Boomers Loved Their Teen Angels

The passing last week of Davy Jones, frontman for The Monkees, prompted Mister Boomer to recall an era of teen idols. Teen idols were not new or exclusive to the boomer era; some say this phenomenon began in the 20th century as celebrity fandom appeared along with silent movies. The quintessential male star of silent movies in the early 1910s and 1920s was Rudolph Valentino. The silent film star gathered his share of teenage fans for his confident, suave, romantic and passionate roles. The writer H.L. Mencken wrote of Valentino shortly after his death that he was “catnip to women.”

The next really huge teen idol was Frank Sinatra. In the 1940s, his appearances caused near riots as legions of teenage female fans — known as “bobby-soxers” because of the type of socks they wore, rolled-down to the ankle — stormed theaters and concert halls. Many people point to this pre-war era as the beginning of Youth Culture.

The two — one a film star, the other first known for his singing before he entered the movies — displayed some basic characteristics of the teen idols that were to follow: first, their celebrity was gained through their talent in acting or music; secondly, young women found them irresistible to the point of obsession; and third, they had to reciprocate by graciously accepting the adulation while remaining humble, yet “dreamy.”

Boomer teen idols continued that pattern. Most teen idols were the object of desire for teenage girls rather than boys, and were often men twice their age. The prime age of teen idol worshippers was 11 through 17, after which tastes tended to change. The 1950s produced a slew of teen idols from movies, TV and music. Among them were “older” men such as Rock Hudson and Pat Boone, to the “younger” stars like Elvis, Troy Donahue, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian and Ricky Nelson. On rare occasions, women crossed over into teen idol territory, the most famous being Annette Funicello. Her appearances as a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club TV show gave her instant fan recognition from both boys and girls when she made the transition from child actor to adult in a series of pop-historically significant “Beach” movies.

Into this mix of actors and solitary singing sensations, whole bands entered the teen idol world, most notably The Beach Boys and The Beatles. By the mid-sixties, girls everywhere had chosen their favorites in The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits and The Monkees. Naturally, one star rose above the others in each band to become the most-loved teen idol. In The Monkees, that teen idol was Davy Jones. Shows like American Bandstand, Hullabaloo, Shindig! and The Ed Sullivan Show only fueled the fires of teen idolatry.

The teen idol world got two additional big boosts in the 1960s: a proliferation of a sub-genre of pop music that was called bubblegum pop (also known as teenybopper music) and the introduction of made-for-teen magazines called 16 Magazine (which actually first appeared in 1956) and Tiger Beat (launched in 1964). Bubblegum music appealed directly to teenage girls, who liked the danceable beats, love-laced lyrics and the stars who sang them. The fanzines did for 1960s teen idols what the Hollywood movie magazines had done for stars of the 1940s and ’50s: maintained and expanded the celebrity of the stars through constant exposure.

Mister Boomer’s sister joined in on the teen idol explosion in the mid-1960s. She bought 16 Magazine and Tiger Beat on occasion and in the late ’60s, became infatuated with Bobby Sherman. Sherman was a recording artist at an early age and a regular on Shindig!, but didn’t attain teen idol status until he landed a role in the TV series, Here Come the Brides (1968-70). By then millions of boomer girls had posters of Sherman, with his trademark hair and teen idol smile, on their bedroom walls. Mister B’s sister did not have posters of Sherman, or the other big teenybopper idol of her decade, David Cassidy, but her magazines sure plastered their pictures on pages. Nonetheless, she felt compelled to buy her idol’s 45 RPM records.

16 Magazine May 1964 issue
Mister B's sister bought this May 1964 copy of 16 Magazine. The cover reads like a Who's Who of teen idols in the early 1960s: Paul Petersen, Bobby Rydell, Elvis, James Franciscus, Richard Chamberlain (a Boomer Sister fave!), Elvis and of course, The Beatles. Also listed is "Lesley & Connie," which refer to Lesley Gore and Connie Francis. Patty Duke is also pictured on the cover.

Perhaps the pre-war 1940s marked the first teen generation that would break from the tastes of their parents to explore a subculture of their own. But World War II interrupted their progress, and that left it up to the Boomer Generation to embrace the tide of Youth Culture, of which teen idols were a part. What memories of teen idols do you have, boomers?

Boomers Got Their Prime-Time Washed Out with Soap

There are many things that help to define us as boomers, and certainly TV is among the top contenders. We were infants at the same time as early TV, so you might say we grew up together. After the War, our mothers were promptly thanked for “filling in” and dismissed from the factories, relegated to the urban expansion known as Suburbia. There, the Baby Boom took flight as they became domestic engineers, baby-makers and the prime targets of advertisers of daytime TV soap operas.

A form of serial narrative called the soap opera had been broadcast on radio since the 1930s, but now, in the age of TV, the genre was transformed to the still relatively new medium. The term “soap opera” was coined by the media in the 1930s to describe the fifteen-minute serialized dramas that were sponsored by the manufacturers of household products. Since the 1930s, Proctor and Gamble was among the biggest sponsors, establishing a soap opera ad division exclusively for the purpose. Radio had the distinct advantage in that members of a household — especially homemakers — could listen while doing other things, like household chores. With the advent of regular TV broadcasts in the late 1940s, producers had to put a visual face on stories that would appeal to women who may or may not have had the time or inclination to stop what they were doing and watch. Though the genre began in uncertainty, TV executives’ concerns were quickly allayed as soaps caught on.

As the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, soap operas became the staple of daytime TV, expanding from radio’s fifteen-minute format to half-hour TV programs. It seemed only natural, then, that big advertisers of daytime soaps would want a bigger piece of the prime-time viewing pie (the hours of 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.) as well. By this time, radio soap operas had disappeared, replaced by the daytime TV soaps. It was ABC that fired the first salvo by introducing a prime-time soap opera in 1964. Called Peyton Place, it was a half-hour program that was based on a 1956 novel of the same name, by author Grace Metalious. It was aired twice a week.

The buzz around Peyton Place spread across the country like wildfire since it was among the first to deal with sex, infidelity, teen pregnancy, the draft, riots and God in a frank manner; in other words, all the subjects that are de rigueur for today’s soaps. Since its storylines were peppered with very adult subjects, ABC aired the show at 9:30 p.m., a time when we boomers were supposed to be in bed. Buoyed by the show’s popularity, the network switched to airing the show three times a week in 1965. Viewers didn’t care for the change of being forced to follow a serialized narrative over the course of three times per week, and ratings dropped. The network reluctantly switched it back to two episodes a week, but the damage had been done as Peyton Place never regained its Top 20 ranking.

Despite a gradual decline in viewership, ABC continued to air the show twice a week. By the fall of 1968, the show was losing more viewers every week, so it was moved to an 8:30 p.m. time slot in a last-ditch effort to bolster its ratings. Ultimately Peyton Place was cancelled in June of 1969. It had paved the way for future prime-time soaps, and like many of its daytime counterparts, helped to launch the careers of many actors, including Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, Mariette Hartley and Lana Wood.

Mister Boomer’s mom was a huge daytime soap fan, tuning into one after another all afternoon — her favorites included As the World Turns (1956-2010), All My Children (1970 to present) and General Hospital (1963 to present). Yet after giving Peyton Place a try once or twice, TV variety shows remained king of the Boomer household prime-time viewing, much to Mister B’s preference. Whenever Mister B was home from school for whatever reason, he tried to make himself scarce when his mother’s soaps came on; he never had the stomach for the overacted melodrama. The same was true of Peyton Place. Though it was talked about among Mister B’s peers in the schoolyard (as taboo subjects were), Mister B was completely uninterested, so he was pleasantly surprised when his mother passed on a nighttime soap addiction.

Mister B’s parents continued to avoid prime-time soaps even after the immensely popular Dallas hit the airwaves in 1978. That record was shattered one evening a few years later when Mister B paid a visit. As he entered the house, his father was on the couch, beer in hand, watching Dynasty (1981-89), but no sound was emanating from the TV. “Is your TV broken?” asked Mister B. “No, I turned off the sound,” answered his father. Alexis (Joan Collins) was pulling Krystal’s (Linda Evans) hair as the two started fighting, their shoulder pads poised like the battle-ready edges of suits of armor. “See?” he continued, “you don’t need the sound to enjoy watching this show.”

What experiences did you have with prime-time soaps, boomers?