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For this actress, memories are made of pearls

Times Staff Writer

Barbara Billingsley can’t wait another minute to dish out her Spam casserole. She didn’t stay up past midnight preparing her now bubbly luncheon concoction of chopped broccoli, onions, mustard, milk, eggs and chunks of Spam so she could end up serving it cold. What would the Beaver think?

“Does it look hot enough, doll?” asks Billingsley, carefully carrying the baking dish to the kitchen counter.

“This really does taste best when it’s piping hot,” says the woman who portrayed suburban-perfect June Cleaver on the television series “Leave It to Beaver,” where, like Spam, the laughter was canned.

She serves her retro creation on colorful china at a perfectly set table -- the place settings include dessert forks, the floral print cotton napkins are neatly pressed, the peach-colored roses fresh.

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“If you print that I’m serving Spam, people are going to gasp,” she says. “They’re going to say, ‘Oh, she’s so June Cleaver.’ ” Well, she is wearing pearls and we are about to chow down on Spam and the table is June Cleaver-perfect.

“Yes, that’s true. It’s like my kids say, ‘We never know where mom stops and June Cleaver starts,’ ” she admits. “But listen, June Cleaver has been so good to me. Why do you think I work today? Because June Cleaver lives on -- pearls and all.”

Indeed, it’s the pearls around Billingsley’s neck that made for a memorable 1950s TV fashion statement, one that will be highlighted Friday when she recalls her stylish contributions as mama Cleaver during a one-hour special, “Inside TV Land: Style & Fashion.”

The program, which airs on the TV Land network, examines fashion trends set by some of the tube’s most stylish trendsetters, including Mary Tyler Moore, Marlo Thomas and Joan Collins, among others, who turned living rooms into showrooms weekly, influencing viewers with their sense of style from hair to heels.

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In Billingsley’s case, whether June Cleaver was chopping celery in the kitchen or tucking in the sheets around Wally’s and the Beaver’s beds or racing downstairs to greet husband Ward at the door, she wore her pearls. And on her feet? Back then, eager Mrs. Cleaver did her vacuuming in high heels.

“That’s the way America liked it,” recalls Billingsley, who worked on the show from 1957 to 1963, a total of 234 episodes. The vintage-minded TV Land cable network regularly serves up the family-friendly sitcom to an audience that includes boomers and boomer offspring.

“The pearls happened because I have a big hollow here in my neck,” she explains, pointing to the spot that was hidden with a shadow created by wearing pearls. “In those days, cameras and the film weren’t as good as they are today, so I used to wear different kinds of jewelry around my neck to hide that spot. It was easier to be filmed and photographed if something made a shadow there,” she says, adding that eventually, costumers found that a pearl necklace covered the spot perfectly.

“So no matter what I was doing -- cleaning, cooking or answering the phone -- I had those darn pearls on. And high heels. In the beginning of the series I wore flat shoes, but then Wally and the Beaver began to get taller. That’s why they put me in heels. The producers wanted me to be as tall or taller than the kids,” she recalls, adding she’s 5 feet 5 inches and, even with heels on, “sometimes I would stand on the stairs for a scene so I could have some more height.”

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She says that, unlike many of today’s shows that put women in revealing garments, there was no such thing as Cleaver cleavage. But her hourglass figure was snugly fitted in ladylike dresses, many purchased from JC Penney.

“They weren’t expensive, but they were fitted to my shape, and that made a difference. The clothes back then really were timeless, with skirts kept to just below the knees, little short sweaters, sleeves that were three-quarters length, and skinny tight belts worn around dresses with white collars. I see girls today wearing that look. I never disagreed with the way they dressed June Cleaver.”

Well, except for one thing.

“I only wore trousers one time on the show, for a gardening scene. I don’t know why they didn’t allow it more often because I used to wear pants at home. But they just didn’t want June Cleaver to wear the pants in the house,” she says.

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The show’s producers also nixed cameras inside the Cleavers’ bedroom, a television taboo back then. “You know we didn’t have a bedroom -- we had a bedroom door. We always came out of that door tying our robes. You never got to see inside,” she says.

With her starched apron securely tied around her starched dress, poor June Cleaver rarely ever left the house, she recalls.

These days, it’s hard to find Billingsley, grandmother to 16, great-grandmother to 12, at home. Widowed three times, she’s often hanging out with the grandkids (there’s always a birthday party), her two sons, six stepsons and five stepdaughters.

May we ask her age? “You can ask all you want, doll.”

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She jogs every morning in her Santa Monica neighborhood, grabs dinner with pals, goes to the theater, makes personal appearances and shops at her favorite store, Costco, for everything from roses to Spam.

And she does those things dressed in style -- usually chic trousers, blouse and a sweater draped off-center around her shoulders. Her closets, which she cleans regularly to replace last season’s looks with current designs, are filled with creations from L.A. designer David Hayes and clothes from the racks at Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.

“It’s silly, isn’t it?” she asks, referring to the pearls and the role for which she will always be remembered, even though pre-Beaver she acted in productions with Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, David Niven and Dick Powell and, post-Beaver, practically stole the show as a jive-talking (“Hang in there, blood”) translator with a cameo in “Airplane!”

“Honestly, June Cleaver has always been a part of my life and always will be,” she says.

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Billingsley does not vacuum in high heels, but not putting on her trademark pearl necklace when she dresses is unthinkable.

As she puts it: “Why spoil the whole outfit?”


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