Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Tom Bosley and Barbara Billingsley. Requiescat in pace.
It seems incredible, but two icons of 1950’s innocence have departed our sphere in the space of a mere three days.
The first, Barbara Billingsley, played that paragon of mid-twentieth century housewifery, June Cleaver, of the long-running television series “Leave It to Beaver.” Ever-loving wife of Ward Cleaver, mother of Wally and the unfortunately-named Beaver Cleaver (whatever were they thinking?), June was the archetypical Eisenhower-era Teevee Hausfrau. Dinner was always ready, hot, and on the table when Ward dragged his ass home from whatever salt mine it was he worked in; no matter whether it was meatloaf, hot dogs and beans, or spaghetti and meatballs (ethnic night!), June would have prepared it while wearing a fashionable dress... and pearls. No housecoat-wearing frumpery was tolerated chez Cleaver. For that matter, semi-foreign expressions like “chez Cleaver” were not tolerated either. This was, after all, the 1950’s, and any display of extraterritorial cultural influences smacked of elitism... or, worse, Communism.
The Cleavers - unlike, say, the rural-dwelling Real McCoys or the Miller and Martin families of Lassie fame - were a solidly suburban clan, and so far easier for me to identify with despite their complete lack of ethnic flavor. That lack of ethnicity - that total white-breadedness - was their most endearing feature. We knew, instinctively, that the Cleavers were not ever intended to be a Real Family. They were a mid-century ideal, America as imagined by Norman Rockwell... with Barbara Billingsley as the ur-matriarch.
Perhaps I hold a special place for The Beav in my heart because the show made its debut on my fifth birthday... coincidentally, the same day the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, kicking off the Space Race. You could fairly say that the United States lost and found its innocence on the same day.
Cut to early 1974, when the bloom was off the rose of the Hippie Era and the cynicism of the late Nixonian period was permeating the Body Politic. Suddenly, the 1950’s started looking awfully appealing in the rear-view mirror of history, especially since enough years had passed that some of the less savory aspects of the day (racial segregation, McCarthyism, H-bomb paranoia) had receded somewhat in the public memory. It was in this burst of Fifties Nostalgia that “Happy Days” was born.
Personally, I never cared much for “Happy Days.” Maybe it was because I saw it for what it was, a baldfaced attempt to exploit that selfsame Fifties Nostalgia, at a time when I had precious little nostalgia for the Fifties. I didn’t like Fifties music, Fifties clothing, Fifties hairstyles, or Fifties attitudes, and I especially didn’t like the sugarcoated Hollywood teevee version. But, clearly, I was in the minority.
It matters not. “Happy Days” went on to enjoy a ten-year run - four more than “Leave It to Beaver” - and today occupies a warm spot in American popular consciousness. And Tom Bosley, who played the role of paterfamilias Howard Cunningham, became a beloved television star.
Barbara Billingsley passed on last Saturday at the age of 94. A mere three days later, Tom Bosley, 83, followed her to that Great Television Studio in the Sky. With their passing, a piece of my childhood (and early adulthood) now belongs to the ages. Ave atque vale!