January 19, 2017

Odd Way Race Was Depicted in the 1970's

For most of TV's history, the images on screen were anything but diverse.  Instead, TV reflected a depiction of the U.S. as an almost exclusively Caucasian-American, heterosexual, Christian population (in spite of the fact that most of the industry's most important executives were Jewish).  But following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it became clear that either they started depicting people outside of that narrow population (usually, that meant including African-Americans) or it might be imposed upon them by lawmakers or the courts.  This meant that people who grew up in the 1970's were the first generation of people to grow up in this "new" world.

The cover of a Ginn basic reader circa 1973
It wasn't just Hollywood, even publishers of grade-school textbooks faced the reality that the U.S. was never truly as white as they'd portrayed it to be, so the readers used in grade-schools across the country suddenly faced revisions to accommodate reality as it actually was, rather than as some racists wanted it to be.  Most notably, that meant the inclusion of African-Americans in the dialogue and illustrations, although far less of smaller demographic minority populations at the time, including Hispanics, Asians, Hawaiians, Native Americans and certainly no sexual minorities.  Of course, those groups did not include a legacy of slavery as was the case with Southern blacks.  Ironically, in many parts of the country, "integration" as it came to be known at the time was largely something that was talked about, but didn't really exist except in conversation because many Americans had self-segregated themselves by living near people who looked like them, worshiped as they did, and thought like they did.  But integration had to start someplace.  The problem was that publishers and TV execs did not exactly "embrace" integration in the beginning, rather they stumbled into it.  That meant that kids growing up during that era were seeing failed integration experiments in person.

Some of my favorite examples were the late-1960's to mid-1970's TV sitcoms.  For example, in early in 1970, the sitcom Bewitched starring Elizabeth Montgomery was at the top of the ratings (catch one of my posts about that sitcom at https://goo.gl/olfrdW for more).  The show featured a husband Darrin Stephens and his stay-at-home, witch-turned-wife Samantha and their daughter Tabitha (they added a son Adam towards the end of the show).  The show also featured regulars including Samantha's meddling mother Endora (played by Agnes Moorehead), and occasionally others including her uncle Arthur, portrayed by gay actor Paul Lynde, Darrin's boss Larry Tate (played by David White) as well as nosey neighbor Gladys Kravitz, and Larry Tate's wife Louise, and a few others.  Although the replacement of actor Dick York who played Darrin Stephens with another actor Dick Sargeant (who like Paul Lynde was a gay actor) got the biggest headlines, the show replaced other recurring characters with different talent, including the actress who played Gladys Kravitz, originally played by Alice Pearce, but following her death, the role was played by Sandra Gould, and also the replacement of  character Louise Tate from actress Irene Vernon subsequently with Kasey Rogers.  Note that a 1980's sitcom, The Golden Girls acknowledged the character-switching.  In season 2, episode 24 "To Catch a Neighbor", the character Sophia (played by Estelle Getty),  has a dialogue in which she tells her daugher Dorothy that she's going to their criminal neighbor's house because they need her experience, noting that she's lived through "two world wars, 15 vendettas, 4 operations and 2 Darrin's on Bewitched".

From my perspective, I think its appropriate to acknowledge how race was addressed on television in the years that followed the late 1960's civil rights battles (including such notable U.S. Supreme Court victories as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Loving v. Virginia).  While those legal issues may have been resolved, public acceptance among many still lagged the Courts, and continue to this day.

The origins of the Bewitched episode "Sisters At Heart" show were actually quite noble.  Actress Elizabeth Montgomery and her then-husband/producer William Asher had visited a Los Angeles area high school Thomas Jefferson High. It was early in 1970 and they were touched by the plight of the students at that school, especially the minority students, some of whom they stayed in touch with through their graduations.  Because of that interaction, they also took an idea that the students themselves came up with, and turned it into an episode of Bewitched.  Elizabeth Montgomery even gave a special message to the audience before the show including acknowledgement of the show's sponsor Oscar Mayer.

The episode originally aired on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1970, and yet these days, you might legitimately wonder how the episode ever made it on the air.  The episode was called "Sisters At Heart" began with Tabitha introducing her friend (who is African-American) and McMahon-Tate wanting to entertain a new client. The client wants to investigate the home life of the people he's working with. The client also happens to be a racist. Tabitha and her friend declare themselves as "sisters" and the African-American child answers the door when the client enters. The client assumes that Darrin Stevens has a black child. Tabitha's friend then tells the client that she has a white sister.  After the meeting, Tabitha tries to rationalize how they could be sisters. First, Tabitha makes both girls white.  Then she makes them both black, but remember, she's a child who hasn't mastered the art of "wishcraft" yet.  She finally tries again and they both end up polka-dotted with the other girl's skin color as dots.

In 1970, rather than generating an outcry for showing blackface on network television, the show was actually awarded a special Emmy. These days, some would likely completely lose it if actors appeared in blackface on national television regardless of the reason.  But "Sisters At Heart" now stands as a rather unique piece of television history.  Indeed, the late Elizabeth Montgomery stated this was one of her favorite episodes of Bewitched.

But the episode stands out for another reason in my mind.  The fact that the African-American characters are never seen again on the show, not even the character Keith Wilson (played by actor Don Marshall), who supposedly worked at McMann-Tate, the advertising firm where Darrin is employed, nor is daughter Lisa Wilson (played by Venetta Rogers) ever seen again.

It wasn't only Bewitched that stumbled on the race issue in the 1970's with odd, one-off depictions of characters who are never mentioned again, many other TV series did things in a very similar way.  Only legendary TV writer and producer Norman Lear, who began with the smash hit All In the Family, really included some of the first African-Americans (others featured black cast members, even if those weren't always regular cast members).  Mr. Lear pushed the proverbial racial envelope even further in subsequent years with several hit sitcoms featuring African-American casts, including Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and Good Times.  The Jeffersons, in particular, was among the most popular, running for an impressive 11 seasons, making it one of the longest-running sitcoms in the history of American television.

Although content rights come and go, for the time-being the "Sisters at Heart" episode can be seen at https://dai.ly/x6gjguc or below:

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