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.