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The Fifties (posted 6/10/2010)

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'The Mickey Mouse Club' debuted on ABC television on October 3, 1955. The one-hour show featured Jimmie Dodd as host and Roy Williams (the Big Mouseketeer) as co-host. But the real stars of the show were the Mouseketeers - a group of 24 kids ranging in age from 10 to 14. The show was an immediate hit and quickly gained an audience of 10 million loyal viewers. The Mouse Club ran for four seasons, until it was canceled in 1959. Drummer Cubby O'Brien was one of the show's kiddie stars.

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The original shows were rebroadcast in the early 1960s as a syndicated package. The Mickey Mouse Club was revived in 1976 with a new cast but it never attained the following of the original show.

auto blogOf the original Mouseketeers, the only one who received lasting fame was Annette Funicello. Annette was a flat-chested 12 year-old when the series began but matured quickly, providing 10 million young students with a very visual lesson about the effects of puberty.

Scientists have calculated that, had Annette's breasts continued to grow at the rate observed from 1955 to 1958, they would have reached the moon four years before Neil Armstrong.

In 1956, 'The Steve Allen Show' and 'Playhouse 90' made their first appearances. On August 5, 1957, 'American Bandstand' went coast-to-coast, having been a local Philadelphia show since late 1952 and hosted by Dick Clark since 1956.

Contrary to popular conceptions, the vast majority of Philadelphia high-schoolers were never on Bandstand - they just watched it on television. Although the local 'regulars' became nationally famous from their nationwide exposure.

'Perry Mason' made his first TV appearance in 1957, too. In 1958, '77 Sunset Strip' debuted.

'Kookie' Edd Byrnes' hot rod from the TV show, '77 Sunset Strip', displayed at the Peterson Automotive Museum in 2002

1959 newcomers included 'Bonanza' and Rod Serling's 'Twilight Zone.' 'My Three Sons,' 'Flintstones' and 'Route 66' all made their first appearance in 1960. 1961 brought 'The Bullwinkle Show;' 1962 featured 'The Beverly Hillbillies,' and 'The Jetsons.'

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'The Fugitive,' 'The Outer Limits' and 'The Patty Duke Show' all appeared for the first time in 1963. TV was becoming ubiquitous and all-consuming.

Television was just one of the technological developments resulting in social changes during the 1950's. In 1948, Admiral used molded phenolic plastic to produce a lighter-weight 35-pound TV cabinet. That same year, Bell Telephone Labs demonstrated the transistor, the first step toward electronic miniaturization. That same year, the first jet plane landed on an aircraft carrier. Adidas, the athletic shoe manufacturer, was founded. In 1949, the atomic clock was developed; so was the infamous device for parking scofflaws, the Denver Boot.

PaperMate became the first leak-proof ballpoint pen in 1950. Haloid Corporation (later renamed Xerox) developed the first xerographic copy machine. The first credit card - Diners Club - debuted. It was made of paper, not plastic.

But plastic was the key material in the 1950s. It's properties fostered the development of many new products. In 1951, the now-classic, award-winning Eames shell chair was produced from fiberglass-reinforced polyester plastic. In 1953, the new Chevrolet Corvette became the first production car to have an all-fiberglass body. Now ubiquitous, polypropylene was invented in 1954.

Bell Telephone Labs developed a solar battery in 1954. Univac ads of the same period asked if computers really thought.

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In 1957, the new $55,000 IBM 610 - described as "the size of a spinet piano" - could solve a six-hour calculator computation in a mere 20 minutes.

There were major medical advancements, too. In 1955, the Jonas Salk-developed polio vaccine was given to seven million American schoolchildren, virtually eradicating this childhood disease. The same year, Miltown tranquilizer was introduced for frazzled adults.

In 1956, Hamilton introduced the first battery-powered electric wristwatch. Comet cleanser and Pampers disposable diapers made their respective debuts in '56 as well.

In 1957, the Russians surprised everyone by launching a 184-pound satellite, Sputnik I. The space race was on and the U.S. launched its first, smaller satellite four months later. The Boeing 707 passenger jet made its inaugural flight in 1957, cutting flying times dramatically.

The first experimental plastic Coke bottle was molded from acrylonitrile plastic in 1958; a suitable commercial version wouldn't be available for another 20 years.

In 1958, the American Express Card debuted - Elvis Presley is one of the first customers. In 1959, the first integrated circuit was demonstrated; in the same year, the Ski-Doo snowmobile debuted. In 1960, the U.S. launched Echo I, the first telecommunications satellite. Pentel introduced the felt-tip pen. The FDA approved the first birth-control pill.

In 1961, the $450 IBM Selectric typewriter appeared. Russian Yuri Gagarin made the first manned orbital flight; John Glenn became the first American to do so a year later in February, 1962. Kodak introduced the first film cartridge in 1963; the first cassette tape recorder also debuted that year.

Music changed greatly during this era, helped by electronics, the ubiquitous reach of television and the increased monetary 'buying-power' of teenagers. The electric guitar was developed in the late 1940's by Les Paul. He and wife Mary Ford had a moderately successful singing career during the early Fifties. But Les' technology revolutionized music. The electric guitar arguably gave birth to rock and roll. It's hard to say which was the first rock and roll record - some credit Jackie Brentson's 'Rocket 88' from 1951.

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It certainly had the correct elements - it was about a car - a 1950 Oldsmobile 88 with a high-compression, overhead-valve Rocket V-8 engine - and featured Ike Turner on keyboards. Others claimed that 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' (a remake of a Thirties R&B song) by Bill Haley and his Comets in 1954 was the first rock and roll song. Little Richard claimed he invented it, screaming, "I am the architect of Rock and Roll!" Still others mention Chuck Berry.

Regardless of who "invented" rock-n-roll, the credit for the mass-popularization of this new music must be given to Elvis Presley, who flew onto the scene in 1956 with the number one hit, 'Heartbreak Hotel.' For 25 of the next 37 weeks, Elvis held the absolute top of the charts with no less than seven single, million-seller hits. RCA couldn't keep up with record demand. There was demand for anything related to Elvis. In 1957 alone, over $25 million in Elvis non-record merchandise was sold.

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Until rock and roll became a musical mainstay, many of the early '50s hit songs were novelty songs, like 'How Much Is That Doggie In The Window.'

All of the above was a result of The Good Life - increased disposable income and more leisure time increased recreational activities. By 1958, manufacturing wages had risen substantially, averaging $83.56 per week - compared with $54.32 for 1949. Extra income meant more money to spend on 'fun' things. Despite dire predictions, television didn't kill movies. In 1948, Americans kept going to the theater to see 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein' or 'Easter Parade' (with Judy Garland). In 1949, Disney released 'The Adventures of Ichabod and 'Mr. Toad' in theaters. '1984' by George Orwell was published.

There was more time for sex. In 1948, the Kinsey Report on another recreational activity - human sexual behavior - was published. In 1949, Gussie Moran played tennis at Wimbledon in a fitted short dress with matching lace-edged panties, which are quite visible during play. Older folks were scandalized, but it heralded the beginning of increased exposure of skin - in sports, on the beach, in movies and magazines. In 1952, Marilyn Monroe's tight sweaters inspired the 'sweater girl' look.

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The same year, Brylcream ads reminded men, "A little dab'll do ya."

In 1950, 'Peanuts' - the comic strip - made its debut; 'Asphalt Jungle,' 'Father of the Bride' and 'Cinderella' were in movie theaters. On Broadway, Ethyl Merman starred in 'Call Me Madam. The first Club Med opened.

In 1951, top movies included 'The African Queen,' Disney's 'Alice In Wonderland' and 'A Streetcar Named Desire.' 1952 movies included 'Singin' in the Rain,' 'The Quiet Man' and 'High Noon.' In 1953, the first issue of Playboy magazine was published. Movies included the 3-D thriller, 'It Came from Outer Space.' In 1954, 'Hi and Lois' debuted as a comic strip. America continued to patronize the movies to see 'The Caine Mutiny,' 'On the Waterfront' and Alfred Hitchcock's 'Rear Window.'

In 1955, Alfred E. Neuman appeared on the cover of MAD magazine as a write-in candidate for President. His campaign slogan was: "What, Me Worry?

The same year, Ann Landers' advice column first appeared in newspapers. Disneyland opened for business in California. Marilyn Monroe showed a lot of leg in 'The Seven-Year Itch.' In 1955, James Dean was killed while driving his new Porsche Spyder at high speed. His movie, 'Rebel Without A Cause,' had just been released and he becomes an instant teen icon. Average ticket price was 50¢ at one of America's 19,000 movie theaters.

By 1956, mental patients now occupied more hospital beds than all other illnesses combined.

In 1957, the 'House of Tomorrow' opened at Disneyland. Twenty-year old unknown Michael Landon had the starring role in the B-movie, 'I Was A Teenage Werewolf.' Elvis appeared in his first motion picture, 'Love Me Tender.' In 1958, he was drafted into the Army, to the consternation of his fans. Tropical fish were now the most popular pet for Americans; 120 million of them reside in tanks in American homes. (On any given day, a million or two were found floating upside down.) Truman Capote penned 'Breakfast At Tiffanys.' Mitzi Gaynor starred in 'South Pacific.' Liz Taylor appeared with Paul Newman in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'

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In 1959, three young rock and roll singers were killed in a plane crash in Iowa. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper became rock's first martyrs.

Even though, objectively, their recordings and careers weren't so great in Life, in Death, they have become immortalized, Evita-like, and are still reverentially spoken-of today in the world of music. Dusty Icons of the Jurrasic Age of Rock who happened to be in the wrong place (for them) at the right time (for those who feed off of their fame and music royalties).

1959 movies included the very-fifties' 'Pillow Talk' with Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Rock and roller Ricky Nelson made his movie debut with John Wayne in 'Rio Bravo.' Ricky Nelson probably represents the ultimate embodiment of the 1950s. A good-looking, so-so singer, he is neither different nor more talented than a lot of other aspiring wanna-bes, except that he already has instant recognition and popularity as the co-star of a popular TV show. He cuts a record, performs it on the filmed TV show - flawlessly of course, because they just keep doing 'takes' until perfection is achieved - and immediately gets a top ten record. Ricky Nelson becomes the first 'packaged' rock-and roll superstar.

In 1960, the 'Family Circus' comic first appeared; the first Playboy Club opened; pantyhose were introduced. The fright movie, 'Psycho,' debuted on the movie screen. Also in 1960, the quintessential Fifties play, 'Bye Bye Birdie,' opens on Broadway.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, promised a New Frontier and soon rode in a new, modern Presidential limousine. The same year, 'Camelot' opened on Broadway - in later years, this will be seen as the height of irony. In 1962, the first James Bond movie, 'Doctor No,' hit the theaters. In 1963, the very dark Hitchcock movie, 'The Birds,' made its screen debut.

Former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and singer Frankie Avalon made their movie debut in the 1963 movie, 'Beach Party' - the first of the the forgettable, simplistic 'beach' movies which captured the freedom of the late 1950s so perfectly.

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Movies like this angered our Cold War enemies; they showed ordinary American proles, living a rich, bourgeois life and having fun in a care-free and safe society. But all that was soon to end, tragically.

automobile blogThe 1950's officially concluded on November 22, 1963 with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Until that time, the dangers Americans feared were vague impersonal threats of nuclear war. We'd all die together - vaporized instantly in a giant, bright explosion - an almost-romantic Fifties concept. Maybe it would happen while surfing with Annette Funicello - not a bad way to go. (We all knew that hiding under a desk, as we were taught during those emergency drills in school, wasn't going to save us.)

Reality was, however, much more bloody and violent - watching the leader of the United States get his head blown off in Dallas. And watching it over and over and over again on the Zapruder film ever since.

An era ended; everything changed afterward. Quickly too. The music was first - in 1963, 'American Bandstand' ended its daily show, moving to a weekly format. Dinah Washington and Patsy Cline died; the Beatles took over the scene. Later, psychedelic music ripped our eardrums; disco numbed them.

After 1963, the cars began to change. Ralph Nader wrote 'Unsafe At Any Speed' and pushed for regulations to make automobiles ugly and safe. Later, the Oil Crisis came and it made fuel-efficient smaller cars more attractive. Acres of chrome trim were abandoned to save weight and, therefore, improve fuel economy. Antipollution regulations made cars run poorly and, eventually, made engines too complex for a backyard mechanic to fix.

The culture changed after November 1963, too. There was anger in the air - more assassinations, race riots, an unpopular war, an unruly and boisterous youth subculture who trusted no one, especially those over 30. Perhaps, somewhat justifiably, too. They were, after all, witnesses to the death of the dream - thanks to television. Less than a month after JFK's death, the tranquilizer Valium was introduced - just in time to handle the tumultuous Sixties and Seventies.

Robert Frost, who spoke at Kennedy's inauguration and was America's unofficial poet laureate, died in 1963. Frost once said that a verse "should begin in delight and end in wisdom."

The Fifties began in delight and excitement. Let's hope that all of us gained some wisdom from the experiences of this extraordinary 16-year 'decade'.

To read more about America in the year 1957, go here.

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The facts presented in this blog are based on my best guesses and my substantially faulty geezer memory. The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Probably.

Spelling, punctuation and syntax errors are cheerfully repaired when I find them; grudgingly fixed when you do.

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Don't be shy - try a bribe. It might help.

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