The Lost Decade: The 1950s Comes Back with a Roar

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

If you are of a certain age, you remember the 1950s like the decade was yesterday. Ike was president, the Soviets and the U.S. threatened each other daily but never actually did anything, Elvis ruled the music world and the Yankees won most of the World Series. Mom stayed at home cleaning and cooking, cars were huge, and scientists droned on about this odd thing called a computer.

The Fifties were a wonderful time in American history. World War II was over, the economy prospered, it seemed like all of your friends owned a home, the I Love Lucy television show was everybody’s favorite, teenaged girls wore poodle skirts, polio was cured and street protests were comparatively few.

It was a golden age of innocence.

Or was it?

Those same people who remember the Fifties fondly will also tell you that it was a decade in which racism reigned throughout most of the country and many schools were segregated, women were repressed, the hydrogen bomb was developed and nuclear war loomed on the horizon. People nearly smoked and drank themselves to death. Gay life remained well hidden behind very closed and locked doors, political dissidents were all seen as Communists and juvenile delinquency flourished in the cities. Joe McCarthy struck fear in the hearts of everyone. We fought in Korea, our son-of-a-bitch Batista fell in Cuba, and the French suffered catastrophic defeats in Vietnam and Algeria.

It’s a decade, though, that’s been lost to American popular culture, Grease and Happy Days excepted.

Or was it?

The American theater has started to explore the 1950s and is doing a fine job of peeling the bandages off the old wounds we have forgotten as the years have flown by. I sat in a New York theater just about a year ago and watched the musical Memphis, which was about racism in show business in the 1950s, and told my wife that Broadway hardly ever staged plays about the ‘50s. Since then, there have been more than a dozen on stage or planned for the theater in a great revival of interest about that lost decade and the many problems of the era. The most recent has been the well-received Maple and Vine by Jonathan Harrison at Playwrights Horizons theater in New York, which shows a group of 1950s re-enactors, all toiling to bring back that lost time in American history. Critics have hailed the play.

The Harrison play follows a long line of ‘50s stories. A few months ago, a musical about a gay night club in Los Angeles in 1953, Play It Cool, opened, followed by another ‘50s play about the repression of gay life in what was thought to be very liberal Southern California, Lemon Sky, by Lanford Wilson. Entertainment history has been represented by Silent Hearts, a behind-the-scenes look at Marilyn Monroe and all of her many troubles, set in the late ‘50s, and Iron Curtain, which opened in early November, about a duo of writers trying to stage a propaganda musical for Soviet bosses in the 1950s, ducking boos and KGB agents at the same time. A play based on the venerable 1954 Bing Crosby movie White Christmas, about a pair of song and dance men who put on a show, just opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.

There have been and will be several shows about politics in the ‘50s. The biggest will be another version of the hit Evita, about 1950s Argentine politics and Eva Peron, opening in April. Les Enfants de Paris, about the Franco-Algerian war, just ran for several weeks as part of a musical festival. Upcoming is Regrets, about Nevada politics during the decade. You want presidential politics of the ‘50s? On April 1, a revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, about a national political convention, opens (it was a movie starring Henry Fonda that was written in 1959 and produced in 1960). A stage version of Picnic, the 1953 hit film, will open in the spring. Million Dollar Quartet, about a late-night meeting between a half dozen rock-‘n’-roll stars in 1956, continues.

Why all of this sudden interest in the 1950s?

Half a century has passed and we now look on the ‘50s as more of an historical era than we did before, and need to explore it. The increased acceptance of gay life—gays can get married in New York now—has sparked an interest in gay and lesbian history of the period, which was substantial. There has always been an interest in the early days of rock-‘n’-roll, whether it’s a story about Elvis, Fats Domino or Bill Haley and the Comets. The Baby Boomer generation of today remembers that era fondly, loathes contemporary music and wants to turn back the clock (look at the warm welcome for the play Jersey Boys about the early 1960s and the endless screenings of the films Grease and American Graffiti on television, the revival of the ‘50s musical West Side Story, and all the ‘50s TV series on cable channels). Finally, the bare knuckle international politics of the Cold War, now that it is long gone, seems to enchant those interested in history. Who was Nikita Khrushchev anyway? How many political enemies did Joe Stalin have killed? Hey, high school students today can’t even remember the Berlin Wall.

People in theater are happy about the flood of ‘50s plays and see other reasons for them.

“I think that we are all nostalgic. America is in real trouble these days, with the recession, and we want to remember better times, and that was the 1950s. As the years go by, we reach back to different pasts and now we are reaching back to the ‘50s,” said Patrick Parker, associate artistic director of the Paper Mill Playhouse, in Millburn, N.J., which is staging White Christmas. “Everybody has seen the movie White Christmas on television. A play about that movie, and its 1954 world, should do well.”

Parker thinks that Baby Boomers represent a huge group of people and they all grew up in the ‘50s. “Don’t forget rock-‘n’-roll,” said Parker. “That music lives forever and a lot of these ‘50s plays examine the early days of rock-‘n’-roll.”

He thinks there is a business reason, too, that intrigues producers trying to make money in a deep recession. “The movie audience is young, but the theater audience is older. Many ticket buyers are in their fifties and sixties and they want to see plays about the early history of their generation, of their lives. Producers need works that target that group of people, and these fifties plays do that.”

And that audience remembers the life changing trends of the 1950s. As an example, the iconic American teenager, that worldwide phenomenon, was born in the 50s, molded by the 50s and made sacred by the 50s. He/she lives on today, a product of the 50s and of American cultural history. The ‘Generation Gap’? The teens created that back in the 50s when they rebelled against their parents; it is still there today, larger than ever, exemplified by the teens in their chat rooms and text messages.

Communists? Are there any left today? In the 1950s, the Communists scared the entire world, twenty-four hours a day.

Playwright Jordan Harrison, who wrote Maple and Vine, saw the fifties as a quaint era but also an era filled with people hiding from something. “I started out to write a play about the type of people who became Civil War re enactors and others who had escaped from society. The 1950s people were all like that. When you think about the era you think of simple times, cool furniture and high balls,” said Harrison.

The more he read about the fifties, and farther he got into his play, the more his view changed. “I saw the difficulties of life in the 50s, old fashioned gender roles, racial prejudice and sexual repression.”

All of these 50s plays, collectively, attempt to remind us of the racism, political storms, the stirrings of feminism and social tension throughout the 1950s. We have long seen it as a post war age of innocence, but it was not.

“I think the 1950s is home to a lot of very good untold stories,” said Joe DiPietro, the writer of the Tony award winning musical Memphis, about rock and roll and race in a 1950s night club. “My show is based on the true story of a little known white DJ in the South who loved blues music and kept playing it on his mainstream station. It helped start rock and roll. There was a lot of race in the story. That’s a play.”

And there were constant rumblings throughout the 1950s, unnoticed at the time, of the social and political upheaval to come in the next decade. Do you remember actor Marlon Brando in the motorcycle movie The Wild One? Someone asked his character what he was opposed to and he answered, “what have you got?”

He was one of an army of rebels of all kinds that shook American throughout the 1960s and early 1970s: student dissident, anti-Vietnam war marches, the Cuban Missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement.

“If you look back through history, you see that cultural change preceded political change by 10 to 15 years. That was the 50s, the early cultural rumblings of the turbulence that came later,” said DiPietro. “We have to remember that World War II was a big divide in U.S. history. The fifties came in right after that, a new decade for a new world.”

The 1950s plays are a mirror of who we were and what we became. “There was very little interracial dating in the 1950s – taboo. Today, there is interracial dating everywhere; few people care. Today’s young people don’t understand the racism that reigned in this country just fifty years ago, in the 1950s. That’s not a long time. It’s a lesson in history and a lesson in life,” added playwright DiPietro.

The playwrights who wrote about the 50s had plenty of surprises, too. Harrison made up 1950s re-enactors as part of his play, but after it started to run many people reminded him that in England there is a group of women called the ‘Time Warp Wives’ who live as 1950s women.

What really shook Harrison, though, were the reflections of people in their 60s and 70s who saw the play, set in their childhood. He thought they would be full of nostalgia. “People who remembered (living in) the fifties told me they were in no hurry to go back,” he said.

The people and events of the 1950s led up to the volcanic historical explosion of the 1960s, and the theater is now, thankfully, exploring that. We just wish that playwrights would dig deeper into the issues of racism, organized crime, the repression of gays and women, and the sizzling labor history of the era to give today’s Justin Bieber generation a harder look at the world their grandparents made. There was life before Lindsay Lohan.

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