Unique class retraces the end of the innocence
Do you remember Formica top tables with chrome legs? How about TV dinners? Davy Crockett hats? Hula Hoops? Or Leave It To Beaver? Or maybe you nostalgically recall that Vette on Route 66.
If any of the previous things rings a bell for you, perhaps you could be a case study for a course this January at Buena Vista University.
Dr. Michael Whitlatch, professor of theatre, is teaching the class American Popular Culture in the 1950s: Myth vs. Reality. In the course, students study what home life was like in the 50s. They also are studying the evolving media, art and architecture, sports, fashion, homes, cars, and fads.
Students are also reading two short novels, Goodbye Columbus and Catcher in the Rye, a tongue-in-cheek novel in which narrator-character Holden Caulfield comes to age along with the 50s era as he rails against phonies and finally discovers that he is a phony himself.
The course is not just fun and games and spinning the returnable milk bottle though. It's a way for students to understand the cultural milieu that gave birth to Baby Boomers.
"We're looking in a sense also at social history," Whitlatch said.
That social history includes segregation that was still prevalent in the South into the 1960s. Whitlatch noted that television was relatively void of any accurate depiction's of African-Americans.
The class also includes an objective critique of the role of women such as June Cleaver vacuuming in a dress and pearls, something Whitlatch called "a nonreal situation".
"We're trying to create a cultural awareness," Whitlatch said.
The class is not necessarily a rose-colored view of memories of things past. In the case of women, the course could be a hard-edged critique of a false machismo that tried to rule the decade.
Whitlatch wants students to question why Rosie the Riveter, who traded her apron for her hard hat to build a bomber an hour during World War II, would have been willing to put her apron back on without question in the 50s.
In the case of television, Whitlatch wants students to see "the myth versus the reality of the Nelsons. Ozzie was a tyrant when he found out Ricky wanted to play rock music." Rick Nelson, incidentally, was well on the way to interstellar stardom when he was tragically killed in a plane crash in the early 80s.
Some of the films the class will critique include Gary Cooper in High Noon, Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, James Dean's archetypical Rebel Without a Cause or "the ultimate teenage movie" according to Whitlatch, and The Defiant Ones which is a prison escape film in which Tony Curtis (who may have quit smoking cigarettes but brought his marijuana to the airport) and Sidney Poitier who as chained inmates had no choice but to rethink race relations in a real serious way.
Student projects will include such subjects as automobiles, fashions, sports, homes, and television.
"It was a nostalgic period that people wish they could return to," Whitlatch said.
It was also a time of social revolution, the most memorable example of which was Ed Sullivan's endorsement of Elvis Presley as a good Christian boy after shocked parents tried to shield their daughters' eyes from The King's gyrating hips. "That was Sullivan's blessing to white, middle-class America," Whitlatch said.
In class Friday, Whitlatch reviewed some of the social trends of the 50s. One was racism by media's ignoring African-Americans.
"The thing we don't have in many movies is the 50s is stars of color," Whitlatch said. "The movies, the TV of people in the 50s are devoid of color."
The 50s were also a time of change, though. The same decade that saw Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts for alleged Communists saw the explosion of rock and roll. It was right at 50 years ago, in fact, that Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets was the first rock song to become number one on the billboard charts. Whitlatch noted that it was just 10 years later than Bill Cosby became the first Black to star in a TV show, I Spy.
In a group presentation on Changing Music Tastes during the Decade, a group of students from the class reviewed the transition from early 50s ballads to rock and roll, the music form for which the 50s are most regarded today.
It was incidentally at the same time that there was fear of communism that rock music began. The roots of rock and roll, of course, came from Black gospel singers in the South. Gradually, the term rock took on sexual connotations and carried into the term rock and roll.
It was in 1951 when disc jockey Alan Freed first used the term rock and roll, a term taken from the song "My Baby Rocks Me With a Steady Roll". Freed also hosted the first rock concert in 1952.
American Bandstand was the first television program to popularize rock in the mid-50s. One look at number-one Billboard hits shows that rock made its appearance known in the middle of the decade with Elvis Presley's back-to-back domination of the charts with Heartbreak Hotel in 1956 and All Shook Up in 1957. Some of the other rock music greats of the 50s were Buddy Holly and the Crickets with That'll Be The Day, Jerry Lee Lewis with Great Balls of Fire, Little Richard with Tutti Frutti, and Chuck Berry's primordial guitar solo in Johnny B. Goode.
If the 50s were a time for rebellion in rock music, they were also a time of the beginnings of freedom for blacks. With the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the Separate but Equal Doctrine in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the freedom marches culminating in Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 and the Equal Rights Amendment of 1964 were on the horizon.
From 1950 - President Harry Truman approved production of the hydrogen bomb and sent the Air Force and Navy to Korea, to 1959 - Alaska and Hawaii became the forty-ninth and fiftieth states, the decade may forever be remembered as one of change. And one worth a class, every now and then.