From mushy to marketable, we'll dig up any old reason to celebrate HAPPY ANNIVERSARY

September 05, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

Ho hum -- another day, another anniversary.

It seems every day in 1994 allows us to celebrate something that happened 5, 10, 25, 50 or 100 years ago. Any event that happened in a year ending in "4" or "9" is now memory fodder, under the new and ever-relaxing standards for what is worth remembering.

Today, for example, it's not only Labor Day, it's the 100th anniversary of the holiday's creation. It's also the 220th anniversary of the first Continental Congress. Monday Night Football celebrates its 25th year on the air -- a milestone not to be confused with the National Football League (75) or ESPN (15).

Add these milestones to this growing roster of dates to remember in 1994: D-Day and Chiquita bananas (50); Topps baseball cards (40); Barbie (35); GI Joe and the surgeon general's warning on smoking (30); all of 1969 (25); Richard Nixon's resignation (20); the Colts' leave-taking (10); and Tiananmen Square (5).

Actually, the faint strains of the anniversary waltz were first heard last year, when 1968 produced its own spate of 25-year memories, most of them bad.

Now brace yourself for 1995, which brings us the 50th anniversary of the A-bomb and the 25th anniversary of Kent State -- not to mention Elvis Presley's 60th birthday.

Is this rash of anniversaries a freak, created by a strange alignment of the calendar, or a fake, driven more by marketing than memory?

A little of both, leavened by our relentless narcissism and impatience, say those who study popular culture and history. The mass media plays a part, too. [In interest of full disclosure, it should be noted the author of this piece wrote about James Cain on the 60th anniversary of "The Postman Always Rings Twice."]

"I swing from a dollars and cents perspective," said Dr. Michael Bernacchi, a professor of marketing at the University of Detroit Mercy. "An anniversary worth doing is one that's likely to hit the bottom line effectively."

This year, for example, those who have tried to make money off anniversaries include Woodstock II's organizers; the Buffalo Bills, who are offering season ticket holders a book to commemorate the team's 35th season; and those -- boo, hiss -- "Miracle Mets," who have been peddling autographs en masse. (Strangely, the Orioles and the Baltimore Colts are not offering any market tie-ins for their performances in the '69 World Series and Super Bowl III.)

Mattel has a special edition of 35-year-old Barbie; Budget Rent a Car conducted a survey to celebrate its 35th.

But wait, there's more. The 25th anniversary of the last Beatles album, "Abbey Road," and the 20th anniversary of the day Newark, N.J., authorities seized John Lennon's "Two Virgins" album, claiming its cover was pornographic. The 15th anniversary of "Sunday Morning" with Charles Kuralt. The magazine "Dissent" turned 40. In Russia, they marked the 70th year since Lenin's death.

Fifteen? Forty? Seventy? When did these become big anniversaries?

"Any multiple of five makes it," opines Brian Barry, professor of sociology and psychology at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. "We're partly driven by our sense that very few things last. People aren't reaching 25th wedding anniversaries any more, and they probably aren't going to spend 25 years on the job, at the same job. We celebrate now so we don't get left out later."

Yet the anniversary mania is not unique to the 1990s, although the decade has the lucky coincidence to fall within 25 and 50 years of two seminal periods in American history. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw a similar obsession with the past, says Richard M. Fried, a history professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Dr. Fried says the United States was caught up in celebrating its more distant past then -- the 350th year of the founding of Jamestown, the 150th of Abraham Lincoln's birth, the 175th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the 200th birthdays of Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall.

The biggest celebration, by far, was the centennial of the Civil War, which prompted the sale of reversible caps, from blue to gray -- and the inevitable cries about crass commercialism.

"It was a mini-industry of celebrating important anniversaries," said Dr. Fried, explaining the 1950s memory mania occurred against the backdrop of a country where citizenship was considered "flabby."

Is that the problem in the '90s, too?

"I don't think things repeat themselves very neatly, so I don't think today is the same as the '50s," Dr. Fried replied. "It's possible this is a time when we are looking for meaning, and meaning can be found in the past."

Professors Barry, Bernacchi and Fried all agreed on one thing: Mass media, which has pages and hours to fill, forces many of these marginal anniversaries on the unsuspecting public.

But the media has overlooked a few this year: the 180th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner, the 300th birthday of Voltaire and the 75th anniversary of Prohibition, which led to the 65th anniversary of the St. Valentine's Day massacre.

Oh well. We'll catch them again -- in 1999.

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