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.