Beatniks, burbs, Brando those days are still with us

June 05, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

To those who lived through them, the '50s were about as thrilling as a pot roast.

Surviving tract homes in a tranquilized haze, eating TV dinners while watching "I Love Lucy," we were basically too busy conforming to society to recognize that brave new social experiments were happening all around -- and that we were the guinea pigs.

The '50s, however, have been resurrected as a rich source of social research by historians, critics and journalists.

With works such as David Halberstam's "The Fifties," Stephanie Coontz's "The Way We Never Were" and Brett Harvey's "The Fifties: A Women's Oral History," we can now cite this formative decade when tracing our collective neuroses, afflictions, icons, hopes and dreams. For in spirit and in flesh (see Marlon Brando, Liz Taylor), the '50s are still upon us.

Following is a selective list of '50s events, inventions and personalities with an enduring impact on the United States and its denizens:

* Sen. Joseph McCarthy: Witch hunts have always been a national pastime. But Joseph McCarthy was a peerless name-caller whose blacklists of alleged communists earned him two nouns -- "McCarthyite" and "McCarthyism" -- in the dictionary.

* Korean War: Set the standard for our hard-line psychological battle against communism, thus a prelude to Vietnam, a war that haunts with ugly flashbacks.

* The Cold War: Our nation's raison d'etre until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With no evil empire to do battle with, we're left scrambling for a new world order and flummoxed by countries like Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, India, North Korea, China and Ukraine, which have or are thought to have The Bomb (or a nuclear program).

* Birth of the civil rights movement: African-Americans' contribution to American life is undeniable, but race remains the country's cross to bear. Last year's riots in Los Angeles taught us that racial tensions remain a millisecond away from flash point, and blacks mourn as violence among themselves escalates.

* Levittown, N.Y., and suburbia: The woes of forsaken cities are catching up with the burbs, but we continue to light out for the territory, in search of the American dream.

* "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet": Not! Even though Betty Friedan skewered the myth of the nuclear family in the "The Feminine Mystique," the '50s mirage of content, stay-at-home moms, commuting dads and gifted children still bedevils our real lives.

* McDonald's: Over 100 billion hamburgers sold. 'Nuf said.

* Television: Can you say "couch potato?"

* Polio vaccine: Today, polio is not the concern it was in the '50s. But its cure is an inspiration for those who are struggling to banish another scourge, AIDS.

* Rock and roll: We rocked around the clock to flee the gun-metal gray '50s, its Byzantine moral code and WASP ideals. Today, rock and roll -- from grunge and hardcore to Christian rock -- has become our national folk music, expressing the dissonance of contemporary life.

* Elvis Presley: Major deity, often spotted in phone book commercials and shopping malls and on pretty-in-pink postage stamps.

* Marilyn Monroe: Our obsession with the late actress' dumb-blond allure and vulnerability underscores a recent U.N. report finding that women are the most excluded group in the world.

* Beatniks: They're back, Daddy-o, and with them coffee houses, folk music, poetry readings, the collected works of Jack Kerouac and gobs of black mascara. Smoking is required.

* First commercially produced, large-scale business computers: Today, optical fiber connects our cities in a vast "data superhighway" that provides services such as interactive home shopping and multimedia education. The print media ponder obsolescence while hackers debate the politics of "global cyberspace."

* James Dean: The original slacker, and inspiration for today's disaffected youths who are slouching toward an economic abyss.

* Baby boomers: Coming to grips with children, aging parents and middle age all at once, not to mention those baby-buster upstarts cleaning up the mess left by earlier generations.

Fifties honorable mentions: Playboy magazine, crew cuts, disposable diapers, Alaska, Hawaii, Little Richard, Alvin Ailey forms the American Dance Theater, quiz show scandals, Holiday Inns, "West Side Story," Liberace.

"The Honeymooners," Nat King Cole, premiere of "Waiting for Godot," sugarless gum, electric typewriters, vibrating mattresses, coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Rosenberg executions, "Lolita," "The Catcher in the Rye," "The Lonely Crowd," rat race.

George Jorgensen, 26, is surgically transformed into a woman (Christine) in Denmark, Willie Mays, E. J. Korvette, Chuck Berry, "Peyton Place," U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, station wagons, Volkswagen beetles, Harley Earl finned a Ford, the first Kinsey report on human sexuality, and "Don't be a paleface" -- 1953 ad for Coppertone suntan lotion.

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