Every four years, on January 20, we inaugurate the President and Vice President at a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. Harry Truman was president when the first boomers were born. In 1949, he was the first president to give his inaugural address to a televised audience. However, seeing as the first boomers were three years old, it wouldn’t be until 1953 that early-era boomers could watch the inaugural address of the next president, Dwight Eisenhower.
Nonetheless, for many of us mid-era boomers, it was the inauguration of John Kennedy in 1961 that we most likely remember. The Kennedy inauguration was memorable on several levels. His address, after all, gave us the much-quoted speech where the newly-minted president said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy was at that time the youngest person ever to hold the office, and the first Catholic ever elected president.
Long before Kennedy’s inauguration, it had become traditional for the president to wear a top hat as part of his ceremonial garb. The top hat, once a must-have in formal wear, had fallen out of fashion since the 1920s, but presidents upheld the tradition until Dwight Eisenhower chose to wear his everyday Homburg hat instead. Boomers certainly recall that men wore hats on a daily basis in the 1940s and ’50s. Kennedy, however, was known more for not wearing a hat on the campaign trial. That prompted one part of the population to appeal to the incoming president to return to the top hat tradition. Kennedy’s tailor agreed, and it was decided that Kennedy would wear a top hat and formalwear that had the traditional day stripe up the side of each leg.
Kennedy is pictured riding in a convertible car in the traditional parade up to the Capitol with his top hat, but he mostly used it to wave to the crowd. Then, in a controversial move, Kennedy chose not to wear the hat at his swearing in ceremony and inaugural address. Ever since that day, there has been a contingent of people who say the president hastened the demise of men’s hats. However, subsequent scholarship has noted that hat wearing was already on the decline among college students in the1920s, and there was a sharp decline in men wearing hats after the War. The Boomer Era was a break from the old ways, including hat wearing. John Kennedy was not the catalyst for the end of daily hat wearing, but merely among the growing group of men who broke the tradition in their own lives for personal choice.
Galas and balls were a part of inaugurations since the first one was held for George Washington. During the Great Depression, presidents Herbert Hoover, then Franklin Roosevelt, held balls as charity fundraisers in a time when people were in deep need of assistance. Harry Truman brought them back after the War, and the number of balls increased in the 1950s and ’60s. Eisenhower had two inaugural balls for his first term, and four for his second. John Kennedy had five.
Kennedy’s ties with Hollywood performers paid off for his pre-inaugural gala. Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford put together a star-studded event the night before the inauguration, funded by John Kennedy’s father, Joseph. On the bill was Sinatra, Lawrence Olivier, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Gene Kelly, Milton Berle, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, and Bette Davis. The band leader was Leonard Bernstein. Held at the National Armory on the evening of January 19, a raging snowstorm kept some from attending, while Ethel Merman performed in the clothes she wore at the dress rehearsal since she could not risk a trip to her hotel and back.
Since the Kennedy inauguration, traditions and inaugural balls varied in size and scope. Jimmy Carter chose to reduce the formality of the inauguration, and asked only $25 per ticket for his inaugural ball. Ronald Reagan expanded the number of inaugural balls (and held the most lavish and expensive ball), but George Bush cut them back. Bill Clinton had fourteen at his inauguration.
Despite the pomp and circumstances surrounding the inauguration, boomers have born witness to our shared history, and will do so once again this week. Joe Biden will represent the 14th president inaugurated since the dawn of the Boomer Era.
What inaugurations come to mind for you, boomers? What is the first inauguration you recall watching on TV?
It has become a Mister Boomer tradition as the year comes to an end to list some of the accomplished people who have passed on in the previous 12 months. Some of these people are well-known to boomers, as historical or cultural icons, while others worked quietly, yet their work had powerful implications for boomers and beyond.
Marty Grebb (September 2, 1945 — January 1, 2020)
Boomer musician Marty Grebb played keyboards, guitar and saxophone for The Buckinghams from 1966 to 1968. He also toured with and appeared on dozens of records for a variety of artists, including Leon Russell, Elton John, Muddy Waters, Etta James and Eric Clapton.
He spent 25 years as a member of Bonnie Raitt’s band, and a year with Chicago, from 1980-81. If you don’t own any records by The Buckinghams (well, you’ll need to rectify that situation), check for his name on records by these other artists with whom he collaborated.
Buck Henry (December 9, 1930 — January 8, 2020)
Many boomers will recall Buck Henry as the 10-time host of Saturday Night Live from 1976 to 1980. Yet the reason Buck was on SNL to begin with was his credentials as an actor, writer, producer and director. Whether boomers made the connection or not, our generation has been watching work by Buck Henry since the early 1960s. He was a member of the cast on the US version of That Was the Week That Was (1964–1965), the satirical news show that has influenced every similar show since. He followed that stint as the co-creator (with Mel Brooks) of Get Smart (1965-70), then collaborated with Calder Willingham to write the screenplay for The Graduate (1967). Buck is credited with writing the famous “plastics” speech from the film. The writing team received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay. Yet there was still more. Buck wrote the Barbra Streisand comedies, The Owl and the Pussycat (1970) and What’s Up, Doc? (1972). As an actor, he appeared in more than 40 films, and had numerous appearances and recurring roles on TV shows throughout the 1960s and ’70s.
Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovitch Demsky; December 9, 1916 — February 5, 2020)
Kirk began his film acting career as the Boomer Generation came into being, which puts him at the core of boomer movie memories for decades, appearing in more than 90 films and numerous TV guest roles. Boomers have their choice of favorites, but Mister B thinks many will choose his role as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956); Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957); Spartacus (1960) or Seven Days in May (1964.) He stood up to the Hollywood establishment to support blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, whom he hired to write the screenplay for Spartacus. Nominated three times in the Academy Awards Best Actor category, Kirk received an honorary Oscar in 1996 for his 50 years of work in the motion picture industry.
Max Von Sydow (April 10, 1929 — March 8, 2020)
Max rose to fame as a medieval knight playing chess with the Grim Reaper in Ingmar Bergman’s, The Seventh Seal (1957). He’s one of those actors who appeared again and again in movies throughout the boomer years to current times. He often played roles of characters who were older than he was in real life, as he did as the priest in The Exorcist (1973). In 2016, he played Three-Eyed Raven in The Game of Thrones series.
Bill Withers (July 4, 1938 — March 30, 2020)
When we read about Bill Withers songs, the word “classic” comes up over and over again. His song, Lean on Me (1972), has resurfaced as a beacon of hope in our year of the coronavirus; among other Bill Withers classics: Ain’t No Sunshine (1971), Use Me (1972) Lovely Day (1977) and Just the Two of Us (1981).
Little Richard (Richard Penniman; December 5, 1932 — May 9, 2020)
A rock & roll pioneer, Little Richard was known for his flamboyant look and performance antics onstage. Boomers will instantly recall his scratchy howl in Tutti Frutti (1955). Numerous rock icons name him as a main influence in their careers, including The Beatles (he was the opening act when the Beatles played Hamburg), Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, David Bowie and Prince, to name a few. Little Richard was in the first group of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees in 1986.
Katherine Johnson (August 26, 1918 — February 24, 2020)
A NASA mathematician who calculated the rocket trajectory for Apollo moon landings, Katherine Johnson remained virtually unknown to most boomers until the 2016 movie, Hidden Figures, portrayed her story. As a black female scientist in the 1960s, she was never given her due for her valuable contributions to the Space Program. She began work at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia in 1953. There, she earned the trust of John Glenn. When Glenn was chosen as the first American to orbit the Earth, he specifically asked for Katherine to double-check the orbital calculations that were coming from early NASA computers, then known to be unreliable. She was awarded the the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, by President Barack Obama.
Kenny Rogers (August 21, 1938 — March 20, 2020)
Boomers will recall the group that introduced our generation to Kenny was The First Edition, and their hit, Just Dropped in (to See What Condition My Condition Was in) (1968). When the band released, Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1978), a song by Mel Tillis, and it charted at No. 1 on both the country and pop charts, the band was renamed Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. By the mid 1970s, Kenny embarked on a solo career. For the next four decades, he straddled genres between pop and country.
Ken Osmond (June 7, 1943 — May 18, 2020)
Boomers knew Ken as Eddie Haskel on Leave It to Beaver. Eddie was a mischievous teen friend to Wally, but was always on his best behavior in front of Mrs. Cleaver. His character was the inspiration for Bart Simpson. After Leave It To Beaver, he was typecast so he quit acting and became a Los Angeles Police Department motorcycle cop.
Carl Reiner (March 20, 1922 — June 29, 2020)
Carl came to the attention of early boomers as a writer-actor on Sid Caesar’s 1950s TV shows, working alongside Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks. He created The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) based on experiences and people he met as head writer for Sid Caesar. Boomers will long remember him as a writer, actor and director, but most notably for his boomer-era TV sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Astrid Kirchherr (May 20, 1938 — May 12, 2020)
In 1960, The Beatles were playing clubs in Hamburg, Germany, where photographer Astrid Kirchherr shot some of the earliest photos of the Fab Four. She fell in love with Stuart Sutcliffe, who was the original bass player. Stuart borrowed her collarless tops and adopted the hairstyle of Astrid’s art school friends, marking the beginnings of the look and style of The Beatles. When Astrid became engaged to Stuart in November 1960, he left the band to pursue his art career. Stuart passed away in 1962 from a cerebral hemorrhage. After Stuart’s death, she remained in Hamburg until she was asked to shoot behind the scenes photos during the filming of A Hard Day’s Night (1964).
Hugh Downs (February 14, 1921 — July 1, 2020)
A TV personality that boomers grew up watching (and hearing), Hugh Downs began his career in radio, then became an announcer for TV soaps. In 1947, he became an announcer on the puppet show, Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Boomers knew him most recently as the host of the Today Show on NBC, and 20/20 on ABC. He will also be remembered as being the host of numerous TV game shows, most notably, Concentration (1958-69).
Congressman John Lewis (February 21, 1940 — July 17, 2020)
Congressman Lewis was the last surviving speaker of the 1963 March on Washington. As the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he was just 23 years old at the time. That was the day Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech. In 1965, Lewis was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, during a march for voting rights. State and local police violently attacked the marchers to break up the protest. Lewis was left beaten and bloody from the police, giving the day the name, Bloody Sunday. Fighting for freedom and justice his entire life, he was elected to congress in 1988, and spent the next 30 years serving Georgia’s 5th Congressional District.
Trini Lopez (May 13, 1937 — August 11, 2020)
A singer and guitarist, boomers probably remember Trini for his hits, Lemon Tree (1965) and his version of, If I Had a Hammer (1963). Lopez had formed a band in Wichita, Texas, in 1955 and achieved moderate success as live performer. His band was signed and got a single released by Columbia Records. When the contract expired, he came to the attention of Frank Sinatra while playing at a nightclub. Frank’s Reprise Records signed him and released his first album in 1962. Nonetheless, record executives had repeatedly suggested he change his name to appeal to a broader audience, but Trini refused to do so.
Gaetano “Tommy” DeVito (June 19, 1928 –- September 21, 2020)
Tommy was a founding member, the lead guitarist and vocalist for The Four Seasons. He was with the group during their most successful period, releasing hits including Sherry (1962), Big Girls Don’t Cry (1962), Walk Like a Man (1963), Let’s Hang On! (1965) and many more. He left the group in 1970. Along with the other members of the group, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. The 2005 Broadway musical, Jersey Boys, is based on the early days of the band and Tommy’s journey with the band. Clint Eastwood made the movie version in 2014.
Johnny Nash (August 19, 1940 — October 6, 2020)
Johnny was among the first artists to bring reggae to U.S. audiences, most memorably with his 1972 chart-topping hit, I Can See Clearly. His commercial appeal peaked in late 1960s and early 1970s. Boomers may recall Hold Me Tight (1968), You Got Soul (1968), and his version of Bob Marley’s Stir It Up (1972).
Diana Rigg (July 20, 1938 — September 10, 2020)
Classically trained as a stage actor with The Royal Shakespeare Company, she came to be known by boomers through her role as Emma Peel on TV’s The Avengers (Diana’s time in the role was 1965-67). Her character was known for stylish outfits, intelligence and quick wit, and her martial arts ability. In recent years she played the role of Lady Olenna Tyrell on Game of Thrones.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg (March 15, 1933 — September 18, 2020)
With a resume that is directly intertwined with the peace, justice and equality movements of the 1960s, Ruth began her law career in 1956 as one of the few female law students in the country, first attending Harvard Law School and then transferring to Columbia Law School. Stymied by discrimination, she was unable to get a job at a law firm merely because she was a woman. Instead, she turned to academia, and became a law professor. Her experiences influenced her life-long work of fighting injustices, especially gender stereotypes that held women back from their true potential. She was nominated by President Bill Clinton for the Supreme Court in 1993. Her induction to the court made her only the second female justice in the court’s history.
Helen Reddy (October 25, 1941 — September 29, 2020)
Helen Reddy spent her life advancing female empowerment. Consequently, boomers will forever remember that she was Australian, and sang, I Am Woman, which roared to the top of the charts in 1971. She had other hits, including Delta Dawn (1973) and Angie Baby (1974), but none reached the popularity and success of I Am Woman, which has since entered into cultural icon status.
Eddie Van Halen (January 26, 1955 — October 6, 2020)
A boomer himself, Eddie was a musician’s guitarist, gaining legions of fans for his ability. He played guitar on Michael Jackson’s Beat It while his own band’s (Van Halen) album charted just below Michael’s. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
Whitey Ford (Edward Charles Ford; October 21, 1928 — October 8, 2020)
Many boomer sports fans recall Whitey as one of the greatest Major League pitchers baseball has ever seen. Though he was not physically intimidating, and didn’t have the fastest fastball, Whitey was known for his ball control. He spent 16 years pitching for the New York Yankees from 1950-67. In 1961 alone, he won the Cy Young Award and was named MVP of the Word Series. A six-time World Series champion, he won 236 games in his career, a record that still stands for the Yankees franchise. Whitey was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.
Sean Connery (August 25, 1930 — October 31, 2020)
To many boomers, there was only one 007, and that was Sean Connery. The man who initiated the role in the movies, he went on to play the super-spy James Bond in seven films. Boomers also recall his roles in The Man Who Would Be King (1975), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and his Oscar-winning role in The Untouchables (1987).
Len Barry (Leonard Borisoff; June 12, 1942 — November 5, 2020)
Boomers remember Len Berry for his cheery pop melodies. He was the lead singer of The Dovells, recording Bristol Stomp (1961) and You Can’t Sit Down (1963). He embarked on a solo career in 1963, reaching his peak with 1-2-3 (1965).
Jim Tucker (October 17, 1946 — November 12, 2020)
Boomers remember Jim as an original member and guitarist for the Turtles from 1965-68. He was with the group during their biggest year, 1967, when Happy Together was released. In a particularly wild evening before their Happy Together tour in London, Jim was berated by John Lennon. According to fellow Turtles member Howard Kaylan, Jim left the band because of that encounter. After leaving the band, he had a long career as a an electrical contractor in California.
Kenny Jeremiah (November 22, 1942 — December 4, 2020)
In 1964, Kenny formed the band, the Soul Survivors and was the lead singer. Their biggest hit came in 1967 with, Expressway to Your Heart. The group gained International fame touring with Janis Joplin, Donna Summer, The Beach Boys, and Eric Clapton.
David Lander (June 22, 1947 – December 4, 2020)
A boomer writer who became an actor, David wrote for Walter Winchell in his early days. However, most boomers will always remember him as Squiggy, on Laverne & Shirley (1976-83). David was also a writer for the show. He voiced dozens of animated characters and had numerous appearances in movies and TV shows in recent years.
Chuck Yeager (February 13, 1923 — December 7, 2020)
A decorated pilot during World War II, Chuck became a test pilot after the war. He will forever be remembered as the first man to break the sound barrier, on October 14, 1947. His flights were key to developing supersonic flight, and helped launch the race into space.
We continue to say good-bye to so many people who touched our lives during our boomer years. Which ones bring back personal connections for you, boomers?