Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Comfort TV Visits Charm School (Better Late Than Never)


I hadn’t planned to post about the New Year. But then I considered how every New Year takes us further away from the time when shows from the Comfort TV era were made – shows that reflected what life in America was like at that time.

We’re 50 years beyond most of their debuts now. Do they still mirror how we live? I don’t mean the cosmetic stuff – the fashions and the cars and the slang; will we reach a point where these TV characters exist in an America we no longer recognize? Are there already elements in these shows that were once acceptable and are now inappropriate or to some even offensive?

Let’s consider one example.

I was raised in Skokie, Illinois, and in that Chicago suburb was a shopping center called Old Orchard, and in that shopping center was a Montgomery Ward department store. And in that store was a place called the Wendy Ward Charm School that taught young girls poise, proper manners and etiquette, among other lessons. 



Attendees received a handbook with tips such as “To be a girl assuredly means more than just being not a boy”, and “A lilting voice – warm, gentle and animated – is a ‘beauty order’ any girl can fill.” Many girls received complimentary sessions at the school through their Brownie and Girl Scout troops. Each class would end with a fashion show. 



This was the 1970s, in case any of you are now wondering whether I grew up during the Eisenhower administration.

Would Millennials even know what a charm school is? Do they even exist anymore?

Such places were familiar in the Comfort TV era, so not surprisingly they were featured in our favorite shows as well.

As is often the case with TV comedy, Lucy got their first. In “The Charm School,” a 1954 episode of I Love Lucy, Lucy and Ethel become jealous at the attention their husbands pay to a refined woman at a party. To up their game they enroll in the Phoebe Emerson Charm School, where they take lessons in how to walk, speak and dress.

The scenes that follow, featuring a pre-Lovey Natalie Schaefer as Miss Emerson, are classic Lucy.



I don’t think the writers really grasped the charm school concept, as the facility created for the show looks more like a health club. Of course, suspension of disbelief was already required, as Lucy and Ethel had already surpassed the charm school demographic.

That was not the case on The Patty Duke Show; in “The Perfect Teenager” (1964) Patty fails a magazine quiz on how teenagers should act. That sends her into a depression until she sees an ad for Miss Selby’s school promoting the ABCs – Attitude, Brightness and Charm.

The most bizarre aspect of this episode was the casting of Kaye Ballard as Miss Selby. Based on her body of work she seems an odd choice for a role model of demure grace. 



But the lessons taught in class are straight out of Wendy Ward. Patty’s attempted self-makeover lands her a modeling job in which she is sprayed with a seltzer bottle and takes a pie in the face. Just what a teenager seeking self-confidence needs.

Even the lovely Cissy Davis on Family Affair was not immune to insecurity. In “The New Cissy” (1968) she is convinced boys don’t notice her: “I can’t go on being me!”

Uncle Bill being rich, he doesn’t send her to charm school, he has the charm school come to her. Top industry consultants are hired to coach her in how to dress, how to carry on a conversation, and how to intrigue her male classmates: “99% of the time your face should reveal nothing; it should remain calm, placid, enigmatic…men will be intrigued. They’ll imagine you’re thinking much deeper thoughts then you really are.”


The episode also features the one scene without which no charm school episode is complete – learning to walk with a book on your head for balance and poise. 



Patty Lane tried it as well, and you’ll find similar scenes throughout the Comfort TV landscape, from The Beverly Hillbillies to The Brady Bunch to the opening credits of Charlie’s Angels’ final season.

The lessons work for Cissy, but she realizes (as Lucy and Patty did before her) that the person she’s become wasn’t really her. It’s a conclusion that is almost unavoidable given that the alternative is having the characters continue to act in a more refined way (though in Cissy’s case she was already as well-mannered a teenager as TV produced).

That’s not a message that likely did much for charm school recruitment, however, which is unfortunate. These institutions, archaic as they may now seem, once strived to make the world a more gracious place.

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