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.