Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Quote of the Day (David Halberstam, on the Suburban World of the Cleavers and Nelsons)

“In this world the moms never worked. These were most decidedly one-income homes….These families were living the new social contract as created by Bill Levitt and other suburban developers like him and were surrounded by new neighbors who were just like them….In the Cleaver family of Leave It to Beaver, the family always seemed to eat together and the pies were homemade. June Cleaver, it was noted, prepared two hot meals a day. The Cleavers were not that different from the Nelsons, who had preceded them into the television suburbia: No one knew in which state or suburb they lived, and no one knew what Ward Cleaver, like Ozzie Nelson, did for a living, except that it was respectable and that it demanded a shirt, tie, and suit….As Beaver Cleaver (a rascal, with a predilection for trouble), once told June Cleaver (who was almost always well turned out in sweater and skirts), ‘You know, Mom, when we’re in a mess, you kind of make things seem not so messy.’ ‘Well,’ answered June, ‘isn’t that sort of what mothers are for?’”— American journalist and historian David Halberstam (1934-2007), The Fifties (1993)

Sixty-five years ago today, the official first episode of Leave It to Beaver premiered, with two crucial casting changes from its pilot in the spring: Hugh Beaumont took over as Ward Cleaver and Tony Dow as Wally, the older son of Ward and June. 

As David Halberstam’s analysis in the above passage shows, it was too much to expect much in the way of reality from Leave It to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, or the other two major family sitcoms of the late Fifties and early Sixties, Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show. These series offered escapism, a flight from sordid reality, the same way that the suburban viewers they primarily appealed to had sought it in fleeing from the ills of the city in the postwar world.

Nowadays, those black-and-white images are bathed in nostalgia, even set in amber in a world where parents were not only “respectable,” unquestioned paragons, but adults never quarreled for long or broke up for good--or where adults as a group never aged, let alone died.

More than a few baby boomers, watching Leave It to Beaver in either its original run or (like me) in reruns, felt reality intrude on our memories when we heard the news several weeks ago of Tony Dow’s death. A talented, gray-haired, 77-year-old artist passing on? Nah. He’ll always be the cheerful, good-natured older brother who always looks out for you.

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