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Boomer-Era Variety Shows: the 1950s (Part 1)

World War II ended and by 1947, television caught on in a big way as individual stations appeared in the largest cities. Within four years, a couple of dozen stations had grown to hundreds. The adaptation of TV by the public is still on record as the quickest rise of any technology — faster than indoor plumbing, home electricity, radio, the telephone and even the smartphone. There were just over 100,000 TV sets in the country by 1947, but by 1950, 8 million sets had been purchased — a rise from less than one percent to 88 percent of homes owning a TV.

Of course, the correlation to the Baby Boom was no accident as more couples were married, started families, bought homes and moved to the suburbs. As TV stations began to broadcast 20 hours per day, the race was on to capture the most viewers, especially in the post-dinner hours, the prime time when parents and their children might gather around the household TV.

Networks and local stations turned to Vaudeville traditions for programming inspiration. Vaudeville was a form of live variety entertainment that began in the 1880s. Vaudeville shows mixed singing, dancing, comedy, magic, acrobatics and sketch performances live on stage. By the 1930s, it saw a precipitous decline in attendance due to the Depression, the spread of movies and widespread embrace of radio in the home. As the public taste for entertainment shifted, many Vaudeville performers made the transition first to radio programs, then on to TV.

The first hour-long musical variety show broadcast regularly on network TV was Hour Glass, airing from 1947 to 1948. It pioneered the live commercial that became the standard for variety shows that followed. The show featured performers — many of whom had been Vaudeville performers — that included Dennis Day, Bert Lahr and Peggy Lee, among others. It also marked the first time a radio performer — ventriloquist Edgar Bergen — appeared on TV.

It seemed like various forces were all in alignment for variety shows on TV: expanding audience, at-the-ready supply of performers and willing sponsors. Yet there was another important factor to the explosion of TV variety shows in the late 1940s and into the ’50s, and that was: the music. The American Federation of Musicians controlled the market for live musicians, and TV was a live performance venue in the early days. At the dawn of television broadcasting, the question of what and how to pay performers was brought to the forefront, as it had when silent movies transitioned into “talkies.” Various music unions had contracts in place for film appearances of musicians, but TV was a whole new — and potentially lucrative — landscape. Consequently, as music publishers sought license fees for their music and musicians, the AFM banned live music on TV until 1948. The TV industry acquiesced to the demands of the music unions as ASCAP, the company known for managing music licensing fees, charged three times the fee for a TV appearance than was charged for a film appearance.

There were other ways the TV industry struggled with how to present music. The burgeoning industry was struggling with what role it should play in the culture at large, a debate that was very much in the public realm and even on the minds of Congressional legislators. As a result, operas and classical concerts were broadcast in the 1940s and early ’50s. Variety shows took their cue from these early broadcasts, and regularly included operatic and classical music stars in their programming, alongside pop music and jazz. To further control the “live” appearance of singers, lip-synching was heavily employed to avoid any variations in the performance of a singer from the expectations of the audience. At the same time, if a show could avoid paying for live musicians, all the better for their bottom line.

Here are a few of the influential variety shows that appeared along with the Baby Boom:

Toast of the Town / The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71)
The longest-running variety show in the history of television, Toast of the Town was renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in its ninth season. Initially, Ed Sullivan was not the show’s host as guest hosts acted as emcee, and introduced the acts. The first show was hosted by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

There is probably not a boomer who was over the age of 7 by the early ’60s who doesn’t remember The Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan. The man had an uncanny knack for picking acts that were on the verge of breaking out. Famous (or infamous) icons of the Boomer Era who appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show included Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, The Righteous Brothers, Peter and Gordon, The Byrds, The Mama and the Papas, The Doors, James Brown, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Herman’s Hermits, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Tom Jones, Janis Joplin, The Jackson 5 and many, many more.

Unlike a lot of the variety shows on TV, Sullivan wanted his musical acts to perform live, not just lip-synch. That led to some interesting disagreements with lyrics deemed questionable for TV when the Rolling Stones and The Doors appeared, as most boomers recall. Sullivan also featured classical music, opera, jazz, dance, jugglers, comedians and a crazy little puppet mouse, Topo Gigio, that was a favorite of Mister Boomer’s grandmother … And that is the story of The Ed Sullivan Show in a nutshell, that the show was popular with every member of the family because Sullivan booked acts that could please everyone.

Texaco Star Theater (1948-56)
This comedy-variety show started out as a radio show in 1938. Like Ed Sullivan, the show had a series of guest hosts, but when Milton Berle hosted, the show’s ratings skyrocketed and he was made the permanent emcee. Texaco Star Theater is best remembered as the show that earned Berle his “Mr. Television” nickname.

The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-55)
A show with “comedy” in its name should have the best comedians of the day, and this show did. Hosts included Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, among others. As a musical-variety show, hosts also included Donald O’Conner, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, and a bevy of stars our parents remember better than boomers do. Like Texaco Star Theater, a single sponsor — Colgate — commanded the commercials throughout the program. Commercials were performed live like other shows, often by the stars themselves.

Your Show of Shows (1950-54)
More than just another variety show, some say this one was the most influential of them all. Featuring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, the show had a writing pool of Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, among others. It was the first show to feature an ongoing comedy sketch, “The Hickenloopers.” Some say every comedy show that followed owed a debt to Your Show of Shows. Carl Reiner stated that The Dick Van Dyke Show was inspired by the show.

The Nat King Cole Show (1956-57)
Featuring the first African-American TV series host, the show aired without a sponsor. Advertisers feared they would upset their customers in the South, so NBC aired it anyway, footing the bill. Nat King Cole was an immensely popular singer, but 1950s white America wasn’t at all sure they wanted to see a black man host a TV show. The star ended the show himself in its second season, when no sponsor could be found.

Mister Boomer remembers his family tuning in as Mr. Cole opened each show at his piano, singing a song.

Of course, there were many other variety shows aired in the first complete decade of the Baby Boom. Families gathered around the TV each week to laugh, be entertained and maybe get a little highbrow culture as the flickering black and white images of our boomer youth appeared on a tiny screen.

Were you old enough to watch variety shows in the 1950s, boomers? Which were your family’s favorites?

Next up: Variety Shows in the 1960s

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,TV and have Comment (1)

Hey Boomers, Was It Better Before?

Thanks to the Internet, it seems like we are all obsessed with Top 5s, best of lists, who wore it better comparisons, etc. In the spirit of Internet modernity, Mister Boomer offers this collection of The Way We Were to The Way It Is Now. So, boomers, YOU make the call. Which is better?

Video tape … or … video streaming?
Muscle cars … or … electric cars?
Rotary phone … or … smartphone?
Vinyl records … or … music streaming?
FM radio … or … satellite radio?
Mr. Coffee … or … espresso machine?
Books .… or … e-books?
Polaroid film .… or … digital camera?

Eyeglasses … or … Lasik surgery?
Pac Man … or … Grand Theft Auto?
Twiggy .… or … Gigi Hadid?
Schoolyard bully … or … cyber bully?
Passbook savings .… or … ATM?
Boone’s Farm Apple … or … Smirnoff ICE Green Apple?
Kite .… or … drone?
Penny candy … or … organic, gluten-free candy
Pocket change … or … debit card?
Rearview mirror … or … back-up assist camera?
Bobby Sherman … or … Justin Bieber?
Father Knows Best … or … Keeping Up with the Kardashians?
Roger Marris … or … Aaron Judge?
Map … or … GPS?

Our world is rapidly changing, and surely there are more comparisons we can make. Will we embrace the change or prefer what we had? YOU make the call.

Care to add to the list, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Getting Older,Pop Culture History and have Comments Off on Hey Boomers, Was It Better Before?

Boomer Boys Learned How to Dress Like Gentlemen

The cultural break between the early sixties and the latter part of the decade has been written about many times, including here at misterboomer.com. Yet Mister Boomer, as a mid-generation boomer, recalls the late 1950s and early ’60s as a time of set fashion social mores that fathers would teach sons, and mothers would teach daughters.

One of these fashion social mores — how to be a gentlemen — was, as far as Mister B was concerned, a minefield filled with potential faux pas. It was a time when there was a definite difference in the way people dressed for formal occasions and casual ones. Dress clothes for the proper gentleman meant a suit and tie, and in the early part of the Boomer Generation, a hat. Situations that called for dress clothes were weddings and funerals, to be sure, but also for weekly church attendance, going to the theater, holiday parties, and travel by train, ship or plane. Men usually dressed for any business situation, too, such as applying for a bank loan or attending a house closing.

As a boy, Mister Boomer’s clothes, like other boomers his age, were selected and purchased by his parents. Consequently, he and Brother Boomer had a set of dress clothes and casual clothes. (Mister B and his brother also had a third set that was school clothes to match the required dress code). For Mister B and Brother Boomer, it also meant a hat. Their father was part of a growing trend of post-war men who did not wear hats, yet he raised his boys with the fashion and showed them how and when to take the hat off, and how to correctly store it. In the Boomer family’s church, men took their hats off when entering, while women covered their heads at the same time. Once seated in a pew, the church had a clip installed every yard on the back of each pew that was designed to hold a man’s hat. Mister B’s father demonstrated this for his boys until they understood what the clip was for and how to use it.

There was another thing Mister B’s dad showed his boys in church: how to correctly move the pant crease from their suit pants when sitting down. A sharp-dressed man’s dress pants were pressed with a crease that ran down the front of the leg that was sharp enough to cut titanium. The only possible reason to move the crease away from the front-center of the leg that Mister Boomer can think of is, in an age before the proliferation of permanent press and no-iron fabrics, the crease might hold longer if protected when sitting down. A gentleman would need to keep his crease lest he be thought less of — a faux pas no father wanted for his boys since their appearance reflected on his status as a parent.

Mister Boomer’s father would get the attention of his two boys and, as he sat down, grabbed the front creases of both pant legs with the thumbs and index fingers of his hands. In one motion, his hands had gracefully pulled the creases to the outer side of each leg. Sometimes he demonstrated the process again, since the boys must have displayed quizzical looks. Brother Boomer caught on to this seemingly simple process fairly early on, but it flummoxed Mister Boomer into the 1960s. His father let him be as each week, Mister B grabbed the creases of his pant legs and frantically pulled them, only to end up with the creases remaining where they started. Mister Boomer waded that minefield each week, and failed. He never was able to get the creases pointing in the “correct” direction.

By the late sixties, the casualization of America had begun, and, along with the availability of permanent press and no-iron pants, made the whole process obsolete. That was not a moment too soon for Mister Boomer, who did not understand to begin with why society felt a gentleman had to do that.

Do you remember shifting your dress pant creases, boomer men? And boomer women, what fashion quirks did your mothers show you?

posted by Mister B in Fashion,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

Boomers Did Not Question School Starting Times

Kids are back in school just about everywhere this week, prompting fresh controversy in the news about starting times. School start times vary from state to state and in some cases are local school district decisions. Every few years, a new report surfaces that says middle and high school start times are too early. This latest round of news is courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, which stated that the average national start time is 8 a.m. According to the American Academy of Pediatricians, the National Sleep Foundation and others, the recommended start time for adolescents would be 8:30 a.m. or later.

Though Mister Boomer could uncover no corroborating evidence, it seems logical to him that school start times were based on when parents of a particular region felt they could get their children to school. Consequently, the average start time has not changed much since the 1930s.

Contrary to the sitcoms of the boomer era, the majority of fathers in the country worked in manufacturing jobs in the 1950s and ’60s. Work start times were 7 a.m. or earlier, so dads would often be gone before the children got out of bed. Nonetheless, it was considered a woman’s job to get the kids off to school. Since it was also the woman’s job to get her husband a breakfast before he went off to work, presumably she would have time when her husband walked out the door to wake the kids, prepare their breakfast and see them off to school between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. At least this train of thought fits Mister Boomer’s experience, and every family of the kids he knew at the time.

Of course, by the very early sixties, his mother revolted and refused to get up to cook Mister B’s father a breakfast. Soon after, she announced she wasn’t getting up to see her kids off to school, either. No matter to Mister Boomer and his siblings, as they ate a bowl of cereal (and later, Carnation Instant Breakfast and Pop Tarts) and learned to pack their own lunches before walking two miles in a snowstorm to get to school before the 8 a.m. start time. But we digress.

Several scientific experts are stating that kids need at least 8 hours of sleep, and later start times in some counties is supporting evidence that students are more alert, ready to learn, and are more productive. Coaches are saying they notice the later start times are contributing to better performance in sports as well.

Then again, there is a report that says two out of every three teens get less than the recommended eight hours of sleep. Of course, the question immediately arises that, if kids need eight hours of sleep, why aren’t they going to bed earlier? Mister Boomer recalls an expanding bedtime schedule as he grew; in his younger years, it was 9 p.m. but by the time he was a teen, he often stayed up to 10:30 or 11 p.m. Since his alarm went off at 7 a.m., presumably he and his siblings got the requisite eight hours. That was then. Nowadays, kids have so many more distractions than boomers did, first among them the smart phone. There is one report that says on average kids spend the first hour when they go to bed on their phones, texting, watching videos and updating social media posts.

In boomer days, if a peep was heard from the bedrooms down the hall, parents might shout out, “shut up and go to sleep!” It seems these days that parents do not command that level of authority. Mister Boomer works with one Gen-Xer who was so frustrated by his early-teen kids’ nightly behavior that he impounded their cell phones at bedtime.


Oh, that George Jetson, dropping his kids off to school in the morning on his way to work. It seems in boomer times we could not envision a time when school would start later in the morning.

Science, however, is saying it’s not only the eight hours that are required, but the disruption of the circadian rhythm at the earlier hour that is coming into play. Certainly many a boomer recalls dozing off in an early class. And many boomers — including Mister B — can attest to napping in a 7:30 a.m. college course. In Mister Boomer’s case, it was a Humanities course. No sooner did the professor shut the lights and turn on the slide projector than he was fighting to keep his eyes open.

From Mister Boomer’s perspective on our shared boomer upbringing, there were things that just were, and that was that. School start time was never a question, it just was the time you had to be there. For the most part, he does not recall a lot of kids dozing off in class early on, either. At that time, teachers would hardly have stood for it, and might give a kid a swift whack with a ruler if a kid was discovered dozing.

Mister B is no expert on the subject, and doesn’t play one in his blog. He is just pointing out another of the growing list of differences between the generations of when boomers yawned at the dawn’s early light and today’s generation that wakes up to a blinking screen.

What time did your school start, boomers? Did you ever fall asleep in an early class?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History and have Comments Off on Boomers Did Not Question School Starting Times

Boomers Loved to Tie-Dye

When people talk about the sixties these days, images of long hair, peace symbols and tie-dye shirts pictured in Summer of Love photographs run rampant through their perceptions. It’s been fifty years since the Summer of Love, that coming-of-age party for the Hippie and Psychedelic Era. Boomers know that the sixties were more than that, but the Summer of Love did play a huge role in our music and fashion in the latter half of the decade.

One area of fashion that swept through boomer youth from coast to coast was do-it-yourself tie dye. In the sixties, young people developed their own sense of style that was mostly in harmony with notions of an idealized world where people lived in peace. Part of that utopian dream was living off the land and making a lot of things yourself. Yet tie-dye fashion — in particular the homemade tie-dye t-shirt — had its roots a few thousand years before the Summer of Love.

Tie-dyed fabric has been around for thousands of years in India, Japan, China, Africa and parts of South America. The techniques varied from area to area and century to century, but they all had one thing in common: it involved tying or binding areas of fabric and dyeing it. Areas tied off would not take the dye, creating patterns that were identifiable to specific regions.

Bandhani fabrics from India date back six thousand years. Their technique was meticulously tying tiny balls of fabric (often silk) with thread so that after dyeing with natural dyes, the resulting patterns would be composed of dots. The Japanese Shibori technique folded and tied fabric to create fascinating, flowing patterns, usually in indigo. So how did this ancient method find its way into sixties counterculture?

It was in 1965 that marketing executive Don Price — former brand marketing guru for Hellmann’s mayonnaise — took the challenge to reverse the downward sales trend of Rit dyes. The company had been producing dyes for the home market since 1917, but with changing times came a shift away from Rit’s powdered dye and traditional colors.

Price, tuned into the creative energy that was bursting out of Greenwich Village in New York, convinced some artists to experiment with Rit dyes. He bought several bolts of velvet and chiffon fabric and gave them to Will and Eilleen Richardson, a couple who were former window designers. Word got out as other artists experimented with Rit, and the home DIY tie-dye movement had begun. In turn, Price convinced the company to create a liquid dye that would be more controllable for creative applications.

Artists and musicians were the first to sport the designs, and, possibly because many traveled from the east coast to California, spread the DIY tie-dye bug. It is also said that even though Don Price’s marketing of Rit may have been responsible for the widespread appeal across the nation, Californians had independently started the trend after taking trips to India. Does it matter, boomers? We came, we saw, we tie-dyed!

Back in New York, the samples made by the Richardsons so impressed Price that he took them to fashion designers hoping to coax them into using the fabrics in their designs. All but one refused him. Halston liked the samples and ordered $5000 worth. From there it was only a matter of time until tie-dye graced the covers of fashion magazines like Vogue.

Meanwhile, a few music legends we identify with the sixties had embraced the DIY tie-dye look early on. Chief among them were Janis Joplin, Mama Cass and John Sebastian. It is said that Sebastian so loved the individualism of tie-dye that he dyed his own underwear. The Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, precursor to the Summer of Love, was the big introduction of the tie-dye look for a lot of boomers, reinforced by the counterculture images flashing on the evening news fifty years ago. At Woodstock in 1969, Joplin, Joe Cocker and others wore tie-dyed garments on stage, while celebrities like Ali MacGraw and Marisa Berenson had joined the revolution by wearing Halston’s tie-dye fashions on the street and on fashion magazine covers as the sixties became the seventies.

Out in boomer country, the spirit of DIY fashion, coupled with the wide availability and affordability of Rit dyes, allowed tie-dye to sweep the nation. Shortly after the Summer of Love, Mister Boomer was introduced to the technique by his brother. After watching Brother Boomer make a couple of tie-dyed t-shirts in the family’s basement, he had to try it himself. The local five and dime had a large display of Rit dyes. Mister B bought some Navy blue Rit powder dye and mixed it in a bucket, as he had seen his brother do before him. He took a white t-shirt, some string and rubber bands and set about tying parts of the shirt before dyeing. Once he dropped it into the bucket, he left it overnight. The next day he pulled it from the bucket and rinsed it multiple times — like his brother had done — before untying the bindings. He had a distinct pattern of three white circular areas of differing sizes drifting across the front of his now blue shirt, like cosmic jelly fish swimming across the Sea of the Universe. Wow, man! Mister B was pleased with the result. After an initial washing, he wore the shirt everywhere. His tie-dye lasted a decade, and he cherished it even more as the color faded.

So the Rit company — and boomers — have Don Price to thank for saving the brand and for the tie-dye movement that is still — like Rit dyes — going strong today. Tie dye is often associated with cannabis culture today, and though Mister B would hardly be called a follower of that philosophy, owns two tie-dyed shirts. One was a gift, the other he purchased. People know when you are a child of the sixties, man, so why hide it?

Did you make your own tie-dyed fashions, boomers? Do you own any tie-dye today?

posted by Mister B in Fashion,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

Boomers Collected Classic Monster Models

The 1950s and ’60s saw the heyday of model building in the U.S., and Mister Boomer was, like so many boomer boys, in the middle of it. Having got the model-building bug from his brother, Mister B built model kits for airplanes, ships and cars of all types. Yet the models he most treasured long after they were fully assembled and painted were his monster models collection.

Model kits have been around for generations, but before the war they were primarily composed of balsa wood, cloth, paper and metal. After the war, plastics fueled the model craze because they could be easily molded into any shape and were inexpensive to make. Consequently, several companies vied for boomer boys’ attention, each specializing in their own genre. The Aurora Plastics Company entered the market with plastic figurines in 1950. The company was interested in gaining a higher percentage of the burgeoning model market against stiff competition from the likes of industry giants Revell and others, and in 1956 they found a way; that year, Universal Pictures released its classic monster movies for television broadcasts. The company acquired the rights to make models of the classic monsters that had been scaring people on the silver screen for twenty years. Boomers were already feasting on a movie monster and sci-fi craze throughout the 1950s, so Aurora had an audience ready to buy what they were offering.

In 1961, the first Aurora monster model — the Frankenstein Monster — rolled off the production line and into the boomer zeitgeist. The model was an immediate success and sold as fast as Aurora could make them. In fact, the models sold so quickly that the company had to keep production going 24 hours a day. At its peak, Aurora was making 8,000 Frankenstein Monster kits a day, each sold for 98¢.

The prospect of a Frankenstein Monster kit for just under a dollar opened up the market for boomer boys, including Mister Boomer. After the commercial success of the Frankenstein Monster, Aurora developed an additional 12 kits known as the Aurora Monster 13:
1962: Dracula and The Wolf Man
1963: The Mummy, The Creature (from the Black Lagoon), and The Phantom of the Opera
1964: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde, King Kong, and Godzilla

The Salem Witch and The Bride of Frankenstein were also sold in 1964, followed in 1966 by The Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Maré, to complete the monster set. Technically, the Forgotten Prisoner wasn’t a movie monster, but it represented a collaboration between Aurora and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

Mister Boomer collected ten of the classic movie monster kits, including Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, The Creature, Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde, King Kong, and Godzilla. Plus, he added Superman and the Chamber of Horrors Guillotine, both released in 1964. The affordable price meant he could buy them himself from his savings, but most often he asked for specific ones for Christmas. After all, he would need to buy glue and little bottles of Testor’s enamel paint to finish the projects.

Mister B spent hours assembling the pieces and painting them. He set up an entire wall shelf in his bedroom to house his collection, removing Superman from his base and suspending him in flight by a string. The guillotine was especially impressive since it actually chopped off the head of the condemned man. And painting the blood and guts of the prisoner mounted behind bars on the Phantom of the Opera base was satisfyingly creepy.

In the 1980s, Mister B paid a visit to his old homestead, only to discover, like so many boomer boys before him, that his mother had sold every model — monsters, cars, airplanes and ships — at a yard sale. Is it any wonder that many boomers are buying the kits again in their golden years? So far, Mister B has resisted.

Did you build these classic monster models, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,Toys and have Comment (1)