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Drawing on Days as a Huge TV Fan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The chuckles issuing from Room C-104 at Rancho Santiago College on Monday afternoon wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a TV sitcom laugh track.

Aptly enough, the speaker--Mark Bennett, a 38-year-old artist from Los Angeles--was relating that he spent many years, the decades spanning “Leave It to Beaver” and “Happy Days,” believing that “reality is about what you see on television.”

Bennett, who was born to poor Southern gospel singers “always hustling to get a gig,” said he felt a much greater kinship with TV families living in a bright world of consumer goods. He used to dream he had a 1964 Thunderbird convertible, wore golf sweaters and drank Scotch and milk.

“I lived inside the tube,” he said. “I did not want my life to be about the real world.”

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Until recently, he made architectural renderings of such familiar TV-show locales as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s New York apartment, Gilligan’s Island, Perry Mason’s office and the Jed Clampett mansion from “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

To do this, he explained gravely, he had to “watch every episode. You’d have to know the neighbors’ name and what kind of car they drove.” (Departing from conventional architectural practice, Bennett includes such details in his blueprints.)

For a long time, he kept this “personal” body of work stashed under the bed. In fact--to the vocal disappointment of members of the TV generation who had come especially to see the blueprints--he didn’t show any slides of them Monday, apologizing that they were all at his dealer’s.

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The dealer is a new acquisition. Bennett, who works as a mailman in Beverly Hills (“I look fabulous in the outfit,” he vamped), was stuck last year with a Visa bill he couldn’t pay. So he convinced the owner of a bar in Silverlake to hang some of his work. When a dealer from Santa Monica called, Bennett was dubious.

“Send me a $25 check,” he said, citing the price his collectors--many of them TV producers--normally paid for the prints he made in editions of 10, which he would deliver in his station wagon.

Finally convinced to check out the Mark Moore Gallery, he was impressed to find "$35,000 paintings hanging on the wall.” After the gallery mounted a one-man show, which closed a couple of weeks ago, Bennett’s prices rose to $1,800 for a drawing and $300 to $500 for a print.

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Bennett--who remarked dryly that he “couldn’t get arrested in Laguna Beach four years ago"--has been on CNN and E-News and even Jim and Tammy Bakker’s talk show.

But the blueprints are history now. “People ask me, Would you do one of ‘Married With Children’ or ‘Seinfeld’?” The answer is no. His newest pieces are thumbnail sketches of his favorite things, such as “four nuns in a liquor store,” an example that elicited a fresh gust of laughter.

After a “big battle with depression,” Bennett said, he eventually realized it was impossible to reconcile real life with the perfect households on TV.

“For me it was a letting go. [Now] I don’t watch TV, ever.”

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