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Financial Markets

Monday, Dec 05, 2005
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Posted on Mon, Dec. 05, 2005

Seeds of change sown in 1955




The Dallas Morning News

The Fifties are popularly remembered as a period of shiny complacency, but in reality, American culture was being shaken to its core by mid-decade.

In 1955 alone, the nation sat up and took notice of Elvis and rock 'n' roll. It witnessed the introduction of the McDonald's fast-food chain and the first home microwaves. It saw the rise of teen culture, with James Dean representing youth alienation in "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause." And it ushered in an era of children's entertainment with the opening of Disneyland, the TV debut of "The Mickey Mouse Club" and the first Saturday morning TV cartoon, "The Mighty Mouse Playhouse."

It was also a year of political upheaval, with the birth of the civil rights movement, the disaffection of the suburban middle class, the push toward oral contraceptives and the introduction of U.S. military advisers in Vietnam.

And when we look at America in 2005, it's fairly clear that many of our achievements - and difficulties - date back 50 years.

"It's a crucial year in a crucial decade in so many ways," says Christopher Sharrett, a professor of communications and film studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. "I think the year represents the increasing discontent of Americans during a period of great prosperity and expansion" after World War II.

It's easy to overemphasize one year such as 1955 and not see history as a continuum, historians say. But "we begin to see major cracks in the plaster of American culture," Sharrett says.

"Freedom is the key word," adds Michael Roth, president of the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. "You can see the emergence of various groups who value freedom above all and who are trying to create the conditions for psychological and political liberation."

Take, for instance, America's youth.

Before 1955, children and teenagers weren't really considered a separate, powerful market force by corporate America. But all that began to change with cultural and technological shifts after World War II.

"Rebel Without a Cause," starring James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, expressed youthful disappointment in suburban life at the same time that it introduced sexual tension, not only between a young man and woman, but also between two young men.

And then there was "Blackboard Jungle," which explored teen rebellion in schools. Partly because of the movie's popularity, "Rock Around the Clock," which was on the soundtrack, was the first rock tune to top the charts.

The emergence of the teen market coincided with the rise of rock 'n' roll. Before 1955, mainstream America really hadn't embraced rock - or Elvis, who was primarily a Southern phenomenon. But all of that changed when Elvis sealed a record-breaking deal with RCA. And in March of '55, Elvis made his TV debut.

"You have the appearance of black rhythm and blues before the white middle class via TV," says Sharrett. "And with Elvis, you have the convergence of poor black and poor white music. It was an affront to the white middle class at first, but it was embraced by the youth culture of the time."

Still, few people would argue that white teens threw off the shackles of historical racism in 1955. "With Elvis, you saw white kids becoming fascinated with black music," Sharrett says. "But in a racist society, there had to be a white man to act as a bridge between those two cultures."

Teen identification with music originating from the African-American tradition dovetailed with yet another world-shaking event in '55: the rise of the civil rights movement.

It would be a disservice to black Americans to say that the struggle for freedom didn't date back to pre-Civil War days, "when thousands of African-Americans fled from slavery every year," says John Hope Franklin, a historian and professor emeritus at Duke University.

But Franklin sees mountains and valleys in history's landscape. And many historians, including Franklin, agree that the modern civil rights movement and the struggle for equality reached a high point in '55 partly because of two events: the murder of Emmett Till and the acquittal of his killers, and the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her bus seat, leading to the first large-scale, organized, civil rights boycott of the century.

Both events occurred one year after the historic Brown vs. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court, striking down the notion of separate but equal schools. And both events helped set the stage for what was to come: the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. and the protest movements of the 1960s.

The transformations in 1955, of course, weren't limited to teens and black Americans. For women, it was a year of great contradictions and struggles. And nowhere was that seen more clearly than on television.

The typical image of white picket fences and tidy homes began to disintegrate on the very medium that helped idealize consumerism and American family life with such shows as "Father Knows Best" and "Ozzie and Harriet."

"Cultural clashes started playing out on TV in the '50s," says Marsha Cassidy, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of "What Women Watched: Daytime Television in the 1950s." And some of these clashes can be seen with the rise of the controversial sob-story shows during daytime telecasts.

By the mid-1950s, two of the biggest daytime TV hits were "Glamour Girl" and "Queen for a Day." Both featured women who told sad stories, and the person with the biggest tear-jerking tale that prompted the loudest audience applause would get a prize. In the case of "Glamour Girl," the prize was a makeover. And on the surface, "Glamour Girl" appeared to be "advocating the return to domesticity, the idea of charm, the idea that you need to be glamorous and be made into a new postwar ideal," Cassidy says.

But the sad stories women had to tell to win also undermined the national image of prosperity.

Both "Queen for a Day" and "Glamour Girl," in fact, turned out to be "an affirmation that women were in a difficult spot" economically and culturally, Cassidy says. "From a feminist point of view, one could see these shows as exploitation. But it was also a way of hearing every day how other women were experiencing some of the constraints put upon them by the 1950s" - a precursor to the consciousness-raising sessions of the women's movement two decades later.

As marketers turned to TV to sell everything from washing machines to frozen dinners and microwaves to the idealized ladies at home, one of the most popular prime-time shows, "I Love Lucy," was based on the notion that women wanted to express themselves and find fulfillment outside the home. Such wishes may have been the source of the show's humor, but those same wishes were also subversive.

"Even though Lucy is set in the domestic scene with Ricky, the unresolved premise of the show is that she's always trying to escape, to get out of domesticity, to get into showbiz or do a commercial," Cassidy says.

While teens, blacks and women were in the early stages of rebellion, the American white male adult was having second thoughts as well. And why wouldn't he, with Elvis swiveling his hips, Marilyn Monroe starring in "The Seven Year Itch" and Vladimir Nabokov writing the sexually subversive "Lolita?"

Adult males could take some comfort in the rise of the adult TV Western, with the debuts of "Gunsmoke" and "Cheyenne." But one of the biggest best-selling books of '55 was Sloan Wilson's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," which documents the travails of Tom Rath, a public relations executive who worries about how to support his family and comes home each night and starts knocking back highballs.

"To me, in 1955 you see these contradictions," says Sharrett. "There's one image of a nice suburban world, with everybody happy. But on the other hand, there's discontent being expressed at every level of culture, a discontent that would overflow in the 1960s."

But why in 1955, you might ask?

The answers vary. But Char Miller, director of urban studies at Trinity University in San Antonio, says it's probably related to the fact that "the United States formally becomes the most important superpower in the world. But we're troubled by that as a culture. We're tangled up with power, and we're trying to figure out our role in places like Vietnam and Korea."

He and others see the year as a point of convergence: the rise of television, consumerism, rock 'n' roll and prosperity, paired with a larger dialogue about recognition, equality and justice for teens, women and black Americans.

"Groups that haven't had their voices heard are speaking out and being heard in a growing common culture," adds Roth. "People take for granted now that they deserve to be heard, the idea that everybody has a story to tell. But that didn't start till the 1950s."

And this led to the generational, gender and racial battles that played out in the '60s and are still facing us today.

Miller acknowledges that by looking back at 1955, "we can find the source of our mistakes but probably not their resolution."

"But on the whole," he says, "I much prefer to live in a society where people who have long been discriminated against no longer face such egregious discrimination. We owe an enormous debt to Rosa Parks and others in the civil-rights movement, as well as to James Dean, who opened up a dialogue about what it means to be a teenager. We wouldn't be where we are if those people didn't struggle."

---

IN 1955

Feb. 1: The American military gains direct access as advisers to the Vietnamese military, in cooperation with the French.

March 20: "Blackboard Jungle" is released. It's the first major movie to use rock 'n' roll in its soundtrack.

April 11: "Marty," an independent movie starring Ernest Borgnine, premieres in New York and goes on to win best picture at the 1956 Oscar ceremony.

April 12: Jonas Salk announces the successful results of his polio vaccine trials and is hailed as a miracle worker.

April 21: After premiering in Dallas, "Inherit the Wind" opens on Broadway, produced in association with Margo Jones.

April: Ray Kroc opens his first McDonald's in Des Plaines, Ill., and founds the company that evolves into McDonald's Corp.

June 12: Caroline Gordon reviews the new short story collection, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor, in The New York Times.

July 17: Disneyland opens, with 28,154 attendees, starting a boom in theme parks and changing American vacation habits.

Aug. 28: Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam abduct Emmett Till in Mississippi. Till's mutilated body is found in a river, causing outrage and setting the stage for the civil-rights movement.

August: A Japanese company enters the U.S. market with an early version of the transistor radio - with earphones. The company? Sony.

Sept. 28: The World Series is broadcast in color for the first time. And the Brooklyn Dodgers go on to beat the New York Yankees and win the series for the first time.

Sept. 30: James Dean dies in a car crash.

September: Commentary magazine reviews C. Vann Woodward's new book, "The Strange History of Jim Crow." The book goes on to become the historical Bible of the civil-rights movement, according to Martin Luther King Jr.

"Lolita" is published in Paris by Olympia Press, and Graham Greene names it one of the three best books of 1955 in London's Sunday Times.

Oct. 3: "Captain Kangaroo" premieres on CBS; "Mickey Mouse Club" premieres on ABC.

Oct. 7: Allen Ginsberg gives the first reading of "Howl" in San Francisco.

Oct. 26: "Rebel Without a Cause" opens, following the death of its star, James Dean, the personification of rebellious youth.

October: Harvard physiologist Gregory Pincus and Min-Cheuh Chang announce the successful results of the testing of oral contraceptives at the International Planned Parenthood meeting in Tokyo, generating worldwide publicity.

Tappan introduces the first microwave oven for home use, and it retails for about $1,300.

Nov. 21: Elvis signs a contract with RCA.

Dec. 1: Rosa Parks defies authorities, refuses to relinquish her bus seat and is arrested. This starts the Montgomery bus boycott, widely regarded as the birth of the modern civil-rights movement.

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research


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