First and Last: How Leave It to Beaver Came to Represent an America that Never Existed

Tristan Ettleman
9 min readJan 2, 2024

This is First and Last, an essay series examining my favorite TV show debuting each year through its first and last episodes. The fifth installment features LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, created by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher. The show ran for six seasons from 1957 to 1963 across 234 episodes, the first being “Beaver Gets ‘Spelled” and the last “Family Scrapbook.”

Look anything up about LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and you’ll find a myriad of nostalgia-based articles: “where are they now?” and premiere/finale anniversary celebrations and the like. You’ll find an idea that things were simpler then, that things were more wholesome, and if we could just get back to entertainment like this, we’ll get back to being a proper country…in other words, the “Make America Great Again” mindset. And yet is it fair to pin so much retroactive conservatism on this family sitcom, featuring the quiet suburb of Mayfield and its wacky citizens? To some extent, yes: LEAVE IT TO BEAVER was certainly part of the forced homogeneity of American media, and more specifically television, in the 1950s. But if Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher’s creation is retrograde, it’s in the ways many sitcoms and other productions were at the time and beyond: a stay-at-home wife essentially subservient to her husband and children, an exclusively white presence, and so on. But there is a warmth and sincerity to LEAVE IT TO BEAVER that does shine through to me today, as a watcher of reruns as a child. Unlike other shows so far in this essay series, I’m not totally bullish on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER as a “favorite” debuting in 1957. Nevertheless, it looms large in the collective pop culture consciousness of the 1950s and its TV, creating an image of America that was never so “pure.”

The premise of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER was pretty simple. The titular “Beaver” is Theodore Cleaver (Jerry Mathers), a young boy who personified the kind of “gee shucks” innocence often cultivated for television at the time. Beaver gets into all kinds of scrapes, often with older brother Wally (Tony Dow). By the end of the episode, his mother June (Barbara Billingsley) or, more often father Ward (Hugh Beaumont), would deliver some wisdom. Thrown into the mix were a number of recurring characters, including a rotating cast of teachers, the troublemaker Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond), and old Gus the fireman (Burt Mustin). The denizens of Mayfield that came in and out of stories helped to flesh out the world of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and cultivate that friendly small town vibe, the kind idealized in media like this.

At the beginning of the series, Beaver is 7 and in second grade and Wally is 13 and in eighth grade, although Dow was only three years older than Mathers in reality, which is kind of hard to believe looking at the two boys. LEAVE IT TO BEAVER’s premiere, “Beaver Gets ‘Spelled,” is emblematic of the kind of comedy of errors miscommunication that defined the sitcom. But although the show is ostensibly full of jokes, it actually has a longer average amount of time between the bouts of laugh track noise compared to its peers. When the punchlines do hit, they’re often not so much laugh-out-loud funny, as in I LOVE LUCY (1951–1957), as chortle-inducing; they’re more like little head-shakers at the goofiness of the kids. Again, this is the kind of wholesome and innocent tone LEAVE IT TO BEAVER strived for, and indeed, often succeeded in cultivating, if you’re able to shut out the dark realities that are always present in any part of America’s history.

In “Beaver Gets ‘Spelled,” Beaver is told to take a letter home to his parents from his new teacher, Miss Canfield (Diane Brewster). As is revealed later, it’s just a request for Beaver to play Smokey the Bear in the school pageant. But Beaver is convinced by his snot-nosed friends that it’s probably to have him “spelled” (as opposed to “expelled,” this being the kind of malapropism that is meant to endear audiences to the kid’s hijinks). Without opening it because they’re honest (after doing a pretty funny routine to make it look like they took their baths when they didn’t), Wally and Beaver put together a typed letter saying that Theodore has been beaten for his apparent crimes and that it won’t happen again. There are actually a couple of references to corporal punishment for the child from Ward, certainly a product of its time that hasn’t aged well and in fact didn’t fit the characterization of Beaver’s father and the innocence of the show’s world that would be solidified in short order.

After Beaver propagates another lie about a fire at home and Ward being laid up in a hospital, Miss Canfield finally calls in June to discuss all the confusion. Beaver runs away when he learns they will be meeting and the family searches for him throughout town (introducing us to Mustin’s friendly old Gus) until they find him up a tree. The family finally convinces him to come down by discussing potential rain and Beaver learns his lesson and has a little moment with Miss Canfield. It’s all very neat and tied up tidily.

As mentioned, the gags in “Beaver Gets ‘Spelled” aren’t so outrageously funny, and I’m not sure they were received as such even in its time. It’s very possible they were, but I also imagine there was a distinction at the time of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER’s run of its more leisurely pace. Sure, there are some madcap plots and developments, but they’re often played more down-to-earth, less broad. Part of that is the acting abilities of the children, which aren’t terrible but are definitely a bit stiff in that child actor way, which did somewhat improve over the years. And then there’s the wisdom-dispensing function of many of the adults, who were often lightly moralizing as often as they were to present ridiculousness from the kids’ perspective, such as why grown-ups need whiskey to have fun.

That last bit is revived for LEAVE IT TO BEAVER’s finale “Family Scrapbook,” directed by Beaumont, who had worked behind the camera as well for a number of episodes in the last two seasons. Conceived and executed as the first, or at least one of the first, planned finales in network television, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER’s end is actually just a clip show. It’s more of a thoughtful send-off than, as it was for most shows at the time, a routine episode to close a series. But “Family Scrapbook” does still end up being anti-climactic, or at least less warmly reflective, as a planned finale could have been.

There certainly were many moments to choose from for “Family Scrapbook,” which is made up mostly of clips from the earliest seasons of the show. It begins with June and Ward discovering the titular family scrapbook and Beaver and Wally joining them to reminisce, with still photos coming to life to show those older moments. It’s a funny device that makes one wonder how a camera got into the mix of these scenarios!

By the time of “Family Scrapbook,” the Cleavers had moved to a new house (at the start of season three) and Beaver and Wally’s age gap had inexplicably shrunk from a six to four-year difference, with Beaver graduating elementary/middle school and Wally graduating high school. That’s not mentioned in the finale, but the difference six years have on children’s aging is the most obvious difference between “Family Scrapbook” and “Beaver Gets ‘Spelled;” Mathers is so tall and his voice is in full puberty squeakiness! What is revealed in the finale, however, in a silly unnecessary twist, is why Theodore is called Beaver. It’s because Wally could only say “Tweedor” as a young child and their parents thought Beaver sounded better. Geez. Imagine actually wanting an explanation of why the kid got his nickname and waiting 234 episodes to get that one.

With so many moments from so many episodes to choose from, it made sense that the bath scene from the very first episode was represented in “Family Scrapbook.” The successive clips do capture the tone and some of the life lessons of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER’s early years, bringing in an Eddie Haskell appearance and including Larry Mondello (Rusty Stevens), Beaver’s best friend in the first three seasons before he got written out of the show. Omitted from the reverie is Wally’s friend Lumpy Rutherford (Frank Bank) and his father Fred, played by Richard Deacon of even greater and later fame as Mel Cooley on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (1961–1966), who were pretty central in the recurring character department.

There’s no way a normal-length 25-minute episode of the show, which had to have at least some of its own original content bridging the clips, could have captured the range of memorable characters who popped up throughout LEAVE IT TO BEAVER’s life. But as mentioned, “Family Scrapbook” does feel less summarily nostalgic in its own time than what could have been possible. It does serve to take a look back, though, and at least present a front of a conclusion to a long-running series.

What happened after LEAVE IT TO BEAVER’s run is almost as interesting to me as the show itself. It blossomed into popularity in reruns; it had originally aired on CBS for its first season, where it was canceled, before being picked up for its last five at ABC. But even in its ABC years, it never finished in the top Nielsen charts at the end of each season. But as the country moved on from the ’50s and early ’60s fictionalization of a placid and simpler time, the romanticized nostalgia of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER held a different appeal. This butted up against emerging antagonism to the things a show like this represented.

Of course rumors sprung up that Mathers had been killed in Vietnam (he didn’t even see action, although he was in the California National Guard from 1966 to 1969). Of course Osmond was believed by some to have rebranded himself as a porn star (John Holmes kind of looked like the grown Eddie Haskell actor and made a number of adult movies using that name). It was a new era and it captured the minds of the younger generation that those perfect kids on the show they used to watch growing up were also facing the horrors and chaos of today. It even translated into LEAVE IT TO BEAVER’s revival, the 1983 reunion TV movie STILL THE BEAVER and its outgrowth THE NEW LEAVE IT TO BEAVER (1983–1989), which featured a divorced single father Beaver, his widowed mother, and other plot points that reflected things had changed in at least the depiction of America, even while these sequels maintained the light sitcom tone.

Of course, horrors and chaos were going on while LEAVE IT TO BEAVER was on the air. But it, like so much other television of its time, faced that by, well, not facing it, by presenting an idealized version of America: white, purely capitalistic, misogynistic, homogenous. But it also presented a world not without virtue, one with impactful life lessons and the innocence of childhood many wish they could recapture. From “Beaver Gets ‘Spelled” to “Family Scrapbook,” LEAVE IT TO BEAVER used its light humor to imagine a romantic reality where you could leave your door unlocked, play miles away from your home, and speak to grown-up strangers without fear. Many like to think that used to be so and now that’s all ruined. I’m not sure that was or is the case.