LEAVE IT TO BEAVER

U.S. Situation Comedy

Leave It To Beaver, a series both praised for its family-bolstering innocence and panned for its homogenized sappiness, served as a bridge between the waning radio comedy and the blossoming of the television "sitcom." The show was created by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher; two writers who first worked together at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York. Leaving the agency in 1942 to devote their talents to radio comedy writing, the duo worked on shows starring Edgar Bergen, Frank Morgan, and Phil Harris before securing jobs on the wildly popular Amos 'n' Andy program. Over a period of twelve years, they earned writers' credits on over 1,500 radio and television scripts for that series; continuing to create material for the show's radio version right up to Beaver's third year. Although Amos 'n' Andy now is viewed as a distorted repository of racial stereotyping and segregated casting, Connelly's and Mosher's experience on that program helped them refine a flair for extracting humor from uncomplicated, yet likable characters immersed in unremarkable situations with which the audience could easily identify.

Connelly's and Mosher's first solo television effort was a short-lived anthology series for actor Ray Milland. This uncharacteristic failure, they revealed in a New York Times interview with Oscar Golbout, taught them to restrict themselves to writing "things we know about." They followed up on this resolution by taking a situation Connelly had observed while driving his son to parochial school and crafting it into The Private War of Major Benson, a theatrical feature starring Charlton Heston that won the pair an Academy Award nomination in 1956. It was from such real-life simplicity that Leave It To Beaver was born. In 1957, Connelly and Mosher developed a concept for an adult-appealing show about children. Unlike such predecessors (and competitors) as The Life of Riley, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, and Father Knows Best, it would not be the parents who served as Beaver's focal point but rather, their offspring. The stories would be told from the kids' point-of-view as Connelly and Mosher recalled it and observed it in their own children. Mosher was the father of two children and Connelly the parent of six. While all of these offspring served as sources for the show's dialogue and plot lines, Connelly's eight-year-old son Ricky was the inspiration for Beaver; his fourteen-year-old son Jay the model for Beaver's older brother Wally.

Remington Rand picked up the project that became a co-owned vehicle in which Connelly and Mosher had 50 percent and comedian George Goebel's Gomalco Production controlled the other half. The creative and casting aspects of the show were put together by dominant talent agency MCA (then known as the Music Corporation of America). From its inception, Beaver was fashioned as a traditional family unit with two sons. Beaver Cleaver was near eight when the show began and his brother Wally was twelve. Although Beaver's real name was Theodore, the nickname was emphasized to suggest a toothy, perky youngster who was "all boy." Early in the series, Beaver explains that he acquired the moniker as a baby when toddler Wally could only pronounce Theodore as "Tweeter". Parents Ward and June modified the sound to the slightly more dignified "Beaver" which would be the show's namesake. The pilot script was, in fact, titled Wally and Beaver to emphasize the project's child's-eye viewpoint. Sponsor Remington Rand felt this might suggest a nature program, however, so the series became Leave It To Beaver.

Beaver ran on network television from October 1957 to September 1963; the first season on CBS and the last five on ABC. Paralleling the network shift, the show's production relocated from Republic Studio to Universal Studios after the second year--and the on-screen Cleavers moved from a modest, picket-fenced house at 485 Maple Drive to a larger abode at 211 Pine Street--both in the small and vaguely midwestern town of Mayfield. A library of 234 episodes was produced in which the characters were allowed to naturally age with their actors. Beaver went from a dirt-loving little boy to a gawky teen about to enter high school. Wally matured from a pre-teen just beginning to take an interest in girls to a poised young man ready to leave for college. In the show's first seasons, when actor Jerry Mathers was at his cutest, his Beaver character was the program's centerpiece. As he became a more gangling preadolescent, more plot attention was directed toward Wally, whose portrayer Tony Dow was developing into a handsome teenager. Through it all, father Ward (played by Hugh Beaumont, a Methodist lay preacher and religious film actor) and mother June (grade-B film and TV drama veteran Barbara Billingsley) observed and nurtured their children with quiet selflessness and obvious love.

Despite its six-year-run as a prime-time network offering, Beaver never made the coveted top-twenty-five list. Nevertheless, its down-to-earth writing, low-key acting and uncontrived storylines served as a memorable and well-crafted icon for the positive if unremarkable joys of middle class family life in general and suburban kid-dom in particular. If Beaver's ignoring of significant social issues was a common flaw of the programs of its time, its unpretentious advocacy of personal responsibility and self-respect was an uncommon virtue. Admittedly, as critic Robert Lewis Shayon observed, Ward and June Cleaver were "Mr. and Mrs. Average-American living in their typical Good Housekeeping home." But what happened in and around that home was a consistent and continuous celebration of all those minor but precious family victories that could be won even when the children themselves were required to be the decision-makers.

Less than three months after Beaver left the air, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy changed the nation's view of itself and its times. Connelly and Mosher went off to write The Munsters and a country preoccupied with civil rights strife, Vietnam, Woodstock and Watergate would find little relevance in Beaver's radio-derived simplicity. But by the late 1970s, the show's uncomplicated and unabrasive observations reacquired appeal. On superstation WTBS and scores of other outlets, Beaver reruns enjoyed significant ratings success. Beaver and Wally appeared on packages of Kellogg's Corn Flakes in 1983 and the show's cast members have since been featured in a variety of retrospective projects. A striking example of the wistful admiration for all the series still represents was uncovered in a 1994 Parenting magazine poll. Predictably, 40% of respondents said the contemporary superhit Roseanne reflected their family life--but a full 28% picked Beaver instead. What Wally once observed about his brother may be true of the program as a whole: "He's got that little kid expression on his face all the time, but he's not really as goofy as he looks."

-Peter Orlick

 


Leave It To Beaver

CAST

June Cleaver .....................................Barbara Billingsley Ward Cleaver........................................ Hugh Beaumont Beaver (Theodore) Cleaver........................ Jerry Mathers Wally Cleaver................................................ Tony Dow Eddie Haskell ...........................................Ken Osmond Miss Canfield (1957-1958)....................... Diane Brewster Miss Landers (l958-l962).............................. Sue Randall Larry Mondelo (l958-l960)..........................Rusty Stevens Whitey Whitney .......................................Stanley Fafara Clarence "Lumpy" Rutherford (l958-1963)....... Frank Bank Mr. Fred Rutherford............................... Richard Deacon Gilbert Bates (1959-1963)....................... Stephen Talbot Richard (1960-1963) ................................Richard Correll

PRODUCERS
Harry Ackerman, Joe Connelly, Bob Mosher

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 234 Episodes

CBS
October 1957-March 1958                      Friday 7:30-8:00 March 1958-September l958           Wednesday 8:00-8:30 ABC October 1958-June 1959             Thursday 7:30-8:00 July l959-September 1959                  Thursday 9:00-9:30 October 1959-September 1962            Saturday 8:30-9:00 September 1962-September 1963       Thursday 8:30-9:00

FURTHER READING

Applebaum, Irwyn. The World According to Beaver. New York: Bantam, 1984.

Golbout, Oscar. "A Gift from the Children." New York Times, 8 December 1957.

Liebman, Nina. Living Room Lectures: The Fifties Family in Film and Television. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Shayon, Robert Lewis. "Beaver's Booboo." Saturday Review (New York), 1 February 1958.

Shepard, Richard. "Busy 'Beaver' and His Brother." New York Times, 30 October 1960.

Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal In Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

"TV's Eager Beaver." Look (New York), 27 May 1958.

 

See also Comedy, Domestic Settings; Family on Television; Gender and Television