland Park Elementary School, that spring of 1965. The annual field trip was a school tradition, though not as you might expect. Broward County didn’t have enough drivers or buses to support all the area schools' field day activities. Many of those barely running buses dated back to the late 1940s, so it was up to the parents to come up with sufficient vehicles (mostly station wagons, or so it seemed) to take us on our field trip adventure. Kids piled into the wagons, usually three or four in the back seat, and another five or six loosely packed into the tailgate section. Hmmm. Seat belts? Hah! I don't think seat belt installation was mandatory until 1966… Try that today! The parents and school authorities would have been imprisoned for endangering the youth of Oakland Park! But again I digress.
Our annual field trip took us to Miami's Museum of Science and the Miami Seaquarium (rather than the usual Jungle Queen cruise—I say that because of the five field trips I attended as a student at Oakland Park Elementary, I think four of them were on the Jungle Queen). I truly learned to hate the Jungle Queen, a faux steamboat and in some incarnations a paddlewheeler, which is now owned by a fellow class of 1971 Northeast High School graduate, who inherited it from her well-known dad. I looked upon other Oakland Park Elementary School students who got to go to Vizcaya, the Seaquarium, and countless other South Florida attractions with great jealousy. For whatever reason, the teachers whose classes I was assigned to all seemed to prefer the damnable Jungle Queen, which, in hindsight, was actually a lot of fun, and for fans of Fort Lauderdale history, it was a great introduction to the uniqueness of that fair city. I guess with all the screaming kids on a boat, it was harder to lose any of them.
After a 90 minute drive down US1 (maybe even two hours—no I-95 in those days), we made it to the Museum of Science. We must have left very early in the morning. The one exhibition that still comes to mind was a two telephone network (rotary dial phones in those days), where one could dial a number, watch the wheels and relays and contacts whir around, and cause the other handset to ring. This was thrilling stuff for an 11-12 year old back in the 1965! After a quick two hour tour of the museum, and lunch, we headed out to the parking lot, saddled up in the station wagons, and headed down the Rickenbacker Causeway (named for famed WWI Aviator Ace Eddie Rickenbacker, who later went on to run Eastern Airlines), and headed to the fabulous Miami Seaquarium (it said so on the signs!).
After getting our tickets and having a chance to view the aquarium portion of the Seaquarium, a group of us were outside, wandering around the Seaquarium site (not sure where the chaperones were), when young actor Luke Halpin, of Flipper fame, was spotted by one of the 12 year old girls in my group. Absolute pandemonium ensued. Poor Luke had to run for his life as five or six screaming pre-teen girls began chasing after him (I guess they learned how to do it from watching all the contemporary screaming Beatles footage on TV). I lost sight, as I really wasn't motivated to join the hysterical throng. I found out later that Luke was able to effect some kind of separation from the girls, which bought some time for them to calm down to at least some extent. Some paper was found, autographs were made, and the girls returned to our main group, autographs in hand. Somehow, I wound up with the pen that Luke used to sign the autographs (a blue-green Bic, if memory serves), which, as all of those old Bics tend to do, eventually leaked all over the place. After all of that, the trained porpoise show was pretty anticlimactic.
By the time we were done for the day, it was rush hour, so up Biscayne Boulevard (US1) our little convoy drove, and continued to drive for the next few hours until we arrived at Oakland Park Elementary just before dusk, where the parents who were lucky enough to have only one car (that dad needed for work), met up with their kids and went home. Those who did drive us were probably very close to the end of their emotional ropes, and likely said a small prayer as the school property came into sight.
I went on to James S. Rickards Jr. High School the next year, which was the same year that schools in Broward County desegregated (the 1965-1966 school year). I only mention this because my mother, having a station wagon, and not working at that time, got sucked into another car pool adventure for a field trip to somewhere, as my kid sister was also a student at Oakland Park Elementary. The only complication that came up was that now the schools were integrated, but the parents driving the wagons were not. All the lily white boys and girls quickly grabbed seats in the various cars, leaving six or seven black children without a ride, My mother made room in our big Mercury wagon and happily invited the nervous kids into her car. She was the only one to do so. She often told that story, and knowing her as I did, I understood the sacrifices she made to do so, not only probably getting herself blackballed (pun not intended, for a change) from the PTA (no big loss, she would say), and how she gritted her teeth to give these kids a ride, even though she remained a closeted racist herself, a product of her times and her parents. I will give her credit for keeping those opinions to herself as her three kids (plus one in college) were trying to learn about the new way of life with integrated bathrooms, integrated water fountains, integrated restaurants, and all the rest. She clearly wanted to ensure that her prejudices were not passed down to her children, and I think I can safely and proudly say that they were not. Way to go, Ma!
That's my Luke Halpin story and I'm sticking to it!