Gone In 2017: Two Who Turned Boomer World On With Their Smiles

So many Boomer icons passed in 2017

Boomers lost way too many icons in 2017 … so many candidates for the annual review of those who played key roles in the ever adaptable – and still adapting – lives of older Gen Xers and Boomers.

Ironically, many were not actually Boomers themselves, but members of our parents’ Silent Generation(≈ 1925-1945) who helped mold our growing pains years: some made us laugh; some made us sing; some helped us glimpse how adult life could be someday.

Chief among the laugh-makers was Jerry Lewis. After his Dean Martin partnership, adults sometimes found him a little too goofy for their modern tastes, but he was many a kid’s favorite. After all, what eight-year old didn’t hanker for a Nutty Professor chemistry set to put them in charge for once?

As we grew a little older, Dick Gregory rattled consciences, Chuck Berry rattled teenage hormones, Della Reese, Glen Campbell and Al Jarreau soothed all that rattling with the sentimental sounds of grownup romance and Roger 007 Moore and Mike Mannix Connors taught Boomer guys some suave style (though most of us never quite mastered the art, and embarrassed ourselves trying).

Still, this year we spotlight Erin Moran (1960-2017) and Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017).

Their contrasting TV series Happy Days (1974-1984) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) symbolized the Boomer transition from a society where traditional lifestyles were the idealized norm to one where alternatives could also be accepted and and new doors opened.

Disclaimer: we’ll be taking a marketing tack.

Ms. Moran and Ms. Moore inhabited the television screen, a world funded – and punctuated – by a barrage of brand messages beamed into everyday lives that were far less neatly packaged than a sitcom episode. Let’s look no further than the fantasy they created for us in 30 minute sessions, 20-odd weeks a season.

And, no, we won’t be peeking behind the scenes at the private personal lives of Erin or Mary or offering political analysis on the women’s rights movement; for those who wish to delve deeper, the New York Times does a fine job on both counts.

Erin Moran: Joannie Cunningham / Happy Days

When Happy Days debuted in 1974 many in the nation were yearning for the calmer, more confident times before the Vietnam War, student unrest, urban riots, Watergate, an economic slump and The Pill seemed to have turned American mores upside down.

One of the most direct personal impacts of the period was felt in the cost of gasoline.

From 1950 to 1960 the price of a gallon of regular had only edged up from 27¢ to 31¢, inching its way to 36¢ by 1970. Just imagine the blow to the national psyche when gas prices tripled in a decade, hitting $1.19 in 1980 on their way to $1.31 in 1981.

No wonder that, amid the malaise, movies – Grease, American Graffiti – and TV shows – Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley – that harked back to mid-century mid-America found an eager audience.

Set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from the mid-50s to mid-60s, Happy Days chronicled the Cunningham family, headed by hardware store owner Howard and caring-capable wife Marion. Joannie (Erin) was the feisty, sometimes annoying but always adorable little sister to the show’s rising star Ron Howard.

Joannie’s world was one of station wagons, kids who could safely play in the street, dads who wore hats and moms who wore high heels to the grocery store.

Detroit car brands dominated the market with a 90% market share and folks watched over-the-air TV from three networks and a couple of local stations – almost always in black and white because, even by 1964, only 3% of homes had a color television set.

It was also a place where those high-heel wearing moms schooled their daughters early in the housekeeping skills they would need soon after graduating high school.

In 1960, the median age for women to marry was 20; for men – typically drafted to serve two years in the military before settling down – it was 23. Women who married at a median age of 28 in 2015 would have been regarded as aging spinsters back in the day.

As the series moved forward into the sixties, it would become increasingly difficult to maintain its nostalgic – and kinda dorky-sweet – mid-century innocence.

Away from their TV sets, 30-something/40-something family stage viewers now lived in the early ’80s – Morning In America was the new reality. The Happy Days fan base wasn’t eager to revisit the tumultuous, angry and/or weird days of the Summer of Love or Woodstock.

Audiences began to slip in the ratings as the show moved deeper into the 1960s. By 1980-81 it was gone from the top ten; by 1982-83 it was out of the top twenty.

When Joannie ran off with boyfriend Chachi, sans benefit of matrimony, to form a rock band in the short-lived spin-off Joannie Loves Chachi, the  the innocence was finally lost.

They returned to marry in the final Happy Days episode, but that was the end of an era. One in which Erin would be forever locked as Joannie Cunningham, child of the ’50s.

So when she passed away last April, it’s how we remembered her – a sweet, enduring symbol of a long gone Americana.

Mary Tyler Moore: Mary Richards / The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Mary Tyler Moore’s career did not begin with her seminal role of modern woman Mary Richards, an associate producer at fictional WJM-TV in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977).

She actually debuted a decade earlier as perky homemaker Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966).

Co-star Rose Marie also left us in 2017 and Dick’s younger brother and occasional show guest Jerry Van Dyke – both seen here – passed away in early 2018.

Happily, irrepressible Dick is still performing at age 92.

The then-contemporary 1970s setting of Minneapolis-based WJM was a far cry from Petrie’s domesticated life as TV wife and mom. It was an even farther cry from the idealized Happy Days soda fountain world – the seventies were a time when polarized national ideologies played out on America’s small screen.

On the progressive side of the equation, All In The Family (1971-1979), M*A*S*H (1972-1983) and Maude (1972-1978) took the lead in the early seventies, but were soon challenged by fifties fun in the form of Happy Days (1974-1984), Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983) and a sentimental depression era look-back, The Waltons (1972-1981).

By the 1977-78 season, Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days ranked #1 and #2 respectively in the ratings race, with endearingly silly la la land comedy Three’s Company taking third spot. Smiles were back on top.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show steered a moderate middle course between edgy progressivity and Middle America. A young woman fresh from a broken engagement, Mary Richards reflected the steady changes in society and the workplace that were occurring away from the angst of the nightly news.

The Boomers were already adopting different attitudes, products, technologies and brands than those favored by their parents. Their meme was open, but not radical.

The most telling evidence was to be found in import penetration of new passenger car sales – 25% in 1975, up from 6% in 1965 …  and on their way to 35% in 1980.

And the former foreign fave of the Boomers’ parents, VW, had been overwhelmed by a tsunami of Japanese brands.

Following the old dictum about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar, The Mary Tyler Moore Show remained unfailingly practical and optimistic about evolving gender roles.

It was left to resident doofus, anchorman Ted Baxter, to inadvertently score progressive points by his goofy pronouncements on social issues.

One measure of the challenges of the day can be seen in the  following ad for the 1970 Ford Mustang – ironically, the car that Mary Richards drove in the show’s opening credits.

The copy might have been written by Ted Baxter himself: the headline reads …

Carol Edmonston had a b.a., m.a., and ph.d. but really wanted her mrs.

Still, with her infectious smile, vivacious good nature and savvy out-maneuvering of her male cast-mates – all chauvinistic in one form or another – Mary created an attractive role model for the many young women who were then opting to forge careers beyond the secretarial pool and stay in the workforce after marriage.

Although not as overtly feminist as some would have liked, show was highly effective and – as The Atlantic pointed out in a 2013 review – its real impact was behind the scenes.

Created and owned by Mary Tyler Moore’s company, MTM Enterprises, the show provided many breakthrough opportunities for women actors, writers and production staff.

In her post sitcom days, Ms. Moore appeared in more serious roles on television and in movies. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar – and won the Golden Globe award – for her role in the intense family drama Ordinary People (1981).

But it is as Mary Richards, who could turn the world on with a smile, that she lives on in Boomer hearts. So long, Mary.

The continuing Boomer backstory

An accusation often leveled at the Boomers is that they revel in nostalgia and are stuck in the past. But the truth is that we use the past as context for the present: sometimes we opt for yesterday and sometimes for today.

It’s as true for brands as it is for television shows.

The popular fiction is that after age fifty our attitudes, tastes, choices and preferences are fixed and that new options are difficult to register. As Mary Richards would advise advertisers who still hesitate to engage the world’s 3rd largest economy – you’re gonna make it if you try.

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