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May 04, 1986|Tom Shales | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — In spite of the fact that the decade gave us Joe McCarthy, the Cold War, rock 'n' roll, and Richard Nixon--not to mention "The $64,000 Question"--people insist upon looking back on the '50s as a time of innocence. Well it was and it wasn't.

Old TV shows from the '50s are being revived in great numbers now, and while many of them cast a benign nostalgic spell, the world they reflect is in some respects a grievous distortion. It was an alternate America in which racial and ethnic minorities were all but nonexistent, and in which women were largely relegated to the roles of housekeeper and help-mate.

Let's remember what we're bringing back before we rush pell-mell into the '50s. Even in the '60s, many television shows failed to reflect America's cultural and ethnic diversity. It was nice to go home again on NBC's "Return to Mayberry" revival of "The Andy Griffith Show," but it wasn't so nice to be reminded that the town seemed to have zoning laws that kept every minority out.

"The Honeymooners" is widely considered a television classic, and the Jackie Gleason comedy series is enjoying a richly deserved revival on cable and regular TV. But it was made in the '50s, when pressure from some sponsors and TV stations kept the non-white population of TV absurdly low. There are no minority bus drivers at the Gotham bus company where Ralph worked, nor minority sewer workers among Ed Norton's blue-collar cronies.

If you saw blacks on TV in the '50s, it might have been on "The Amos and Andy Show," where they were limited mainly to buffoonish roles; or on variety shows, where they were sometimes featured as singers or dancers. But even there, sponsors and networks were fearful. Milton Berle has written of his struggle to get a black dance act booked on his hugely successful variety show. He had to threaten not to go on himself.

One of the most famous cases of racist anxiety involves Rod Serling's drama "Noon on Doomsday." Serling based the play on the case of a 14-year-old black youth lynched by a mob for the crime of whistling at a white woman. Sponsor and network pressure forced the playwright to change the details of the story radically; the black youth became an elderly white pawnbroker and the South became New England.

Obviously we are not going to return to that kind of insanity on television. But young viewers who watch too many all-white old shows are likely to get a warped view of American life--that is, even more warped than contemporary TV gives them.

In some ways, television has grown up, and so it's distressing to see these '50s shows return in such profusion. Ozzie and Harriet had no black friends or neighbors; neither did the Jim Anderson family on "Father Knows Best," although they did have a Hispanic gardener for awhile.

While the presence of Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo on "I Love Lucy" has kept the show popular in Latin American countries to this day, the Ricardos and the Mertzes never did run into any black Americans in all their travels inside or outside of New York.

"My Little Margie," still in reruns on cable TV, featured actor Willie Best as a shuffling elevator operator, a role comparable in terms of stereotype to those played by Stepin Fetchit in old Hollywood movies. Best also appeared as a rather slow-witted handyman on "The Stu Erwin Show."

The recent and miserably unimaginative CBS miniseries "Dream West" was concerned with the 1850s, not the 1950s, but the program had the witless sensibility of a bad old Western. There were two blacks featured in the show, both as toadying servants. It serves no legitimate interests of anyone to keep bringing this kind of image back again.

Explorer John Charles Fremont and his wife Jessie were staunch abolitionists, the miniseries noted. But Jessie had a black maid and her father, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, had a black butler, and both did their share of bowing and scraping.

Once, when Jessie showed up at her father's house to try to end their years of estrangement, the butler, whose character was written along the lines of the "faithful old family retainer" stereotype, appeared at the front door and blubbered, "Miss Jessie, the senator says, he has no daughter named Jessie. I'm sorry, Miss Jessie. I'm so sorry!"

Surely there's a way to do a historical miniseries like this and not revive such stereotypes. It's not as if this were pure, unadulterated history; it was purely adulterated by the film makers. Television keeps taking us back to the past, but young viewers need to be reminded that in many cases, that past can be a shameful sham.

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