Monday, October 25, 2010

Leaving "Leave It To Beaver"

Barbara Billingsley died recently, setting off a surprising number of "End of an Era" stories--surprising because she and Leave It To Beaver were singled out as symbols of the 50s. I wrote about this in context of 50s TV moms at 60s Now but since then, in my continuing effort to waste what time I have left, I watched archival interviews with Billingsley and Jerry Mathers at YouTube. A lot of the memorial recollections mentioned her appearance on this show as a mom who dressed up in pearls and high heels to do housework, as some kind of example of the 50s fantasy mom. Like somebody thought of doing that? According to her it's not true. Her clothes weren't expensive; some dresses came from J.C. Penney. She wore pearls to cover the hollow in her neck that caused problems for the camera. She wore heels only in the last years of the series, so she could still be taller than her growing boys.

She and Jerry Mathers were very thoughtful about the show. Mathers admitted that the producers were conscious of projecting a good image of an American family, once the show was being exported to more than 100 countries, and that they consciously tried to set standards, such as solving problems by calm fatherly talks, and by having the parents occasionally admit they were wrong.

Mathers said that Leave It To Beaver was the first TV sitcom to center on the children. I don't think that's true--Father Knows Best was primarily about the children, and it started three years earlier (in 1954. Beaver premiered in 1957.) He said he didn't know where the "Leave It To" came from, but there was a TV series called Leave It To Larry that lasted only a couple of months in 1952, starring Eddie Albert as a young man working for his father-in-law (Ed Begley, Sr.).

But he might be right about this: 'Beaver' was unique in its time for taking the point of view of the kids, spending a lot of time seeing the world from their point of view. And that does make the show special.

I hadn't realized that the show was revived for a surprisingly long run in the 80s, although on cable. Billingsley, Mathers, Tony Dow (Wally) returned to mostly deal with the problems of their children (or grandchildren. By then the actor who had played the Dad, Hugh Beaumont, had met a grisly fate, according to Mathers. He had strokes, Tourettes Syndrome, and then died.) None of the cast worked much after the series, until this revival. Mathers was in real estate. He lived not far from Beaumont. Then more recently, Disney did a version with a new cast.

But Leave It To Beaver will always be special for that window into the world of kids growing up in the 50s--though almost exclusively boys. Mathers did say that the stories were based on things that really had happened, but the events as I recall them bore little resemblance to my experience. I was closer to Wally's age when I saw it, and I didn't have a brother. No, it was the guys "messing around," and trying to figure out why adults did what they did.

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