How many of us knew an Eddie Haskell? Wiseguy Eddie was always trying to pull a fast one, but Wally never gave up on his friend. Beaver was gullible and forever getting into trouble, but it was never malicious, just his youthful and trusting naivety.
Leave it to Beaver may seem like an old fashioned black & white TV show but its story lines were genuine. This is part of its enduring appeal. The show had heart.
Of all my childhood television programs, here is one of my favorites. One of my readers asked if a blog on this program was in the works. Yes. Here it is.
The show premiered the year I was born (1957) and ran for six seasons, a total of 235 episodes. An explanation of the show is probably unnecessary, as it has been in continuous re-runs since 1963. It’s popularity never seemed to waiver. In the 1982, a television film aired that updated the lives of the Cleaver family and their friends. This led in 1983 to an updated version of the show, which first aired on the Disney Channel and then TBS, for a total of 104 episodes. In 1997, a feature film, unrelated to the previous show, set the Cleaver clan in the present date. In more than 60 years, that’s a lot of Wally, Beaver and the Cleavers.
Leave it to Beaver presented America in a very middle class, homogenized view of life. Set in the fictitious town of Mayfield, life was ideal, the perfect place for an elementary boy to experience life. Mayfield was like Mayberry, where people were kind, kids were safe and life’s problems were resolved in 30 minutes (with commercials).
Leave it to Beaver was very whitebread America. There were no people of color, it looked very middle class, and only tangential recognition of the problems facing families. To its credit, the show’s scripts did focus on values without being overly preachy. Ward and June Cleaver were not perfect parents but they tried hard to provide good, moral parenting, and often learned a few lessons at the same time. Beaver and Wally, like most kids of the era, usually got into a predicament, tried unsuccessfully to extricate themselves, but were afraid to go to their parents for help.
The show revolved around Beaver, but often shifted the focus to older brother Wally in stories about the challenges of growing up. Both Beaver and Wally had friends that typically led them both into trouble. Friendship was an essential part of a boy’s life, and friends were good at helping figure out the complexities of life. In Beaver’s case it was Gilbert, Larry and Whitey, who often dared Beaver to do something outrageous, which he usually did, and then they deserted him to face the music or results alone. Wally’s main friends, were Eddie Haskell and Lumpy Rutherford, who like Beaver’s friends, were usually the source of Wally’s problems.
Much of Beaver’s world took place in or around school, with teachers Miss Landers, Miss Canfield or Mrs. Rayburn at Grant Avenue School. These educators were very supportive and fair, but who kept class discipline and focus. However, this didn’t keep Beaver from taking shortcuts and ending up in trouble. Ideas for programs came from the show’s creators’ own lives. While the problems kids had sixty years ago might seem ancient, you’d be surprised that the context is very similar to the struggles of kids today.
Beaver dealt with bullying, friends that deserted him, peer pressure, buying into questionable fashion fads, listening to bad advice, unwise choices in spending money, rejection from girls, spoiled friends, and so on. No, there weren’t drugs, gun violence, prejudice, single parent families (there was one episode that dealt with this), stranger danger and social media. Kids are generally more sophisticated today, but kids at any age try to make sense of problems and rely on their values.
In the late 1950’s – early 1960’s there were a number of family sitcoms. Ozzie & Harriett, My Three Sons, The Donna Reed Show, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy the most famous of them. Most of these shows came from the viewpoint of the parent, who was the star of the show. In Leave it to Beaver, the stars were Beaver and Wally, and the stories were focused on them. Jerry Mathers, who played Beaver, was a working actor, having appeared in television and film, so he was a professional actor when he was cast in the role. He was perfect for the character of Beaver.
Here are 12 memorable episodes:
“Wally’s Haircomb” Wally follows the trend and gets a hideous hairstyle. His parents hate it but don’t say anything. Whenever he is seen jazzy music blares, accentuating Wally’s hipster style. When Beaver gets the same hairstyle, June explodes and tells them what she really thinks. Parents struggle when to lay down the law and when to let kids learn from their choices.
“Baby Picture” Beaver needs a baby photo for a school publication. June finds a darling photo of Beaver naked on a blanket. Beaver is so embarrassed that he won’t take the photo to school, but doesn’t tell his mother because she loves the photo. Ward finds a solution by trimming the photo to only show his head. Father to the rescue.
“In The Soup” Wally gets permission to have a boy/girl party and doesn’t want Beaver there to be a little creep, so Beaver intends to spend the night at Whitey’s. On the way over to Whitey’s they encounter a large billboard with a bowl and steam coming out. To solve their argument about whether the bowl contains real soup, Beaver climbs up and gets trapped inside the bowl. The only way to get him out is to summon help, which naturally disrupts Wally’s party, which was Wally’s big fear in the beginning. In a later episode, Beaver disrupts another of Wally’s parties by putting gags in the punch bowl, fake meat in the sandwiches and making the record player start and stop.
“Lumpy’s Scholarship” Lumpy gets a scholarship to State, a scholarship that Wally was also up for. Wally throws Lumpy a congratulations party, where he finds out the scholarship has been pulled because of a failing math grade. Lumpy is devastated, but not as much as his dad, who berates him. Ward works behind the scenes to get State to hold the scholarship open if Lumpy can bring up his grades. This is an episode about class, not the school kind, the character kind. Both Wally and Ward get high marks.
“Beaver, the Hero” Beaver becomes the hero by catching the winning touchdown pass. Fame quickly goes to his head. Eddie Haskell helps to stoke Beaver’s ego and soon Beaver is too good for everyone and decides he doesn’t need to show up for football practice, which gets him suspended from the team for the next game. It’s a hard lesson for Beaver. Eddie Haskell was a good dramatic device, always the devil on the other side of the shoulder, and Beaver was usually game.
“Bachelor at Large” Eddie and his father have a fight and he moves out, renting a room to set up his bachelor pad. Ward and June fear that Wally will follow Eddie’s cue. Eddie boasts how great his life is, but in reality, he is lonely and not doing too well. Wally, takes pity on Eddie and figures out a way to get Eddie and his dad to make up, and Eddie back home.
“Wally’s Big Date” Double-dating with Eddie should always be viewed with suspicion. The dates are from another school, who they have never seen. Eddie suddenly wants to switch dates with Wally, who agrees. Wally then finds out that his date is taller than he is, and naturally the male ego goes to work. In the end, his date wears flat shoes and wears her hair down, so the height difference is not a big deal, and she turns out to be a very nice young lady. Wally is normally level-headed but he allows social convention to upset his thinking.
“The Lost Watch” Beaver and his pal are too young to be chosen for a team in baseball but they get stuck watching the stuff of Wally and his friends. At the end of the game, Lumpy Rutherford wants his watch back, but Beaver doesn’t have it. Lumpy threatens Beaver to return it or pay for it. Beaver lives under the threat, too scared to tell his parents. In the end, Lumpy’s watch turns up, Beaver never had it. Lumpy is forced to apologize in the end. Lumpy wasn’t a real threat but it showed the impact of bullying.
“Wally’s New Suit” Wally needs a new suit but convinces his parents that he is old enough to buy it himself. Wally gets talked into buying a weird suit a lot of pockets. Like Wally’s weird hairstyle of another episode, kids want to be grown up and make their own decisions. Watching Ward and June struggle helplessly is worth it.
“Tire Trouble” When they finally get around to cleaning out the garage, like they have been warned about doing, Wally and the Beaver unintentionally cause a flat tire on Ward’s car. They spend the episode trying to get it fixed without Ward finding out. As they roll the tire down the street on their way to get it fixed, they go by Ward’s place of business, where’s Lumpy’s father also works, and who spots them out the window. One of the better episodes where the boys do something they aren’t supposed to do and then try and fix it without the parents finding out. Who can’t related to that?
“Beaver Runs Away” Beaver is told not to mess with Ward’s tools but does anyway. He drills a hole through the garage wall. Ward blow’s his stack and punishes Beaver, who gets upset and threatens to run away. Ward calls his bluff, and Beaver has no choice but to leave home. June gets Ward to realize his ego might be getting in the way. Ward remembers a similar situation when he was young and he ran away and his dad didn’t come to find him. Sometimes parents learn the biggest lesson.
“June’s Birthday” Beaver decides to pick out a gift for his mother’s birthday. Larry’s mother suggests a blouse and Beaver picks out a gaudy one, which his mother says she likes but is embarrassed to wear. Ward suggests she wear something more appropriate to the tea event. Beaver’s class unexpectedly appears at the tea to sing and Beaver notices his mother is not wearing the blouse she promised to wear. Beaver is dejected, leaving June to figure out how to explain and help him over the hurt feelings. Even parents struggle with honesty and their children’s feelings.
There are many other memorable episodes, each one with a lesson disguised as entertainment. The Cleavers had a very loving and supportive family, but that didn’t mean there weren’t disagreements. You always knew that in 30 minutes the crisis would be solved and order would be restored to the Cleaver household. Whatever the problem, Ward’s hair would never be mussed and June would look stunning in her pearls. Just like real life. Jerry Mathers is 70 years old and Tony Dow is 73. How can that be?