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Re-Creating the Houses That TV Built

Television: Mark Bennett grew up idolizing small-screen households. Now he's written a book full of elaborate blueprints of the dwellings.

February 21, 1997|FRAZIER MOORE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Growing up, Mark Bennett suspected there was a better world beyond the TV screen.

He just couldn't let go of the notion that the families he saw on "Leave It to Beaver," "The Donna Reed Show," "The Beverly Hillbillies" and so many other shows he watched would be a step up from his own.

A viewer who identifies with TV shows he likes isn't so unusual, of course. But Bennett went to remarkable lengths to meld his life with the lives he followed on the tube: He drafted floor plans, complete with every last potted plant and area rug, for the TV homes he longed to share with the characters he loved.

"I grew up very fearful, and certain shows were comforting," Bennett recalls. "I wanted to be part of them."

It turns out he was, as the 40-year-old artist demonstrates in his new book, "TV Sets: Fantasy Blueprints of Classic TV Homes" (published by TV Books, distributed by Penguin USA).

Thirty-four TV series are represented here, with the earliest "I Love Lucy" and the most recent "Laverne & Shirley." Most are sitcoms, but hour shows like "Lost in Space" and "The Big Valley" also made the cut.

You'll find the ghoulish manors of the Munsters and the Addams, and the slick suburbanization of Rob and Laura's "Dick Van Dyke Show" digs. There are "Happy Days," "Father Knows Best" and "Mister Ed," complete with horse stall.

And displaying Bennett's skills as a video cartographer, he even maps "Andy Griffith's" hometown of Mayberry, N.C., "Green Acres' " Hooterville and Gilligan's island.

This is an amusing book. Yet the lighthearted air of "TV Sets," including Bennett's saucy commentary, conceals a serious mission: to extract the truth from the make-believe, without the disillusionment.

"When I saw the Cleaver house on the Universal Studios tour a few years ago, it just broke my heart," says Bennett, still sounding wounded at the sight of what passed for the "Leave It to Beaver" home. "You get up close and you see it's a facade."

With his drawings, Bennett has attempted the opposite: to expose shows like "Beaver" as somehow plausible even on close, detailed inspection. "I felt if I drew the houses as build-able as possible, then they would become real." And so, by extension, would their occupants.

While rendering a material world for fantasy characters, Bennett often had to improvise what their series never got around to showing. Finally, here are the bathrooms! A never-entered study! And, as with "All in the Family" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," the heretofore invisible Fourth Wall.

How did he put it all together? In a phone conversation from his Los Angeles studio, Bennett sums up his research this way: "Thousands and thousands of hours of TV."

Even as a child back in Chattanooga, Tenn., he watched TV with an eye for every ottoman, vestibule, sconce and louver shutter. Then, during the commercials, he would grab a pad and start scribbling.

This, of course, was years before the home video-recorder, which would have captured the details for him to freeze-frame at his leisure.

"I used to rush home from school to watch a certain show," Bennett says. "I'd literally go 20 miles out of my way just to check an episode."

In high school, he took three years of drafting--"I learned what a T-square is"--and studied art in college. By the early 1980s, as he began his current day job as a postal worker, Bennett had begun to transform his doodles, notes and memories into blueprints he would store, until not long ago, beneath his bed.

Now, a couple of years after the blueprints' first exhibition at a neighborhood bar ("I finally got up the nerve to show them"), Bennett speaks of the "inner work" that helped him get a grip on his personal problems, including alcohol abuse and a divorce.

He doesn't watch TV these days and professes ignorance of current television homesteads like Frasier Crane's high-rise apartment. Instead, he remains bewitched by Darrin and Samantha Stephens' Dutch Colonial over on Morning Glory Circle.

Understated, with a wonderful floor plan--Bennett says he'd still love to live in a house like that. But now, he adds, he wouldn't need the Stephenses.

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