When housewives and mothers first appeared on the early television shows of the 1950s with their shiny faces rubbed as clean as their starched, white aprons, they weren’t selling laundry detergent or industrial-strength floor wax.
They were peddling something far more potent: a lofty dream of the ideal, American family.
“It was always surprising to see how many young people would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you were exactly what I wanted my mother to be like, and I would always compare her to you,’ ” said Marjorie Lord, who played Kathy Williams, the mother on “The Danny Thomas Show,” from 1957 to 1965.
Lord was joined at a luncheon Sunday at Lorimar Studios by a sorority of 11 other actresses in a tribute to television moms, called to celebrate the 100th episode of Lorimar’s syndicated series “Mama’s Family.”
The occasion provided an opportunity for some of television’s favorite, wholesome mothers to let down their aprons and reveal some difficult aspects of motherhood they were not allowed to convey on television.
“I used to get hundreds of phone calls and letters from frustrated mothers saying, ‘Do you know what you’re doing to us? Nobody can be that perfect,’ ” said Michael Learned, who portrayed the ever-calm, reassuring Olivia Walton on “The Waltons” for eight years. “I loved Olivia; she was a good woman, a great lady. But it’s time to put her to bed.”
“On ‘Happy Days,’ I could see that the writers loved and yearned for the kind of mother I played,” said Marion Ross, who spent a decade (1974-84) as Marion Cunningham on the nostalgic sitcom that was set in the 1950s. “These young, 35-year-old writers wanted that kind of mother, so they created a fairy tale on a piece of paper.”
Most of the television mothers who attended the luncheon were mothers at home as well as on the set. Many expressed frustration that the role model they gave birth to on screen was one they could not live up to in their personal lives.
“During the typical week, I was on the set more with my screen family than I was with my own family,” said Gloria Henry, who played Alice Mitchell for four years on “Dennis the Menace” while raising three children of her own. “It was difficult. Being a normal, in-reality mother, I yelled at my children a lot. And on the screen I wasn’t allowed to yell at Jay North ( who played Dennis).”
“Mothers didn’t work in the ‘50s, did they?” asked Vicki Lawrence Schultz (Mama on “Mama’s Family”) with a knowing grin. “We do now, and we have nobody to call. We can’t call our moms and say, ‘How did you handle this?’ Because we’re pioneers in a way. We’re the first generation that has tried to do it all. And it’s impossible.”
That reality is now reflected in TV sitcoms, noted Joanna Kerns, who portrays Maggie Seaver, a working mom on ABC’s “Growing Pains.”
“Motherhood has come full circle,” she said. “In the ‘50s, we showed mothers at home in their high heels and pearl necklaces cleaning the floor. The ‘60s came, along with women’s lib, and you saw a lot of single-mother shows. Then in the ‘70s you had single, working-mother shows. Now, the nuclear family is popular, thanks largely to ‘The Cosby Show,’ and mothers are expected to fill all those roles at once.
“My character has real fears about her children growing up in the ‘80s, facing peer pressure, drugs, teen-age suicide and drunk driving,” Kerns continued. “In the ‘50s and ‘60s, television didn’t deal with those issues. The June Cleavers were never real, and I think that’s why the adults in those shows weren’t as much a force as the child in the piece.”
“Was it fair to portray TV moms the way we used to?” asked Ross of “Happy Days.” “Of course not. That was a total fantasy. In a way, I sometimes think what a terrible thing we’ve done to children whose mothers are away at work. They sit in front of the tube and yearn for something that never really was in the first place.”
This season, the spotless image of motherhood may have been shattered forever by ABC’s “Roseanne,” which depicts the life of a middle-class housewife in a plain, brown wrapper.
“A lot of the shows today are definitely showing the down side of motherhood--the hard work, the tiring times, when you are reduced to anger or tears,” said Elinor Donahue, who played the eldest daughter on “Father Knows Best” and, more recently, a mother herself on two short-lived series.
The other mothers in attendance at the luncheon were Pat Crowley (“Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”), Beverly Garland (“My Three Sons”), Kathleen Nolan (“The Real McCoys”), Alley Mills (“The Wonder Years”) and Deborah Harmon (“Just the Ten of Us”).
“I don’t think the old shows were selling a lie about motherhood,” said Harmon, 37, who plays a contemporary mom living at home."Television is a true reflection of the times. My mother wasn’t discussing her problems with her girlfriends, or letting anyone see her house messy.
“I think mothers and motherhood has truly reached an age of enlightenment, as women have,” she said. “This is definitely our era, and our time to be natural and to shine.”
Rest assured she wasn’t talking about floors.