Barbara Billingsley, who played mom-for-all-seasons June Cleaver in iconic sitcom Leave It To Beaver died Saturday, according to various reports. She was 94, so it was not a big surprise, but it was still a shock to my Boomer TV sensibilities.
Yes, she had that fun jive riff in “Airplane,” but she was never meant to be hip. She was part of the “comfort TV” generation of moms who seemed perfectly content to make lemonade and wear prom dresses and pearls to dust and were always around to serve afternoon snacks with nary a cross word. Not reality of course, but then neither is CSI.
I met “Mrs. Cleaver” briefly at a NATPE conference probably 25 years ago [unless it was PROMAX (then BPME)]. I was wandering through the cavernous exhibit floot hard by the bull-riding machine, ambling closer to the Vivid girls than was absolutely necessary, and past the indie distributor with the thinly-distributed animal show handing out plastic key chains, on my way back to the press room when a familiar voice asked: “would you like some milk and cookies.”
If you have been to a NATPE convention, or if not just imagine what a roomful of program salesmen trying to attract potential clients–OK, most of them were just posting clearances lined up weeks before–would be offering up as inducements and you can imagine my surprise at this particular come-on.
I looked up to see Barbara Billingsley in a beautiful yellow dress and pearls (of course), with a pitcher of milk in one hand and a plate of cookies (yes, they were chocolate chip) in the other.
It was kind of disconcerting to see her in color, since early TV, like the Civil War, has always lived only in black and white for me. But there she was, one of the surrogate TV moms I had grown to love, along with June Lockhart on Lassie, Gloria Henry on Dennis the Menace, and Whitney Blake on Hazel (OK, there were tons more, but you get the idea).
I think she must have been promoting the “new” Leave It to Beaver” series, which was syndicated in the 1980’s following a TV movie about the grown cleaver kids, though why anyone would want to see those kids grown up with the same kind of problems adults were having (custody battles, unemployment) I don’t know.
I was stopped in my tracks by the question, said thanks immediately, and took a helping of both, feeling as though a couple of decades had rolled away and I was lying on the living room rug asking my mom if she would hold dinner for ten minutes so I could finish the show. I had just been poured a glass of milk by Mrs. Cleaver. I didn’t have much to say, not like the time I told Barbara Eden she was the first person I ever wanted to marry (at age seven). It was simply enough to have the fourth wall between real life and TV life breached with an afternoon snack I will always remember from a gracious lady both off and on the screen.
If Billingsley, instead of St. Peter, is at the gates with another pitcher, I won’t be surprised. As a mom she always had an implied halo and wings; now it’s just the real thing.
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