This Day In History: January 17

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On January 17, 1966, the National Broadcasting Corporation orders 32 episodes of a new TV show, "The Monkees," for its upcoming fall schedule. Little did producers know that the fake pop music band they were launching would become an actual pop culture sensation—whose records would even outsell the Beatles.

Indeed, the inspiration for "The Monkees" came from the Beatles, the financing came from TV and film production company Screen Gems and the music came from music producer, talent manager and songwriter Don Kirshner. The stars—most of whom were complete unknowns before the show—came from an exhaustive audition process that began with this ad in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter in September 1965:

Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers
for acting roles in new TV series.
Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21.

The ad drew more than 400 young men to the offices of Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, the young Hollywood producing team that would later make Easy Rider, but who for now were trying to milk the establishment rather than defy it. They spent the next four months shooting, cutting, market-testing, re-cutting and re-market-testing a comedy pilot they hoped would land them a network television deal. They got their green light on January 17, 1966, when the National Broadcasting Corporation ordered 32 episodes of "The Monkees" for its upcoming fall schedule.

The next eight months were a bit of a whirlwind for Rafelson and Schneider, for the team of songwriters and studio musicians assembled by Don Kirschner and, not least, for the four “insane boys” chosen to become the Monkees. Mickey Dolenz had never played a drum prior to being cast as “Mickey,” and Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith had no acting experience prior to becoming “Peter” and “Mike.” Davy Jones was already a triple-threat in the areas of acting, singing and being cute, but it had never been Rafelson and Schneider’s intention to find such all-around professionals. “We wanted guys who could play themselves,” Schneider explained to the press ahead of the NBC premiere of "The Monkees" in September 1966. “We didn’t even look at actors, and we didn’t look for experienced rock and roll groups.”

The strategy—and indeed the entire grand scheme behind "The Monkees"—succeeded beyond all expectations. Not only did the television show find success against formidable competition in its time slot from Gilligans Island, but the group that was a made-for-television knockoff of the Beatles soon had actual records that were outselling the Beatles themselves. Vincent Canby of The New York Times foresaw the commercial success of Rafelson and Schneider’s creation the moment he witnessed the reaction of a crowd of preteen girls during a promotional appearance by the Monkees just three days before their network debut. “The Monkees’ appearance yesterday afternoon at the Broadway,” Canby wrote, “was just part of an elaborate campaign…to capture the teen-age imagination. The thoroughness of the campaign, as shown yesterday, might prompt renewed debate on the age-old question of free will. Do the teen-agers have a chance these days?”