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.