How did we miss the obvious media reflections and not recognize the detour sign in the road dead ahead? Network schedulers brazenly predicted catastrophe: Breaking Point followed The Outer Limits. New soap opera titles, optimistic since JFK took office, suddenly hinted where fate would soon take us: to General Hospital with The Doctors. Even the pop charts supplied us with easy clues as of the impending pain. (Don’t you know it’s) The End of the World? (It ended when I lost you.) topped the charts for seven straight weeks in 1963 and Can’t Get Used to Losing You climbed to #7. read more at http://constructiveanarchy.com/?p=785
Back by request…My Baby Boomer Bible. Think Howard Zinn with a sense of humor and a few conspiracy theories. Learn all about America from the early 1950s on this page and then hit “older posts” (bottom left) to read the second half (up to 1976).
“As we know there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns… the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”-Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld
“It depends what the definition of the word ‘is’ is.”
-President Bill Clinton
THE ONLY WRITTEN HISTORY RELEVANT TO BABY BOOMERS—4,000,000 B.C. to 1964 A.D. (Printed here in its entirety.)
Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, and millions of America’s heroes returned home to end World War II. Exactly nine months later (May 15, 1946) the Baby Boom began. The birth rate shot up 20% from the previous year, passing the three million mark for the first time in our history, and then exploded to nearly four million new babies in 1947. The United States passed that high-water mark in 1948 and remained above that alarming level for nearly two decades. This insane pace finally slowed down abruptly to a normal level of 2 million per year in 1964… exactly nine months after the assassination of JFK.
Other countries on the winning side also experienced a sharp increase in births, but their rash celebrations ended by 1950.America’s bliss continued for eighteen years. Ours was a special case. After 170 years as a New World Nothing, we had finally earned the status of World Class Power. WW II saw Europe and Japan bombed to hell, while America (except Pearl Harbor) remained untouched, and at the same time our factories were all geared up to produce the tools of war. Big Business then made a smooth transition over to peacetime merchandise such as televisions, cars and refrigerators and the world begged for our manufactured goods. Young American adults believed that the good times would last forever, and that the world would be forever grateful if they produced as many products and babies as possible. The average American family suddenly boasted four kids instead of the usual two.
The vast number of Baby Boomers gave society indigestion, later described as the “Pig in the Python” problem. From Day One of the Boom, America lacked a sufficient amount of delivery rooms, and once we arrived, pediatricians. Millions of young, new mothers turned to Dr. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care for help and support. The first edition, published just a few weeks after the birth of the first Boomer, soon became one of the best-selling paperbacks of all time. For a mere 35 cents, the book gave inexperienced young parents a false sense of security in guarding what was then considered as “the National Treasure.”
A tsunami of national treasure hit the schools in 1952, 38% larger than the 1951 first grade class, and caught the educational system completely by surprise. The same group of kids continued to catch the system unprepared every fall all the way through college. There were never enough classrooms, textbooks, desks or teachers for that first wave of Boomer students.
A lack of housing for so many large, young urban families caused the cities that could (mostly in the Southern and Western States), to spread outward in the ‘50s. 83% of the total population growth in the United States during the decade spilled into the suburbs.
Because of the vast number of new kids, American industry had no choice but to mass produce basic goods and services… diapers, baby food, toys, and even our entertainment. The Baby Boom Generation forced the most powerful society in the history of the world to bend their way and to cater to their wants and needs… and we continue to do so well into the 21st Century.
THE REFLECTED HISTORY OF BABY BOOMERS
Each of us has only a vague idea of how we look in the eyes of a stranger. We rely on reflections… in mirrors, photographs, videotapes and other distortable, unreliable images as we grasp for a clear self-concept. As a generation, Boomers love to gaze at their reflections from the three most significant mass-media mirrors:
1: MOVIES have been a constant reflection OF THE BOOMERS ever since we were old enough to buy a ticket at the box office.
2: The need for TELEVISION in every home was created BY THE BOOMERS when we forced our young parents to stay home.
3: ROCK & ROLL was resurrected (like Lazarus) as the official language FOR THE BOOMERS when words alone were insufficient to express our angst and other inarticulate feelings.
How could a bunch of Baby Boomer kids seize and dominate these three powerful mass-media giants? The answer is simple… Boomers are, were and will be (for another quarter century or so) the largest potential market that any sponsor or producer can aim at. Mass-media cannot survive without big money from advertisers, and Baby Boomers, from 1946 to present, have always been the largest target group of consumers. Thank goodness for Capitalism. In a Communist or Socialist country, our generation would have been considered as a pain in the butt, but here in America, mass-media is our slave. As children in the ‘50s, Boomers caused the Golden Age of TV kid shows like the Mickey Mouse Club, novelty records and live-action Disney flicks. As adolescents (late 50’s, early 60’s), we forced the Age of Teen Idols records, Bandstand on TV, and suddenly Annette wore a bikini, with boobs, in Beach Party this-and-that movies. As teenagers… well, you get the picture. American media catered to Baby Boomers the vast majority of the time for more than half a century, and if you are not one of us, you are probably bitter and jealous. You should be. Belonging to any other American generation is like growing up as the second son of a King… so close, but you’ll never reach the top… because we stand in your way. Boomers recognize your pain, but frankly speaking, we really don’t care.
THE ONLY MASS-MEDIA REFLECTIONS RELEVANT TO BABY BOOMERS FROM THE FIRST 2,000,000 YEARS OF HUMAN HISTORY (Prior to 1950):
Rock & Roll
Don’t let those of lesser birth blame it entirely on the Baby Boomers. The roots of Rock & Roll can be traced to the work songs and gospel music of African-Americans in early slave days. The sound became even closer to modern Rock in the 1920’s, when rural blues men moved to urban centers and the rhythms became heavier, more insistent, and the tempo, faster… conforming to the pace of city living.
Two-man guitar teams became popular, with one man playing bass notes and chords, while the other played the lead or melody line. In 1929 the Graves Brothers of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, recorded some spirituals for Paramount, which critics described as “rocking and reeling.” The music aimed exclusively at the “race music” market, but in 1932 two white folklorists, John Lomax and his son, Alan, turned on to the sound. They recorded Afro-American folk, blues and gospel at Black churches, revival meetings, bars and out in the fields. “The hard-driving beat, the bluesy melody, the rhythmic singing which contained improvised and stream-of-consciousness type lyrics,” thrilled the Lomax’s.
The roots of Rock & Roll dug deep into the heart of American music well before the birth of the first Baby Boomer. Our generation can’t even take credit (or blame) for the first electric guitar. Eddie Durham strummed one for The Kansas City Five in 1938. For mainstream WASP audiences, Charlie Christian began playing electric with the Benny Goodman Band in 1939. By the early 1940’s, a slightly watered-down version of the Black backbeat reached White ears with cover versions like Boogie Woogie (Tommy Dorsey) and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (The Andrews Sisters).
The Movie Industry hit its peak about the same time.Hollywood cranked out more films and sold more tickets than at any other time in its history in 1946. Twenty-somethings (our parents) stepped out on the town for their last big fling, but by the end of the year, newborns forced more and more young couples to stay home. During the next few years, movie attendance and production decreased sharply and television spread like wildfire.
Our parents believed that Television had been created for them… as a gift for all their hard work in WW II, or some such nonsense. Little did they suspect that they were simply acting as trustees for a short while, holding our inheritance until Baby Boomers grew of an age to seize control. Our parents perceived TV as a toy, an evening of free entertainment, and a reliable babysitter. Boomers naturally accepted television as an adopted, but equal sibling.
Television is a Baby Boomer. Before we came along, there were very few sets and only a handful of stations, broadcasting silly game shows like Amateur Hour and It Pays to be Ignorant, nature films like The Nesting Habits of the Migratory Goose, public service shows like The Right Way to Reshingle Your Roof and lots of wrestling and old Westerns. The generations prior to our parents considered the concept of television as a curiosity for eccentrics… sort of like an elephant, fun to look at, but who the hell would want to own one? But in the end it didn’t matter what the old folks thought. Baby Boomers quickly became a vast market, and that created the Television Industry.
(I Know It’s True ‘Cause) I Saw it On TV YouTube <http://youtu.be/YwhxeaVfk3s>
Media reflections are the only source of history that Baby Boomers trust and understand. As infants, we exerted little influence on the content of the mass-mediums before 1950, thus Boomers believe that nothing of much importance happened before that date.
Young parents buy TVs to babysit Boomer brats. Programmers stumble upon the first reality TV with an exciting live event: the US vs. the Mob hearings. Enormous ratings for the law and order genre. Twice as many kids in each home…parents demand family sitcoms. Rock & Roll finds its Johnny Appleseed in Alan Freed.
The new Soap Operas:
1951: Search for Tomorrow and Love of Life
1952: The Guiding Light
1953: Follow Your Heart and Three Steps to Heaven
Early 1954: The Brighter Day and A Time to Live
The majority of young parents owned a television set by 1950. Reviews were less than enthusiastic… John Mason Brown called it “chewing gum for the eyes.” T.S. Eliot remarked “It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.” Perhaps the late, great Fred Allen explained it best when he said, “They call television a medium because nothing on it is ever well done.”
The harsh criticism subsided somewhat when TV presented its first amazing spectacular of a real-life event… the Kefauver Crime Committee Hearings: a great battle of heroes and villains, broadcast live (wrestling was also extremely popular in the early days of TV), with the government of the United States launching a full scale attack against the entire organized crime world. Senators grilled the Godfathers and the public learned all about the Fifth Amendment. The show soared in the ratings.
The networks realized that they had hit the mother lode, and soon “law and order” shows, such as Dragnet, Treasury Men in Action, The Man Behind the Badge, The Web, Man Against Crime, and Rocket Squad sated the airways. The networks pushed goodness to the next level on March 1, 1952, when the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) accepted a television code, which included these four basic rules:
1. Shows will not sympathize with evil.
2. Shows will not degrade honesty, goodness, and innocence.
3. Figures exercising lawful authority should not be ridiculed.
4.Law breakers must not go unpunished.
Early Boomer children began to watch TV and the networks spoon-fed them “Truth, Justice and the American Way” in the form of kid programs like Superman and recycled old Westerns with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy. A new Oater, Sky King, introduced a modern cowboy flying an airplane. What more could a Boomer kid want?
Every popular topic of discussion heard in the street in those early days was soon reflected in the TV mirror as a new show. The average household suddenly contained twice as many kids, giving parents twice as many headaches and family situation comedies flourished. The early 50’s gave us The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, I Love Lucy, I Married Joan, My Favorite Husband, Mama, Make Room for Daddy, and The Pride of the Family. Note the progression of the titles here… the typical story of love and marriage in the early ‘50s.
In the superficial world of television, titles are often more important than the content of the show as an accurate reflection of the times. The early ‘50s, for instance, appeared to be a wonderfully optimistic time in America. To grasp a quick flavor of the mood of any era of recent American history, one need look no further than the titles of new Soap Operas, the shallowest form of TV programming. 1951 gave us Love of Life and Search for Tomorrow; 1952, The Guiding Light; 1953, Follow Your Heart and Three Steps to Heaven; and in 1954, The Brighter Day and A Time to Live.
The public obsessed on the American Dream, and the tube provided a forum. Star-struck wannabes sought overnight fame and fortune on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, Talent Patrol and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts; sub-amateurs depended on dumb luck on game shows like Strike It Rich. Young parents bragged about their brilliant Boomer kids and the Networks created Quiz Kids.
The first tidal wave of Boomers hit the public school system in 1952, and teachers, or rather a lack of them came to the attention of the public. TV responded with sit-coms like Mr. Peepers and Our Miss Brooks to assure us that the school system could handle the situation in its own bumbling way.
Television finally came of age on either (you decide) January 19th or 20th, 1953. The latter date included the Eisenhower/Nixon Inauguration… the first to be televised live, coast to coast… giving millions of Americans a glimpse of the pageantry and ceremony in our way of transferring power. A landmark in the history of television, but not nearly as big as the stunning event on I Love Lucy the night before, when Mrs. Ricardo gave birth to Little Ricky. Earlier that same day, Lucille Ball had produced a real-life boy, named Desi Arnaz, Jr., named after Desi, Sr., his father, who that same evening also became the father of a different baby named Little Ricki on the tube. Confusing, isn’t it? We Boomers have always had a problem separating TV from real life. In any case Little Ricki was the first Boob Tube Baby Boomer birth.
YouTube- Lucy and Desi “We’re Having a Baby”: <http://youtu.be/mQtjSm9p-hA>
Any mention of Pregnancy had been considered as taboo on the tube until Lucy’s physical condition forced the producers to include the subject on the show. Her double pregnancy (real and tube) became an extremely popular topic of conversation at the time. The event completely overshadowed the Eisenhower/Nixon gig. More than 70% of America’s TV sets tuned in to I Love Lucy on that very special night. Dickie and Ike only pulled in a small fraction of that number the following evening.
Rock & Roll
Boomer Rock & Roll finally found its Johnny Appleseed in 1950, in the form of disc jockey Alan Freed. At this point in his career, Freed had been turned down by most of the major radio stations in the country, so he jumped with joy when offered a job at WJW in Cleveland. Soon after, he met Leo Mintz, the largest local record dealer, who told him that kids of every race often bought a type of Rhythm and Blues, commonly referred to as “Rockin’ & Reelin,” a metaphor for what happens to the bedsprings after the lights go out.
Freed loved the sound and tried out a couple of those records on his show. The kids dug the tunes, and soon R & R dominated his time slot. Alan developed a style of “manic patter” between and over songs that captured and complimented the music. He began to call it Rock & Roll and his Moondog Show soared in the ratings.
Alan sponsored the Moondog Ball in 1952 in Cleveland. 25,000 kids, half of them White and half African American, showed up at a hall that only held 10,000… a slight problem in segregated Cleveland. Parents flipped out and Freed was forced to cancel the show… but not before the message had leaked out: “Regardless of race, kids just want to have fun and rock!”
The timing for Rock & Roll to emerge was perfect… television had badly wounded radio, and AM stations desperately scrambled for anything that would draw new listeners and sponsors. Other DJ’s on mainstream (white) AM stations followed Freed’s lead and started playing Rock & Roll. Teens turned on to the Black sound, but their WASP parents still dug Your Hit Parade and the Perry Como Show on television. The First Golden Age of Rock & Roll lurked just around the corner.
The Golden Age and the Dark Ages: Communists and Body Snatchers…Monsters of the Id (Forbidden Planet) in Richard Nixon and Tailgunner Joe McCarthy.
1955: TV offers the American Dream/ Instant Wealth programs for new parents and Kiddie Pap for Boomer kids. Hollywood delivers Rebel Without a Cause to War Babys.. Alan Freed plays “race music” for WASP teens on AM radio.
1956:…and then there was Elvis. Parents are infected with Rock Hysteria. Jukebox Musicals and the Bad Seed hit the silver screen.
You are now entering the Golden Age of Sci-Fi Movies, the Golden Age of Television, the first Golden Age of Rock & Roll, the Golden Age of Baseball, Toys, Comics, etc. And yet, there was trouble in paradise.
The movie industry targeted the glut market of young Boomer boys with a new look to an old genre. Only a handful of Sci-Fi films (mostly of the “mad scientist” variety) had been made during the 40’s, but in the mid-50’s Hollywood couldn’t crank them out fast enough. The kids loved the weird stories as filmmakers explored new territory, using symbols and metaphor rather than direct confrontation, and examining subjects that serious writers wouldn’t dare touch… the bomb and after-effects, atomic radiation, world destruction, alien invasion and possession.
Our appetite for this type of movie grew, in part, out of the intense rivalry between the United States and Russia. Cameras in missiles fired from White Sands gave us TV and newsreel footage of our Earth rapidly receding. Americans watched in awe. A short time later, we observed white rats and monkeys floating in space, and these images sparked the imagination of the public. The number of UFO sightings multiplied several fold.
The Cold War heated up between the two superpowers and a feeling of anxiety and paranoia began to peel up the corners of our optimism. Communist subversion… an invasion from within by people who looked like ordinary Americans, but were actually pawns of an alien power became a popular topic of conversation. Kids in the ‘50s watched that plot repeatedly in films like The Thing (with James Arness as the giant carrotman), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (again, with the theme that Communism can turn one into a veggie), Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers (mind control, rather than possession), Invaders From Mars and It Came From Outer Space. Ray Bradbury wrote the last story, in which the aliens take human form only as a means of obtaining earthly parts to repair their spaceship to get the hell out of here, instead of the usual goal of world (or universal) domination.
The most interesting film of this genre in the 50’s was a lesser-known flick called The Twonky (1952). The twist in this one was that the alien took possession of a television set rather than a human being in its attempt to take over the earth. In retrospect, this may have been the best plan for world domination. For Boomer kids, the TV had already become the favorite family member. We were constantly at odds with our siblings and parents, but never had a problem with television during our formative childhood years.
Perhaps it was the first nuclear tests in Nevada (1951) or a delayed pang of guilt, as America considered the consequences of the two bombs dropped on Japan (1945) that led to a flood of “world destruction because of runaway technology” Sci-Fi films: When Worlds Collide and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), War of the Worlds, The Day the World Ended, Five (the last five survivors after WW III), and On the Beach (1954). Believe it or not, Boomers chose a foreign film from this category as their favorite… Godzilla, a gigantic monster who casually leveled cities while killing tens of thousands of innocent people. Many who didn’t get squashed fell victim to his radioactive breath. The tremendous damage caused by the monster was very similar to the real-life catastrophe (just nine years prior) when we dropped two big ones onJapan. It is interesting to note that in the many sequels, the Japanese people tame Godzilla and he becomes their friend to defend them from other monsters.
America was also under attack by monsters about that same time, and they were usually of our own making. Atomic radiation from bomb testing was responsible for giant mutated ants (Them), tarantulas, Gila monsters, crabs, etc. A bomb even woke up The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. We Boomers just couldn’t get enough of these giants. As a group we could relate. By the second half of the decade, Hollywood had pretty well exhausted the entire animal kingdom, and thus, had to resort to human giant mutants in The Amazing Colossal Man and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. They even tried a new direction with The Incredible Shrinking Man.
But what was the classic film from the Golden Age of Monsters? Don’t ever claim to be a Baby Boomer if you don’t know the answer. Time is up. The answer is Forbidden Planet (1956). The story was loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with Walter Pidgeon as Morbius/ Prospero, who discovers the ancient records of the advanced Krell civilization on this brave new world. Morbius uses their technology to multiply his brainpower many times over, but, in doing so, he also increases and releases the suppressed evils from his subconscious. His Id Monster takes on a huge, hideous physical form and then begins a rampage of death and destruction. Morbius fights desperately to control his id. He is a good scientist with a noble quest. The human race can benefit greatly from this method of increasing intelligence, but only if it can first come to grips with, and then conquer the basic animal instincts deep within each subconscious. The message seemed clear… to ignore and/or suppress the id can only make it grow to such gigantic proportions that it will finally explode with an uncontrolled fury.
One must remember that the oldest Boomers were only ten years old when this complex film premiered. Kids were accustomed to lightweight eye-candy with conventional monsters, the bomb and world destruction, and before the end credits they knew that the good guys would always win… or, at least Boomers thought that was true before viewing Forbidden Planet. The film raised a lot of disturbing questions that the usual sources (school, church, TV and parents) were unwilling or unable to answer. Did George Washington have evils in his id? How about Jimmy Dodd? Gene Autry? Ike? The Pope? How about us Boomers… did we have evils in our ids? After all, little girls and boys began playing doctor about this time. Some of the oldest Boomers felt strange, new urges. Talking about such feelings was absolutely taboo in 50’s society, so many kids began to think they were misfits, freaks and definitely sicko. That opinion changed when they found out that Morbius, too, had monsters in his id.
YouTube “Monsters of the ID” <http://youtu.be/CrZagvsP3o0>
In those early days of television only two men really understood the tremendous potential for mass persuasion by the medium. Unfortunately, those two pioneers had id monsters galore.
Richard Nixon’s career was in big trouble in the fall of 1952. He was about to be dropped as Eisenhower’s running mate. Charges against him revealed a secret slush fund that had been supplied by a group of California businessmen. Nixon convinced the Republican National Committee to buy a half hour of primetime television to explain his side of the story, and then Trickie Dickie did his thing on September 23, 1952, live from NBC’s El Capitan Studio. He admitted that he had received $18,235, but denied that there was anything illegal about the gift… it was merely a fund to “help me better serve my constituents.”
Tyrannosaurus Nix then quickly moved on to a real tear-jerk story about his poor childhood, his war record, the mortgage on his house, etc. Finally, as the climax of this heartbreaking tale, Nixon claimed that he had only accepted one “gift” in his entire political career:
“A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip, we got a message from Union Station saying that they had a package for us. We went down to get it, and do you know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he sent all the way from Texas… Black and white and spotted, and our little girl, Trisha, the six-year-old, named it Checkers. You know the kids love the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
Hooray for Checkers! Hooray for Dick! How could anyone have the nerve to accuse this kind-hearted man of wrongdoing? How dare they?!
It should be noted that that same fall, Frank Walsh of West Hampstead, Long Island, shot his television set, explaining to the police that he thought that the show was too loud. Less than a week later, Frank appeared on Strike It Rich (“The program with a heart”), told the sad story of his rash action and won, yes, you guessed it… a new TV set.
The public overlooked a few minor indiscretions by good Americans like Richard Nixon, Frank Walsh and the ultimate champion of Democracy, Joseph McCarthy. No one was more Blue and White than Tailgunner Joe. (Had he been able to carry on his good work, Joe would have eventually had the color Red removed from our flag.)
McCarthy feasted on the paranoia of the mid-’50s like vampire. The Red Scare reached alarming proportions…Russia exploded its first A-bomb… Nixon nailed Alger Hiss, an accused Soviet spy in the State Department… The Rosenberg’s had been convicted and executed… a British atomic scientist, who had worked on the A-Bomb was sentenced to a 14-year prison term for spying for Russia. Spies seemed to be everywhere. “Sensible people” built bomb shelters. First Wave Boomer kids experienced frequent air raid drills and cheery little educational films like What to Do When They Drop the Bomb. The most popular of these contained a catchy little song: “What do you do when you see the flash? Duck and Cover.” Yeah, right. That should solve the problem.
Television began reflecting our fear and paranoia with espionage shows like I Led Three Lives, Foreign Intrigue, I Spy and The Man Called X.
Then Joe shouted “Commie!” and everybody jumped. McCarthy’s career, like Nixon’s, had recently been in the toilet. In a poll among reporters in Washington DC, Joe, then halfway through his first term, was rated last among United States Senators. McCarthy realized that he would have to act fast to keep his job. Joe delivered a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in early 1950, in which he claimed, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 (State Department employees) who are known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party, and they are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” McCarthy had no list, but he gained a lot of supporters and national attention. He quickly became the leader of the popular crusade against Communism. During his entire Career, Joe never produced proof to convict even one American citizen of being a subversive and/or a Communist. He simply accused, and that was enough to destroy the lives of hundreds of Americans. Red Channels (the “Report on Communist Influence in Radio and Television”) was published on June 22, 1950. Three days later, the flames were stoked by the invasion of Communist forces into South Korea.
When the Republicans took control of Congress following the 1952 elections, McCarthy was awarded a committee and staff. Joe considered that as a green light to go after the Reds. He dove into his new job with a passion and realized immediately the incredible potential of television to spread his message. Joe had a plan. Every time his name was mentioned by anyone on the tube, Senator McCarthy evoked the “Fairness Doctrine” and demanded equal time. On camera Joe would then launch into a new unfounded and unrelated attack on Commies, instead of using the time to defend himself and his methods. According to him, there were Commies everywhere… in government, churches, schools and even in the American Armed Forces. Half ofAmericabelieved McCarthy and the others were afraid to speak out for fear that they, too, may be accused.
Finally on March 9, 1954, See It Now with Edward R. Murrow, presented “A Report On Senator Joseph McCarthy.” Film clips of Joe’s work were shown and Murrow commented, “We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends on evidence and due process of law… This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent. He didn’t create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it; and rather successfully.”
The audience flooded CBS with telegrams supporting Murrow’s views. Eisenhower praised Senator Ralph Flanders (R-Vermont), who earlier in the day had made a speech in Congress criticizing McCarthy. On March 11th the Army charged that McCarthy and his assistant, Roy Cohn, had threatened to “wreck the Army and Army Secretary, Robert T. Stevens, if recently drafted McCarthy staff member, David Schine, was not given preferential treatment.” Public hearings were scheduled for April.
The DuMont and ABC television networks had little or no daytime programming, and thus decided to carry the full 36 days of the Army/ McCarthy Hearings. The public tuned in and quickly became addicted and many Americans stayed home from work or school to watch. The program reminded them of the good old days of the Kefauver Crime Committee Hearings. But this new show was confusing. “Which ones are the good guys?”
Tailgunner Joe had been our champion during the past four years, defending us from our greatest fear… the Commies. Up until the hearings, Americans had known only of Joe’s legend, but now, here he was moving into their living rooms, with heavy baggage in hand, for thirty-six straight days. Mark Twain had predicted the result of McCarthy’s intrusion into our lives half a century earlier: “House guests and fish begin to stink after three days.” Joe had come off as Superman in small doses in his quest for “Truth, Justice and theAmerican Way.” But now, the public got an overdose of McCarthy and his methods of bullying, smearing, accusing falsely, blackmailing and slandering. Finally, Joe was stopped dead cold when Counsel Joseph Welsh asked him point blank: “Have you no sense of decency, Sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency? Until this moment I think I never really gauged your recklessness and cruelty… Have you finally lost every shred of human dignity and compassion?”
Tailgunner Joe vs Senator Welch on YouTube <http://youtu.be/MO2iiovYq70>
The hearings were unable to produce any official decision, but that mattered little. The unofficial decision of the public was that Tailgunner Joe was an idiot. Game show panelists began mimicking McCarthy’s frequent and outrageous outbreaks of “Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman…” Senator McCarthy became a laughing stock.
The easiest way to gage the mood of Americais to glance at the most superficial of mass-media reflections. The new soap opera titles for the post-McCarthy era were: The Secret Storm, Woman With a Past, Portia Faces Life (all 1954), Date With Life and Way of the World (1955), and As the World Turns and The Edge of Night (1956). Optimism to ominous warnings. Storm clouds gathered in our TV mirror.
The sequence of television show titles on the nightly schedule can be also be enlightening in reflecting an era. In 1953, for instance, when Joe McCarthy rode the crest of his power, ABC’s Wednesday night lineup was Through the Curtain, Answers for Americans, Take It From Me, Dr. I.Q. and the inevitable conclusion…Wrestling. Television programmers have always shown great unintentional historical insight and humor. The same night on CBS, Strike It Rich (as in the American Dream) was followed by I’ve Got a Secret.
Immediately after McCarthy’s fall the TV show lineups began to reflect turmoil. On Tuesday nights It’s a Great Life was now preceded by Truth or Consequences on NBC, Make Room for Daddy was preceded by Twenty Questions on ABC, and Life with Father was preceded by Danger on CBS. The schedule read like a Surgeon General’s warning, “Too much American Dream will may be hazardous to your health. Slow down, People.”
The whole McCarthy fiasco confused Americans. The concept of “Right and Wrong” got all jumbled up. The public didn’t know how to feel, or what to do, say or think about the matter, and wound up sitting on a fence with only two ways down: 1) you could rebel (always a youthful favorite) or 2) you could try to escape the problem by ignoring it (the mature method). Americans jumped to their preferred side.
The Escapists, of course, had God, TV and the law on their side. After five years of debate, the Supreme Court ruled in April of 1954, that the FCC’s proposal to ban giveaway quiz shows was illegal. The court’s decision was based on the definition of the word “lottery.” Game shows fell into that category and had been accused of violating the U.S. Criminal Gambling Act. The Court now decided that people were not investing “something of value” to play (and win) in this case, because game shows were a complete waste of time. The floodgates opened. The 1954-5 TV season brought us several exciting new quiz shows, such as Break the Bank with bigger and better prizes.
The Tailgunner Joe Show had been such a downer that the public rejected most serious tube fare, and live, dramatic shows dropped like flies. Three new TV genres filled the void in 1954: 1) Variety Entertainment on shows such as Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, 2) A new style of family sit-com where Father Knows Best (no more bumbling authority figures), and 3) (and most important) Primetime Shows aimed exclusively at Baby Boomers (Disneyland).
The American Dream seemed to be making a recovery in 1955… a year to believe in miracles. The Brooklyn Dodgers finally won their first World Championship after more than half a century of frustration and cries of “Just wait ‘til next year.” Most of the new television shows fell into one of three categories: 1) Instant wealth 2) Law and Order and 3) Boomer shows.
Among the money shows were Chance of a Lifetime, Treasure Hunt, A Dollar a Second, and the biggest big money quiz show yet… The $64,000 Question. Materialism spilled over into TV drama as Michael Anthony began passing out checks for J. Beresford Tipton on The Millionaire.
1955 was also a time for stronger Western law enforcement shows. Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke loomed as a huge and menacing authority figure, who often felt compelled to slap around a much smaller man to “knock some sense into his fool head.” A big brute picking on a little guy… that scene would have felt so wrong even a year earlier, but now it seemed natural and justified. The runt probably had it coming and the public (our parents) trusted Marshal Dillon completely. On the subject of big, it was hard to ignore another new oater that season: Wyatt Earp, and his gigantic pistol. Sigmund Freud would have loved the symbolism.
Baby Boomers warmly welcomed Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, and soon an estimated 100,000,000 raccoons were sacrificed for our small heads. The price of the fur shot up from 25 cents to $8.00 a pound. Disney also delivered The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955, and soon millions of kids donned rodent ears to watch the show. The secret leaked out… Walt Disney’s ultimate goal was to sell silly headwear to children.
Television at last noticed the vast Boomer Market, and immediately responded with Captain Kangaroo, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, The Adventures Robin Hood, The Adventures of Champion, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, etc.
Television commercials became big business by the mid-50’s, with four advertising agencies pulling in more than $100,000,000 a year each. Those figures doubled by 1960. Symbols were the name of the game… a good one brought in millions, eventually billions of dollars. The trick was to link a common, everyday, boring product with something exciting and of real value. Suddenly in 1955, for just a handful of pennies, a housewife could command a White Knight, who was “Stronger than dirt” to rescue her from the drudgery of cleaning, and hence, the fair damsel could live happily ever after. “And what can we do for you guys? Do you want to look more macho? Invest your coins in a pack of our cigarettes and you will be master of all you survey (including chicks) under wide-open skies… just like the Marlboro Man.” Sex and convenience became big sellers in 1955 when Playboy and McDonald’s began.
Romance and sexual innuendo didn’t work on Boomer kids, so Madison Avenue invented the Jolly Green Giant for us. The big, strong, friendly guy even “Ho-ho-ho”-ed like Santa. He symbolized the dollar bill to our parents, and as the Big Green Guy hinted that corporate vegetables are healthier than ones from the garden.
While the majority of the population blocked McCarthyism from their memory, another small, but growing segment (mostly War Baby teens) landed on the other side of the fence. They felt a strong urge towards rebellion, but weren’t sure why or what or who to rebel against. In The Wild One (1954), a girl asked Hell’s Angelish, Marlon Brando, “What are you rebelling against?” He answered, “Whatta ya got?” That caught the ears of American teens and the movie industry. The following year, teens flocked to see James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and as the “bad” son in East of Eden. War Babies entered into an intense, but brief affair with rebellious cinema. A decade later, Boomers fell in love.
Another film from 1955 fell into the new genre of teen rebellion, but cannot be considered a classic as the previous three. In some respects, however, this B-movie may have been more important in terms of Boomer history. Blackboard Jungle seemed like a typical classroom drama, but Hollywood teens had never had such a bad attitude before. The high school teacher in the film (Glenn Ford) faced much more serious problems than Mr. Peepers or Miss Brooks on TV.
Rock & Roll
Overall, Blackboard was just another, forgettable morality play… with the exception of the soundtrack, which makes it an immortal Boomer classic flick. Rock Around the Clock played loud and clear under the opening titles… the first time a Rock & Roll song ever received that distinction in a major Hollywood film. Parents viewed this horrible music as an evil and corrupting influence. Teens just thought that it was fun. In any case, Rock & Roll was about to become big business, Teens lined up around the block to see the film. Bill Haley’s song had only modest success when first released in 1954 (sold 75,000), but now opening a rebellious youth flick, the tune hit the charts again, and sky-rocketed to the top. Rock Around the Clock sold six million copies in 1955.
Bill Haley and the Comets struggled as just another smalltime Country and Western band until they decided to cover some R&B songs by Black artists. The group took hard rocking, but poor-selling classics, such as Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle and Roll, and toned them down a bit, and whitened them up a lot to make the tunes more palatable to not-yet-enlightened WASP audience. Soon, other Caucasian crooners copied the Comets and commenced cranking out covers.
The music scene was ripe for Alan Freed. Things really started happening in 1954 when he made a triumphant return to New York City (no offense, Cleveland) and WINS, one of the big AM outlets that rejected Freed in years prior. Now the station had to offer Alan $75,000 a year, which turned out to be a bargain because Freed and Rock soon made WINS the number one market in America. The energetic DJ also began producing live Rock & Roll shows at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theatre, and kids of all races turned up in droves. To teens, The Blackboard Jungle was not a revelation but merely a confirmation.
If you listened to Freed’s show in 1955, you probably heard Turner’s original version of Shake, Rattle and Roll instead of Haley’s cover and Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti rather than Pat Boone’s. Alan received mounting pressure from sponsors to back off, but continued to play the originals. Freed believed that listening to White covers of Black music was like kissing your sister… a nice experience, but certainly nothing to get excited about. When the station manager forced Alan to play a cover, he usually followed it up immediately with the original. When heard back-to-back anyone could pick the superior version. White teens began buying “race music” by African American artists.
Up until 1955, the pop charts had been dominated by middle-of-the-road, white singers like Doris Day and Perry Como. On TV Your Hit Parade continued to be highly rated after five years, and Grand Ole’ Opry and The Lawrence Welk Show debuted. But on the AM radio dial, the sound suddenly seemed a lot less tranquil. Blacks crossed over from the Rhythm & Blues charts (where a sale of 10,000 was considered a hit record) to the much bigger, lily-white pop charts. Guys like Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Chuck Berry and Little Richard finally reached the ears of Middle America. Tutti Frutti sold 500,000 copies.
And then there was Elvis. About the time that Little Richard’s lovely image and voice shocked WASP parents across America, Presley auditioned for, and was rejected by Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. Colonel Tom Parker entered the picture and managed to get the young singer signed with RCA Records (November 22, 1955). On January 10, 1956, Presley entered their Nashville studio and recorded Heartbreak Hotel. On January 28, Elvis performed a hip-churning version of Blue Suede Shoes during his network television debut on CBS’s Stage Show (ironically, playing opposite The Perry Como Show and Grand Ole’ Opry on Saturday night.) Elvis was on his way. During 1956 Presley had fourteen consecutive million-selling singles, a total of 17 songs on the pop charts, two number one albums (ever since the first LP had been pressed in 1948, that distinction had usually been won by soundtracks from movie or stage musicals), plus, two starring movie roles. Few performers can claim an entire career as full as Elvis’s first year.
What magical powers did Elvis possess that enabled him to cause a drastic change in all three of America’s giant media image reflectors (Music, Television and Film Industries)? First of all, a vacuum caused by a large reflection-starved group (War Babies), just waiting for something like Presley to happen. Game shows occupied the grownups (our parents) as they searched for their fair slice of the American Dream. Mickey Mouse and friends dazzled Boomer children, as they tried to devise a plan to con their parents into a trip to the newly opened Disneyland. But what about all those teenagers caught in the middle… too old for Mickey, but too young for the $64,000 Question?
War Babies didn’t have much to call their own before Elvis. They related to Black Rock & Roll, Brando, Dean, and now, Presley. (The King watched Rebel Without A Cause dozens of times. When he met the film’s director, Nicholas Ray, at a party, Elvis recited entire scenes of Dean’s dialogue.)
Presley not only covered the Black sound (such as Big Mama Thorton’s Hound Dog), but also developed his own style which nearly matched the original. Blacks laughed when they first saw Elvis strut his stuff… a little tame by the high standard of performances that they were accustomed to. White parents weren’t laughing. They considered Presley’s gyrations as suggestive and immoral. WASP teens claimed a double-standard foul here. “How about your Jane Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe?” The Elvis issue confused Mom and Dad. When they looked at the boy, Presley fit the Wild One / Rebel / JD image with his greaser hairstyle, black leather jacket and the obscene way that he shook his hips to entice young girls. On the other hand, in interviews between songs, Elvis sounded like a God-fearing, good ol’ country boy. Certainly, this hillbilly kid seemed less dangerous than Little Richard, Chuck Berry and the rest of those “sex-crazed Negroes.” If only young Presley would tone down his act a bit.
The situation had to be considered by all Americans during the summer and fall of 1956, as Elvis got caught right in the middle of the biggest ratings war that the Television Industry had ever seen. Steve Allen hosted a brand new show in June, knowing full well that the competition would be very stiff… in the same time slot as Ed Sullivan. NBC decided to take the offensive, and on Steve’s behalf, declared a war on guest stars. Allen’s premiere show featured Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope and Sammy Davis, Jr. Sullivan countered with the CBS Eighth Anniversary Show starring Lucille Ball, Phil Silvers and Marlon Brando. “Brando? So, Sullivan’s aiming at the Wild Ones.”
Allen retaliated with Presley on his second show, and the move boosted his ratings far past Sullivan’s. Ed responded, “Despite the ratings, I will never have Mr. Presley on because I host a family show.” Two weeks later, Sullivan signed Elvis to do three shows for $50,000… the most money that Ed had ever paid for any act.
Presley opened Sullivan’s fall season with a bang on September 9th. “Elvis the Pelvis” showed the world the meaning of that nickname, as he performed four songs very live. The studio audience went nuts. Sullivan grabbed more than 80% of TV viewers that night, and scored just as well with Presley’s second appearance in October. But CBS received pressure from thousands of “concerned citizens,” and thus, when Elvis returned for his third and final Sullivan show, Ed instructed cameramen to film the singer from the waist up, only. Wrong! Major mistake. Every Baby Boomer knows the secret of Hitchcock thrillers… what the audience sees is never as scary as off-screen, imagined horror. The moves that adultAmericaimagined Elvis made that night set off the Great Rock & Roll Civil War of 1956.
Families across the nation suddenly split apart on the issue. War Baby teens and Depression Kids (their parents) expressed strong opinions, and then built barricades to separate themselves from the enemy. Baby Boomers refused to get involved. After all, our oldest member was only ten years old in 1956. We sat back and watched the battle. Our day was rapidly approaching.
Presley’s timing was impeccable. He was a young man with great natural talent, but one can’t help and wonder if the Rock & Roll explosion of 1956 might not have happened anyway… even without Elvis. Tremendous pressure had been building up, and eventually, something had to give.
The landmark Supreme Court decision of 1954, outlawing the “separate, but equal” policy of segregation inAmericaincreased racial tension and segregationists claimed that Rock & Roll was a plot to infiltrate “colored” or “race” music into the defenseless minds of white teenagers. Asa Carter of the Alabama White Citizens’ Committee, described Rock & Roll as the “basic heavy beat of the Negroes, appealing to the base nature in man. It brings out animalism and vulgarity.” He claimed that the NAACP was behind this evil plot.
The New York Times March 28, 1956 edition had a story headlined as “Rock & Roll Called Communicable Disease.” Psychiatrist, Francis J. Braceland called the music “cannibalistic and tribalistic.”
Meredith Willson, playwright and composer of The Music Man, called Rock “Simpleminded and stale; the music of idiots. It’s dull, amateurish, immature, trite, banal. It glorifies the mediocre, the nasty, the bawdy, the cheap and the tasteless.” He went on to infer that Mitch Miller was responsible… “The Beard did it.”
Variety, on April 11, 1956, stated “Rock & Roll, the most explosive show biz phenomenon of the decade, may be getting too hot to handle. While it’s money-making potential has made it irresistible, its Svengali grip on the teenagers produce a staggering wave of juvenile violence and mayhem… On police blotters, Rock & Roll has also been writing an unprecedented record. In one locale after another, Rock & Roll shows or disc hops, where such tunes have been played, have touched off every type of juvenile delinquency.”
Low budget movie producers ignored these urgent warnings. Sam Katzman knew exactly why Blackboard Jungle scored such a big hit, and moved quickly to cash in on his insight. As a veteran producer of cheap B-movies, Katzman knew all about tailing comets… following a big box office smash with his own quick and dirty, low-budget copy. In 1956 Sam latched on to Bill Haley and the Comets.
Teenagers didn’t seem to notice total lack of plot in the jukebox musical Rock Around the Clock. Bill Haley performed nine rockers in the film, and the Platters added two more. Kids danced in the aisles in movie theaters, much to the displeasure of management and the local authorities. Several cities banned the film, which, of course, made it extremely popular among teens. War Babies rebels were no longer without a cause. The first true bard of Rock & Roll, Chuck Berry, proudly announced, “Roll over Beethoven, and dig these rhythm and blues.”
Rock Around the Clock packed them in, so Hollywood, like any politically-correct prostitute, refused to discriminate against any group (including African Americans and rebellious teens), so long as they had the price of admission. Most of the smaller studios followed Katzman’s lead with their own jukebox musicals. In Bill Haley’s next film, Don’t Knock the Rock, an evil adult planted alcohol at a high school hop and blamed it on the kids. The authorities refused to listen, so Haley and the teens staged a play for the irate parents, showing them that the music and dancing of 1956 wasn’t much different than that of their Charleston era. However, Little Richard’s high-powered performance of Tutti Frutti and Long, Tall Sally seemed to compromise the point.
Shake, Rattle and Roll, with Big Joe Turner and Fats Domino, offered pretty much the same plot. In this flick, the parents form SPRARCAY: the Society for the Prevention of Rock & Roll Corruption of American Youth. Again, the teenagers are victims of false accusations, and must prove to the old folks that Rock & Roll is just good, clean fun.Hollywood recycled this same storyline over and over again in jukebox for the next couple of years, but parents refuse to buy the message.
The movie industry hadn’t overlooked the biggest Rock & Roller of them all… it just hadn’t figured out how to package the King. Bill Haley movies and tours were causing minor riots all across the country, and studio executives could not even dare imagine how the kids would react when they saw Elvis strutting his stuff on the giant screen. Fox Studio approached the situation with great caution, and finally cast the boy in a Civil War melodrama called Love Me Tender. The billing read “Introducing (rather than “Starring”) Elvis Presley.” The King was forbidden to shake a single hip, and he turned in a credible, but not sensational acting job. Presley did sing on the soundtrack… but only ballads. Teens didn’t mind this mild performance… Fox could have cast Elvis as King Lear, and the kids still would have waited patiently in line to see their idol in his screen debut. Presley immediately went to work on his second feature, Loving You… a spoof on his own meteoric rise to fame.
Mainstream Hollywood couldn’t hold out any longer. The success of all these cheap jukebox musicals was just too tempting. Paramount released the first big budget, Rocksploitation musical in December of 1956… and it was a gem. The Girl Can’t Help It, directed by comedy veteran Frank Tashlin, starred the unlikely duo of Jayne Mansfield and Little Richard. The film opened with typical Hollywood sex-spoof symbolism. Jayne bounced down the street toting two huge milk bottles clutched to her breasts. For the first time teens were not the exclusive target audience of a Rock & Roll musical. Tashlin attempted to bridge the generation gap by pointing out the humor of Rock hysteria, but instead, accidentally blew up the bridge and expanded the gap into an enormous, bottomless pit. Middle age, middle-class, WASP America gasped at the visual horror of Jayne Mansfield bopping with Little Richard to that “hypnotic, corrupting, immoral jungle music.” Tashlin’s intended message of the scene was, “See, folks? Your morals haven’t been compromised because you enjoy a few movies with sex symbols like Jayne Mansfield, and your kids’ lives won’t be ruined if they listen to a few Rock & Roll records. It’s all just harmless fun.” Most white parents failed to grasp the parallel, and didn’t appreciate Frank’s humor any more than a man who has just slipped on a banana peel.
Middle America now perceived Rock & Roll as a real threat and a corruptive influence, not only to War Baby teens, but more importantly to tens of millions of pre-teen Baby Boomers. For every rebellious teenager inAmericain 1956, there were three potential juvenile delinquents under the age of ten. Could America survive the onslaught when the first tidal wave of Boomers reached teenagedom… less than three years away in 1959?
Babies had been considered as the National Treasure for exactly one decade in America, but in 1956, Boomers received a new image in the mass-media mirror… the reflection showed that each of us was a potential Bad Seed. Patty McCormack played the title role of eight-year-old Rhoda… a spoiled brat. (No, Patty wasn’t a Baby Boomer traitor. In real life Miss McCormack was an eleven-year-old War Baby.) When the child didn’t get her way, she eliminated disagreeable adults using methods that would make the CIA jealous. Her parents had treated Rhoda like royalty since birth, and she naturally accepted the responsibilities of ruling and passing judgment on her subjects… up to, and including Capital Punishment. Imagine her distain when a commoner, such as Leroy, the handyman, had the nerve to greet the HRH with, “Good Morning, Miss Uppity. We didn’t have no picnics when I was your age.” Rhoda, of course, put him in his place: “I really don’t care about what you didn’t have.” No adult could control the evil little Rhoda. Finally, God and Mother Nature intervened, and took the brat out with a bolt of lightning. The message seemed simple enough… spare the lightning rod and spoil the Boomer.
During their first decade of existence, Baby Boomers had been considered as the most valuable possession in the world’s most affluent society. At the time, the USA made up only 6% of the earth’s population, and yet, produced 2/3 of all manufactured merchandise, and consumed 1/3 of the whole world’s goods and services. America was running on all eight cylinders, as they used to say in those days. A few Bad Seeds would not be allowed to spoil the crop.
The entertainment industry offers role models: Leave It to Beaver for Boomer kids and American Bandstand for War Babies. Most teens passed on the latter. African Americans ask, “How do I fit into the new American Dream?” Elvis vs Pat Boone. Sputnik crashes the party
1957: The Verdict Is Yours
American parents felt a renewed sense of optimism and stability as Ike entered the White House for his second term in early 1957. They united with TV networks in a determined effort to lure present and future teenagers back to the American Dream with a fresh, new positive approach. Each group of kids, Boomers and War Babies received a role model media reflection. Boomers got Beaver; the previous generation got Dick Clark.
Leave It to Beaver was created and written by the veteran comedy team of Bob Mosher and Joe Connelly… experts at breaking virgin ground on television. When Amos and Andy moved to the tube in 1951, the Network executives decided to dump the original minstrel-style, White radio actors and hire Bob and Joe as the creative force behind the first TV program to boast an all African American cast. Unfortunately, WASP America refused to accept Blacks as real human beings, and the audience dictated that the players remain in their stereotyped, “step an’ fetch it” mold. But the show went well beyond the lowbrow ethnic jokes of a Minstrel Show. The brilliant plots involved everyday problems that anyone could relate to. The troubles of Amos, Andy and Kingfish didn’t come their way as a result of their skin color… greed, pride, envy, lust and all those other deadly sins caused most of the conflict. The universal and timeless plots became basic formulas for television writers ever since. It is nearly impossible to get through an evening of TV viewing without experiencing Amos and Andy déjà vu. But racial tensions mounted in the early 50s, and Amos and Andy was forced off the air on June 11, 1953.
Four years later, Mosher and Connelly returned, breaking new ground on TV for another large minority… Baby Boomers. Plenty of post-war kids appeared on TV in 1957, but always in supporting roles. Finally, Leave It to Beaver presented stories from a Boomer kid’s point of view, and now, for the first time on television, Mom, Dad and War Babies (Wally, Eddie, Lumpy, etc.) filled in as supporting players. The Beav was the star.
The events of October 4, 1957, changed the world forever, as both Sputnik and Leave It to Beaver were launched. The Space Race officially began, and Boomers gained a foothold in television that we never relinquished.
Beaver was never a rehash of the same old plots found on every other family sit-com at the time. The stories were based on real-life situations, inspired by the numerous Boomer children of Mosher and Connelly. Thus, our generation understood the Beav and related to his angst. We felt his pain. When Beaver climbed that billboard on a dare from Whitey to prove there was no soup in the giant bowl, every Boomer in America climbed with him. Beaver suspected an advertising scam, but Whitey insisted. “It’s got to be real soup. Look at all that steam.” Beaver climbed up onto the billboard, peered over the rim of the bowl, and, of course, fell in. At the bottom, the curious young Boomer could now see the steam billowing out of a pipe. Just a phony advertising trick, and now Beaver was trapped in the illusion. A crowd gathered below. Kid viewers felt their hero’s frustration, embarrassment and disillusionment. Fate had dealt him a harsh punishment, and what, exactly had been his crime? Beaver had peeked behind the sacred cloak of media hype, and had broken one of the Holy Illusions. “Ignore the man behind the curtain.”
Meanwhile, big brother, Wally, the perfect War Baby, wondered why no one showed up for his record hop, until a friend informed him, “Everyone’s down the street, watching Beaver getting rescued by the fire department.” In a fit of anger, Wally cut loose with some strong War-Baby profanity, calling his kid brother “a little goof.” We could relate to that. Most non-Boomer people felt that way… just too many curious little kids always getting in the way. In any case, Beaver somehow stumbled through each week to a happy conclusion, and since he was the first mass-media role model for our generation, Boomers figured that we would wind up okay, too.
Parents on family sit-coms in 1957 fell into one of these two categories: 1) The bumbling, but good-intentioned type (Ozzie Nelson), or 2) The all-knowing, and slightly pretentious sort (Jim Anderson on Father Knows Best), always preaching the Victorian principles of the American Dream. Ward and June (the Beav’s folks) fell into that second group, and yet, seemed more hip to the times, and specifically to the problems of Boomers:
JUNE: “I’m not so sure that we should be pushing Beaver into all of these extracurricular activities. Why not just let him be an average, happy, normal child?”
WARD: “Because in today’s world, an average, happy, normal child doesn’t stand a chance.”
Rock & Roll
Beaver caused a revolution in the established family sit-com genre, and about the same time, traditional music programming received a similar jolt with American Bandstand. Imagine the anticipation of the first show. The thought of a program devoted to Rock & Roll on network television thrilled teens and horrified parents… But Bandstand fell far short of either group’s expectations.
American Bandstand promoted the “clean-teen” (to the point of sterility) image; epitomized by the antiseptic Dick Clark as host.Clark had earned a reputation for “sincerity” on local TV… looking directly into the camera and flawlessly delivering the toughest news copy. Amazing. Dick’s eyes never wandered down to pages in front of him or in search of cue cards like other TV news guys. How on earth could he do that? Well, truth be told, Dick simply obtained the text prior to show time and secretly read the copy into a portable tape recorder. He then ran a long cord from the player across the stage, up through his clothing, to a hidden earphone. Dick activated the recorder with a foot pedal on cue and repeated what he heard.
Clark fit in perfectly on Bandstand. He knew very little about Rock & Roll, but Dick had the look: a Dentyne smile, Clearisil complexion, modest haircut and a nice suit. Parents had to admit that Clark appeared to be a fine, sincere model for teens, and more importantly, for Boomer preteens. The majority of Dick’s guests fell into the same category… little or no talent, but each had that clean-teen look. The music barely mattered as these teen idols lip-synced their way through two-and-a-half minutes of key-free echoes. Recording studio engineers were the real stars of these records. Comparing Clark’s mass-media-produced-teen-idol-superstars (Fabian, Avalon, Rydell, Checkers, etc.) with the real rockers of the time (Elvis, Berry, Holly, Jerry Lee and Little Richard): paper plates to fine china. But given the visual and audio limitations of a 50’s television set, who could tell the difference? Certainly not us… the most mature Boomer was only eleven years old with musical taste formed by the tunes on The Mickey Mouse Club.
Poor, rebellious War Babies thought that Bandstand had been created for them… right up until the end of the first record on the premiere (Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On by Jerry Lee Lewis). Things went downhill fast as Clark then explained the rules of his “Why I’d Like a Date With Sal Mineo” contest, and then played I’m going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter to inspire teenyboppers with their entries. For actual teenagers in 1957, Bandstand had taken a drastic turn for the worse after only three minutes on the air.
Boomers immediately loved the show. They had never seen the classic Rock & Rollers in person, were too young to listen to DJs like Alan Freed, but old enough to watch any kind of crap that the networks cared to beam their way on afternoon television. ABC soon realized that Boomer preteens were the only audience remaining after the first show, and thus, followed Clark’s show with The Mickey Mouse Club on the afternoon schedule. Bandstand taught Boomer kids how dance, how to dress, walk, talk and be cool far beyond our tender years.
In his own way, Dick Clark was a genius. He never let his ego stand in the way of financial success. The kids were the stars of the show, as Dick readily acknowledged, “I’m simply an observer and a presenter.”Clark let Tony Mamarella, his partner/producer, choose all the music in the early days of the show. Dick knew that his expertise lay in other areas, namely public relations and merchandizing.
Dick eliminated everything from the content of the show that might be considered as offensive to parents. He enforced a strict dress code: boys must wear jackets, and girls must wear skirts. No jeans, T-shirts, tight-fitting sweaters, or cleavage. Lip-syncing killed the last bit of life left in any of the music on Bandstand. The director instructed the kids to smile, but not to laugh… to show parents good, wholesome fun, but at the same time, to assure the folks that their children would not become “over-stimulated.” Mr. Clark always stood in the background, acting as chaperon. Teens danced far apart most of the time, without touching or even talking to each other. Dancer/ choreographer, Agnes de Mille, remarked “The dance floor was not a group of couples, but a crowd of individuals. These dances are the expression of total, persisting loneliness and desperation. These are dances of fear.” Boomers could relate.
Dick Clark was a master of creating mass optical/ audio illusions. He and Mamarella made up the “Top Ten” for Bandstand… not based on Billboard’s National chart, or record sales, but simply Dick and Tony’s personal opinion. By an amazing coincidence, many of the regular top ten artists had been discovered by Dick on Bandstand, handled by one of Dick or Tony’s agencies, recorded in one of their studios, released their hit records through one of Dick’s outlets after being pressed by his record plant. Clark owned large chunks of thirty-three record-related corporations by the late 50’s and pulled in more than half a million dollars a year. “I proceeded to get into talent management, music publishing, record pressing, label making, distribution, domestic and foreign rights, motion pictures, show promotions and teenage merchandizing. That’s how I made my money. Everything was based on TV. I realized that, but the show was only part of my activity.”
Rebellious, anti-establishment War Babies felt that Bandstand snubbed them, and the feeling was mutual. The rebels refused to go into bubble gum sugar shock, and instead returned to their pre-Dick Clark, R & R heroes.
1957 turned out to be a confusing year for rebels and establishment types as well. The Russians introduced Sputnik, Ford introduced the Edsel, and TV premiered a new type of Western anti-hero. Sputnik stunned avid believers in good old American ingenuity. How could those Commies have passed us in the Space race? When did they join the competition? And how could Ford suddenly be so wrong? The automobile industry had been the backbone of our economy for more half a century.
Have Gun, Will Travel and Maverick were the hot new TV Westerns. Neither fell into the old Law and Order category. Paladin, a hired gun (mercenary), wore black and quoted Shakespeare. The Maverick brothers, professional gamblers, quoted their old Pappy. All of our new heroes enjoyed women, aimless drifting, cards and a good bottle of whiskey, and never worried about bending the law to achieve higher goals… an abrupt change from Marshall Dillon and Wyatt Earp of last season.
In 1957, Perry Mason entered the courtroom on the small screen to defend all those falsely accused, and Joe McCarthy died. Eisenhower sent Federal troops into Little Rockto protect Black school children from Arkansas Gov. Orville Faubus, as White racists bombed Black churches over the issue of desegregation of buses. These horrible, brutal images did not show up on the big or small screen. The public did, however, witness something even more shocking on TV. American kids love watching Little Ricky Nelson grow up on tube. Then suddenly, without warning, he became a teenager! On April 10, 1957, “Rick” Nelson made his debut as Teen Idol on Ozzie and Harriet Show, with a cover version of Fats Domino’s I’m Walking. Finally, the network’s diluted version of the King was in our house… but where was the real Elvis? Performing his best James Dean impersonation in a couple of musical film noires: Jailhouse Rock & King Creole for his rebellious teen fans. And to cover all bets (and audiences), Elvis also released a number one record, aimed at pre-teen Boomer girls, (Please Let Me Be) Your Teddy Bear.
Rock & Roll
The music scene became an absolute circus. Rock & Roll proved to be more than a passing fad and the American mass-media industry volunteered to tame the beast. TV saturated teens with American Bandstand and numerous cheap, local clones. Tod Storz and Gordon McLendon started a “Top Forty” AM radio format, and soon only a few DJs in the country still had the freedom of selecting their own music. Parents encouraged their kids to buy only the records of clean-cut young men and women, like Pat Boone and Connie Francis, and avoid the evil influences of demons like Elvis. Rock & Roll under these terms felt like drinking Near Beer… intoxication is physically impossible with such a diluted product.
The Forces of Good chose Pat Boone as its young champion to smite the insurgent rebels of Rock & Roll. The Establishment suggested that Pat represented Heaven, and Elvis, Hell, and the two warriors locked in a fierce, holy battle to control the youth ofAmerica. Pat later commented, “I acted as a sort of catalyst, making Rock more acceptable and allaying fears that parents and ministers had about this revolutionary new music. Elvis and I were compared because we were successful at the same time. In fact, a media feud was even created between us. He was the rebel, breaking the rules and winning; while I was the conformist, playing by the rules and still winning.”
The Establishment boasted that their hero had scored five hit records in 1957, including the number one song of the year, Love Letters in the Sand, which remained on the charts for a record 31 weeks (seven at #1), and sold four-and-a-half million singles. What the Powers-That-Be didn’t understand was the simple fact that Pat Boone wasn’t Rock & Roll. R & R was excitement… Pat, warm milk and cookies. Good enough for pre-teen Boomers, but War Babies just yawned.
Real Rock got down to serious business. The beat became stronger and the lyrics bolder, as the pace accelerated toward the climax of the First Golden Age of Rock & Roll. Little Richard exclaimed, Good, Golly, Miss Molly (You sure like to ball), Elvis became All Shook Up (30 weeks on the charts; Eight at #1), and Jerry Lee Lewis confirmed that there was, indeed, a Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going on. Jerry Lee’s first big hit earned him shot on the Steve Allen Show. Mid tune the nervous rocker jumped up and accidentally kicked the piano bench across the stage. Jerry Lee remained on his feet, pounding the hell out of the keyboard, with the microphone stand rising up between his legs. Allen joined in the fun by picking up his desk chair and tossing it across the set. The Who later topped Lewis by destroying amps and guitars as a routine part of their show, but the Killer struck first.
Chuck Berry added fuel to the fire as he duck-walked and teased, “Dem ol’ folks started drinking homebrew from a wooden cup/ Started dancing and got all shook up/ and started playing that Rock & Roll Music/ It’s got a backbeat you can’t lose it…” War Babies joined in, “It’s got to be Rock & Roll Music!”
The Establishment felt scorned. What about Pat Boone? Dick Clark? Top 40 and the Beaver? Wasn’t all that great entertainment enough to satisfy these spoiled brats? How could they possibly prefer that cacophony known as Rock & Roll? Why not Pat? War Baby teens found their defiant answer in Buddy Holly’s first big hit, That’ll Be the Day (When I Die.).
One thing could be agreed upon by the music establishment, rebel rockers and adults in 1957: there were a heck of a lot of preteens out there, and unlike their Depression Era parents, these kids had pocket money. The music industry took aim at this very large and easy target. “Young Love” (three different versions of the song this year) emerged as the first big hit of the year, followed soon after by Ricky Nelson’s A Teenager’s Romance. Pioneer Boomers hadn’t reached their teen years yet, but many were old enough to suffer through their first crush, and thus, relate to Pimple Pop, and most important, buy the records. The artists understood the pain and intensity of puppy love. Paul Anka (only 16 himself) wrote and sang, “I’m so young, and you’re so old, this Diana, I’ve been told.” And what little eleven-year-old Boomer girl could refuse when Elvis teased, (Please Let Me Be) Your Teddy Bear? The song sold a million copies in the first two weeks of release.
“The rebels are trying to steal our little girls!” And if that didn’t alarm parents enough, Chuck Berry offered Boomer kids some questionable advice in School Days: “Close your books, get out of your seats/ Down the Halls and into the Streets/ Hail, hail Rock & Roll/ Deliver me from days of old.” Parents thought, “Well, that’s just a wonderful message right now when Russian kids are studying hard to design the next Sputnik.”
Boston banned Wake Up, Little Susie, the second big hit for the Everly Brothers. The thought of two youngsters of the opposite sex, breaking curfew and sleeping together outraged parents… even if the incidence was an innocent mistake, with no sex involved. “Whatya gonna tell your Mama? Whatya gonna tell your Pa? Whatya gonna tell the kids when they say ‘Ooooo-la-la?”
To top off this troubled year for parents, Alan Freed launched his biggest extravaganza to date: The Twelve Days of Christmas – Holiday of Stars at the Paramount Theater in New York… fourteen acts, performing six or seven shows a day, and each one quickly sold out. The bill included such greats as Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Fats Domino. Top billing went to Fats, based on the strength of six number one records. Holly complained, but Freed calmed him down by making Buddy the highest paid. Jerry Lee also wanted the top spot and knew how to get it. During his set the first night Lewis exploded onto the stage with “You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain/ Too much love drives a man insane…” The kids in the audience took Jerry’s lead and jumped to their feet and started dancing. “You broke my will, but what a thrill/ Goodness, gracious, Great Balls of Fire!” Teens went crazy. Girls screamed and fainted as Jerry Lee jumped on top of his piano, still singing and dancing. The balcony of the theater emptied out as the kids pushed their way towards the stage. The ushers ran for cover and the cops became hopelessly tangled up with the young mob. Lewis literally stopped the show. The following night Freed awarded Jerry Lee Lewis the headline (and closing) spot with Fat’s full approval. No one wanted to follow the Killer.
Alan Freed began planning an even bigger show… a month long tour of “Jerry Lee versus Elvis.” The press picked up on the hype and called the tour “The Battle of the Century.”
The final insult of the year for music fundamentalists came in late December when Bill Justis’ Raunchy finally knocked Pat Boone’s April Love out of the number one spot on the charts. Bill, a studio guitarist/ producer at Sun Records (where Elvis and Jerry Lee began), performed a simple experiment with a slowed down vibrato and an exaggerated echo on his electric guitar. The result was a wailing instrumental, which caused parents to complain, “What the hell is that noise?” After all, they and their forefathers had grown accustomed to thousands of years of acoustic music. However, teenagers recognized that this electronic music symbolized something new, different and exciting… unique to their era and created specifically for their space age ears. Mom and Dad couldn’t possibly understand this new sound, and as far as the kids were concerned, so much the better. The electric guitar emerged as the dominant weapon in the arsenal of rebel Rock & Rollers.
POLITICS AND SPORTS
1957 had started out on such a positive note; the Cold War ran tepid and America felt like all one big, happy family under Papa Ike. Parents stood united, ready to win back prodigal sons and daughters by offering them lavish gifts of media magic, such as Beaver, Bandstand and Boone. But suddenly Sputnik rekindled the Red Scare, and Americans restocked their bomb shelters. McCarthy had forced citizens to speak up for their rights, and now, White teens and African Americans of all ages voiced a common feeling of alienation. They asked, “How do we fit into your American Dream?”
On December 1, 1957, in Montgomery, Alabama, a bus driver ordered a Black woman to give up her seat to a White man. Rosa Parks refused, and her arrest led to a boycott that lasted for 369 days. The bus line, city and State finally gave in, and from this demonstration, Rev. Martin Luther King emerged as a great leader; offering America a New Dream that included all people.
In a less political way, the two dreams had already begun to merge a decade earlier, when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947. The event turned out to be extremely significant to Baby Boomers because we became the first generation of WASP American boys to grow up idolizing Black heroes. (I still believe Willie Mays was the greatest player the game has ever known.)
In this era of Big Business in the United States, one team, above all others had the corporate image in our National Pastime. Year after year the New York Yankees simply took care of business and always wound up on top (five World Championships in a row from 1949 to 1953). If the Yanks led the league, everything felt right and normal… as New York went, so went the nation and the American Dream. When they faltered, something seemed terribly wrong. In 1954 (when McCarthy ruled) the Bronx Bombers lost the American League pennant to one team of a “Red” persuasion (the Indians), and in 1957 (the year of Sputnik), they lost the World Series to another (the Braves).
1955 had been the miracle year of Rock & Roll and of the Brooklyn Dodgers in baseball. The “Bums” were almost as famous for their losing and bungling as the Yanks were for winning—until the Dodgers broke the color line in 1947. Baseball fans stopped laughing and other National League teams quickly followed suit, snatching up all the best Black players in the country. The N.Y. Giants brought Willie Mays to the majors in 1951, and he immediately helped the team to the NL pennant, only to be beaten by the Yankees in the World Series. The Army drafted Willie for his effort. (Shades of Elvis- This move gave the public two years to adjust to the idea that the best player in the National Pastime was suddenly an African American.) After his two-year hitch, the government reluctantly released Mays, and he immediately led the Giants to a World Championship in 1954. During his absence the Dodgers, with Jackie Robinson (a vet), won the NL pennant. As usual, the Yankees beat the Bums in the World Series both years. However, in 1955, Robinson returned with a supporting cast of black teammates, including Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Jim Gilliam. The integrated team defeated the powerful Yankees; thus ending more than half a century of “honky” ineptitude and frustration for Brooklyn Fans.
In 1956, traditionalists breathed a sigh of relief as “America’s Team” bounced back, not only to beat the Dodgers, but to insult them with a perfect game by Don Larsen of the Yankees’ all-white pitching staff. The elation didn’t last for long, however, as Hank Aaron, another great African American warrior, carried the Braves throughout the season and on to a successful raid of the Yankee camp in the fall of 1957.
America finally caught on… the power structure in our National Pastime had shifted. The American League had been dominant for decades. Everyone expected them to win the All Star Game each year, and, of course, the Yanks would win the World Series. But in 1947 the National League integrated, and within a few years, the power shifted. The American League claimed that it was all a publicity stunt at first, and then realized too late that these Black guys could really play. By the time the A.L. jumped in, all the best players from the Negro Leagues had been signed. The N.L. kicked their butts for the next thirty years.
At the conclusion of the 1957 season, another bomb dropped on New York. The Dodgers and the Giants headed for the West Coast. New Yorkers couldn’t believe it…sure, the owners had threatened to move many times before, but no one took them seriously.California had already kidnapped the television industry from NYC, and now, the two teams that had won every N.L. pennant from 1951 to 1956 deserted. “Thank goodness,” thought New Yorkers, “the music industry still calls us home.”
Bonus: John met Paul in July 1957.
America cracks down on rebel teens. Stronger law and order shows on the tube, I Was a Teenage , Frankenstein, Werewolf, Caveman, etc. on the big screen. Elvis is drafted. White Flight to the suburbs.
1958: Today is Ours
The mood of Middle America shifted dramatically in 1958. White War Baby teens refused to see the errors of their ways, and thus, had not returned to the fold as planned. Parents believed that their teenagers had been lost to the evil influence of Rock & Roll, and now Satan planned to cast his spell over the more abundant and gullible pre-teen Boomers. The Devil’s Symphony refused to go away and the beast could not be tamed. That left one last option: Rock & Roll genocide.
As always, the most blatant reflection of such a social mood shift can be seen in the titles of the new soap operas. In 1957, when society optimistically believed that kids would make the right choice, the networks offered, The Verdict is Yours. In 1958 TV proclaimed that Today is Ours. In other words, no more Mr. Nice Guy.
Strict Law and Order returned to the tube: The Lawman, The Rifleman, The Restless Gun, Peter Gunn, Colt 45, and Wanted Dead or Alive… a subtle hint to teens: “Obey the law or else, punks!” Even a peaceful sodbuster like Lucas McCain managed to take time out from his strenuous ranch chores to blast holes in a bunch of bad guys each week. In a satire in Mad Magazine, his son asked, “Pop, why did you kill all them people?” Lucas answered, “Because I’m a peace-loving man, Son… and there ain’t nothing more peaceful than a dead man.”
Network programmers carefully suppressed any shows that might sound attractive to rebellious teens. For example, Traffic Court immediately followed Rough Riders on the schedule. What caused this new “get tough” policy on teenagers? A new electronic sound, first heard on the radio by millions on October 5, 1957, deeply disturbed America. Was it the latest experiment on some vulgar electric guitar that shocked the audience? No, this time a high-pitched, chirping… barely audible through all that static, penetrated our brains with: “Beep…beep…beep…” The Russians had launched Sputnik (“Fellow Traveler”), a 185-pound, hollow steel ball with a transmitter, which circled the earth every ninety minutes.America tried to downplay the event as a “hunk of iron that almost anyone could have launched.” Those words briefly convinced us of our scientific superiority, but then, less a month later, on November 4th, the Russians fired another hunk of iron into space; this one much larger and containing a payload of research equipment and a dog named Taika. Now,America had to admit that the Commies had caught up and even passed us. The Reds would soon have men in space… perhaps on the moon. They could be dropping bombs on us from satellite platforms in no time at all!
America scrambled to catch up. On December 6, the eyes of the nation focused on our grapefruit-sized satellite, Vanguard, which sat high atop a powerful three-stage Navy rocket. At the split second of ignition, the moment of truth, our spirits soared. Unfortunately, Vanguard didn’t do likewise. Instead, the pitiful hunk of scrap metal wobbled a few feet off the launching pad, and then exploded.
Boomer kids loved silly novelty songs (the oldest of our group had barely turned twelve), and soon after Vanguard, a new tune received a lot of airplay:
While riding in my Cadillac, much to my surprise,
A little Nash Rambler was following me, about one-half my size.
He must have wanted to pass me by, because he kept on tooting his horn.
I’ll show him that a Cadillac is not a car to scorn.
Beep, beep… Beep, beep. His horn went beep, beep, beep…
…just like Sputnik. Kids didn’t realize it at the time, but the Cadillac symbolized the zenith of American ingenuity and the backbone of our economy, and the Rambler was Russia’s Sputnik. Each verse of the song increased in speed and intensity. The driver of the Cadillac finally pushed the gas pedal to the floor, but the Rambler continued to pass. Beep… beep… beep… beep.
Sputnik shook the very roots of our society. TV news had barely informed Americans of a space race, and a month later, we found that we were running a distant second. How could this be? Teachers in the ‘50s relentlessly brainwashed Boomer kids about good old Yankee ingenuity. “American geniuses created most of the world’s recent great inventions, and the jealous Russians try to rip-off all the credit for our ideas”… But now Boomer kids now asked their elders, “Why don’t we have a Sputnik?”
Immediately a flood of television news reports compared children in Russia with their counterparts in the United States, and they concluded that our youth engaged in frivolous activities at school, such as drivers ed, football and cheerleading, while Commie kids studied astrophysics, and joined scientific research teams. Parents blamed schools, schools blamed parents, and then they both agreed that the real culprit was Rock & Roll. Our dopey teenagers squander precious time dancing at record hops and down at the soda shop, or sitting on the sofa watching Bandstand, or hiding in their rooms listening to their transistor radios. Our kids considered cheap teen magazines as the only valid reading material: “Elvis’s Favorite Menus.” That’s why we don’t have a Sputnik. That’s why the Reds will soon be dropping bombs on us from space stations! It’s the fault of those annoying teenagers and their dreadful music. That’s what’s destroying America!
Rock & Roll
Boomer kids loved horror flicks in the ‘50s, and in 1958 Hollywood offered a new twist on old monsters in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (with Michael Landon). American society now viewed teenagers as monsters, and obviously (to parents), Rock & Roll had served as the catalyst in their transformation to the Dark Side. Anti-Rock Hysteria headed for a climax as civic groups, government agencies and the press rallied to stamp out the beast. The New York Daily News suggested that Congress declare dancing to R & R music illegal without written parental consent. A newspaper in New Jersey claimed that 25 “vibrating teens” had to be hospitalized as the result of a R & R record hop. In Nashville, a crowd hanged Elvis in effigy, and a local DJ burned 600 of his records. “Concerned citizens” broke Rock & Roll records on the air and at demonstrations across the country. One AM station fired a DJ for including Elvis’s version of White Christmas on his holiday program. Management exclusively made up “safe” play lists on most Top 40 radio stations, and several big-name jockeys quit in protest. The Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications began an attack on Rock & Roll, and the Catholic Youth Center urged the public to “smash the records you possess which present a pagan culture and a pagan concept of life. Check beforehand the records that will be played at a school dance. Phone or write to disk jockeys who are pushing lousy records.” They offered a blacklist of unacceptable records.
But the big beat continued. Danny and the Juniors scored a hit in January with At the Hop, and quickly released Rock & Roll is Here to Stay. Buddy Holly urged teens to Rave On. The Coasters ridiculed parents’ new “get tough” policy with Yakity Yak (Don’t talk back), and the Silhouettes refused to Get a Job. George Hamilton IV asked, Why Don’t They (Parents) Understand? Chuck Berry urged the audience to go crazy and inspire the artist: “Go, go, go/ Johnny B. Goode tonight.” Chuck also sang about Sweet Little Sixteen, a story about a young girl stalking her idols at rock concerts at night for autographs, wearing tight dresses, lipstick and high-heeled shoes. But in the morning, the vamp child became a sweet little all-American high school student again, ala Jekyll and Hyde. (Chuck actually based the lyrics on an eleven-year-old girl who had cornered him after a concert. Thus, the song describes not a War Baby groupie, but a pre-teen Baby Boomer. Sweet Little Sixteen is the first R&R Classic dedicated to a member of our generation!)
What happened to the morals of America’s youth? Girls wore Short Shorts, and the Big Bopper declared that “A wiggle in a walk and giggle in a talk, Lord, makes the world go ‘round.”
Rock & Roll Rebels fought bravely against tremendous pressure from the Establishment and they suffered heavy casualties. Little Richard’s plane nearly crashed in January, and during the ordeal he made a pact with God. Richard soon after enrolled at Oakwood College… a Seventh Day Adventist School in Huntsville, Alabama, for training to become a preacher. In an interview, Brother Richard promised to “stop singing the devil’s music forever.” In February, Chuck Willis sang (I’m going to) Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes. A few weeks later, he died on an operating table in an Atlanta hospital.
Rock & Roll Headquarters took a direct hit in March. The Army drafted Elvis for induction on the 24th. The Powers That Be concluded, “Cut off Hydra’s head and the body shall soon die,” but the R & R Reptile had many heads. Alan Freed scrapped his plans for his big Elvis versus Jerry Lee Showdown, and within a couple of weeks, hit the road with The Big Beat Tour starring Lewis, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. Teens didn’t seem to miss Elvis as the show rocked packed auditoriums of predominately WASP kids. The tour ran smoothly until the last stop in Boston. White kids digging “race music” in Bean town in 1958? Not likely! (The Boston Red Sox remained the only major league baseball team without a single African American). Jerry Lee Lewis headlined the show and by the middle of his set the kids jammed the aisles, cheering and dancing as they converged on the stage. Suddenly, the house lights crashed up full and a horde of Boston cops bullied their way through the crowd, threatening the teens with nightsticks and large flashlights. Freed ran on to the stage and grabbed a microphone, “Hey, Kids, take a look at this. The cops don’t want you to have a good time.” The teens booed and jeered the intruders. The police retreated, but headed straight to the box office, closed it down and confiscated the receipts. A riot broke out in front of the theatre as War Baby teenagers threw rocks and bottles at Boston’s Finest. The next day, the court issued a warrant for Freed, citing him with “anarchy and incitement to riot.” Alan had expected as much, but was shocked to learn that his radio and television stations refused to back him up to fight the charges.
Jerry Lee Lewis rode the crest of his popularity at the time, but desperately sought recognition as Elvis’s successor as the King of Rock & Roll. The Killer set out to conquerEnglandin May, and advanced concert ticket sales indicated that European teens offered a crown. A crowd of reporters mobbed King Jerry on his arrival in London. One of them spotted a young girl in the entourage, and since he couldn’t reach Lewis, the newshound decided to find out the identity of the child. She answered, “I’m Myra…Jerry’s wife.”
The headline story in every newspaper in England the next day focused on Jerry’s marriage to his fourteen-year-old cousin; completely dwarfing news of the war in Tunisia and de Gaulle’s takeover of the French government. Lewis’s manager had warned his client to keep Myra home. Queen Victoria ‘s world was not the proper place to introduce his new child bride. Jerry Lee shrugged and asked, “Who is this de Gaulle guy anyway?” Lewis didn’t understand the fuss. Myra was his third wife and Jerry was just a kid himself the first time around. That’s the way folks do things down South. If the news had broken back home, neighbors would have said, “Yeah, so what?”…But England acted as if it had just cornered the treasonous writer of the Declaration of Independence. Jerry Lee tried to ignore the bad press and continue business as usual, but less than half of the audience showed up, and those who came taunted him with cries of “baby snatcher” or “cradle robber.” Lewis cancelled the remainder of the six-week tour and flew back home.
America welcomed the Killer home with a rude reception. Radio stations banned his music and Lewis couldn’t find any bookings for tours or TV appearances. Jerry Lee needed quick exposure and turned to his old buddy, Dick Clark. Dick owed him. Lewis had generously appeared on the premier of Clark’s Saturday show and had also allowed Dick to use his hit, Breathless to plug Beechnut Gum on Bandstand. It was payback time in Jerry’s mind. Dick Clark smiled sincerely and said, “I’d like to help you, Son, but…”
So let’s total up the casualties at this point: God took Little Richard, Uncle Sam eliminated Elvis, and Queen Victoria killed the Killer. But teens continued rocking. How many heads did this Serpent have?
In that same month of May, George Wein, producer of the Newport Jazz Festival, announced that for the first time, one evening would be devoted entirely to the blues, with performances by Chuck Berry and Big Joe Turner. These two great pioneers of backbeat finally received recognition for their genius and music… and Rock & Roll was at last acknowledged as a legitimate art form.
Europe loved R & R, and now it spread to Asia. The New York Times reported, “Rockabilly rules Japan’s Hit Parade with songs like Jailhouse Rock high on the charts.” Another report out of Red China stated, “Authorities were forced to shut down all dance halls when they discovered Rock & Roll records smuggled in fromHong Kong.”
Back in the States, R & R provoked a stronger display of public outrage than the Bomb, Commies and McCarthy combined. The American Dream was, by now, well defined, and Rock & Roll was not an ingredient in the formula. The Dream meant teamwork, conformity and hard work towards future goals. Rock symbolized the exact opposite: individuality, rebellion, fun and now (instant gratification).
The American Dream for young couples in the ‘50s included evacuation from the urban centers to the land of milk and honey… the suburbs. Polls of college students showed that the majority eagerly sought jobs with large corporations after graduation. Very few young Americans wanted to own and run their own business any more. William H. Whytes’s book, The Organization Man, declared that a potentially successful junior executive was “one who seemed to be without kinks or abrasive qualities, or strong opinions or distinctive accents, customs or skin color.” In other words, a young WASP male should dress, look, think and talk like his superiors if he wants to get ahead in Big Business. People of color, immigrants and rebels need not apply. But to millions of young parents, these rigid guidelines seemed like a small price to pay for their own little piece of Heaven in Suburbia, complete with a split-level house, a two car garage, with a snappy sedan for Dad and a sensible station wagon for Mom, a washer, a dryer, power lawnmower, TV, etc.
Fully equipped homes sold for as little as $15,000 in these look-alike neighborhoods, and banks vigorously competed for the honor of lending young couples the money to purchase one. The number of American homeowners rose from 23.6 million in 1950 to 32.8 million by 1960.
The new surroundings delighted young suburban parents. Their children would be spared the mean streets of the city, and instead would grow up in a clean, wholesome environment. Parents herded kids off into group activities such as Cub Scouts, Brownies, Girl and Boy Scouts, 4-H Clubs, YMCA Summer Camps, Sunday School, Little League, and so forth, where pliable young minds could learn the virtues of teamwork, cooperation and conformity, so that they, too, could one day pass on the Dream to their children.
Suburban Boomer kids quickly adapted to the materialistic new lifestyle of their parents. By 1958, nearly every kid on the block owned a new bike, hula-hoop, skates, Slinky, Silly Putty, and enjoyed financial stability (an allowance). Millions of Boomer kids were indirectly on the corporate payroll… employed as apprentice suburbanites.
The American Dream, however, did not include the old, the sick, non-white minorities, recent immigrants, and the chronically unemployed, whom White Flight had left behind in decaying eastern urban centers. The cost of upkeep in these old cities increased, but now less able-bodied citizens remained to shoulder the burden of taxes. Cities appealed to Washington for help, but every available federal tax dollar had already been detoured to defense programs. To add to the problem, Europe (especially Germany) and Japan recovered from WW II, and had become self-sufficient, thus buying fewer American products. The balance of trade tipped against us, and the USA slipped into a recession.
Americans never give up. The paint was barely dry on Suburban homes and our parents had 30-year mortgages and long-term installment payments to meet. The American Dream would have to be re-evaluated, and modified immediately. First step: eliminate the concept of miracles in connection with the Dream in the mass-media sales pitch. The old vision allowed too many lazy Americans who expected the impossible in this “land of opportunity,” and felt disappointed and impatient with anything less. Couch potatoes sat home waiting for Michael Anthony to drop by with a million-dollar check.
Miracles on the tube received an unconditional release from the Dream in 1958. The new message proclaimed that opportunity would knock only if citizens worked hard, sacrificed and practiced self-control. The new, improved American Dream also excluded superheroes. TV cancelled Superman at the end of the 1957 season (casting agents so identified poor George Reeves with the role that no one would hire him and the ex-Man of Steel blew his brains out in 1959). The new breed of heroes exemplified a hard working, no-nonsense, law-and-order type, who spoke softly, and then crushed bad guys with a big stick.
He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands hit the number one on the Top 40 charts on April 21, 1958. With that inspirational message, America began the task of tracking down all sinners.
Society demoted miracles and superheroes to expendable status (undesirable in a new realistic America), and big-money quiz shows became fair game for redemption. Rumors had been floating around for more than a year that some of the games were fixed, or at least “controlled.” The meteoric rise of big jackpot game programs paralleled that of Rock & Roll. Both new entertainment genres had burst onto the mainstream media market in 1955, and within a very short time smothered their competition. Within a year of conception, the number one show on television was The $64,000 Question, and a spin-off, The $64,000 Challenge immediately grabbed the number two spot. CBS made Louis G. Cowan (the creator of both shows), a vice president. NBC jumped into the race with Twenty-One, a program that offered its contestants “an opportunity to win an unlimited amount of money”; causing the ratings to sag for Question and Challenge. Cowan quadrupled the prizes on his shows. Teddy Nadler won $264,000, and the audiences returned to CBS. Quiz shows grew on Americans like a bad drug habit; as time went by, TV junkies built up a tolerance, and thus required larger and larger doses of monetary bliss for a successful fix.
Our euphoria wouldn’t have been complete without a champion, pure as snow, and yet strong enough to haul away the loot. America found such a hero in Charles Van Doren, a handsome, modest, young graduate student from a distinguished literary family. On Twenty-One, Charles beat the arrogant Herbert Stempel, and then went on to win $129,000. Parents all across the country became impressed by Van Doren during his reign as champion, and pointed him out to Boomer kids as a good example; “See, if you study hard and watch your manners like Charles…” We hated the guy and rooted for him to lose. But Van Doren appeared on the Steve Allen Show, the cover of Time, and landed a $50,000-a-year job with NBC on the Today Show. Our parents applauded Van Doren as a good role model and Charles lived happily ever after… until the end of the year, when the American Dream underwent revisions.
Backstage at a small NBC game show named Dotto, standby contestant, Edward Hilgemeier observed the current champion studying a notebook containing the answers. Ed called the New York Post, who in turn called the FCC and the NYC District Attorney’s Office, and then printed the story. The ratings of all quiz shows tumbled. Within a couple of months, the D.A.’s Office began a formal investigation, and soon, Twenty-One producer, Albert Freedman, was indicted on two counts of perjury, and taken away in handcuffs. And what about Mr. Goody-two-shoes Charles Van Doren? Boomers thought that something smelt fishy about that guy right from the start.
Baby Boomers hit teenagedom and cause a national panic. Quiz Shows Scandals…Payola…Clean up America! The day the music died: Teen Idols and Barbie. Castro and the Twilight Zone.
1959: For Better of Worse
Rin-n-n-n-n-g… the alarm stunned adults from sea to shining sea. The initial tidal wave of Baby Boomers hit teenagedom, and overwhelmed America with the potential danger of such a huge mass of flesh. The last isolated sparks of life, excitement and rebellion in mass media had to be rooted out and extinguished before the whole country went up in flames.
Congressman Oren Harris called on the House Legislative Committee to probe into the rumors about cheating on big money quiz shows and payola in Top 40 radio in October of 1959.
The court subpoenaed Charles Van Doren and he fled into hiding. On November 2nd, Charles finally appeared before the subcommittee and he admitted, “I was deeply involved in a deception.” Van Doren went on to describe how he received the answers and adlibs ahead of airtime, and the coaching by show personnel to make the sham look good (building up tension and suspense for the audience, etc.). The news shocked Eisenhower, who righteously declared, “that was a terrible thing to do to the American public.” Dave Garroway broke down and cried on the Today Show. NBC fired Van Doren, and CBS canned Louis G. Cowan (creator of the $64,000 Question) from his new job as Network President of CBS.
Rock and Roll
The Quiz Show Scandals provided an arena for an all out, official government attack on Rock & Roll. The music establishment, represented by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), supplied the ammunition. From the time of its formation in 1913 until the R & R explosion in 1955, ASCAP owned a virtual lock on the music market in America. But new Rock composers and publishers didn’t belong to ASCAP, and royalties from radio stations and record sales eluded them, and instead wound up in the hands of the much younger BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated). ASCAP looked down its nose at Black Rhythm & Blues (then called “race music”) and Rockabilly, and considered both genres simplistic trash. This noise couldn’t possibly be worthy of membership in such a glorious organization as ASCAP. The tiny audiences for such music was hardly worth bothering with prior to Rock Around the Clock, but then the two styles merged in the form of Elvis, and crossed over into ASCAP’s territory on the pop charts. At first, the music establishment just denounced the din as crude and vulgar, but as Rock began to dominate the charts, they realized the severity of the situation. ASCAP cried “Monopoly!” But it was hard for the public to take them seriously, since everyone knew that ASCAP had been guilty of that very same crime throughout their history.
The public ignored the first accusation against BMI, and ASCAP issued a second one. This time they cried “Payola!” Record Execs scratched their heads. Bribing radio stations to play your songs had been Standard Operating Procedure in the Music Industry for the last forty years, and there were no laws against payola (or the rigging of game shows) on the books. But now, the time had come to clean upAmerica, and ASCAP found receptive ears high up in government.
ASCAP claimed that greedy DJs only played this “non-music”… this “subversive tool of Godless communism and the main source of the breakdown of morals among our youth” because of payola.
In response to the charges, management now carefully selected safe music for Top 40 stations, and DJs ran scared as the payola investigation searched for new targets. By the end of the year, Alan Freed prepared his case, rather than his next tour. Clean-Teens lip-synched on Bandstand (even though the heart of R & R is live performance), and Television switched from live shows to videotape in primetime. Censors now controlled all popular media.
By the start of 1959, only two great superstars remained on the Rock scene, and a month later… only one. Morality junkies considered Buddy Holly as extremely dangerous, but couldn’t define his crimes. Buddy appeared to be a clean-cut, goofy-looking kid with thick glasses. The Texas boy looked more like the class nerd than a rebellious sex symbol, and the lyrics of his songs could hardly be called vulgar. But my, oh my, Buddy could rock. Music fundamentalists couldn’t even accuse him of amateurism, because Holly was an accomplished musician and innovator. He formed the first three-piece, White band to feature a lead/rhythm guitar, bass and drums line up (Buddy Holly and the Crickets) and this became the basic formula for Rock & Roll bands ever since (often with a second guitar or keyboard added). Holly also popularized the Fender Stratocaster, later to become the favorite tool of superstars like Hendrix and Clapton. No other musician before him understood the possibilities of a recording studio like Buddy. He was the first to double-track both vocals and guitar, and the first rocker to add strings to a song in postproduction. His ingenious studio work in the ‘50s can only be matched by the new directions in which the Beatles took Rock in the late ‘60s. Crickets begat Beatles. The younger generation proudly acknowledged their parentage. The Fab Four worshipped Buddy and emulated his style, honored the Crickets with their name, and covered Words of Love early on.
It’s hard to say just how far Holly’s talent would have taken him. Buddy, only 22, with seven Top 40 hits to his credit, took off to headline the first big Rock & Roll tour of 1959. On February 3rd, Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper decided to charter a private plane and fly ahead of the others to the next stop in Fargo, North Dakota to get some rest and to do laundry. The plane went down just minutes after departure from Mason City, Iowa, and the last Great White Hope of the First Golden Age of Rock & Roll suddenly disappeared. Don McLean later recalled first hearing of the crash, and described it as “The day the music died” in American Pie. Was that an exaggeration? Perhaps, but consider the fact that the show did go on in Fargo that night, and Bobby (“the-boy-next-door”) Vee (unknown at the time) stood in Buddy’s spotlight on the stage. The next day, Frankie Avalon, another clean-teen, became Holly’s permanent replacement as headliner for the rest of the tour. Indeed, a wonderful era of music had come to an abrupt end.
The Army owned Elvis, the Church owned Little Richard, the Music Industry disowned Jerry Lee and Buddy was dead. The government had Alan Freed on the hook, preparing to reel him in. Only one more big fish remained in the pond… the Black Poet Laureate of Rock & Roll, Chuck Berry. For years he had been taunting the American Dream, and even went so far as to sing, “There’s too much monkey business for me to get involved in.” (The Beatles felt compelled to cover the song and repeat the message in the mid-60s). Berry promoted change in America, and the kids were hip to his plea: “Hail, hail Rock & Roll/ Deliver me from days of old.” In response to the “Would-you-let-your-daughter-marry-one?” attitude of WASP America in the mid-50s, Chuck teased that (All women are crazy ‘bout a) Brown Eyed Handsome Man. (We all knew that he was really talking about a Brown Skinned Man.)
The government knew that Berry would slip up sooner or later, and they waited… ready to pounce. Chuck met a young, Spanish-speaking, Apache prostitute while on tour in El Paso,Texas, and felt sorry for the girl. He offered her a job checking hats and coats at his night club in St. Louis. The government indicted Berry under the Mann Act: transporting a minor over state lines for immoral purposes. Imagine, that sly Black devil, sweet-talking that poor innocent child into leaving the stability of the world’s oldest profession, and then forcing her to handle those filthy hats! The jury, of course, found Chuck guilty; although the first trial was so blatantly racist that he received a second one on appeal. But the court convicted Berry again, and awarded him two years in prison for his generosity. That decision made it a clean sweep… Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Buddy, Freed and Chuck, all erased in very short period of time (Conspiracy theories, anyone?), and adult Americans claimed “Today is Ours.”
Shortly after Holly’s death, Dianah Washingtonscored a big hit with What a Difference a Day Makes. Literally speaking, the song had nothing to do with Buddy, but emotionally, it was right on target. Suddenly, something vital had vanished for young Americans.
But the music didn’t die in that plane crash with Buddy, the beat just quietly slipped out of this country and fled to England. Teens who would later become the Beatles, Stones and Yardbirds became the official guardians of the Backbeat, until the time came to return the precious gift to its rightful owners back in the States. Meanwhile, Brook Benton predicted, It’s Just a Matter of Time.
In late 1959 parents boasted, “This is a clean scene for Boomer teens, now not heard, but only seen… all so wholesome and serene. No jungle music to intervene… Stand up straight, don’t slouch, don’t lean… it’s for your own good, not because we’re mean.” The message came close, yet never quite rhymed with American Dream.
Society had tamed the savage beast of Rock & Roll, but the vast army of Boomer kids continued to be perceived as a potential threat. TV revealed that Dennis was a Boomer, and Dennis was a Menace… a lovable one to be sure, but a menace nonetheless.
Law and Order shows took on a whole new dimension in 1959. The Untouchables didn’t just kill bad guys one at a time, they boldly confronted the entire mafia and slaughtered large groups of gangsters in a matter of seconds with machine guns, grenades, or whatever means necessary to restore the peace (so much for Baby Boomers’ theory of safety in numbers).
The corporate image (as the good guys, of course) finally arrived in the Old West with Bonanza. The Cartwrights had tons of money and would rather die than become drifters like the Maverick brothers or Paladin (of 1957) or low-paid, loner lawmen like Marshall Dillon and Wyatt Earp (1958). Instead, they lived as wealthy, civilized ranchers on their massive ranch, the Ponderosa. Papa Ben ruled as chairman of the bored, and he demanded family loyalty to their vast property. Adam, Hoss and Little Joe had little time left for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Each week, at least one of the boys fell in love with some girl, but viewers knew that the affairs were doomed from the start. The Ponderosa was a jealous lover.
TV presented Johnny Yuma, The Rebel (in direct contrast to the Cartwrights) to demonstrate the futility of rebellion. This young idiot rode around the Old West in his faded Confederate uniform, long after the end of the Civil War, constantly getting into fights defending the honor of the South. What Boomer kid in his right mind could idolize this retarded drifter, loner without a home, family or friends, fighting a battle that had been lost ages ago? If the connection between futility and the title of the show wasn’t clear enough to want-to-be Rebel Teens, TV cast Nick Adams, one of the kids in Rebel Without a Cause, as terminal loser, Johnny Yuma.
With the First Golden Age of Rock & Roll now officially dead, America plunged headfirst into the Plastic Age of Teen Idols. War Babies became a lost, defeated and forgotten generation, as Boomers established a permanent hold on all mass media. But we were a vastly different breed than our immediate predecessors. The most mature of our generation struggled with adolescence… too young to appreciate the excitement of backbeat, and the underlying sexual tone of “rocking, rolling and reeling”… completely inexperienced; naïve virgins, idealistic dreamers… and the Media Establishment seemed determined to keep things status quo forever. As the first generation to rely on television as the exclusive source of news and opinions (rather than wasting time digging deeper into a subject with reading), Boomers have always preferred sound bites to substance. We have purchasing power. The Entertainment Industry always aims at the largest possible market. Nothing else matters in America.
Kids do grow up. The original Mouseketeers looked silly in their Mickey ears. Annette had developed as a young lady to the point that the letters on her T-shirt read “NNTT.” Disney could have replaced the over-the-hill kids with younger ones on The Mickey Mouse Club, but instead cancelled the program and created Vista Records. Annette immediately morphed into the role of Teen Idolette, with eight big hits in 1959-60. Other Mouseketeers also scored minor hits on the label. This impressed Warner Brothers, who started their own label to cash in on the fad. The Bros figured that the singing ability of their network stars couldn’t be any worse than their acting. Connie Stevens, Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, Roger Smith (Hawaiian Eye and 77 Sunset Strip), Shelly Fabares and Paul Petersen (Donna Reed Show), Vince Edwards (Ben Casey), Johnny Crawford (The Rifleman) and James Darren (Gidget movies), all scored hits on the new WB label.
Rock and Roll
On the East Coast, Al Nevins and Don Kirshner formed Aldon Music, in an attempt to “bridge the gap between Tin Pan Alley and Rock & Roll.” This Teen-Dream, factory sound became known as “Brill Building Pop” (although the studio was actually located across the street from Brill). Kirshner gathered together the best of NYC’s young composers, including Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Bobby Darrin, Neil Diamond and Neil Sedaka, and cranked out about 200 hits per year (1959-64) for major labels like RCA, Columbia and Atlantic. Everything had been mass-produced for Boomers during their childhood. Now, as adolescents, even their music flowed off an assembly line. As usual, the result was mediocrity… the total elimination of anything exciting, unique or special.
Detroit had Motown… homogenized pop by Black artists, and Philly had Bandstand. But whether it was Mickey Mouse Rock, Brill Building Pop, Bandstand or Motown, this music wasn’t Rock & Roll and these songs remain Golden Oldies only by default. Black Rhythm & Blues retreated back onto its own chart and closed the door behind. White artists recorded half of the hits on the R & B chart in 1958, but in 1959, that number decreased dramatically, and WASP adults called it “race music” again.
A couple of rebellious tunes did manage to make the pop charts in 1959, but both reflected the feeling of War Baby teens, fighting a losing battle. In Charlie Brown (like Dennis the Menace, from the funny pages… the only literature that Boomers read at the time), the Coasters warned, “You’re going to get caught, just you wait and see, (Charlie) Why is everybody always picking on me?” In Summertime Blues, Eddie Cochrane pleaded the teens’ case, and got the typical adult response, “I’m going to take my problem to the United Nation/ Well, I called my Congressman, but he said quote: ‘I’d like to help you, Son, but, you’re too young to vote’”… and Boomers, too young to care.
The oldest Boomer remained a preteen (12) in 1958, and bought “novelty records” aimed at that market: The Chipmunk Song, Lollipop, The Purple People Eater, Beep, Beep and The Witch Doctor (“Oo-ee-oo-ah-ah, ting-tang-walla-walla-bing-bang). Suddenly, in 1959, that same kid entered teenagedom, and was thrust into the angst of adolescence. The market shifted sharply with us, and soon Pimple Pop filled the charts. Paul Anka sang (I’m just a) Lonely Boy, and Dion and the Belmonts moaned, Why Must I Be a Teenager In Love?
The concept of love reflected through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old teenybopper: pure and forever, and at the same time, safe and sexless. Little Boomer girls rushed out to buy the latest 45s by the newest boy-next-door teen idol, as well as every teen magazine on the rack for research on what “His” favorite color was and what He was looking for in “His” dream girl. This puberty pulp overflowed with articles on “How to Catch That Special Boy,” what to wear, advice on hairstyles, makeup, what to say (“Build him up”), and what not to say (“Play dumb”)… a thousand and one ways to lure and trap a guy, and not one single suggestion on what to do with your hormone-crazed prize after you land him.
The Toy Industry drooled as they recognized this gigantic new puberty market. Boomer kids caused record toy sales for the past decade, and companies like Mattel didn’t want to lose their best customers. They introduced Barbie in 1959, and Boomer females have never been satisfied with their bodies ever since. Barbie transcended dollhood. She became a lifestyle, a role model to help adolescent girls make the painful transition to adulthood. Barbie possessed everything an All-American girl could possibly desire: a perfect face, figure, hair, a fabulous wardrobe and an ideal boyfriend (Ken). Babs was the first doll with boobs, which seemed natural, since the sale of training bras increased by 50% in 1959, and millions of little Boomer girls began to notice serious changes in their anatomy for the first time. But how could they compete with Barbie? At full scale, Babs’ measurements would have read: 40C- 18- 26. Her breasts defied gravity and stuck out, high and well formed (and nipple less), and her exaggerated, hourglass waist could only have been achieved in the real world by the removal of a few ribs and vital organs. Barbie’s long, slender legs must have been achieved in a month on the stretch rack in a dungeon, or as the result of some terrible disease (perhaps the same one that caused her nipples to fall off). Indeed, if any real woman owned a full-scale figure exactly like Barbie’s, she would be the most popular photographic subject in medical journals since The Elephant Man.
Nonetheless, every little Boomer girl in America simply had to own a Barbie and as many accessories as her parents would tolerate. Mattel’s production line could barely keep up with demand. They started the Barbie Fan Club, and soon membership exceeded that of the Girl Scouts of America. Each subscriber received regular fan club letters with tips on how to become an all-American Dream Girl, and a complete shopping guide of the latest additions to Barbie’s wardrobe. Teenyboppers dropped all other dolls and concentrated on helping Barbie get ready for her next big date with Ken. In fact, Barbie’s entire schedule consisted of getting ready for dates, shopping, trying on new clothes and experimenting with new hairstyles and makeup (It is interesting to note that 1959 was also the year that Visa and Master charge cards were introduced).
Barbie’s life was not cluttered with any visible signs of education, marriage or career (until 1985, with Barbie’s “Home Office Center”), but no one seemed to wondered where she got all the money for her beautiful house, swimming pool, spa, horse, snazzy sports car, and more than a thousand expensive outfits. Perhaps Barbie was the mistress of a very wealthy man? What other job could she possibly qualify for that could earn her enough to maintain her luxurious lifestyle? Closer examination will dispel the mistress theory, however… Mattel neglected to provide Barbie with the physical equipment necessary to perform the duties of such an occupation. Perhaps that is why Ken has been the only guy to ask Barbie out during the last half century. He, too, has nothing going on below the waist or above the neck.
This vain, self-centered, materialistic, hollow-headed, sexless, cold, plastic princess served as the adult role model for little girls throughout the entire history of our generation. By her twenty-first birthday in 1980, 112 million Barbies had been sold… or, one for every American female.
Perhaps the most accurate personification of Barbie appeared on television within months of the doll’s conception in the form of spoiled Thalia Menninger on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. She personified Dobie’s dream girl, and, as the time dictated, offered him only a pure, ideal type of love… much to poor Dobie’s frustration. Thailia manipulated, used and teased him, and viewers knew that she would never pay up. Dobie hated school and work and obsessed on Thailia. No one classified young Gillis as a bad kid or a rebellious teen; Dobie simply held no interests but girls. Bob Denver (Gilligan) played Maynard G. Krebs, his best friend… a complete dropout, a superficial caricature of a ‘50s Beatnik, and probably the happiest and most well-adjust character on TV at the time. But the show featured Dobie, and if he reflected the typical teenager in 1959, then we can assume that kids were lazy, apathetic, naïve, and spent most of their time daydreaming about members of the opposite sex. In other words, things had returned to normal in the good old USA in 1959.
The same could not be said about Cuba, a mere ninety miles away. Fidel Castro’s revolution finally seized power in December of 1958, and on New Year’s Day of 1959, Batista fled the country. American corporations, including the Mafia, controlled Cuba’s economy for many years, and now, Castro kicked their butts out. America tried to get tough, but Fidel turned to Russia for help, and suddenly, Commies lurked off the coast of Florida. The tension subsided somewhat when Nikita Khrushchev made a 13-day goodwill tour of the United States, the first such visit by a Soviet Premiere. The event received widespread television coverage, and the trip ran smoothly until, at a dinner in Los Angeles, Mayor Pollsen declared, “Americans will never surrender to the Commies.” Nikita asked the mayor if he hadn’t read in the newspapers that this was a goodwill tour. The US government then informed Khrushchev that his visit to Disneyland had been cancelled for “security reasons.” Niki flew into a rage, “Why? Have gangsters taken it over, or are you hiding a missile base there?” Poor Nikita just didn’t understand. In spite of all the trouble that Boomers had caused (by our sheer numbers), the kids of our generation were still considered the National Treasure, and Disneyland was our “Magic Kingdom.” Heaven forbid that the Godless Commies should ever learn about the incredible, secret ecstasy that a small American child could experience in exchange of an “E” coupon.
America would undergo some drastic, abrupt and totally unexpected changes during the next four years. In 1959, an oasis appeared in the vast television wasteland… a place where we learned to expect the unexpected, and thus, found inner strength to deflect the blows headed our way. The Twilight Zone became one of the most popular (and certainly one of the best) programs of the Boomer Generation. It began in a time of Puberty Rock, Teen Idols, happy endings when good guys always won, corporate Westerns, Barbie, and American Dream shows like The Man and the Challenge and Men Into Space… an age of black and white (and even Reds), until Rod Serling showed us that “middle ground between light and shadow… between science and superstition.”
It would be absurd to examine the rich and extensive content of The Twilight Zone, because most Boomers already know every episode by heart. But each incredible twist ending prepared us a bit more for the future… for better or worse.
Camelot and West Side Story (a non-WASP Teen Dream)…Wall of Sound...The Cuban Missile Crisis inspires Bob Dylan.
1962: The Clear Light
“Where Were You in ‘62?” asked the ad copy for George Lucas’ essential celluloid exploration of teenagedom, American Graffiti (1973). The time frame of the film was not a random choice. 1962 will always be remembered as the last full, happy year of optimistic bliss and blind faith in Camelot and the New Frontier. Great problems lay ahead, but the public felt up to any challenge, with JFK at the helm. Millions of Americans read Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage… not the same old infallible history book full of demigods like Washington and Lincoln. Instead, the stories described real, flesh and blood men, many with checkered pasts, but who, in times of great moral conflict, somehow found the courage to stand up for their principles. Many of them lost careers and personal fortunes, but continued fighting until the end. JFK called their actions “grace under pressure,” and more and more Americans recognized that same quality in the author. Situations flared in Berlin,Cuba, Africa and Southeast Asia, but Jack always seemed to rise to the occasion.
Kennedy opened up his new home to the public, and for the first time millions of typical Americans felt like insiders. Jacqueline hosted a Tour of the White House, one of the most publicized and highly rated programs of the 1961-2 season. The beautiful, intelligent First Lady appeared just as charming as Jack and Jackie instantly became one of the most photographed women in the world. One couldn’t surf TV stations or flip through a magazine in 1962 without noticing the reassuring smile of Jack and/or Jackie.
The Kennedy’s symbolized what young Americans wanted to be and where they wanted to go…a young, strong, optimistic couple, looking forward to the future with great hope… rather than clinging desperately to a stagnant past. Eisenhower reminded Americans of a slow, tedious round of golf… the Kennedy’s, a vigorous game of touch football on the lawn. In superficial media reflections, Ike was The Edge of Darkness (1954) and the Flintstones… Jack was The Clear Light and The Jetsons (both 1962). Wimpy Gary Powers belonged to Eisenhower’s era, James Bond (Dr. No –1962) burst onto the scene during JFK’s reign.
Today, when watching Happy Days in reruns, Americans think fondly of the carefree ‘50s. How soon they forget. The 1950s were the Dark Ages in theUSA, a nervous time full of paranoia, fear, suspicion, suppression, censorship, scandals, false accusations, open discrimination, bomb shelters, McCarthyism, Rock & Roll hysteria, payola, and the vast wasteland of television. At the time, most Americans rejoiced at the passing of this dreadful era, and wanted to forget that it had ever happened.
ROCK & ROLL
The country felt in a festive mood in 1962 under Kennedy. “Running” had been the most popular word in titles on the pop charts in 1961, reflecting a nervous restlessness among young people. Now, radios urged the kids to use their energetic feet for a more positive, happier activity… like dancing. Chubby Checker revived The Twist in late 1961, and set off a national chain reaction. At least 25 variations of the song hit the charts in 1962, including Twist and Shout, Peppermint Twist, Twisting the Night Away and Slow Twisting. Instead of condemning the twist craze as “the work of the devil,” the Kennedy’s tried it out, and then demonstrated their skills for reporters. Other new dances, such as the “Mash Potato,” the “Wah Watusi” and “Pony Time” popped up on Bandstand every week.
Elvis picked up on the positive vibes and hit big with Follow That Dream, just as the oldest Baby Boomer turned Sweet Sixteen. Teens followed his advice to a WASP, suburban Teen Utopia, located on the beaches of Southern California, as the Beach boys hit the national charts for the first time. Westside Story, a non-WASP-only Teen Dream, opened on Broadway about the same time. Romeo and Juliet in aNew York City ghetto? The idea wouldn’t have flown in the Dark Ages of the ‘50s. Against a background of gang wars and racial hatred, Tony and Maria, a mixed and mixed-up couple found true love. Ah, “Only inAmerica, land of opportunity…” The concept of minority, ghetto kids with hopes and dreams shocked Middle Class America. The climate and expatiation’s of the inner city did brightened somewhat during the Kennedy administration. The drifters urged teens to “Climb right up to the top of the stairs…” because “Dreams come true if you just wish it’s so/ Up on the Roof.”
Teen Dreams became the hottest commodity in pop music in the early ‘60s, and one young man had his finger on the pulse of the market. In 1960, Phil Spector, a nineteen-year-old producer for Atlantic Records, knew exactly what fellow teens would buy. Ben E. King’s (There is a rose in) Spanish Harlem, put Phil two full years ahead of Westside Story in expressing the theme of “true beauty among the ruins” in the inner city. Spector also found the perfect mixture of Teen Dream and rebellion in songs like He’s a Rebel: “Just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does/ that’s no reason why we can’t share a love… He’s not a rebel to me.” By the time Phil reached voting age in 1962, he was a multi-millionaire and considered as one of the top geniuses in pop music.
Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound” changed the recording industry (for better or worse is another question) forever. Instead of employing the usual three or four-piece Rock & Roll combo (in the Buddy Holly mold), Phil added extra guitarists, backup singers, strings, brass, reed, percussion and keyboard players, in fact, just as many musicians as could fit into the largest recording studio available. This gave the music dramatic new dimensions at first, but after a while, the songs became the “Wall of sounds-a-lot-like-Spector’s-last-record” music. Boomers liked it anyway because they had grown accustomed to mass production mediocrity. Real R & R intimidated them at the time… the kids just wanted a few Teen Dreams.
Dreams sold wholesale on TV in 1962 and many of them reflected the image of our young President: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (a young, idealistic politician), Going My Way (Catholic), Ensign O’Toole (Irish Naval Officer) and The Gallant Men (displaying grace under pressure). Other reflections were subtle; for instance, a conniving Capt. McHale (Navy) replaced a conniving Sgt. Bilko (Army) on the tube.
One popular new show mocked the old version of the American Dream. The Beverly Hillbillies were an extremely poor, backwoods clan who by dumb luck became instant multimillionaires. But the Clampets never did adjust to the rich city life, and longed to return to their poor, but happy life in aTennessee shack. For the first time TV admitted, “Perhaps money cannot buy happiness.”
The big screen revealed new problems like Lolita. This twelve-year-old Boomer bombshell drove old Humbert wild. Little girls grow up fast, and in 1962 there were twice as many high school freshmen femme fatales as in the previous year.
Many Boomers now had an extended bedtime curfew, and Americaneeded a late night sitter to keep millions of young night owls company. On October 1, 1962, The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson filled the job.
President Kennedy scared the hell out of us on October 22nd, when the networks interrupted regular programming to report the President had just commanded Russia to turn back ships transporting missiles to Cuba and to remove the ones already in place on the island. America held its breath and waited for the flash. This meant all out nuclear war with the Ruskies…didn’t it? A little-known folk singer with a stage name of Bob Dylan quickly strung together several works-in-progress into one epic song in a desperate effort to spread the warning that A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. The Cuban Missile Crisis was actually over before JFK carefully staged his little drama on the air, but the public was unaware of his charade at the time.America truly thought that the world was about to end. When we heard the crisis had passed, the nation let out a collective sigh of relief, then felt elated that our great leader had valiantly stood up to Khrushchev and Castro and beat them back.
Americans felt invincible, as individuals and as a nation. Primetime TV played on those patriotic vibes, and claimed that war was glorious (The Gallant Men and Combat), and fun (Ensign O’Toole and McHale’s Navy), as Kennedy quietly increased Ike’s commitment to Vietnam. On the pop charts, faint omens of the future floated about. The Shirelles released Soldier Boy, and the Tokens warned that (In the jungle, the quiet jungle) The Lion Sleeps Tonight. But how long would the beast remain dormant? In just a few years John Fogerty would sing, “You’d better run through the jungle, and don’t look back.”
The folk music movement continued to grow, but seldom moved beyond the War Baby audiences on college campuses and local coffeehouses. Dylan wrote and recorded the antiwar classic, Blowing in the Wind, but few bought the record or even heard the song in 1962. Folk wouldn’t hit the mass market until young Boomers matured enough to embrace and adapt the music as their own.
“Sick humor” also played the college circuit with comedians like Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory and Mort Sahl exploring touchy subjects such as discrimination, sex, religion, and even brought up questions about the US government and big corporations…all taboo topics during the Eisenhower years.
Ken Kesey’s first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest asked the most popular Boomer question of the ‘60s: “Who should be considered sane in an insane society?” The seeds of rebellion had been planted. Boomers would soon harvest the crop.
What subtle hints about the state of the nation did TV program schedulers give us in 1962? Saints and Sinners preceded The Price is Right, Monday on NBC, and that same night on CBS, I’ve Got a Secret followed To Tell the Truth.
The oldest Boomers become high school students and flock to the beach. Trouble ninety miles off the shore as Dylan sings, The Times They Are A-changing. America’s greatest salesman (TV) is suddenly struck dumb. (“Don’t you know) It’s the End of the World (it ended when I lost you”) is the Top Forty number one hit for seven straight weeks (just before the death of JFK!)
How did we miss the obvious media reflections and not recognize the detour sign in the road dead ahead? Network schedulers brazenly predicted catastrophe: Breaking Point followed The Outer Limits. New soap opera titles, optimistic since JFK took office, suddenly hinted where fate would soon take us: to General Hospital with The Doctors. Even the pop charts supplied us with easy clues as of the impending pain. (Don’t you know it’s) The End of the World? (It ended when I lost you.) topped the charts for seven straight weeks in 1963 and Can’t Get Used to Losing You climbed to #7.
Other thoughts preoccupied young Boomer boys at the time, and the Beach Boys hung ten on those brain waves. Where did kids want to be? Surfing USA. And whom did they want to be there with? Surfer Girl. And how did they want to get there? In a Little Deuce Coupe. The oldest group of Boomers would be seniors in the fall of 1963, and from this point every high school in America was totally ours for the next eighteen years. The Beach Boys urged kids to Be True to Your School. Surfing, girls in bikinis, fast cars and no more War Babies to kick us around. Cool.
Teen Heaven was located just a few miles west of Hollywood, and the camera crews rushed west on Sunset Boulevard to record the scene for posterity. Beach Party swept in as the first wave in a flood of endless summer, celluloid silliness, with eternal virgins like Frankie Avalon and ex-Mouseketeer, Annette Funicello.
But summer isn’t really endless, and pioneer Boomers graduated from high school. Now what? A job? College? The Army? Boomers experienced a reality check, and for the first time in their young lives, fun alone fell short. Could there be more to life?
Folk music predates the record industry. On occasion the sound paid brief visits to the pop charts (i.e. Tom Dooley by the Kingston Trio in 1958). Peter, Paul and Mary released Puff the Magic Dragon in 1963, a coming-of-age story of a boy outgrowing his imaginary playmate. (Parents later charged that Puff symbolized marijuana smoke.) Younger Boomers loved Puff and bought the album for the story of the lovable Dragon. First Wavers related to Little Jackie in the song, because they, too, teetered on the edge of adulthood, and they picked up the LP as well. War Babies added the album to their Folk collection because they still owned the genre (at this point). Together we heard Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover version of Blowing in the Wind. The single became the first real protest song to ever make AM Top 40. P, P & M and Joan Baez invited the 22-year-old Bob Dylan onto stage at the Newport Folk Festival in July to join them in singing his composition. Dylan instantly became a major force in the Folk scene.
Dylan was the first official spokesman for the Boomer generation. With biting wit and youthful impatience, Bob lashed out at the social injustices of the adult world of which Boomers were about to enter. In 1963, Dylan protested against war in Masters of War, With God on Our Side and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, and against racial hatred in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. Bob even provided us with our first (of many) Boomer Anthem, The Times They Are A-Changin’:
“Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly aging
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changing.”
Remember the War Baby Anthem, penned by Chuck Berry, back in the Dark Ages: “Hail, hail, Rock & Roll/ Deliver me from days of old”? Teens wanted no part of the adult world with their stupid rules in the ‘50s. Dylan’s message in the Boomer Anthem of 1963 warned, “Look out, Mom and Pop, because we’re going to change your outdated rules.” Did Bob boast with the arrogance of youth, or was he responding to JFK’s “…ask what you can do for your country”?
Always ready to cash in on a hot fad, television jumped on the Folk bandwagon with Hootenanny. Would this new music show bring social protest to network television? Well, with certain restrictions… they didn’t allow songs protesting politics, religion, discrimination, war, class struggle, urban decay or any sponsor’s products. Acne and Communists were fair game. Hootenanny upheld McCarthy’s old blacklist of artists which banned most of the giants of Folk, such as Pete Seegar and the Weavers. The new generation of Folk superstars, including Dylan and Baez, boycotted in response. Thus, the only protest associated with Hootenanny during its brief existence focused on the policies of the show. The program did, however, inspire many Boomers to turn off their TVs in disgust, and go in search of authentic Folk music, which in turn began their habit of buying albums, rather than 45s. (Peter, Paul and Mary had the number two and three selling LPs for 1963.)
The public (and JFK) loved James Bond, and the tube offered us Espionage. Even the title of the new quiz show for the season had a spy flavor to it, in Password.
We soared back into the Space Race in 1962 when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. The event received a tremendous amount of television coverage and Kennedy promised to take us higher. NASA launched “Telstar 1,” the first communications satellite, and that brought up an interesting question: “Who or what would we be communicating with?” Television responded quickly with an answer… My Favorite Martian. This alien crash-landed on Earth, took the clever alias of “Uncle Martin” and moved in with a newspaper reporter, who, of course, agreed to cover up the biggest news story of the millennium.
Another friendly alien invaded our shores on The Patty Duke Show. The Scottish, look-alike cousin of an American Boomer moved in and Patty’s family couldn’t tell them apart. The girls discovered that teenagers (Boomers) from opposite sides of theAtlantic had more in common with each other than they did with own parents or War Baby siblings. Cathy landed several months prior to the British Invasion in Rock & Roll… one could say that she spearheaded the attack.
What inspired ABC to import teens from Europe? Didn’t we have more than enough of our own? Mr. Novak certainly thought so… his high school on NBC overflowed with problem Boomers. (This program is sometimes confused with another new show on the same network in 1963: Wild Kingdom.) Unlike Our Miss Brooks and Mr. Peepers back in the ‘50s, poor Mr. Novak wasn’t having much fun.
The Fugitive was one of the classic Boomer favorites from the ‘60s. The police wrongly accused Dr. Richard Kimble of murdering his wife, and then society forced the innocent victim to flee in search of the real killer, the one-armed man. Lt. Philip Gerard pursued him relentlessly for years on end, and Kimble must have thought, “What did I do to deserve this, Lord?” Millions of Boomer boys felt the same way as they registered for the draft on their eighteenth birthday the following year.
The great personal tragedy that drastically altered Richard Kimble’s life struck on September 17, 1963. Barely two months later (on Friday, November 22nd) all of America received an even more devastating blow. As fate would have it, an emotional Walter Cronkite interrupted the soap opera As the World Turns to announce that the President had been shot.
For four painful days our world stopped turning, as regular TV programs (and commercials!) stood aside for breaking news and special reports. Most Americans hurried to a TV and camped out for the duration. We were stunned. How could this happen? Kennedy was so young and strong, so full of life. At first, Americans felt that television owed them a normal happy ending. Anything less than JFK’s full recovery just wouldn’t make sense. We waited. The usual half-hour passed, and we received no news. “Maybe this is a special, one hour pilot,” we thought. We continued to wait… but still no news, and no happy conclusion. This scraped right across the grain of many years of careful brainwashing/ conditioning by the networks. “At least give us some damn commercials as a relief from all this tension.”
For nearly two decades (and the entire lifetime of all Baby Boomers) television had provided Americawith a dependable escape from reality… entertaining, relaxing, reassuring, and never dwelling on unpleasant subjects or challenging the viewer to think. If we didn’t like the program, we simply changed the channel… until now. Every station carried painful updates, and finally the news broke that Kennedy was dead. Television had betrayed us! We had been cheated out of a happy ending. There was no a moral to this story, and the dream machine still gripped us by the throat and wouldn’t let go. The tragedy continued as bits of information and nightmare images came pouring in: the casket, containing the body of JFK, lifted aboard Air Force One, and minutes later, LBJ takes the Presidential oath, as the plane readies for takeoff. A stunned Jackie stands by Lyndon’s side, her raspberry pink outfit splattered with John’s blood. Every few minutes, photographs of the assassination filled the screen, and we relived those fatal few seconds a thousand times. Police trapped and arrested Lee Harvey Oswald in a Dallasmovie theatre (the marquee read: To Hell and Back), and soon, TV revealed every last detail of Oswald’s life, except the one we desperately needed to know… why?
Jackie, the model of eloquence and elegance for modern American women, hadn’t changed from her blood-splattered clothes as Bobby met her at Andrews Air Force Base. The TV cameras followed the two, as they accompanied the casket toBethesdaNavalHospital, and then to the White House. Most viewers thought, “Why don’t they leave the poor woman alone?” And yet we all watched with morbid fascination.
The worst was yet to come. The most shocking live coverage in television history burned right through our eyeballs, and branded a permanent image deep in our brains. Millions of Americans watched as NBC cut to the transfer of Oswald to another jail. Plain-clothes officers ushered him through a crowd of about seventy uniformed policemen, when Jack Ruby, a striptease-joint owner, elbowed his way up to Lee Harvey, and shot him in the liver with a .38 revolver. Through the miracle of television, it is quite possible that more people had witnessed this one vicious, cold-blooded murder than had observed all of the prior assassinations in the history of Mankind. For two long days and nights, we pieced together all the information, and tried to make some sense out of this tragedy. Instead of providing an answer, TV offered a live demonstration on how to commit murder. With Oswald, died our last hope of ever understanding the death of JFK.
The average American has absorbed thousands of celluloid killings on the tube, but in each story the bad guy had some sort of warped motive (usually one of the seven deadly sins), and the audience learned a moral lesson from his fatal mistake. What was Ruby’s motive and what did we learn from Oswald’s death? That violence begets violence? That no American is ever really safe, even standing amid an army of policemen? Or, did we finally realize that tragedy, in real life, doesn’t discriminate between good guys and bad guys, and seldom sticks around to offer a moral or an explanation?
That same day… Sunday, November 24th, we watched Jackie and daughter, Caroline, standing by JFK’s flag-draped casket at the White House. No one among friends and staff had the courage to tell the Kennedy children about the death of their father until several hours after the tragedy. Who could tell them why?
On Monday,America observed a long, slow funeral procession from the White House to Arlington National Cemetery. Jacqueline explained the JFK would be buried there, rather than the family plot in Massachusetts because, “John belongs to the country.” Indeed, the young politician had always been a welcome guest in our homes (via TV), more so than any president before or since.
Kennedy’s funeral served as the culmination of the most tragic series of events ever covered by television, and the most unbearable for Americans to watch. We felt as if we had been locked up in a dark dungeon for four days, and then beaten, tortured and brainwashed for no apparent reason. Our captors forced us to watch the same nightmare images over and over again: amateur Super-8 footage of the assassination, blown up, slowed down, and examined frame-by-frame. Ironically, police found the murder weapon among the history texts at the Texas Book Depository. We witnessed Jackie, stunned and splattered with Jack’s blood, standing next to LBJ as he took the oath, and live snuff footage on NBC. And finally, the entire country cried and prayed for the Kennedy children (no President has ever shown such open affection for his kids)… especially when Little John performed a goodbye salute to his father.
We Boomers, and America, lost our innocence in those four days. From that point onward, the most important piece of personal trivia for every First Wave Boomer is not your sign, or how you lost your virginity, but instead, “Where were you when you heard that Kennedy had been shot?”
For the first and only time in its glorious career, America’s greatest salesman hadn’t made a single pitch for nearly four straight days. Finally on Monday night, a few stations returned to their regularly scheduled programs. It seemed like an eternity since escapism had been offered and America jumped at the opportunity. The intro of the first program on ABC (Outer Limits) assured us that “There is nothing wrong with your TV set. We are controlling transmission… we will control all that you see, and hear (and think)…”
Amateur 8mm film of JFK’s assassination…repeated over and over…gave American a taste for violence. Slo-mo and instant replay debut on TV sports. First Wave Boomers graduate high school and the Baby Boom ends exactly nine months after JFK died. A non-incident at the Gulf of Tonkin…the draft…TV’s campaign to sell war…The Beatles assassinate Brill Building Pop, Wall of Sound, Teen Idols and Folk with one appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show…GI Joe (the hottest new Boomer boy toy) debuts in time for Xmas.
1964: Another World, Peyton Place and The Young Married
Have you ever attended a good old-fashioned Irish wake? The strange event usually takes place in two, large adjoining rooms. One setting provides a dimly lit, tranquil area where friends and family can view the body of their loved one and grieve his or her passing. The other room hosts a wild, drunken party, where everyone tells happy stories of crazy times spent with the dearly departed between toasts. But watch friends and family pass from one room to the next and you will notice some people laughing, others crying, and a few displaying both emotions simultaneously.
America held a wake for Kennedy in 1964…a year of extremely complex feelings…of giddy laughter and dark fears, of absurd escapist fantasy and harsh reality, of the beautiful and the grotesque. Opposites converged and crossed over.
The American public acquired a morbid fascination for violence and pain from the repeated viewings of the Kennedy and Oswald murders, and the TV networks catered to this new taste with new technology. Instant replay, in slow motion, offered audiences a chance to fully appreciate the exact point of violent contact. “Watch closely…the injury occurred right there. What a hit! I didn’t know a human body could bounce that high. Let’s look at that again.” The ratings and advertising fees shot sky high, as sports fans stayed away from stadiums to watch bone-crushing tackles, baseball beanings and flaming race car crashes in slo-mo on TV. CBS became so excited about their new success that they bought the New York Yankees. TV sports had come of age, and corporations, rather than families (thanks to the agony of defeat in slo-mo) eventually owned all professional sports teams in America.
The Baby Boom ended exactly nine months after the assassination of JFK, but it would be too simple to point to that terrible shock as the only reason for a sharp decline in the birth rate. The current senior class, by far the largest in history, graduated from high school in 1964. The head of the pig, completely undigested and full of life, suddenly emerged from the other end of the python, blinking at the harsh light of reality. The adult world was neither prepared nor pleased with this new arrival. How could it possibly absorb such a large number of high school graduates into mainstream America? Not enough jobs or housing for all these kids. Many of them scheduled June weddings with their high school sweethearts, and then planned to pop out a few kids of their own. The senior class of 1965 would be even bigger, and the class of ‘66 larger yet. Kids have a nasty habit of growing up.
The Beach Boys wondered, “Well, I’m young and free/ But how will it be/ When I grow up to be a man?” Jan and Dean predicted a collision in Teen Utopia at Dead Man’s Curve. The tide went out for surfer movies with Horror of Party Beach, (one of the worst films ever in either genre.)
Teens couldn’t find permanent and/or summer jobs, especially in the inner city where the unemployment rate was already staggering. Black Boomers were Dancing in the Streets amid a Heat Wave in 1964. Might as well. Ain’t no work around.
Many of the teens from the pioneer Boomer class headed for college in the fall. Their group was 20% larger than the previous year’s, and they found themselves waiting in long lines, trying to get into overcrowded classes. The vast freshman army forced many colleges to install computers to handle the registration load. Boomer students wore T-shirts that read, “Do not fold, spindle or mutilate… I am a human being.”
Game show titles can be just as obvious in reflecting the mood of a time period as those of soap operas. The new titles for 1964 were Jeopardy and Let’s Make a Deal. TV cancelled The Price is Right.
Two popular new family sit-coms showed us that America’s most cherished institution had suddenly turned sour. The Munsters and The Addams Family presented two grotesque clans, completely out of synch with their environment. Although these family units had the best of intentions in their own demented way, outsiders saw them only as a menace. Visually, this year, families were ugly, and motherhood was unnatural. In addition to Lily Munster and Morticia Addams, Samantha (Bewitched) appeared as the only other new housewife/ mother on the tube in 1964. The world’s second oldest profession for females was about to experience massive downsizing. America now considered the role of stay-at-home-Mom a macabre fantasy. Those without supernatural powers need not apply. Even the most voluptuous new “woman” on the tube in 1964 turned out to be physically incapable of adding to the overpopulation problem. Julie Newmar, literally cast as My Living Doll, played a robot to whom pregnancy did not compute. As with most other professions in 1964, Boomer girls found little encouragement and few openings in the field of motherhood.
Why do women want to have babies anyway? The networks concluded that females were just looking for an excuse to stay home and watch the soaps, and thus made it easy for young Boomer girls during the transition to day jobs and/or college by offering a primetime soap opera. Peyton Place, the spiciest tube trash of its time, with sexy Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal, played two nights a week in TV’s patriotic effort to suppress the cravings for daytime soaps in young, potential mothers.
How did Americans really feel in 1964? Check the media reflections: World Without Love, Don’t Let the Rain Come Down and Suspicion placed high on the charts. The Drifters, Up on the Roof in 1962, now hid Under the Boardwalk. Harris Against the World and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea premiered on TV, and the titles warned of paranoia and depression in the year to come. Boomer kids really related to the characters on Gilligan’s Island… trapped, isolated, helpless and lonely, while The Fugitive (“What did I do to deserve this?”) continued to soar in the ratings.
Did anyone notice at the time, that our laughter was strained and mixed with tears? The media offered comedies on topics that never seemed funny before: castaways stranded on a remote island, a stumbling blind man (The Adventures of Mr. Magoo), monsters, witches, robots, Martians, spies and counterspies (Man From U.N.C.L.E.).
The movie industry must always find a way to top the tube, and in 1964 offered the hilarious subject of world destruction in Dr. Stranglove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Fail Safe. The plot of both films involved the accidental bombing of, and retaliation by Russia (inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis). Each film boasted excellent directors (Kubric and Lumet, respectively), writing and acting, and yet, Strangelove became a Boomer classic while the second film faded from memory. Fail Safe was too damn serious for the time. When the President (Henry Fonda) agreed to sacrifice New York City, as an eye for an eye, he forced Americans to consider the severity of the game that we played with the Russians. Kubric, hip to the times, decided to turn a serious novel, Red Alert, into a black comedy. The audience began laughing during the opening credits, as a B-52 bomber refueled in midair. The planes looked like two giant insects humping as Try a Little Tenderness played in the background. Kubric allowed us to laugh at our pain, and one our greatest fears… the bomb. We felt relief, rather than the anxiety on top of fear that we got from watching Fail Safe.
LBJ’s TV ad campaign people also recognized the mood of the country in planning his bid for reelection. Instead of giving Lyndon a positive image, they attached one negative reflection to Goldwater. Barry ran on a “no-nonsense” platform. His policy on Vietnam, for instance: “Let’s get in there and win the damn thing and then get the hell out.” In the most effective, and perhaps, the most misleading political campaign spot in the history of television, LBJ’s ad showed a little girl picking petals off a daisy, completely unaware of the violent mushroom cloud erupting behind her. The public made an instant connection between Barry and the bomb. Many Americans were fooled into thinking that if Goldwater became President he would waste no time in dropping the big one on Hanoi, and then Russia would retaliate and drop one on us. That fear magnified as the People’s Republic of China exploded its first atomic bomb just three weeks before the election. Meanwhile, Lyndon quietly used the Gulf of Tonkin incident (or non-incident, as we now know) to force Congress to give him carte blanche in Vietnam. Goldwater promised to abolish the draft during the campaign, and Johnson insinuated that he might do the same, but once the election was out of the way, LBJ moved in another direction. LBJ quickly went to work with Selective Service Director Hershey on a plan to speed up the classification of 18-year-olds (pioneer Boomers). The average draft age at the time was 23. A year later, the most popular joke among Republicans was: “My friends warned me that if I voted for Goldwater, we would be at war within a year. They were right; I did, and we are.”
Television embarked on the greatest sales campaign of all time, in an effort to sell patriotism. As usual, Boomers were the targets of the pitch. The networks pushed the “glory of war” concept with 12 O’Clock High, Combat, World War I and The Lieutenant, and tried to sell “War is fun” with Gomer Pyle, USMC, Broadside, No Time for Sergeants and McHale’s Navy.
ROCK & ROLL
Boomers wanted fun all right, but war wasn’t quite what they had in mind. They did, however, find something more to their liking. Our poor parents. Just when they thought that it was safe to turn on the radio… The dreaded din of Rock & Roll returned!
Everything seemed bland and lifeless on Top 40 radio after Kennedy split from the scene. Those four intense media days were a hard act to follow. Boomers wanted something new, exciting and fun, and station managers desperately searched everywhere for a different sound. They noticed faint rumblings from one group, far away across the Atlantic, whose joyful noise dominated the British charts for all of 1963, but remained virtually unknown in the USA. Capitol Records had recently rejected the band: “You just don’t have the new American sound, boys.” (Thank God for that.) Now, a few weeks later, radio stations scrambled to smuggle in some 45s of the Fab Four. The Beatles had just the right sound at the right time, loud, a real backbeat, and pure fun.
Capitol rushed to get legitimate copies pressed and into the stores. The single, I Want to Hold Your Hand finally became available in January of 1964, and by Feb. 1st, topped the charts in America. The Beatles made their first of three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, which turned out to be the highest rated episode in the show’s history. Crime inNew York City stopped dead in its tracks for twenty minutes. Boomer girls went nuts and fell hopelessly in love. Boomer boys dug the beat, but laughed at those silly haircuts. After a couple of weeks, the girls continued to scream and the boys grew long hair and bought electric guitars.
In the Beatles’ first hit 45 in America, “the middle eight” (bars), as they called the break, contained the line, “It’s such a feeling that, My Love, I get high, I get high.” By 1964, Dr. Timothy Leary had already published the formula for lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), as Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters tripped across Americain a psychedelic bus, but very few Boomers ever used the expression “get high.” That would soon change. The “B” side, I Saw Her Standing There began: “Well, she was just seventeen…” Then, “she” was a Baby Boomer. The Beatles sang to, for, and about Boomers their entire career, because we were (and still are) the market.
The Beatles ruled the charts by April 1st, claiming the top five positions with several other Lennon/McCartney tunes on the way up. Parents prayed that those Liverpoolboys would fade away, or at least be deported, but instead, the Beatles became legitimate in August, as their film, A Hard Day’s Night opened to critical, as well as popular good favor. Many skeptics had to at last admit that the boys possessed a bit of talent, and were fun to watch… much more than a fad… Just ask the casualties:
Bam! The Beatles shot down the Beach Boys and the Suburban Myth. Boomers grew tired of “driving up and down that same old strip,” and now, they turned to a group who could harmonize with a real beat.
Bam! They shot down Phil Spector and his Wall of Sound. Boomers suddenly realized that the “wall” separated us from the backbeat. These four guys, a la Buddy Holly, made more and better sound than Phil and a whole studio full of musicians…so much for Spector’s bigger-is-better concept of Rock & Roll.
Bam! They shot down the Brill Building hit factory. Lennon/McCartney wrote most of their songs, and assembly-line music sounded shallow and dull by comparison. Boomers realized that artists should create their own authentic sound.
Bam! They shot down Dick Clark and the world of American Teen Idols. The Fab Four had the look and talent, the latter quality honed in marathon gigs in Hamburg, Germany (8 hours a night/ 7 night a week). The boys knew how to play, and Boomer teens approached an age when they could appreciate musical skill. The worst local garage bands began to sound better than the phonies on Bandstand.
Bam! Folk Music took a direct hit. Too serious. Boomers weren’t in the mood.
The Beatles had that certain something, just like Elvis in his day… But what was “it” exactly? The Black Magic of a Rhythm & Blues backbeat, performed by poor working-class Caucasian boys. As children, Boomers didn’t remember the First Golden Age of R & R, before Rock was suppressed in theUnited States. But the beat continued inBritain; in fact it flourished and developed during our awful Teen Idol and Beach Party eras. Who knows howAmericawould have reacted to the Beatles had Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, little Richard and Elvis been allowed to keep on rocking? The sound (with backbeat) was new to Boomer ears and they loved it… exciting, invigorating, rebellious, loud, outrageous and, most of all, fun… just when fun had been designated to the endangered species list. The Beatles brought it all back home to theUSA, right where it belonged.
The one sad note, barely audible during the Beatles’ meteoric Top 40 takeover during the summer of ‘64, was heard as the last dinosaur of the First Golden Age received a fatal blow. It almost seemed as if the American government blamed poor Alan Freed for the resurrection of Rock & Roll. After all, the noise went away the last time they knocked him down (during the payola hearings). It was only logical that they hit him again; this time with the IRS acting as executioner.
But the cacophony continued, and the Beatles proved to be only a vanguard of an overwhelming British Invasion: the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Animals, the Zombies, the Dave Clark Five, the Swinging Blue Jeans (with Hippy, Hippy Shake), Manfred Mann (Do Wah Ditty Ditty) and countless others.
Parents complained about the dissonance and the constant, pounding R & R beat, just as they had in the ‘50s. TV didn’t listen to their whining. The networks were too busy converting pounds into dollars. They cancelled Folk wannabe, Hootenanny and launched Shindig, featuring all the hot new British groups, plus American regulars, the Righteous Brothers, and “Shindogs” Leon Russell, Delaney Bramlett and Billy Preston.
Another important battalion of the British invasion of ‘64 received much less attention. That Was the Week That Was (or TW3) with David Frost became the first primetime program to include biting political satire on a regular basis. That same fall, Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement began, just as the first Baby Boomers arrived on the college scene. Teens felt rebellious, and undoubtedly the flames had been fanned by the return of Rock & Roll. The reflection soon glowed on the silver screen, as “underground cinema” finally found a market. Boomers loved Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, which included a clip from Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings (1927) showing Jesus riding an ass, while the soundtrack blared the Crystal’s He’s A Rebel. Could it be that society actually needs a rebel or two from time to time?
In what could have been just another get-us-to-the-show schlock rocker, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night came as quite a shock to Boomers. They grew up listening to teen idols answer, “Yes, Sir, Mr. Clark” on Bandstand, but now they heard snappy comebacks from the Beatles: An Old Man scolds, “Don’t take that tone of voice with me, Young Man. I fought the War for your lot.” Ringo answers, “I’ll bet you’re sorry you won”…A interviewer asks, “Are you a Mod or a Rocker?” Ringo answers, “I’m a mocker.”
Those sassy Brit boys tested the limits of American AM radio. Did Mick Jagger really sing “half-assed games” in It’s All Over Now? Turn it up!
Teenagers were getting uppity again. How would the Powers-That-Be handle the situation this time? By the end of the year, the public received a few reflections that should have given them a clue. Bob Hope entertained happy troops in Vietnamon his Christmas Special, and Santa left an amazing new toy for younger Boomer boys under the tree… GI Joe and all his Friendly Fire Accessories. Joe (like Barbie) appeared as a realistic, grown-up doll, except for the absence of reproductive gear. But Joe’s huge guns dwarfed Wyatt Earp’s, so he, unlike Babs, found a release for his sexual frustrations. With Barbie as a role model for little girls, and GI Joe for little boys, it’s amazing that the Baby Boomer Generation turned out as well as it did.
Kennedy’s New Frontier faded away. Fess Parker returned to the old frontier, this time as Daniel Boone. Ronald Reagan also returned to the tube, as a replacement for the Old Ranger on Death Valley Days. Welcome back to the Great (“Gee, I really wish that it could be once again”) Society of LBJ.
Bonus: “Let’s Make a Deal” debuted on December 30, 1964.