In 1950s television, virtually everyone was white. So, in my novel 2084, a key symbol for America under a white-Christian government played on a hit ’50s TV show.
2084’s protagonist, a floundering stand-up comic named Sam Klein, aka Groucho, meets “secretly” with his stand-up mentor, Don Green (nee David Greenberg) aka Miltie. They hide in plain sight at Ozzie’s All-American Café.
The Ozzie’s concept—its décor red, white and blue—came from The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet(1952–66). The show featured the real-life Nelson family, whose photos grace the café’s walls. Ozzie had been a well-known bandleader, although I don’t remember any mention of his musical career or fictional occupation. Harriet, in shirtwaist and pearls, had been his singer. Their real-life sons played themselves—steady David and teen-heartthrob Ricky.
Ozzie and Harriet’s ideal family lived in an ideal home (the set duplicated the Nelsons’) in ideal Los Angeles and a world all white. An Hispanic housekeeper, Black chauffer or Asian gardener may have occasionally appeared.
Was American identity defined as white? The 1960 census revealed that whites constituted 88.6 percent of the population of 179 million. Ten years earlier, the percentage had been slightly greater at 89.3. Media rendered 20 million or so non-whites invisible. Also, Jewish actors were common—with anglicized names. TV depictions of Jewish life? Nil.
Ozzie and Harriet finished its 14-year run a year before Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech in Washington. It took a decade before mainstream media noticed that minorities—particularly African-Americans at the time—constituted markets worth pursuing.
An exception: In 1951, Amos ‘n’ Andy gave African-Americans their first lengthy look in the TV mirror. On radio, it had been voiced by its white creators, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. The TV actors were black, and the show earned high ratings. But the NAACP railed against what it condemned as stereotypes. Amos ‘n’ Andy went off-air in 1953.
In the 1970s, TV, movies and theater featured Black Americans, if often as stereotypes—witness Black exploitation films like Shaft (Richard Roundtree). Characters were strong or funny and appealed across ethnic lines, giving Blacks a foot in the door. Latino and Asian-American characters followed later but in lesser numbers.
Jews received short shrift. The Goldbergs transitioned from radio in 1949. An early TV hit, it ran on and off, live (network) and filmed (syndicated), through 1957. Not until 1972 did another sitcom feature Jews—sort of.
To appeal to Middle America, Bridget Loves Bernie featured a Jewish man married to a Catholic woman. The show proved a hit but ran just one season. The Jewish community killed it, finding nothing funny about intermarriage. (Since then, North America’s Reform movement has welcomed non-Jewish spouses and partners.)
Today, minorities routinely appear in media, and Jewish actors keep their real names.
Where are we headed? The 2020 census reveals that the percentage of white Americans has declined to 57.8. So, what makes someone an American?
My Jewish grandparents immigrated from the Russian Empire and became American citizens. Like so many others then and now, they swore loyalty to the Constitution, which did not demand meeting a then-unknown DNA standard.
Recognizing the citizenship principle of political identity rather than ethnicity will put Ozzie and Harriet in their rightful place.
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