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ON CALIFORNIA

'Ozzie and Harriet'--an Epilogue

October 09, 1994|PETER H. KING

HOLLYWOOD — Harriet Nelson had died, and somehow it seemed appropriate last week to visit the house. Across 14 television seasons, this graceful Cape Cod Colonial had served both as the Nelson family home and as an exterior prop for "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." It was painted white then. Today, the wood siding is blue. There were white picket fences in the show. Today, the house is surrounded by a barrier of black iron. Signs hung from the fence deliver a warning: "Armed Response."

Ozzie Nelson passed away some 20 years ago in an upstairs room, and the new owner has been told the patriarch of "America's Favorite Family" haunts the place today. The evidence is an ice cream dipper that moves mysteriously from drawer to drawer. Ozzie loved ice cream. Harriet sold the home in the late 1970s. A plastic surgeon owned it for a time. The new owner is a record company executive. He and his wife are deep into a loving restoration.

"It is our home now," the young man says, standing in the freshly painted kitchen where Harriet Nelson once reigned as matriarch of a new American lifestyle. "We want to have our own Ozzie and Harriet life take place in this home. Everybody wants that, don't they?

"Isn't that the dream?"

*

Suburbia was not invented in California, although no other state so feverishly championed the form. Television, too, was a transplanted creation. What California, what Hollywood--what, in fact, Ozzie Nelson--did create was a genre of television show, the family sitcom, and it in turn nurtured what the new owner of the Nelson home calls, quite accurately, "the dream."

It was a dream of white picket fences and square green yards and a bedroom for every well-mannered child. It was a dream of safe neighborhoods where boys named Rick and Bud and Beav could roam happy and free. Dads wore suits and kept short hours in jobs that never were quite defined. Moms could be found in the new, all-electric kitchen, with milk and cookies and enough wisdom and guile to make everything all right by episode's end. Everyone was white.

In a sense, these were training films. "Ozzie and Harriet" and the programs it inspired offered instruction in how to live in the postwar suburbs just beginning to flood out from American cities. Episodes were built around such dilemmas as how to persuade a neighbor to bring back a borrowed garden rake. The new life brought new tools, and the new tools took some adaptation. In one episode, Harriet can be seen in a commercial break carefully demonstrating how to load dishes into a dishwasher. "I always say," she tells the audience, "there is nothing like a dishwasher to keep a home a happy one."

In his book, "The Fifties," David Halberstam examined the role of the Nelsons, Cleavers and the rest: "These families were living the new social contract as created by . . . suburban developers. The American dream was now located in the suburbs, and for millions of Americans, still living in urban apartments . . . these shows often seemed to be beamed from a foreign country, but one that the viewers longed to be a part of. These families were optimistic. There was a conviction, unstated but always there, that life was good and was going to get better."

*

Viewed today, these banal sitcoms produce an almost opposite effect: They mock the dreams they once planted. Too much has gone down behind the white picket fence. Moms no longer are confined to the kitchen, and any dad who keeps Ozzie hours in this corporate world is headed for the layoff list. Optimism is in short supply, replaced by restlessness.

New suburbs, of course, still get built willy-nilly, but only to replace older ones already gone to seed. One unintended message of "Ozzie and Harriet"--"If you want a message," Ozzie is said to have once told David, the eldest son, "call Western Union"--was that it was possible to run. Then the suburbs seemed far enough. Today those who take flight head for Idaho, and it's doubtful even that gets the job done.

Which returns us to the house. It is located, ironically enough, not in suburbia at all, but in the Hollywood Hills, on a cul-de-sac of a half-dozen fine old homes. At the bottom of the block sits dread Hollywood--apartments, crime, gangs, the works.

The new owner stands outside in the darkness and contemplates this potential intrusion upon his "Ozzie and Harriet life." If it gets too bad, he muses, they might need to throw up a fence down at the corner, to turn the block where the Nelsons once lived into one of those gated communities. And thus is the old dream remodeled.

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