Late last week we learned of the death of Barbra Billingsley (December 22, 1915 – October 16, 2010), the quintessential 1950s TV mom. Then yesterday, Tom Bosley (October 1, 1927 – October 19, 2010) died, who many recognize as the 1950s TV dad. There is no doubt that Leave it to Beaver and Happy Days are two of the most popular television series ever made, and despite being produces twenty years apart, they have many aspects in common, which I would like to explore.
Leave it to Beaver debuted in 1957 and was about the stereotypical upper middle class family. Dad went to work, children attended school, and mom stayed home to cook and clean while wearing her best clothes and pearls. While this was not a representation of the typical 1950s family, the show was tremendously popular and ran until 1963. The popularity of the show was due in part to the romanticism of upper-middle class life. The fact that American families could watch a wholesome show which ignored the complicated social issues of the time led to its popularity. Leave it to Beaver was, to over simplify, a way for families to escape the realities of the late 1950s.
In the twenty years between Happy Days and Leave it to Beaver, America went through a great deal of social change. In the early 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement and television brought brutal racial violence to the living rooms of Americans. After the passage of several important pieces of Civil Rights legislation in the mid 1960s, America’s involvement in Vietnam escalated as Marines were sent to Da Nang. Soon, Americans were viewing images of war on their television screens, and it was during this time the evening news was extended from 15 minutes to 30 minutes to ensure full coverage of the war.
While changes were taking place in America, television had also taken a dramatic turn. Cultural issues were taken head on in the new sit-coms of the 1970s. Show such as Good Times (1974-79), The Jeffersons (1975-85), All in the Family (1971-79), and M*A*S*H (1972-83) directly addressed the issues of racism, war and women’s liberation. While these series were popular among viewers, the introduction of Happy Days (1974-84) took a different approach and, once again, romanticized the upper-middle class of the 1950s. The Cunningham family was comparable to the Cleavers in many aspects. The Cunninghams were obviously upper-middle class with mom staying home to look after the cooking and cleaning, dad working 9-5, and the children (one did mysteriously disappear!) attending school while only having the “normal” issues of high school to deal with. Happy Days was a nostalgic view of the “good old days.”
Television was not alone in glorifying the 1950s in the 1970s. Movies such as American Graffiti (1973) and Grease (1978) romanticized the “simpler” 1950s. There was clearly a fascination with 1950s in the 1970s on television and at the box office. To over simplify, Americans were fed up with the 1970s and needed a way to escape reality. That is, after all, what television and movies are all about. The viewer could escape reality, if only for a short amount of time.
As we remember the work and achievements of Barbara Billingsley and Tom Bosley, it is important to understand the work they did. Both actors entertained audiences in a manner to allow the viewer to escape, the often harsh, reality. Despite the fact Leave it to Beaver was produced twenty years prior to Happy Days, the two shows have clear connection. The family unit of the 1950s was glorified and the issues facing society were ignored, allowing the audience to escape reality for a half hour once a week. Today, we still have a fascination with the 1950s as these shows rerun. Many have said actors achieve immortality when they have produced successful movies and/or television. And I think it is safe to say Billingsley and Bosley will not soon be forgotten.