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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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."
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
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
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?
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
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
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
SOURCE: Dallas Morning News