Chess in ‘My World’
Even though I’m not Catholic, the last few days before a fast-approaching birthday seem to me as good a time as any for making a confession, so here’s one for you: Unlike many of my U.S.-raised peers in my generation (sometimes known as Late Boomers or Generation Jones), I have no childhood memories to speak of involving watching The Monkees or The Brady Bunch, nor do I feel much fondness for the likes of Gilligan’s Island or I Dream of Jeannie. Due to a likely combination of personal preference and selective memory, however, I do have strong recollections of many shows that were, to put it gently, not exactly hits. Many of these date from roughly the 1968-70 era, when I was unhappily settled in a strangely quiet, oppressively grassy Long Island suburb after my family had moved from Queens in ’67. Lonely, feeling isolated, and missing the bustling streets of Flushing, I watched a lot of TV to compensate. There was one bonafide hit, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, that firmly planted itself in my memory banks, but also a sitcom called The Good Guys (starring a post-Gilligan Bob Denver and a pre-Golden Girls Herb Edelman, as old buddies running a diner; the theme song is indelibly imprinted in my mind, particularly the phrase “by the teeth of our skin”); an equally undistinguished sitcom, Arnie, starring Herschel Bernardi as a working-class Greek-American promoted from the loading dock to the executive suite (oh, the hijinks and scenery-chewing that ensued); and by far my fondest 1969/70 TV memory of all, My World and Welcome To It. (Follow that link for a good general outline of the program, including capsule descriptions of all 26 episodes. A DVD of the complete show has been one of my greatest entertainment-based wishes for years, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I myself have to be the one to see that particular project through. Message me if you have ideas.)
Despite general critical acclaim and two Emmy awards in 1970 (for Outstanding Comedy Series, and Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series for the star, the late William Windom), it never saw a second season; in his Emmy acceptance speech, Windom, in full sarcastic mode, reportedly thanked NBC for canceling the show. My World was based, loosely at times and more closely at others, on the cartoons and writings of James Thurber, a singular 20th-century humorist. On the off-chance you need an introduction to him, Thurber was a prolific short-story writer, cartoonist, and playwright from Columbus, Ohio who wrote a lot for The New Yorker and whose fate seems to involve having his writings screwed with without compunction by Hollywood, especially his best-known short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” made into two films to date (starring Danny Kaye, 1947, and Ben Stiller, 2013, neither of which I’ve seen, nor particularly care to; in Hollywood’s defense, the story itself takes perhaps 10 minutes to read, as Thurber was neither a novelist nor a big fan of the long-form essay).
My World, however, was a notable exception to the rule, treating Thurber’s cartoons (animated within the show by the good graces of DePatie-Freleng), plots, and a good deal of his prose with respect and intelligence. The milieu was updated to the 1969 present and set in a Connecticut suburb (which contained a few rural hayseeds apparently relocated from the Ozarks for comic effect). To me, the show at its core was about the power of the imagination and its sympathy for both the creative spark and for artistic, dreamy types trapped in the banality of the quotidian, personified by the Thurber analogue, Windom’s brusque suburban knight John Monroe, a cartoonist and writer, and his occasionally sullen but often sweet, smart, inquisitive and forthright tween-age daughter, Lydia. Windom played Monroe with a definite curmudgeonly edge, but the soft, dreamy center was never too far away. Try on this dialogue for size:
Lydia: “Daddy, are people who see things and daydream, are they, well, normal?”
John: “No, they’re much better than that. Why, for heaven’s sake, they’re the artists, the poets, the bums, the cream of society. They get a lot more out of life than normal people. For one thing, they’re never lonely or cold or hungry,
because they’ve got their imagination to keep them warm and to keep them company. And, don’t you believe for a minute that because they see things that you don’t, that those things aren’t there.”
Which brings us to Lisa Gerritsen. Was she my first, and only, TV crush? If I ever had one, I suppose that, yes, she would be it, and I’m far from the only introverted, bookish kid she had this effect on. And, yes, like the esteemed Chicago Tribune columnist who penned this key bit of Gerritsen lore back in 2000 (making the definitive case for leaving her alone into the bargain), I’ve long since moved on.
But when the conversation turns to smart, somewhat geeky but endearing young female characters on TV, this is where Lisa and My World deserve particular mention. Before Mayim Bialik played Blossom (and later, Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory), before Alyson Hannigan portrayed Willow Rosenberg on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, before Sara Gilbert embodied Darlene Conner on Roseanne, and even over a decade before young Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Linker entered Weemawee High School as Patty and Lauren on Square Pegs, there was Lisa Gerritsen as Lydia Monroe on My World and Welcome To It and Bess Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Phyllis.
Gerritsen, arguably the most accomplished and least affected child-to-teen TV actor of her generation (which is also mine), excelled at playing smart-but-vulnerable characters. On My World, she held her own with superb performers like Windom and Joan Hotchkis, who played her mother, Ellen, with a fair bit of spark and verve.
Lisa Gerritsen came from a long-established show business family on her mother’s side, stretching back at least as far as her great-great-grandmother, Carro True Boardman, who was an actress and acting teacher in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (here’s a link to a short piece with a photo in the San Francisco Call from 1901, describing Carro as a “well known exponent of elocution, physical culture and dramatic art”).
The moniker “True” recurs again and again in the Boardman family as a first or middle name given to, or adopted by, both males and females (including Lisa herself, who was occasionally billed as Lisa True Gerritsen). It does seem like a fortunate talisman for an actor to carry and a lodestar to sail by; after all, it means “real.” Carro Boardman’s son, William True Boardman (1882-1918), dropped his first name and, as True Boardman, starred in early silent films, as did his wife, the much longer-lived Margaret Shields, who adopted the stage name of Virginia True Boardman. Their son, William True Boardman, Jr., later True Eames Boardman (1909-2003), Lisa’s grandfather, acted alongside Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford as a child, and later had a long career as a scriptwriter for radio and TV, including westerns like The Virginian, Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Although I suppose it wasn’t exactly coincidental that Lisa appeared on all three of these shows (per IMDb, she was on Gunsmoke four times between 1968 and ’70, in four different roles), and her grandfather’s connections undoubtedly smoothed her entry into show business to some extent, she wasn’t just another forgettable, two- or three-note child actor. The camera didn’t lie: she came across as remarkably natural and genuine in whichever role she played.
However, Lisa Gerritsen retired from acting over 35 years ago; her last credit on IMDb is for an episode of the religious anthology program Insight which aired in November 1978, shortly before her 21st birthday (TV.com summarizes the plot as “A pregnant young girl finds a friend in her boyfriend’s mother”). I don’t know whether her decision was due in part to her experiences taking Bess Lindstrom into young adulthood (to the point of being married and expecting a baby) in the troubled MTM spinoff Phyllis, starring Cloris Leachman in the title role as Lisa’s antiheroine mom (here’s a superb, detailed recounting of that show’s travails), not wanting to be in the public eye anymore, or something else, because she hasn’t granted an interview in decades and from all accounts, doesn’t even like to talk about her years in show business to anyone outside, I suppose, her family and close friends. After hanging up the phone on Bess Lindstrom she went to college, then worked for a couple of software companies, then became (per IMDb and other sources) an independent relocation consultant and facilities project manager. She’s also been married since 2000, and lives a quiet, private, apparently very normal life with her family in a town north of San Francisco (I know which one, but won’t name it here).
A friend of mine once told me that the only thing worse than changing is not changing, which I think is probably as good a definition of the human condition as any. The trick is not only knowing when to close the door on one chapter, but knowing when to refrain from paging through the old chapters (which perhaps explains why so many people find Facebook a stressful experience).
The desire to read about people spillin’ it all will always be with us, but so will the value of silence and privacy. (Even as a journalist, this is something I can appreciate.) Yes, there’s power in a dignified silence and the quiet grace that comes with saying, “This part of my life is now finished. I have moved on and am in a different place now. I’ve let go; maybe you should do the same.” How much better is what Lisa did than the path taken by so many of her acting peers: staying fixated on their childhood in the spotlight for want of anything better, and, drugs and early deaths aside, stumbling from one reality TV show to the next, publishing memoirs and cookbooks ad nauseam, traveling from one fan convention to the next, endlessly pushing the nostalgia cart from one town to another or dancing on a stage in Branson, Missouri, because, let’s face it, ain’t much else going on. How much better to have a life in the now, not condemned to wander the land endlessly because your life peaked at age 12, and everyone you sign an autograph for knows it.
I also think most of us civilians (the non-famous, non-showbiz public) have a big problem understanding how people who have been successful, even partially, in creative pursuits like acting and music, can voluntarily give it up at a relatively young age, never looking back, and do something totally different — write software, work as a museum archivist, become a lawyer, teach, sell real estate — and seemingly be happy about their decision, not feeling they owe their old fans an explanation, not feeling they have to get together for a reunion concert every few years, host a retrospective of their old shows on a TV nostalgia channel, get together with the old gang for a “Where Are They Now?” photo spread in People, or write their autobiography, unless they really want to. They had the nerve to want to hang it up and be normal; and so, they did.
Who knows how creative people who give up that life deal with what I sometimes think of as the golden reactor core of creativity — something that can never really be shut down, regardless of whether the public outlet for that creativity still exists or was walled off, voluntarily or otherwise. Do they write songs still, just for themselves and their family? Do they put on plays in their kitchen for five people and the cat? One never knows. More likely, though, is that they live more or less normal lives and are no more or less happy than the rest of us, except for having some special memories and, one hopes, a deep sense of satisfaction for what they were and what they did, even though that time is no more.
And time has, indeed, passed. Lisa Gerritsen is now, believe it or not, 56, a decade older than William Windom was when he played her father on My World. (As for myself, it’s disconcerting to occasionally see the mid-to-late 1970s Windom looking back at me in the mirror these days, though I know I could do a lot worse.) With so much of our lives behind us, we can surely discern the outlines of that far shore looming ever closer, but still, through it all, somehow, we maintain a child’s sense of wonder and optimism, and impulses urging us on to playfulness and love. Our better selves. We live on, and our creativity never really stops, the golden reactor core keeps glowing; it just takes different forms toward different ends. But it’s real; oh, it’s real. Never doubt that.
If Lisa ever reads this, I don’t expect her to answer, but I’d like to say thanks, anyway, for what she gave us in that time, and also for leaving when the time seemed right to her. Lisa, I miss your talent and your presence, but I also understand that you knew better than anyone else when it was time to close that door. You did a real and genuine thing. One might even say, True.