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.
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?