The Fifties


Like many people, I feel that I grew up in a very special time.  I saw the birth of television, and everything that followed its birth: nightly news programs, beloved series like I Love Lucy and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, live coverage of world events, riveting congressional hearings, The Ed Sullivan Show, the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports (mostly remembered for its very popular Friday night boxing matches), and so much more.  I saw the birth of what was truly the fast-food industry with the growth of a chain of restaurants started in California by the McDonald brothers.  I saw the birth of something called a “motel” which is a portmanteau word formed by combining motor and hotel.  I saw the birth of rock and roll, and the rise of Elvis Presley – one of the greatest entertainers of the twentieth century.  I saw the rise of two of the most beautiful actresses in the history of cinema: Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot.  I saw some of the most beautiful automobiles that have even been built – many of them thanks to the genius of a gifted designer named Harley Earl.  I saw the beginning and end of the Korean War and the fall of a warrior who thought he could defy his superior, the President of the United States, with impunity.  I saw the rise and fall of a truly despicable man who recklessly destroyed many lives: Senator Joseph McCarthy.  I saw the birth of suburban subdivisions that sprang up out of farmland and were made up of ticky-tacky houses that seemed to appear in the blink of an eye.  And I saw the beginning of the space race when Russia successfully launched a satellite named Sputnik into outer space.

All of the events catalogued above took place during a single decade – the 1950s.  And most of them are discussed in considerable depth in David Halberstam’s marvelous 1993 book The Fifties.  Halberstam, born in 1934, obviously thought the 1950s were a special time, too.  His book, which is over 700 pages long, would have been 500 pages longer if his editor had not insisted that he reduce its length.

One of my favorite parts of the book has to do with Kemmons Wilson who started the Holiday Inn chain.  Wilson asked a draftsman friend named Eddie Bluestein to draw up the plans for his first proposed motel.  When Bluestein delivered the drawings he had the name “Holiday Inn” on the motel.  He had seen the Bing Crosby movie Holiday Inn (which introduced Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” to the world) the night before and liked the name.  Wilson went with it.

Wilson had an uncanny ability to go into a city, analyze the terrain and the traffic flow and to choose just the right location for his Holiday Inns.  He was literally a legend when it came to choosing locations.  After the motel chains had become very popular someone at a conference asked Marion Isbell of the Ramada Inn chain how he chose the locations for his properties.  “All I do,” answered Isbell, “is go into a city and find out where Kemmons Wilson has a good Holiday Inn and I put a Ramada Inn right next door.”

Ed Sullivan, who had a tremendously popular variety program on CBS every Sunday night from 1948 to 1971, had no obvious talent for show business, but did have the ability to choose performers that America loved.  He seemed so uncomfortable and wooden on stage that he became known as “The Great Stone Face.”  Sullivan had no tolerance for crudeness, and so he refused for a while to invite the pelvis-swiveling Elvis Presley on his show.  Eventually, due to Presley’s fame, Sullivan was forced to relent.  After interacting with Elvis, he realized that he was a clean-cut, polite young man. (I remember a lowly wardrobe lady on one of Elvis’ movies praising him because he always called her “ma’am.)  At the end of Presley’s third performance Sullivan walked up to him on stage and made aments on the air by saying, “This is a real decent, fine boy. We’ve never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you.  You’re thoroughly all right.”  I doubt that Sullivan ever made another apology like that.

Sullivan often featured black entertainers – a practice that angered some in the deep south where I grew up.  In fact, I remember asking a friend of mine if he had seen the Ed Sullivan show the night before.  My friend grinned and said, “Our TV doesn’t pick up that show.”  I understood.

I could go on for hours telling you about my favorite decade and Halberstam’s enthralling book, but I’ll leave it to you to find out more elsewhere if you’re interested.  David Halberstam did an interview on Book TV with its founder, Brian Lamb, back in 1993 that might interest you, and The History Channel did a multi-part series on The Fifties that is available (without commercials) on YouTube.  Both are worth your time.

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