Tuning in to the past through classic TV shows

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At a recent lunch my colleagues and I turned to the subject of our favorite old TV shows. We all reminisced quite happily about “The Cosby Show,” “Leave it to Beaver” and “Three’s Company.” We decided our favorite blonde was Chrissy; we felt sorry for Janet; and Jack Tripper was a ridiculous overactor. We all absolutely loved “The Cosby Show,” mainly because Bill Cosby is hilarious. I remember looking forward to it every Thursday night. And “Leave it to Beaver” pretty much still makes us feel inadequate as mothers.

Our conversation began because of FaceTime and how much we feel our lives are becoming like “The Jetsons.” Someone mentioned how she hates getting FaceTime calls early in the morning when she hasn’t gotten dressed yet. It reminded me of the episode where Jane Jetson puts on a “morning mask” to receive a television phone call, but then her friend’s own morning mask falls off. Things have sure changed! Just like Jane Jetson, we don’t always want to fix our hair just in case we get a phone call.

Recently, my children asked me to order “The Brady Bunch” from Netflix. With a sigh, I begrudgingly did. I have to admit it was interesting to watch this blast from the past from the very first episode — as a child I’d always wondered how the show had started out. Did you know the first episode had Carol (whose last name was Martin) and Mike getting married? It was sort of cute, I guess, if you can suspend belief long enough to accept that the kids immediately began calling their stepparents Mom and Dad. And more maddening (from the perspective of a mom who works full time and has no husband) is the fact that Mrs. Brady has no job, PLUS a live-in housekeeper. Ugh. I was able to privately console my jealousy with the Enquirer-garnered rumor that Florence Henderson’s REAL boyfriend was Greg. Tee hee.

I enjoyed hearing the perspectives of my parents and godmother about TV. One common theme was that kids had no say over what was on TV — this was entirely up to parents. This meant the kids were watching things like “Bonanza,” “The Twilight Zone” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” I remember my grandparents made me watch “The Lawrence Welk Show” and “Hee Haw.” Ugh.

The other theme was the prevalence of variety shows like “The Red Skelton Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Loretta Young Show” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” I found it interesting that all three mentioned seeing The Beatles for the first time on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” As Connie said, if you ask anyone over 60 they will remember two things: where they were when Kennedy was shot, and seeing The Beatles on “Ed Sullivan.”

And TV influenced people’s lives then as now: My mom named my youngest brother Mason after one of her all-time favorite shows, “Perry Mason.” And my dad has this to say about advertising: “Back then cigarettes were still advertised on TV and we kids all knew the jingles. By the time we were teenagers we ALL smoked — coincidence? — and the ads were still on TV. It was funny to take notice that whenever a cigarette ad was aired, within 10 minutes, and with absolutely no one having said a word, anybody in the room who smoked was smoking a cigarette. It was as if, ‘Oh yeah! I’m glad that cigarette ad just played — I almost forgot to smoke!’”

Now I end up watching a lot of children’s movies. Unlike my grandparents, I don’t dictate what is on the TV. Somehow I don’t think my kids should be watching “Lie to Me” or “Northanger Abbey.” But after being exposed to the treasure that is “The Brady Bunch,” my daughter has discovered a whole world of vintage TV to enjoy. Our next Netflix selection? “The Addams Family.” We’ll see what they think of Cousin It.

Sara Van Donge is a Walla Walla native, middle school dual language teacher and mom to two children. She can be reached at saravandonge@gmail.com.

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