The other day a friend, retired educator Boston Bob Norton, had one of those milestone birthdays – the kind that reflectively kicks off a new decade. He celebrated by recovering nicely from a gall bladder operation and immersing himself in the decade – the 1950s – in which he came of age.
He had help – including a disk-jockey with vintage, time-warp music. There were also a few evocative words from a guy from Philadelphia who grew up on doo-wop music and actually went to Bandstand. He took time out from waxing on about a military draft, hoping a new art museum wouldn’t be a neo-edgy, Frank Lloyd Wrong misfit and wondering if this is the year the county commission concedes the role of a hub city. He took the time to revel with a cause – nostalgia.
To give nostalgia its due requires a selective memory. In this case, it means forgetting about cramming for a trig test, squeezing a combative zit, recoiling from romantic rejection or explaining much of anything to your parents. Sure, your folks couldn’t fathom Clarence “Frogman” Henry and loathed Jerry Lee Lewis even before he married his 13-year-old cousin. And come to think of it, they always seemed like they wanted a son more like David Nelson, Ricky’s maturely dull sibling.
It was also an era when “Mashed Potato Time” incongruously meant burning off calories and “Get A Job” wasn’t merely a parental directive. It was a time when performers had colorful, wonderfully corny – almost chummy – names such as Fats Domino and Chubby Checker. Wonder was, there was never a Pudgy Parcheesi.
But going from Wally Cleaver to Eldridge Cleaver was an extraordinary societal transition and a unique American epoch. The hot flash crowd remembers the Cold War insecurities and sanctuaries. A-bomb drills and spelling bees. Fall-out shelters and push-up bras. Sputnik hype and sock hops. Edgar Bergen and Joe McCarthy. The Red menace and Red Skelton.
Let’s focus on a year. It’s 1959.
Dwight Eisenhower is president. Nikita Khrushchev visits the U.S. Fidel Castro takes over in Cuba. Hawaii becomes the 50th state. Vance Packard writes “The Status Seekers.” The big movies are “Ben Hur” and “La Dolce Vita.” Ingemar Johansson pummels Floyd Patterson to win the World Heavyweight Championship. The Dodgers — the Los Angeles Dodgers — defeat the Chicago White Sox of Al Lopez to win the World Series. The Baltimore Colts down the New York Giants for the NFL championship – and the 1st Super Bowl is still seven years away.
The top pop song is Bobby Darin’s “Mack The Knife” — which gives a lot of parents hope that all is not lost with the frantic likes of Little Richard and the aforementioned “Killer,” Jerry Lee Lewis. And while Philadelphia mourns the passing of Mario Lanza, South Philly’s Bobby Ridarelli, Frankie Avallone and Fabian Forte carry on the city’s crooning tradition.
It was also the year a group of 8th grade buddies (practically high school freshmen) at St. Timothy’s School in northeast Philadelphia decided to take advantage of a Catholic School holiday. We put on sport coats and ties (with tie pins); caught a bus; and took the cross-town elevated train to the nether world of West Philadelphia – home to famous, super popular, bigger-than-life Bandstand.
We arrived unfashionably early – the way tourists and nerds do – and queued up near the front of the line outside the WFIL, ABC-affiliate studio, a shockingly nondescript building in a hardscrabble neighborhood and just hoped to look 14 – and make the high-school cut. The regulars, of course, didn’t have to suffer such an indignity. They were ushered right in – after signing autographs. For the tourists.
Well, we all passed muster and were directed to the bleacher seats in a room that seemed about the size of a basketball half court. Along the way there were hand-written signs cautioning the uninitiated: proper attire required; ID might be checked; gum-chewing, loud talking and camera-hogging prohibited.
Some associate producer sort came out to reinforce the signage for the benefit of rookies and also stressed the proper, seemingly obvious, response to the flashing applause signs. The regulars talked among themselves.
This guy’s message was clear. In fact, it was brutally, condescendingly clear. In effect, he was saying: “Millions of teenagers across the country will be tuning in today – but NOT to watch you. They want to see Justine Carelli, Bob Clayton, Pat Moliteri, Carmen Jimenez, Kenny Rossi and Arlene Sullivan.
“If you MUST dance, please stay with the counter-clockwise flow and don’t look, let alone WAVE, at the camera. Try to look cool, even though we know and you know – you’re not. Central Casting didn’t send you to us, but we still let you in. Don’t make us throw you out