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Nostalgia TV? Not Feeling the Love

The good old days of Mad Men, Pan Am and The Playboy Club all send a familiar message to Black actors: no positions available

When I was a kid, I refused to watch Happy Days. I was 13 years old when the television comedy, focused on White teenaged friends and their families in 1950s Milwaukee, first aired on ABC. By the time the hit show went off the air in 1984, I was 24. During that time, I never watched a complete episode of the show, nor have I watched it since—not even reruns in syndication. Why watch a show that not only has nothing to do with my world, but has in fact rendered me invisible?

My problem with the series started with the title, and its “America in the good old days” premise. I found it disturbing. It even made me a little angry. Even at 13, I knew that what constituted happy days for many White Americans were anything but for me and mine, and Black America in general. Even today, it bothers me that my mother loved the show (and it’s spinoffs, Laverne & Shirley and Joanie & Chachi) and watched it religiously, which is why I ever saw any of it at all. (Ironically, I’ve come to respect and even admire several of the actors on these shows, especially Henry Winkler and Ron Howard, forever immortalized as Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli and Richie Cunningham, respectively.)

As I transitioned from teenager to young man, becoming a journalist and student activist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., along the way, I became even more aware and repelled by how Happy Days pretended that the overt racial violence and Jim Crow discrimination that was alive and well in the 1950s either never happened or just wasn’t important. Of course, the cast was all White virtually through its entire decade-long run. In fact, the only Black actor to play a role of any significance at all on the show was Jack Baker, who played Bill “Sticks” Downy, a brother the Fonz hires to play drums in Richie’s band. Ironically, that piece of trivia was barely noticed in the 1970s, as Black actors were rarely hired as regular cast members on “White” shows regardless of the period they were set in.

Fast forward to 2011. It’s been just a few weeks since FOX aired the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards, a celebration so bereft of African Americans that it could easily be transported to the 1950s America of Happy Days and no one would even blink. (Okay, gay female host Jane Lynch may have given them a clue that something was amiss.) I mean, both Paul Robeson and Marion Anderson would have refused to perform at that worldwide broadcast of the television industry’s colossal failure at achieving the diversity and racial equality that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died for decades ago. (Or did he? If it didn’t happen on Happy Days, did it really happen?)

I hope I’ve given you some idea why I was never compelled to watch the critically acclaimed Mad Men, despite the fact that it is a four-time winner of the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series and that many of my friends (yes, most of whom are Black) absolutely love the show, which focuses on a fictional 1960s ad agency. It’s also why I have zero interest, at least so far, in the new shows Pan Am, ABC’s series about flight attendants in the 1960s, or NBC’s The Playboy Club, set in 1963. The good old days of Mad Men, Pan Am and The Playboy Club all send a familiar message to Black actors: no positions available. But leave your resume, just in case some token roles open up.

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  • BlackActors.net

    There are plenty of other shows to celebrate this season.

    http://blackactors.net/2011/09/black-stars-of-television-fall-2011-12-season/

    • Mari

      If you aren’t current on the show, then this uoviobsly won’t match what is going on with the offices (not to spoil it but they have new offices).My guess is that the office stretches to the other side of the elevator bay (the time life building should have central elevators to maximize window space). Over there is probably where they keep all of their accountants, ad buyers, typists, records, etc.

  • Alix Montes

    Interesting. I definitely understand your frustration with the absence of Black actors. I personally love Mad Men. I think it’s a great show. It’s historically accurate, and it’s one of the few shows that details what takes place in a corporate setting. Despite the lack of Black actors on the show, there is no place for them in the setting. Corporate America in the 1960′s didn’t usually have a place for us. I would however be interested in seeing the interaction if they decided to give Sterling Cooper Draper Price Black clients or even competitors.

    We have made some progress, and we still have room for improvement. In the meantime, it’s important for us to make sure we give ourselves the opportunities that others won’t. I also have a bone to pick with BET. I understand it’s an outlet for Black directors, actors, and artists, but I think the content is ignorant and does not do us justice. I am pretty sick of seeing movies that show Black people in prison. I think there needs to be a higher standard at BET.

    One last thought on tokenism. This month, Tony Plana, from Ugly Betty came to speak at GW as a part of Latino Heritage Celebration. He said that minorities often have to take token roles as a way to break into the industry. Although it’s a challenge, it’s a necessary evil in some cases.

  • Elle Rivers

    I disagree — Mad Men is not historically accurate. I started as a secretary in a Detroit (auto ad) agency in 1966, and worked my way up to Personnel Manager. After the riots in 1967, the company actively sought African Americans for entry level positions; it was company policy to start ALL inexperienced employees at low level positions and work them upwards through the system. That worked fine for a while until we found other agencies were raiding our talent pool. Then, we organized a group of agencies to recruit minority employees. That was very successful.
    And, I want Mad Men to understand that original Rock and Roll music was all the rage in the 60s; not that 50s stuff they play. Motown Records started about 1962. I want Mad Men to get with the program.
    I find it hard to believe there were no black female flight attendants in the 60s. After all, this was the era of The Civil Rights Movement.
    TV-One and BET have to upgrade their offerings instead of catering to the lowest common denominators. More educational uplifting shows vs. the sex, violence, guns and drug shows that glorify ghetto life.

  • Tony

    After finally watching 4 full seasons of Mad Men on Netflix over the past few weeks, I felt compelled to let the world know that not all black people were doormen, maids, elevator operators, muggers, etc. as depicted in this hit show. Here’s the real story:

    My late father, Junius Edwards, was among the first African-Americans to own and operate his own advertising agency in New York City in the 1960s after working for years as a copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather and other Ad agencies Madison Avenue. Some of his clients under Junius Edwards Inc. Advertising were Carver Federal Saving Bank of Harlem, Faberge, Ligget&Myers, Greater New York Savings Bank and more. Junius Edwards Inc. is featured in the book: “Madison Avenue and the Color Line African Americans in the Advertising Industry” by Jason Chambers.

    I would hope that Mad Men writers will get the story straight in upcoming episodes.

    Read more in the New York Times:

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9807EEDB133AF93BA15750C0A96E9C8B63

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