Thursday, April 3, 2003
Evelle J. Younger: a Real-Life Judge Portrays a Judge on Television
By ROGER M. GRACE
Before there was “Judge Judy”…before there was Joseph Wapner on “People’s Court”…there was a reality courtroom show called “Traffic Court.”
It started in the fall of 1957 as a local public service show on KABC-TV, Channel 7. It was aired live at 6:30 p.m. on Fridays. Portraying the judge was a real-life member of the Los Angeles Municipal Court, Evelle J. Younger.
This was the same Evelle
J. Younger who became district attorney of Los Angeles County (1964-1971), attorney general of California (1971-79), and the
unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor in 1978. He died in 1989.
The “Traffic Court” judge was no stranger to broadcasting. He had been host in 1948-49 of KTLA, Channel 5’s weekly crime drama, “Armchair Detective” (featuring guest sleuths attempting to deduce from clues who committed the misdeed). Younger—who was Pasadena city prosecutor at the time, and had been a special agent with the FBI in 1940-42 and a prosecutor with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office from 1946-47—also served as consultant to the show.
In 1953, Gov. Earl Warren named Younger, then in private practice, to the Los Angeles Municipal Court. And four years later, KABC-TV appointed him as judge of its new weekly show, “Traffic Court.”
He was well suited for the assignment. Younger had actually presided over traffic cases, was an author of the 1951 book, “Judge and Prosecutor in Traffic Court” (published by the American Bar Assn. and Northwestern University), and had been chair of the American Bar Assn.’s Traffic and Magistrates Courts Committee.
Younger’s wife, the former Mildred Eberhard, was a KABC radio news personality, heard Monday through Friday at 12:30 p.m. Was her connection with KABC a factor in Younger being picked for the TV show? Their son, retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eric Younger, told me he has no idea. He was a teenager at the time, he noted, and remarked that his memory of events surrounding the show is somewhat hazy.
He does recall, however:
“It was the first show that featured unscripted, actual-case information.”
Though it did bear a similarity to a Du Mont show from years earlier, “They Stand Accused,” those shows did not stem from real incidents. It was different from later shows such as Wapner’s “People’s Court” (and its seemingly endless imitators) in the sense that actual parties were not there to have their disputes adjudicated. Actors were used to play the defendants and witnesses on “Traffic Court.” But, the son pointed out, there was no rehearsal of the show, only a walk-through.
“There was no written dialog—ever,” he stressed.
A Dec. 7, 1957 article in “TV-Radio Life,” a local magazine which is no more, observed:
“One of the smartest moves by those planning the series has been the adherence to ‘playing it straight.’ Judge Younger insisted on that from the start. Neither he nor others associated with the program want any of the dialog or action ‘hoked up’ from the original traffic court cases on which the episodes are based. During the pre-program run-through, Judge Younger does not hesitate, if occasion demands, to say, ‘This doesn’t happen this way in real traffic court.’ Or, ‘that was not a normal reaction.’ ”
The initial purpose of “Traffic Court,” presented at first without commercials, was to promote safe driving. Eric Younger said that those involved in the program had a “little bit of a missionary zeal.” He added that it’s his “impression” that contemporary courtroom shows—which he said he does not watch—are on a different plane. While his father regarded “Traffic Court” as “educational and a public service,” Eric Younger commented, “I don’t know if Judge Judy would see it that way” with respect to her own show.
He said he perceives that the display of a “zinger personality” is the goal of TV judges nowadays. While he said he would not describe his father’s personality as “colorless,” the former judge reflected: “I don’t think he was trying to charm anybody.”
Eric Younger sized up his father’s TV role simply:
“He was pretty much there playing a Municipal Court judge—which is what he did—so he played it pretty well.”
Next week: more about “Traffic Court.”
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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