Benadryl, Betty White, and the end of the American Dream

Written high on Benadryl….

Hay fever season….yesterday the allergy/arthritis synergy was at its peak, and I was on allergy pills all day. Alas, you can’t mix epilepsy meds and daytime allergy pills, so the wife was graced with sweet silence from her zoned out husband. I pulled out one of those Mill Creek Entertainment eight zillion classic television shows on 900 disc sets I picked up for a dollar somewhere and spent hour after hour somewhere between 1948 and 1960. The writers then had all been in radio for years, and were sharp and funny, and especially in the earliest days were writing for hip urban audiences–Bob Cummings quoting Voltaire, and in French. The actors, too, had come mostly come out of radio, or the stage, and many of the comics went back to vaudeville. An ancient Victor Moore (you’ll recognize him as the plumber in The Seven Year Itch) singing a jazzed up 45 Minutes From Broadway (the George M. Cohan tune he’d first sung in 1906) on the Ed Wynn Show in 1949. I’m feeling groovy he says, grinning, stoned without being stoned, following the ultra hip vocal quartet offstage. The be boppers must have loved it (though the silver hairs in the audience preferred it as he’d sung it earlier in the show, a gentle, almost stately waltz, with Cohan’s ragtime inspired tempos softened by time and nostalgia). The variety shows could be flat out surreal, fading actors making jokes about being reduced to appearing on television in subtitles they hold up on boards. It was a live medium–live broadcast at first, and then live in from of a studio audience–and the fourth wall was violated regularly so that at times the audience nearly became part of the show. The writers on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show went so far as to remove the fourth wall and have George talk to the audience–both in house and out there in the dark–like a Greek chorus commenting on the plot, and he would also sneak off to tune in his television set to see what was happening in the scenes he was not in, talking to the audience the whole time, and sometimes phoning the characters to comment on what they were saying, to their confusion. All this within the classic show within a show premise that Jack Benny had introduced back in the 1930’s. It was all pretty avant garde and a far different sort of comedy than came out in the early sixties. There were no Gilligan’s Islands in the mid fifties, no Hazels or Petticoat Junctions. It wasn’t yet Newton Minnow’s vast wasteland…though you could see it getting there as the fifties ended.

And the ads were almost alien. The cigarette spots in particular were fascinating, if appalling, with beautiful models lighting up Pall Malls between courses and blowing the luxuriantly carcinogenic smoke into their loving man’s face. Camel citing leading throat specialists, they claimed, to show how mild, even healthy, a smoke they were. The relentless Eisenhower Era cuteness of Joyce Collins–who never smoked–singing the Lucky Strike song that seven decades later can still get stuck in your head for hours. And then there are the cars ads, wow, the apogee of the automobile,1955-59, these huge gorgeous cars devoid of seatbelts gleaming in the sun and dappled in the shade. My word, those interiors were so roomy, almost cavernous. How many of us came to be in the back seat of one of those? I can tell you we weren’t thinking of baseball at the time Danny Thomas said to his kid in one of those startling double entendres in a Make Room For Daddy that made it past the censors in the fifties. There were lots of those. How boring a date would be with a girl that says nothing but yeah all night said George Burns. Mr. Paley (the CBS chairman) came into my dressing room with two glasses of champagne and said bottoms up…and what an uncomfortable position that was said Gracie Allan. Bob Cummings was a completely cynical horndog in The Bob Cummings Show*, a show which I don’t remember ever seeing. Funny show, and out his window past the bevy of models with legs for days the sign across the hills still read Hollywoodland and later I recognized a two laned Los Feliz Blvd. You live in Hollywood you look for those things, the car chases that whizzed past your street before you were even born.

Sometime past midnight I woke up on the couch and had no idea what time it was, let alone decade, and it occurred to me through all the antihistamine that people were watching this show in this very room when it was new, and looking out the same panes of glass (they are so old the glass has flowed downward and distorts the view), and perhaps someone in them acting like an idiot had been at one of the hip Silver Lake parties here and left the stains in the ancient wood floor uncovered when we tore up the carpeting (there were ancient tacks in the floor from the 1930’s) and drunkenly dropped the cigarettes that left scorchmarks a half century later. I reached for a Pall Mall but there were none (do they even make them anymore?), and all the people I can remember who smoked them are long dead. On the screen there was Betty White, impossibly cute, telling her sitcom husband that when she is 95 years old she’ll be something or other, I can’t remember what. I was just struck by the fact that Betty White actually is 95 years old now, a realization that zapped me back into 2016, and I sneezed.

Wow. Somewhere between thick skulled William Bendix’s cozy union job in The Life of Reilly and today that whole middle class world disintegrated. Unless the characters were rich–John Forsyth in Bachelor Father, for instance–none of the premises of any of those shows would make sense today. That was my parents’ world, the World War Two generation. Since then we’ve stopped smoking, and we have seatbelts in our cars, but we’ve screwed everything else up as far as the standard of living goes. These middle class people goofing around in those sitcoms seem impossible now, unreal. They bask in economic security. Their place is assured. Nothing was left to chance then. Barring the prospect of nuclear annihilation, it was all dull, predictable and secure. Imagine that. But you can’t. That brief interregnum of widespread middle class security between the end of the Depression and Reaganomics was perhaps the one time in American history since the middle of the 19th century that the economic pyramid was flattened and ballooned from the middle. To have begun then–I was born in 1957, the peak year of the baby boom, we were born like rabbits that year–makes today’s reality that much harder, and nostalgia far too easy, almost narcotic. It’s no accident that nearly 50% of patients being treated for opiate addiction today are between fifty and seventy years old…up from 10% twenty years ago. You can imagine them high, on the couch, watching old syndicated teevee shows. The advertisements are aimed at them–reverse mortgages, payday loan sharks, ambulance chasers, miracle products that will patch up all the old things in the house they can’t afford to replace, then back to the old television reality where everybody worked forty hours a week with benefits and lived in houses they could afford on a single salary.

I got a taste of that narcosis yesterday in a fun and feverish, zoned out achey anti-histamine day, reliving 1950’s America. The last thing I remember was Betty White in some fluff called Life With Elizabeth, and I passed out in a perfect residential neighborhood somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, circa 1954. I woke up hours later, put the last disc back in the box and put the box back, way back, out of reach.

Watching television, c. 1955. A set like that would have cost around $200, or nearly $1,800 in 2016 dollars. Television was very much a middle class accessory, and as the middle class expanded in the Eisenhower era the audience expanded. What had been a play thing of the rich in a few cities in the mid-forties became the main source of entertainment and information for Middle America by the end of the fifties as people bought sets with their good credit.

Watching television, c. 1955. A set like that would have cost around $200, or nearly $1,800 in 2016 dollars. High end sets ran about ten times that.

Notes:

From an extraordinary and vast piece of scholarship I could not make head or tail of entitled The Bob Cummings Show’s ‘Artists at Work’–Gender Transitive Programming and Counterpublicity: “Bob Collins’s homoerotic exchanges with Schultzy and his objectification at the hands of Pamela Livingstone and his femme models produced queer gender erotics through a contingent network of commercial intertexts across a field of heteronormative cultural forms.” I actually watched that episode yesterday, and missed all of that.

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