So Long, June Cleaver

Yesterday the passing of Barbara Billingsley was reported on the news. We boomers will forever remember her as June Cleaver, the idealized mother of “the Beaver” on one of the most quintessential boomer TV shows of all time, Leave It to Beaver.

The character of June Cleaver was written as the epitome of 1950s and ’60s suburban motherhood, always perfectly attired and quick with a smile for her husband and children. Much has been made of the high heels and pearls that the character always wore, whether doing the housework or heading out with her husband, Ward (played by Hugh Beaumont). In the following interview, though, Ms. Billingsley explained the evolution of the dresses, pearls and high heels:

Throughout the show’s entire run (1957-1963), Barbara Billingsley got top billing, as she was the first introduced in the opening credits. The other thing to note about this, her defining role as an actress (though she was a veteran before being offered the role), was that in an age when “a woman’s place was in the kitchen,” in this show June is often seen solving whatever dilemma the Beaver got into right alongside her husband, even arguing with him at times as to the best parental response to the situation. In the end, Ward often gave the parental talk to the Beaver, but it always seemed that June’s sage advice was omnipresent, even if she took a backseat to the father figure as was the custom of the day.

One thing no one can argue with is that Barbara Billingsley made an ideal June Cleaver. While her tiny waist and shapely gams made her a Pygmalion come to life in glorious black & white, her grace and elegance is what helped make the strange juxtaposition of pearls and heels in the suburbs seem credible.

Then there was Wally’s (the Beaver’s brother, as played by Tony Dow) friend Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond). He was always up to no good, yet he was the perfect gentleman in front of Mrs. Cleaver. Perhaps the fictional Eddie realized that Barbara Billingsley, or rather, June Cleaver, was universally recognized and accepted as the mother figure every boomer boy could respect.

Coincidently, the show was first broadcast on the very day that Sputnik was launched, and ended five months before President Kennedy was assassinated. In other words, this show was aired during the prime boomer years. If ever there was a TV mother figure for boomers, it was Barbara Billingsley.

For Mister Boomer, Leave It to Beaver wasn’t his favorite show, but one the family watched throughout its entire run and on into reruns. Beaver (Theodore Cleaver, as played by Jerry Mathers), got into some predicament in every episode. Mister Boomer, himself around the Beave’s age, never understood how one kid could get into so much trouble. Plus, Theodore felt perfectly at ease talking to his parents about whatever his problem was, and that was a strange concept for the real-world boomers in Mister B’s suburbia. In contrast to TV families like the Nelsons, the Andersons and the Cleavers, parents in Mister B’s neighborhood kept a healthy “overseer” distance from their children. They preferred fear and discipline to talk and reason.

In 1980, Barbara Billingsley appeared in the movie Airplane! as a jive-speaking grandmother. Once again, the actress showed us her professionalism and range by giving us an extremely funny performance that has since joined the classic comedy sketches of all time. Remember this, boomers?

Barbara Billingsley has given boomers some great memories. For that, we are eternally grateful. Good night, Mrs. Cleaver. Thank you, Ms. Billingsley.

What did Barbara Billingsley mean to you?

Boomers Heart Robots

Boomers have had a special relationship with robots that dates back to our youth in the form of movies and toys. Basically, our robots were a link to the future in our play and imagination. There were two types of robots: those that helped us vanquish our enemies (or the task at hand) and those that would vanquish us.

There is evidence that humans have been envisioning robots as far back as the 4th century B.C. Several hundred years later, Leonardo DaVinci sketched a humanoid robot in 1495. However, use of the word “robot” is attributed to a Czech writer in 1920. The word referred to a worker or laborer, or one held in servitude for a contracted period of time.

For boomers, robots meant fun play in the 1950s and 60s. Remember the kid-friendly noise and squawk of Ideal Toy’s Mr. Machine from the unforgettable TV commercial from 1960? Wind the toy up and it swung its arms as it walked, opened its mouth as it squawked. The entire robot, made of plastic and metal, could be disassembled and put back together. It had a switch that would make the toy walk forward or in a circle.

Ideal followed up with another robot toy that let kids “control” the robot. In this case, it fired missiles at your enemy at your command. The toy industry wouldn’t dare let a toy like this one hit the shelves any more, with its numerous choking hazards and eye-poking possibilities.

Mister Boomer didn’t have robot toys, but he loved the robots in the classic 1950s sci-fi movies. Two of his favorites were Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original from 1951 with Michael Renni, not the Keanu Reeves remake).

The plot of Forbidden Planet was inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but to a young boomer, the real star of the film was Robby the Robot. He was there to help in whatever the situation called for, from moving rocks to making a fine evening dress. In the movie, Robby was portrayed by a man in a robot costume, but was listed in the credit as playing “himself.” Robby would appear in other movies and several TV shows in following years. A mechanical version of Robby was made for the TV series, Lost in Space. Many boomers will remember Robby from that TV show rather than the movie that originated the character.

The Day the Earth Stood Still was a fantastic cautionary tale about the dangers of letting our technology get the best of us — particularly our nuclear capabilities. It was the first anti-nuclear proliferation movie. Again, for a young boy, the robot character loomed large. Quite literally, the robot from another planet, Gort, was a giant among men. His handler was the alien, Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie.

Men, ever driven by ignorance, shot Klaatu, causing the robot to go into a defensive/protection mode. Gort’s weapon of choice was a laser that was fired when its eyewear visor swung open. Nothing could stop Gort, as it melted guns and even tanks, while leaving humans untouched whenever possible. Ultimately, Patricia Neal repeated the famous line spoken earlier by Klaatu himself, before he passed out: “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto.” Gort carried Klaatu back to the space ship and brought him back to life with the help of the onboard technology.

If you haven’t seen either of these movies in a while, Mister B humbly suggests you go directly to your movie ship list and add them now. You’ll find them great fun in a nostalgic way, and terrific as an adult boomer.

If you’re feeling nostalgic for robot toys, including the ever-popular Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots that we haven’t even mentioned, rest assured that online auctions have plenty available for bidding. In fact, a quick check reveals you can still get an original Mr. Machine for less than $20 (out of the box, of course).

What memories of robots dance through your boomer past? Did they give you nightmares or hours of fun … or both?