Monday, October 18, 2010

"Ward, I'm Worried About The Beaver"-- A Monday Journal


Fond thoughts stirred by the passing of Barbara Billingsley, our favorite TV-sitcom mom:

When I was a kid I used to get home from school just in time to watch the reruns of "Leave It To Beaver".  First broadcast on CBS in 1957, and canceled after one season for lackluster ratings, it was eventually picked up by ABC and ran for 5 more years and became an American cultural phenomenon.

I identified with "Leave It To Beaver", and love it today.  Everyone of a certain era remembers the Cleaver family: Theodore, or "Beaver", the little guy, as naive and adorable as anything, always a victim of circumstance, always in (hilarious) trouble but  learning life lessons each week; big brother Wally, a looker and cynic, one of the guys, and matter-of-fact, an athlete, a hero, in short, cool; Ward, the practical, tie-wearing Dad, a typical corporate guy and former Seabee, whose domain was the den, and the garage, and sometimes the fishing lake on weekends; and of course June, THE "traditional" wife and mother, who maintained a safe space of love around her, who kept the boys, and the house, in line, famously attired for housework in dress, heels, and pearls.

In spite of a slew of similar family-type shows that had huge popularity then, "Leave It To Beaver" was different.  It was so much fun because it was scaled to the antics of the kids: their goofiness, their fears, their schemes (and their efforts to keep trouble from their watchful parents), their slang, and their innocence, were all expertly rendered by writers who knew kids, and liked them.  Surrounding them were recurring characters we knew like our own friends: Eddie Haskell, Lumpy Rutherford, Judy Hensler, Touhy and Gilbert,  Gus the Fireman, Miss Rayburn, Miss Landers and Miss Canfield ("She has toes!"). When my own childhood became too worrisome, I took comfort in the humor and heart of the Clever neighborhood.  Their house was as real to me as my own.

I have so many favorite episodes: Beaver's haircut; Beaver trapped in the billboard soup bowl ("Step on the lady's thumb, Beaver!"); Wally and Beaver and their pet alligator, Captain Jack; the ill-fated class picture; hypnotizing the smarmy Eddie Haskell ("that's a BEAUTIFUL sweater, Mrs. Cleaver!")...and on and on.  I felt as though these were events I grew up experiencing on my own.  I realize now that, unrealistic and white-bread as it may have been (life was NEVER this perfect, even in the '50's), there was a good purpose to shows like this, allowing boys like me to find some laughter and comfort in childhood, a time of life that should not have been as stressful as it was.

I even have a running joke with Mark that "Leave It To Beaver made Me Gay!"...I even considered doing a separate blog, in which every episode would be reviewed in terms of the girl-hating quotient, and the heterosexism that was all pervasive at the time, and so pronounced as to be worth a laugh all its own!  As a boy roughly Beaver's age when I discovered the show, I hung on every word, and must have internalized a lot!

There is even a gut-busting funny book, out of print now, but a cult classic, called "The Beaver Papers", which featured episodes of the show as written by famous authors such as Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, D.H. Lawrence ("Lady Cleaver's Beaver"--!!!), even Ingmar Bergman!

When I heard of the recent death of Barbara Billingsley, who WAS June Cleaver for generations of TV-watchers, it was in some way like the death of a mentor, a friend, a practical no-nonsense figure who took no crap but softened her anger with a smile and a plate of cookies.  Even in this artificial situation, June Cleaver as played by Billingsley was warm and real and helped so many of us project ourselves into an ideal home life. She sort of made childhood bearable for at least a half hour each week.

Because of her easy identification with this perfect mother figure, Billingsley scored one of her career highs decades later, re-inventing herself for a brief bit in 1980's screwball comedy film "Airplane".  In a wacky, gag-filled send-up of airborne disaster films of the '70's, Billingsley plays an air-traveler who offers to help a stewardess, who cannot understand the slang of two Black passengers, by translating their "jive".  It worked only because our remembrance of June Cleaver made Billingley's casting against type an in-joke that everyone enjoyed together in a shared nostalgia-fest. ....We all loved her like a mom, albeit a funky, jive-talking one.

When Billingsley, as June, uttered her trademark line, "Ward, I'm worried about the Beaver", her concern was for us too, it seemed.  And we all laughed to ourselves, knowing that it was worse than she imagined, a looming disaster of the slapstick kind.

I took for granted that Barbara Billingsley would live forever....

And for good measure, I will join the collective cliche, and share with you her famous appearance as the jive-talker....  I hope you all enjoyed my look back, and maybe I will hear from others who remember....

1 comment:

  1. This is such a nice post, and I've never even seen Leave it to Beaver.