The 1950s are a litmus test for our political views; love the ’50s, you’re likely conservative; hate the ’50s, you’re likely liberal.*
So I’ll leave my general feeling for the ’50s aside except to vent upon one particular pet peeve: Whenever someone speaks sneeringly of ’50s sitcoms such as “Leave It to Beaver,” especially when they make the tired, old observation that “Beaver” and the others are so “unrealistic.” This causes my nostrils to flare and my increasingly bushy eyebrows to arch in a very menacing fashion.
Now, a sitcom’s a sitcom; gritty realism is not their strong suit. But what’s really “unrealistic” is to deny that many, many American children lived in neat, tidy homes, with intact families, Dads who worked hard every day and came home in time for dinner, friendly neighbors with mischievous kids, and most of all, Moms who ran the household with equal parts love and efficiency. Let me tell you: if that was not “realistic,” my entire childhood was a weird Jerry Mathers acid trip in 1968.
I have often told my long-suffering wife that I never knew a child growing up who came from a home without a mother and a father present. My own mother was the first I ever knew who worked outside the home, and that didn’t begin until I was 10. It’s not very fashionable to admit that my roots are so bourgeois, but this was how life went at our house: Dad came home from work a little after 5, dinner on the table by 6, homework around 7, Perry Como and Dinah Shore on the black-and-white Zenith. The world of the ’50s sitcoms did not look so “unrealistic” to little Boomers.
In those days, kids were in and out of a lot of homes. I can tell you that – while they may not have had the glamour of Donna Reed – the women in those households were every inch the equal of the sitcom moms. I can name many of them: Ruby Holloway, Martha Boles, Jimmie Whisenhunt, Nan Bell, Margaret Ellis, Roseabel Gilmer, Rosemary Causey, and, yes, Jean Dempsey. The children who grew up in those homes – and the children who came to visit – were very lucky children indeed.
I’m very mindful that all families have their secrets, that what is on the surface is not always the whole story. But neither is what’s below the surface. Life in the ’50s was by no means perfect. Perhaps – perhaps – on the whole, life is better today. But, children of the 2010s, don’t believe it when you’re told that “Leave It to Beaver” is a fantasy on the scale of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
*(Of course, only a few of us still hobbling around today actually have memories of the ’50s. I barely do myself. One of my very earliest memories is of that jolly Communist Nitkita Kruschev, the premier of the Soviet Union. He came to visit the U.S. in 1959, and I remember being horrified that the devil incarnate – as far as I could tell from what I heard from my parents and relatives – was freely parading the streets of America. Actually, he doesn’t seem so terrifying in this clip: