Sports & Recreation
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BIG on samples and happy hour buffets, periodically declares he's giving up on cheese (might as well call him "anti-American" i know), LOVES his wife (remember, "wife" spelled backwards is "efiw"), is certain his son is destined to be known as "Enzo the Great," appreciates his "parents" more each day (in-laws included), still dislikes cats, greatest fear is mediocrity, has resigned himself to blatant self-promotion (hey! i amuse me), defies popularity by defining himself, and wants (would like) you to pay him lots (market-value) of money for his work.
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The Essential Guide to American Adult Pop-Culture
of the Age of Innocence, 1946-64
Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights
dreaming of a song.
The melody haunts my revelry and once again
I am with you.
~ Stardust, Hoagy Carmichael
“The fifties were a time of conservative politics, economic prosperity, and above all, social conformity. From tidy lawns of spreading split-level suburbs to the tidy minds of board rooms, club rooms, and bedrooms, 'neat and trim' and 'proper and prim' were 'in.'"
In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower crushed his incumbent Democratic opposition with a campaign rallying against North Korea's invasion of the South, aligned with the Communist purges of Senator McCarthy, and speaking out against widespread corruption in American academic and governmental institutions. As noted by Lois and Alan Gordon in their Chronicles of American Life, Eisenhower “was a common-sense, down-to-earth man, a great military leader with a fatherly manner, who promised peace and prosperity. He vowed to take America down the ‘middle road,’ and with his victory, the quintessential fifties were set in gear. America returned to the business of business, and, as in the 1920s, businessmen were appointed to places of power in government.”
Yet, the 1950s do not really stand alone as many surmise them to be. Rather, I would contend that the decade is an essential part of an era which expands the years of 1946 to 1964. For even though, decades have traditionally demarcated certain eras for us as Americans, like the Roaring 1920s or the Revolutionary 1960s, the period between the years 1946 and 1964 demarcate a special period of American cultural history which is difficult to limit to a sole decade, such as the ‘40s, ‘50s or ‘60s. What I would suggest is the “Age of Innocence,” for better or for worse, is a unique period of time which is connected throughout by a certain style which is pervasive in music, film, theater, television and many of the other mediums which together created the pop-culture of the period.
1946 was chosen as the initial year because it marked the end of a tumultuous time for us and the world and simultaneously represented a new beginning, bringing about an economic, political and cultural boom. 1964, on the other end of the spectrum, deflowered the virgin mentality of the previous decade. The assassination of the nation’s beloved president, the one who established the New Frontier and inspired youth to dream and build upon their aspirations, shattered many hopes, shattering the epitome of honor, justice and equality inspired by JFK, pulling the nation into a whirlwind of pent-up frustration, self-denial, and guilt. Furthermore, the premiere of the Beatles in the United States in 1963, represented the fact that “Rock and Roll” was here to stay and basically put a nail in the coffin of the conservative adult music of the period widely known as Easy-Listening.
Baby Boomers, the progeny of the adults of the Age of Innocence, sometimes mistakenly call the era of their parents which preceded them the “Silent Generation”. Yet, today’s adults do not realize that back then their was nothing to shout and protest about because reality was covered by a veil of innocence. Wars were fought to protect national interests and little was known about the pain of the individual families whose fathers, spouses and sons were sacrificed. Throughout the Fifties, the nation was taught that everything had its purpose and its place and any disturbance of the status quo was taboo. A little less then two hundred years earlier, our country’s forefathers had institutionalized the separation of church and state, but now God and religious doctrine were being invoked to justify persecution of suspected Communist sympathizers, a full-blown capitalism and the armed protection of democracy.
Without the onslaught of images provided by the nascent networks, the antecedents of CNN, people remained content with reading the headlines which were emotionally removed from the lost lives of millions. Hence, a public cry was more likely evoked by the feeling of elation, rather than by a reality due to revelation.
Further attesting to this phenomena, was the fact that even though the casualties of the Korean and two World Wars each individually far outnumbered that of the Vietnam War, the travesties of the latter weighed far heavier upon the conscience of the American public. Television brought the daily tragedy and awesome bloodshed into the home of the innocent nuclear family, one weaned on Howdy Dowdy, Father Knows Best, and I Love Lucy. Television devastated the purity of life as it was known until then.
It not only effected public sentiment in wartime, but it also proved to be the key to elections. The televised Nixon-Keneddy Debate of 1960 is often regarded as the linchpin of JFK’s election. It was the first time that a presidential debate was televised and the public’s opinion of the candidates was no longer limited by the words and thoughts as purveyed traditionally by radio. Now people could see what the candidates looked like as they communicated their platform. This had a tremendous effect upon Nixon’s popularity who appeared nervous, perspiring and uncouth, especially as he stood across the dais from the dashing, young and seemingly well prepared JFK.
John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline were both well aware of the importance of maintaining one’s image before the public eye. Before the cameras one now had to control the surface as well as the substance, nothing new for any pupil of Machiavelli. In fact, Michel de Montange had already noted in his Essays four centuries before in 1580 that "Good looks are a possession of great value in human relations; they are the first means of establishing goodwill between men, and no one can be so barbarous or so surly as not to feel their attraction in some degree...The first distinction that ever existed among men, and the first consideration that gave some pre-eminence over others, was in all likelihood that of beauty." Jack and Jackie knew that the advent of television and other means of mass communication made this principle even more important and thus it had to be controlled.
To this effect, they had a personal photographer take hundreds of pictures of them and their family making sure to convey a pristine image of their lives.
In fact, JFK even employed the idea during the televised debate with Nixon, because it is said that he purposefully took notes to appear to be an attentive, serious and scholarly debater, even if what had jotted down were mere doodles. Incidentally, the debate broke the record for the largest TV audience to date, with an estimated 75 million viewers.
Moreover, the American adult pop-culture of the post-war years of 1946-1964 was extremely circular. Movies, fashion, recreation, travel, literature, and especially music all fed off each other and provided the public with trends which guided their conservatively happy lives. “Conservatively happy” because there were many restrictions on what was socially appropriate and it was this philosophy of conformity which built the limits on popular culture.
By the end of the decade, the public had been worn down by the moral/religious crusade of Eisenhower, J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthy and began to yearn for ways of vicariously venting their pent-up frustrations. Not only did movie plots and dialogue become more racy, but books like Lolita and Lady Chatterley's Lover, Anne Sexton and E.E. Cumming's poetry and the radical writing of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Henry Miller all gained popularity. Whereas the Bible's dominance on the best-seller list for the first part of the decade ends in 1954. Silver screen sex-kittens like Marilyn Monroe, Brigette Bardot, Jayne Mansfield, and Sophia Loren monopolized the box-office at the end of the decade and into the next. Americans also started traveling in droves to the newest entertainment capital of the world, Sin City, Las Vegas, where the denizens of hedonism, the "Rat Pack" were making their mark on stage. Moreover, morality no longer was based on the strict doctrine of the Christian faith, but, as according to a Look magazine poll on moral attitudes in 1959, morality became relative, based on group approval. In other words, if everyone else is doing it then it must be okay.
Most importantly, this change of attitude began to be widely demonstrated through the sit-ins, the riots, the protests, and the marches of youth, women, blacks and other minorities who began to press for their rights and freedom. Sexual freedom and breaking from the constrictions of traditional "family" values is further hastened and symbolized by the introduction of the first oral contraceptive in 1960 and the divorce of the Fifties’ most popular couple, Desi and Lucy, in the same year.
As already mentioned, politics and the elected officials of the country played an important part in molding popular culture. Beginning with Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy which ignited “Latin Fever” in the States, followed by Eisenhower’s conservatism and McCarthy’s ultra-conservatism which stifled artistic expression, and ending with JFK and Jackie, whose fashion sense brought haute couture to the masses.
Regardless of the limits, there was something about “sticking to the formula” which produced aesthetically appealing book covers, glamorous celebrity photographs, gallant behavior, and a subtle sexuality creating a yearning which no one had to feel guilty or embarrassed by.
Sometimes today’s world seems to be in a constant crisis because over the last thirty years the principles which once guided us have fallen to the wayside of social modicum and the courtesy and consideration which people once expected from strangers has been transformed into expectations of ill-will and behavior. Perhaps, this partially explains the renewed interest in the world where and when “men were men and women were women.” Martini menus, cigar bars and magazines, uniform fashions, Frank’s 80th Birthday, Ella & Dino’s passing, retro-music reissues, and cocktail parties are all facets of yesterday which indicate that we are yearning for a break from those things which remind us of today.
In the following pages I present to you a summary of the of what made the pop-culture of the Age of Innocence so memorable. Happy reading.
Take me to the top!
Copyright © 1997, 1998, 1999
The Fresh Ink Company & Lorenzo D. Dominguez
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