home sweet

by Megan Abbott

A few weeks ago, the fabulous Miss Gran and I were talking about our childhood daytime hours lost to television shows, and one of my favorites was old reruns of A Family Affair, which I remember distinctly as being a central touchstone in my early childhood–so much so I can picture the color palette, the thickness of its bright colors, like coils of oil paint.

The show’s premise was that architect-and-man-about-town  has “family” thrust upon him when he must raise his brother’s orphaned children–the red-haired twins, Jody and Buffy, and teen sister Cissy. Sebastian Cabot famously played Mr. French, the butler (later replaced by John Williams as Mr. French’s brother).

The show had so many of the common fantasy elements of children’s books/movies: beautiful orphans living in a palace (in this case, a sleek urban bachelor’s apartment, which was always my idea of a palace as a kid), cherubic twins and a gorgeous and caring older sister, gruff but kindly caretakers. Everything was yours.

Funnily enough, when I told Sara about it, I think I was framing it as one of those “sexy dad” shows–in large part because Brian Keith was the male lead and Brian Keith has a strong place in my Ralph Meeker-Sterling Hayden-William Holden pantheon. But, of course, I later remembered he wasn’t the dad at all but “Uncle Bill,” which is even better.  All of this is sort of summed in this picture, rather perfectly.

One of the reasons, I will admit, that I think the show absorbed me so much is that it had the tinge of tragedy. I remember learning that the real-life Buffy, Anissa Jones had died in her teens from a drug overdose. (Brian Keith had a sad end of his own.)  To me, it seemed impossible even to believe she’d grown up at all, much less died. So doll-like was she, with what one TV critic calls the “saddest eyes on television, even at age eight.”

Like so many childhood fixations, the things that have stuck with me are kind of random, but the physical space of Uncle Bill’s apartment looms very large. I’m not the only one, as this post on TV party references the interiors, even directing me to a House Beautiful spread from 1970 that showed rooms “inspired” by the show.

It’s so interesting, these shows we watched as kids. I don’t actually remember any of the plots now and had even forgotten the name of Buffy’s famous doll (thank you, Alison Gaylin, for reminding me: Mrs. Beasley).

Yet I am sure I could walk through the family’s whole apartment and feel utterly at home. In some ways, I feel as close to it as to the house I grew up in. The candy-colored children’s rooms, the warm, Eames-style wooden paneling, the modernist sleekness of Uncle Bill’s den, which announced “man” to me.  It was mine.

16 Responses to “home sweet”

  1. I still have my Mrs. Beasley doll. Of course, she talks jibberish now.

  2. http://www.vermontcountrystore.com/products/vintage-antique-toys/vintage-dolls/Mrs-Beasley-Doll.html?evar3=browse

    Difficult to find. Here’s a video of what she says. Of Course since I got my first (She died in a fire) when I was 6 or 7 I don’t know if these were what she actually said. I’ve had Mrs. Beasley 2 for 44 years. Damn I’m old.

  3. When I watched this as a kid I would always, inexplicably, get it confused with My Three Sons. Still do. I keep thinking William Demarest was in A Family Affair, even though I know he wasn’t.

    I’m not sure if my associations are because they both aired in syndication when I was a kid or because they were essentially the same show. MacMurray’s Steve Douglas trying to cope with his boys with the help of cranky Uncle Charlie and Keith’s cranky Uncle Billy trying to cope with two children with the help of not-so-cranky Mr. French.

    The archetypes are mixed up but they show up in both shows. I wonder what it was about the mid-60’s that prompted these single dad / absent mom shows. More women in the workplace? The drastic upswing of divorces? A changing definition of manhood in America?

    Well, I’m sure there are plenty of PhD’s running around whose careers are based on answering that very question.

  4. A rambling and nostalgic response: I enjoyed the show but rarely watched it. I was only able to catch it during summer vacations in Dallas. The show was always a bit of a mystery because I saw so few episodes and watched at a pretty early age.

    Dallas was a television paradise for me. They had several independent channels that ran several syndicated shows during the day: Rat Patrol, My Three Sons, The Monkees, Banana Splits, Hong Kong Phooey, Partridge Family, Brady Bunch, Rifleman, Andy Griffith, and numerous other westerns, action shows and comedies.

    I just read the Wikipedia article about Jones and hers is a sad tale. Her brother OD’d eight years after her.

  5. I completely forgot that Brian Keith was “Uncle Billy!” Actually, one thing that I used to obsess over as a child were all three of the kids’ names. Jodie, far as I knew, was a girl’s name. And Buffy and Sissy sounded like pets’ names to me… You know? Seems like if there were a mom around, the kids might have more sensible names…

  6. Did I grow up in another country? I never heard of this before you mentioned, it Megan! I looked to see if you could watch it on hulu and I couldn’t find it, but an old episode of Silver Spoons did come up–another missing-mother show. Stephen, I do agree there’s some significance to these missing-mother shows! Maybe those stay-at-home feminine-mystique moms were so overwhelming that to relax people would imagine them gone?

  7. Wow, the Butler’s Guild! Follow the link Megan put for Mr. French above to find them. Fascinating stuff!

  8. There’s been a lot written about this–I think it likely has more to do with the opposite–fears that moms/wives were abandoning the home, which, the argument goes, we start to see after WWII but only continues with rise of feminism

  9. But they always seem so much happier with the mother gone! Although maybe that’s just the ones I’ve seen. There’s also the magic-wife shows (bewitched, jeannie), which I’ve always loved (unsurprisingly!).

  10. precisely! that’s why the shows were popular (so the theory goes): “don’t worry if mom leaves/or is gone, everything will be okay, it’ll be great. Really it will.”

    Oh, I loved Bewitched too…

  11. Oh, I see what you mean, it’s like a soothing of the fears–we’ll be fine without her!

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