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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?

Time for a Boomer Education Comeback?

Mister Boomer recently heard an interview with an author who wrote about the differences between the Chinese education system and that of the U.S. in an effort to discover why our country continually lags behind in elementary education surveys.

The author said that in China, children must obey their parents as the ultimate authority figures, and when they went to school, the teachers were the ultimate authority. Not even parents are allowed to question teachers’ methods or course study. While this cultural imperative imparts a strict discipline that is evidently conducive to prepping students for higher education, it sounds far more rigid that anything we have had in this country … or does it? Mister Boomer was struck by the similarities to our Boomer-era education.

Granted, things may never have been as disciplined as required in a Chinese classroom, but the way we rose through the school ranks is far different than what transpires today. First off, we were also taught to respect and listen to our parents, which, for the most part, we did. When we went to school, the teachers were thought of as an extension of the parents. That meant what the teacher said, went. If you came home and said, “The teacher hit me,” a parent might have responded with, “Good, what did you do to make her hit you?” Our parents would take the side of the teacher every time.

Yes, there was that corporal punishment aspect of classroom discipline that causes litigation today. Mister Boomer stayed along the straight and narrow, but he saw classroom beat-downs that would horrify today’s supermarket tabloids. It is doubtful that many people would want to return to that aspect of “education,” but it is a part of our shared history. Despite the threat of bodily harm, kids accepted teachers as authority figures.

This system sometimes broke down when there was a substitute teacher. Kids enjoyed giving her (teachers were mostly female) a hard time on occasion, though it was usually light-hearted mischievousness. Take, for example, one day Mister Boomer remembers: He was probably in fourth grade when the school principal came into his class and introduced a woman who was to be the sub for a few days. Immediately after the principal left, the substitute passed around a pad of paper and asked the kids to write their names so she could take attendance and get to associate the names with faces.

Almost immediately, muffled snickering could be heard as the list passed down one row and up the next. When it reached Mister B, he could see what the snickering was about. Enterprising youth as they were, most wrote their own names, but also added another fictitious one to the list. Naturally, at the top of the list a pre-teen boy had written above his own name,“Jack MeHoff.” Almost every student had joined in the fun, adding “Chuck Wagon,” “Luke Warm,” “Willie Makit,” and, in a rare bit of solidarity, a girl penned “Helen Bach” after her name. Mister B, feeling the peer pressure, added “Pete Moss.”

The payoff would come when the teacher called each name. Was she in on the joke or just clueless? Sure enough, she started at the top of the list, much to the delight of the class: “Jack … Mee-Huff, is that how you pronounce it? … Jack, where are you,” she continued as the class burst into laughter. She caught on pretty quickly after that and navigated the name land mines to conduct a regular class. There were no further incidents for the duration of her substitute days.

Is it time to return to a level of classroom respect that we experienced as boomers? Who can say, especially since so much has changed. Kids today are far more advanced in their course studies than we were, not to mention the influence of technology. Yet the U.S. lags down the list for education quality on the world stage.

What do you think, boomers? Are there aspects of our own Age of Innocence that can be applied today, or has that ship sailed into the annals of history?

posted by Mister B in Education and have Comment (1)

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)

Boomer Songs Sang About the Working Man

As we mark another Labor Day, it’s time for our national salute to workers everywhere. Boomers have always had a special connection to working class people. After all, it was the rise of the middle class after the War that allowed the Baby Boom to come into existence. You can see this connection to workers in the music of the day.

So, in honor of Labor Day, here are a few boomer-era songs of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that either call out the plight of the working person or mention a profession by name:

Get A Job – The Silhouettes (1957)
Richard Lewis, who wrote the song’s lyrics, said the song came from a time when he got out of the Army and wasn’t immediately working, so his mother told him to “get a job.” Two decades later it became the signature song of Sha Na Na, who took their name from the song’s lyrics.

Five O’ Clock World – The Vogues (1965)
..When the whistle blows, no one owns a piece of my time. Is there a more perfect sentiment for Labor Day? Of course, the irony is, if you get off work at 5 p.m., then the company has in fact owned a piece of your time since 9 a.m. Still, a great song.

Working in a Coal Mine – Lee Dorsey (1966)
Occasionally Mister Boomer mimics the singer’s rendition of the last sentence, Lord I’m so tired, at work. He does realize that the millennials in his workplace have no idea what he is referencing. How long can this go on…

Sixteen Tons – Tennessee Ernie Ford (1955)
We learned in this song that digging sixteen tons of coal will only get you one day older and deeper in debt.

Coal Miner’s Daughter – Loretta Lynn (1970)
It looks like in the era when many boomer houses received coal deliveries for heating, our songs put the profession of coal miner right up there synonymously with hard work. Lynn recorded this autobiographical song in 1969, but it wasn’t released until a year later. By 1970, very few houses were still heated by coal, marking the beginning of the decline of the industry that’s still going on today.

Paperback Writer – The Beatles (1966)
Paul McCartney sings that he needs a job and he wants to be a paperback writer.

Lovely Rita – The Beatles (1967)
The singer — Paul McCartney — is said to have gotten the inspiration for this song when he saw a meter maid issuing a ticket. Some guys do love a working gal in a uniform.

Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles (1964)
It’s hard to remember sometimes that The Beatles all came from working class families themselves. Ringo came up with the phrase after the band had worked all day and night. Once it was decided that Ringo’s malapropism would make a good title for their upcoming movie, John went about writing the title song.

Please Mister Postman – The Marvelettes (1961)
Please Mister Postman, check and see / If there’s a letter, a letter for me… Who knows how much longer postmen and women will be delivering mail to our homes? Letters are few and far between these days already. Back when it was a major means of communication, the song was the first Motown song to reach Billboard’s Hot 100.

Wichita Lineman – Glenn Campbell (1968)
A lot of working people can relate to the loneliness exuded from these song lyrics written by Jimmy Webb: I am a lineman for the county / And I drive the main road / Searchin’ in the sun for another overload. The haunting melody was portrayed beautifully in Glenn Campbell’s voice. Campbell, as most boomers know, was a member of the Wrecking Crew, that group of top-notch studio musicians who appeared uncredited on dozens of hit songs throughout the 1960s. The group also backed Campbell on this recording, which became his signature tune.

Working for the Man – Roy Orbison (1962)
In this Roy Orbison song we hear the plight of the working man, in this case, in the Texas oil fields: Oh well I’m pickin’ ’em up and I’m laying ’em down / I believe he’s gonna work me into the ground …
But later in the song we learn that he’s working for this man because he’s making time with the boss’ daughter and some day he plans on being “the man” himself.

If I Were a Carpenter – Bobby Darin (1966)
The old if “I had a profession like a carpenter, would you still love me enough to get married and have a kid” song. Written by Tim Hardin, he personally performed it at Woodstock (1969). It was covered earlier by Joan Baez (1967), and Four Tops (1968), then by Johnny Cash and June Carter (1970) and Bob Seger (1972), among others. Of course, a good many boomers recall the song from Bobby Darin’s version.

Sky Pilot – The Animals (1968)
Released during the Vietnam War, the song seems upbeat in tempo, but lyrically it’s not about an airplane pilot, but rather a military chaplain trying to offer comfort to troops as they head into battle. It’s another of those tough jobs we heard about on our transistor radios.

The Boxer – Simon & Garfunkel (1969)
Here Simon and Garfunkel use a profession — a boxer — to illustrate one man’s struggle to overcome loneliness and poverty. It was the most heavily produced song the duo ever released.

Talking Care of Business – Bachman Turner Overdrive (1974)
Randy Bachman wrote this memorable ditty under the title of White Collar Worker when he was still a member of The Guess Who. The band didn’t think it was their kind of song, so he took it with him when he left. After performing the song on Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s early tours in the early ’70s, Bachman overheard a radio DJ say, “We’re taking care of business.” He took the line and replaced “White Collar Worker” with it, and the rest is history.

Car Wash – Rose Royce (1976)
This title song from the movie of the same name tells us that working at the car wash, You might not ever get rich / But let me tell you it’s better than digging a ditch … It was the group’s only hit.

Welcome to the Working Week – Elvis Costello (1977)
I know it don’t thrill you / I hope it don’t kill you … Are you seeing a pattern, boomers? Most of our songs about working say we don’t like our jobs and a good portion of the time, we tolerate them to get home to our loved ones.

If you are still working, enjoy your holiday off, boomers! Then it’s back to working for the man. What is your favorite boomer-era working song?

 

posted by Mister B in Holidays,Music and have Comments (2)

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)