One of the many reasons “Leave it to Beaver” is one of my all-time favorite TV programs is that the show had a realistic flavor to it. Unlike most sitcoms, the storylines were plausible, the characters seemed normal, and the young people on the show talked like real kids. The idea that the plots were often true to life became very apparent to me when an incident, involving my lifelong friend Bud Harrington, was so similar to a “Leave it to Beaver” episode, that one would have guessed that the “Beaver” version was based on Bud’s situation, if not for the fact that the “Leave it to Beaver” version happened first.
The “Leave it to Beaver” story in question, “In the Soup,” is undoubtedly one of the best remembered episodes of the “Beaver” series. Originally telecast on May 6, 1961, “In the Soup” revolves around Beaver (Jerry Mathers) and Whitey (Stanley Fafara) coming upon an outdoor advertising display which features an image of a lady holding up a steaming bowl of soup. The billboard is three dimensional, and Whitey insists that the bowl, which is suspended 30 feet from the ground and is the size of a hot-tub, contains real soup, while Beaver is certain that it doesn’t. Predictably, Beaver is compelled to climb the billboard to prove he’s right, and, just as predictably, falls into the oversized bowl (which contained no soup) and is unable to make his way out of this predicament. Eventually the Mayfield fire department is called to the scene, but not before a sizeable crowd has gathered on the sidewalk, including Beaver’s brother Wally (Tony Dow), as well as several of Wally’s friends who were on their way to the Cleaver house to attend Wally’s party when they were alerted to Beaver’s unfolding drama. Fortunately, Beaver is rescued, and is completely unharmed, except for the embarrassment he suffers, not to mention the forthcoming lecture he’ll have to endure at the hands of his father. One would think that young boys all across America might have learned a valuable lesson while viewing this on television.
In Millbrae, behind the Meadows school, stands a hill which featured, on one of its sides, a cliff which had about a 40 foot drop. About ten feet from the top of the cliff was a small ledge, about 30 feet wide, protruding about four or five feet from the side of the hill. Although the area above the cliff was accessible from several directions, no one had ever tried to reach the ledge, as climbing from the bottom seemed too difficult, and any attempt from the top appeared too dangerous. All of this was about to change in October, 1962.
Bud Harrington and his pal Allen Phillips were a pair of fifth graders who were very much like the Hardy Boys, except that they weren’t brothers, and they never did solve any mysteries (ok, they weren’t anything like the Hardy Boys). Like almost every other kid who lived in the Meadows, both boys were intrigued by the thought of reaching the ledge, and together, came up with a plan. Armed with shovels, Bud and Allen would lower themselves by rope from the top of the cliff onto the ledge, then dig a series of holes into the side of the cliff, creating a natural stairway, allowing them to climb up and off the ledge, as well as assuring them permanent access to the ledge, the value of which was never explained. The two ten year olds began their expedition shortly after school, and, remarkably, the first part of the plan went well, as Bud and Allen easily shimmied down a rope, and had become the first boys to reach the infamous ledge, or at least the first two that anyone knew about.
One of the most striking characteristics of the Millbrae Meadows area in the early 1960’s was the number of kids that populated the area in those days, and how anything even slightly out of the ordinary could draw a crowd. I can remember standing in front of my house, when word reached my street that a couple of fifth graders had made it to the ledge on the cliff behind Meadows School. By the time I reached the scene, dozens of kids were already there, all eyes transfixed to the cliff, as Bud Harrington and Allen Phillips furiously dug their manmade stairway. Before too long, many of the young boys and girls started to leave, figuring that they had seen all there was to see, but I stayed, as I had a hunch things would get more interesting.
In putting together their plan, there were two occurrences the boys had not figured into the equation. First, daylight saving time was now in affect, and darkness began to hamper the efforts of the two young men. And as the sun began to set, so did what was left of Allen’s enthusiasm for the project, and he suddenly decided he was too scared to climb up the cliff, even if the stairs were finished. Bud actually worked his way off the ledge, but returned when Allen, too scared to attempt the climb, started to cry, although he later claimed the source of his tears was the prospect of missing “Chillers From Science Fiction,” the KGO TV series which featured horror films. Now officially stranded, Bud’s father was called to the scene, who realized it was a job for the Millbrae Fire Department. Soon, sirens and bells were heard all across the neighborhood, as I congratulated myself for my patience. The number of onlookers at the bottom of the hill had now grown past its earlier size, as Millbrae’s finest began their rescue efforts. I’ll never forget the giant spotlight on the side of the hill, and I’m still surprised the usually hammy Harrington boy didn’t use it as an opportunity to break into song. Both boys were removed from the ledge with the aid of a swing-like basket attached at the end of a pole. The fireman completed their task in about 30 minutes, roughly the same length of a “Leave it to Beaver” episode.
Bud had hoped the incident would blow over, but unfortunately everyone within five miles was familiar with the story, and one of his classmates reported the event during an installment of “show and tell.” In the weeks that followed, Bud Harrington tried to put his own spin on what had happened, and was quick to point out that, in the final analysis, he and Allen did reach the ledge, making him the current day version of Sir Edmund Hillary. The comparison is fair, except that Hillary, after reaching the top of Mt Everest, did not require the help of the Millbrae Fire Department to get back down, and, to my knowledge, was not grounded by his parents after completing the climb.
Notes: The “In the Soup” Beaver episode was filmed outdoors on the Universal Studios back lot, with the soup billboard display being erected especially for that one show. A duplicate soup display was built inside one of the soundstages, which was used for the episode’s nighttime scenes.