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Charting TV Land From Mayberry to Minneapolis

Art: Mark Bennett turned his addiction into blueprints of sitcom homes and maps of television towns. His work is on view in Costa Mesa.


COSTA MESA — For those who grew up in the television culture of the 1950s, '60s and '70s--and for those who ever watched reruns--Mark Bennett's "Fantasy TV Blueprints," the detailed layouts of classic television homes he sketched over 20 years, induces a heady mix of delight and nostalgia, then an epiphany: We know many of these homes as well as our own.

But Bennett knows them better. It's been said that while the rest of us watched TV, he lived there.

"I went into the tube and literally escaped," said Bennett, 41, whose sitcom schemas are on display at the Orange County Museum of Art's South Coast Plaza Gallery through Nov. 30. "I never knew how I felt about things, I knew how Wally Cleaver and Mary Richards felt about things."

He also knew how much more he liked the happy families on TV than his own. Through his obsession with the characters, he escaped an unhappy childhood.

"I thought if I could get into these people, know their street addresses and car licenses, they would become real," Bennett confided. "I would put their names--not the actors' names, the characters' names--into my little black book with all their information. It was all very personal. I was drowning in my own inability to cope with life. I didn't know who I was or how to get there."

He made his sketches during commercials, from memory, without benefit of a VCR. The homes of Mary Richards ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show") and Wally Cleaver ("Leave It to Beaver") are but two of about 30 represented by layouts in the exhibit, and in a book, "TV Sets: Fantasy Blueprints of Classic TV Homes," published last year by TV Books, New York.

The display also includes the residences of Rob and Laura Petrie ("The Dick Van Dyke Show"), Darrin and Samantha Stephens ("Bewitched"), Jim and Margaret Anderson ("Father Knows Best")--not to mention the Flintstone and Jetson domiciles.

All are accompanied by Bennett's insightful text. About Jim Anderson's cozy den, he writes, "Although Jim . . . complains that he needs some peace and quiet, as he has brought work home from the office, the smile on his face tells anyone he secretly enjoys his work for the General Insurance Co."

Eight years ago, Bennett stopped watching TV; it was one of two unhealthful addictions he would shed.

"I don't need it," he said. "When I first got sober, someone said to me, 'You watch too much TV.' It devastated me, it broke my heart, to hear that. Then I thought maybe they were right. I weaned myself, got down to 'Golden Girls' and 'Mama's Family,' then went cold turkey.

"I believed [TV], I wanted it so much to be real. I never wanted to hear about Lucille Ball, I wanted to hear about Lucille MacGillicuddy."

Anyway, now he wouldn't have time to watch TV, he said.

"I have a whole different set of problems--but they're quality problems. Like, which way to Neiman Marcus? And it's still shocking to me that people want to know my opinions on things."

Bennett is only half-joking about Neiman Marcus. He's a Beverly Hills mail carrier by day, and people often ask for directions.

Before Christopher Ford of the Mark Moore Gallery in Santa Monica stumbled onto the TV blueprints in a Silverlake bar two years ago, Bennett couldn't sell the pieces for $10 at art fairs. Most people failed to see any artistic merit.

"I'd go to blueprint stores," he recalled, "and they'd say, 'What job is this? Part-ridge . . . .' They never got it. To them it was just a job. 'Braaaa-dy Buuunch, how many copies do you want?' "

Now his originals fetch $3,000 at the gallery, limited-edition lithographs up to $500. Proceeds have enabled him to acquire a studio. "My artwork doesn't have to go under my bed for me to have a place to sleep," he noted. Media attention has been constant.

He's currently working on a series of collages called "The Effects of Fords on Barbara," named for Barbara Billingsly, a.k.a. June Cleaver; a number of the collages hang at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Using what he learned in high school drafting classes, Bennett drew his TV plans so a builder could actually work from them. He imagined a neighborhood where prospective tenants would undergo screening to determine which TV home best suited them. He offered examples of items on the hypothetical questionnaire:

"Do you have six children? 'Brady Bunch.' 'Samantha' house, you'd have to have one child. But you'd also have to drive a Chevrolet, because Chevrolet was the show's sponsor."

One of Bennett's most impressive undertakings was the town of Mayberry ("The Andy Griffith Show"), rendered in detail possible only by watching the show for decades.

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