Thursday, October 4, 2012

Rant #816: Wally and the Beav

It is hard to believe, but 55 years ago today, “Leave It To Beaver” premiered on CBS.

The show, about a “typical” 1950s family living in suburbia, was never a ratings winner, never garnered an Emmy award, and, in fact, it was actually cancelled after its first season on CBS.

But it remains the penultimate late 1950s-early 1960s sitcom, and one of the best TV shows ever to appear on the small screen.

The idea for the show came from the Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, the show’s creators/producers/writers. More to the point, the basic themes used in the show, and many of the comic situations, came directly from their own families.

The characters of Beaver, played by Jerry Mathers, and Wally, played by Tony Dow, came directly from Connelly and Mosher’s own children, and even the friends, like Larry Mondello, played by Rusty Stevens, and Eddie Haskell, played by Ken Osmond, were based on real-life friends of their children.

The basic theme of the show was simple: we are all judged by our actions, and we must all learn from our own experiences.

Hugh Beaumont, who played Ward Cleaver, and Barbara Billingsley, who played June Cleaver, were the perfect parents, but “Leave It To Beaver” was perhaps the first sitcom to see the world through kids’ eyes.

And seeing it through those eyes, June and Ward were perfect, Wally was the perfect brother, and Beaver … well, Theodore was truly the runt of the litter.

As the youngest member of the family, Beaver was the most naïve one, the one who could be the most taken by the pranks of others. He also wasn’t as good looking or athletic as his brother was, and he often got into mischief because he wasn’t as forward thinking as his brother.

But that is where the comedy came in.

Beaver got into scraps like getting weird haircuts, taking in pets that he tried to hide from his parents, ordering weird things in the mail, and climbing up onto a huge billboard to see how it worked.

He was often taken advantage of by not only his brothers’ friends, but his friends, too.

But when he got into these situations, his parents, and primarily his father, was able to dole out advice that would make the Beav understand what he did and why he was wrong.

No, Ward and June were not hitters, they were more psychological in the way they doled out punishment.

With a full six seasons of shows—one on CBS and five on ABC—Beaver, Wally and the others became a benchmark of that era, the pre-JFK assassination era which appeared to be a time of innoncence.

These kids had few cares, other than combing their hair the right way, and many have derided the show as being artificial.

I completely disagree. They did what they could during their era, and often dealt with situations, like divorce and minorities, in a calm, but insightful way.

Sure, the Mayfield that “Leave It To Beaver” was situated in was almost from a Norman Rockwell painting, but that was the era and time.

And without “Beaver,” there would not have been a Kevin Arnold character, nor a “Wonder Years,” which was really “Leave It To Beaver” 20 years later. I also often thought that there is also a link to the Beav with the "Our Gang" comedies, which put down the groundwork for a series seen through a child's eyes. Without the "Little Rascals," there would certainly had not been a "Beaver."

The show ended in 1963, and ended at the right time. Going off the air a few weeks prior to JFK’s assassination, “Beaver” could still show off its innocence without an unnecessary spotlight of being “old fashioned” negating its charms.

In fact, the last episode of the show was fully planned. Mathers wanted to leave acting and attend a regular high school, while Dow planned to go to college. So, the final episode was probably the first time a network TV show actually had a farewell, final episode: the Cleavers sit around in the living room looking at a scrapbook, and series highlights spring from the pictures that they see in the scrapbook.

I loved the show as a child, seeing it in endless reruns. As an adult, I own all the shows on DVD and whenever I watch a show, I still laugh and get a big kick out of it, much the same way I did decades earlier.

It truly is one of TV’s timeless shows, and its humor, and humility, holds up to this day.

So happy 55th birthday to “Leave It To Beaver,” and let’s be honest about it, haven’t you wished that you would have known both Wally and the Beav at one time or another when you were growing up?

(And on a side note, onto the playoffs--the Yankees are the American League Eastern Division champs once again, and will face the winner of the one-game Wild Card playoff between the Texas Rangers and the Baltimore Orioles. Also, congrats to the other teams who made the playoffs. This thing is so wide open, it's ridiculous. Any team can win, but I am pulling for the Yankees, of course.) 

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