WASHINGTON, April 1, 2016 – Patty Duke, who was admired by Baby Boomers for her Oscar-winning role as Helen Keller in the movie the “The Miracle Worker,” passed away Tuesday at 69.
Her death was due to sepsis from a ruptured intestine.
Duke’s performances and life are a dazzling array of accomplishment in television, on stage and in movies that continue to warm the hearts of millions of her followers.
Does her death have a greater impact on the 1946 – 1964 Baby Boomer generation than on others?
For many Baby Boomers who devotedly watched “The Patty Duke Show,” the nation they lived in was in an era of American life that was just on the edge of societal meltdown. In 1963, when the show debuted, they may not have known it.
The show showcased Patty Lane in stark contrast with her teen-aged twin cousin Cathy Lane, who was the daughter of a journalist covering an around the world beat. Duke played both roles, using different accents for each character.
The intro music was upbeat, as was the show and its messages in each episode.
For Baby Boomers, the dawn of the Vietnam War, the turbulent riots of the ’60s and the birth of the anti-war movement were still several years away. Television was the sanctuary where parents and children could simply melt away from the challenges of the week.
They could discard the memory of the Cuban missile crisis, inflation and family problems and focus on TV shows like “The Rifleman,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Ozzie and Harriet” and “My Three Sons,” among many other reality-challenged shows.
Sure, the premises of these shows were based upon a formula that equated normalcy with sock hops, teen crushes, dating problems and pitting moms and dads against their slightly misbehaving children. Was that representative of the real world? Of course not. But that was the point.
Hollywood wanted American families to bask in escapism, sort of like a continuation of the Eisenhower years.
Some might say that Patty Duke and the genre that she represented a life that millions of American teens did not live. Millions of young people in schools all across the nation were not living idyllic lives where the troubles they had to tackle were minor problems at school or at home.
A good number of American kids who lived outside of the Hollywood TV land creation bubble had to deal with parents breaking up, poverty and teenage pregnancy. In addition, the widespread fear of communism, nuclear war and elementary, junior and high school students practicing “Duck and Cover” drills in the 1950s and 1960s was very scary and very real.
Meanwhile, a majority of black kids dealt with racism in school, while their parents were denied jobs and housing based upon the color of their skin. At the same time,Rev. Martin Luther King was marching for civil rights and equality.
Fear and anxiety increased after the Nov. 22, 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy. Millions of young Americans needed and even sought an escape that was easily provided by a fictional Brooklyn youth in the form of Patty Lane. She was excitable, often unpredictable and always entertaining. The Baby Boomers needed her as much as they needed shows like “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” or “The Andy Griffith Show.” The Baby Boomer generation thrived on these shows.
Patty Duke and her show were the medicine that the Baby Boomer generation needed to escape into a world where there were no nuclear bomb threats, and maybe for a half hour Patty Lane and her cousin Cathy could share an adoration for “A minuet, The Ballet Russes and crepe suzette,” or “See the sights that a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights.” Indeed, what a crazy pair!
Duke’s death will leave on undeniable impact upon Baby Boomers because her hopefulness and innocence were ours.
For a moment in time, all of us can still try to see those crazy sights from Brooklyn Heights and smile.