Deaths of Barbara Billingsley and Tom Bosley Spark Memories of 1970s TV and Families
By Nick Belardes Posted Oct 20th 2010 03:11PM
Pop-Ed: If you were a child of the 1970s like I was, you can't forget what your mom and dad aspired to be: Iconic TV parents.
Memories first came rushing back when Barbara Billingsley, who played June Cleaver on 'Leave It to Beaver' (1957-1963), died on Oct. 16. And then, on Oct. 19, Tom Bosley, Mr. Cunningham from 'Happy Days' (1974-1984), also passed.
It doesn't matter that the two shows took place in different decades; reruns of 'Leave It To Beaver' had a similar effect to the new episodes of 'Happy Days,' helping children of the '70s see their parents grow up and helping the parents forget the tumultuous '60s. The shows provided pop culture models for families like mine to aspire to, and Barbara Billingsley and Tom Bosley led that pack.
In the '70s, I lived in an ethnically mixed house -- Latino father, white mother, two siblings, a mangy dog by the name of Candy. And one television ... in color. It was always on, with mom attentively watching the reruns. I'm pretty sure that's why she was our own June Cleaver. When my truck driver father was home, he would sit with the entire family during prime time and catch all the latest shows.
It helped that my father was a bit portly like Mr. Cunningham, and a bit of a wise sage as well. I remember episodes where Mr. Cunningham gave his son Richie advice in that deep, singsong voice -- that was my dad. Didn't matter that he was dark skinned or wore a cowboy hat. He was still the deep-voiced patriarch of the family, the problem solver, the daunting head of the house. He was our Mr. C.
Both of my parents were born in 1941, growing up as teens in the 1950s. Both were considered troublemakers in the early part of the '60s. I'm sure they wanted to forget all about those times. After all, my father was a Bay Area college student during one of the largest social revolutions in U.S. history. And my mother? She grew up in a Marshalltown, Iowa, commune. In the center of the community was a bathtub; kids got in line, got dunked, scrubbed and that was that. Not quite suburban America. Not quite June Cleaver's neighborhood. Not yet, anyway. After graduating from high school in the late 1950s, mom bolted to California on a bus, a pregnant teenager. Her lovechild was given up for adoption soon after in San Francisco.
In California, she watched a lot of TV and got married to my dad in Fremont. Probably in that order, too.
I was born in 1968, just in time to become a child of the '70s, right when TV was brimming with nostalgia and endearment for the alleged "Golden Age of Television" (1948-1961). My mother, like many American women at that time, made her transformation into June Cleaver a reality. And why not? June Cleaver was all about feeding the kids, cooking three meals a day, ironing her husband's whitey tighties and being a mystical conduit for neighborhood gossip. I get the feeling that as far as my father -- that magical combination of Tom Bosley and Chicano truck driver -- was concerned, there was nothing better.
In our living room, on our warped green carpet, we ate TV dinners centered around every show imaginable. 'Gilligan's Island,' 'Adam 12,' 'Emergency,' 'The Rifleman,' 'I Love Lucy.' Family time around the dinner table meant turning up the TV loud enough to at least hear our shows while we blasted through our meatloaf. There went the Beaver getting stuck in a tree! We could all hear it: June and the family and all the neighbors trying to talk the boy down. And my father yelling from the kitchen table, "I'd whip that boy!"
'Happy Days' reminded my parents it was OK for a mother to be a stay-at-home mom and take care of the kids, even after the society-revolutionizing shake-ups of the 1960s. Father could walk into the house from a long drive on the road, spout his familiar wisdom about how children should grow up, work hard and one day have a family, and that was just swell.
After all, the Cunninghams were a family. And we were too. (That is, until my parents got divorced in the '80s ... but that's another story and includes a whole other set of TV shows.)
Nick Belardes is an essayist, a novelist, and the author of 'Random Obsessions: Trivia You Can't Live Without.' Read his blog on Red Room.
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