My ’50s Childhood

This week for reasons unknown, though perhaps related to a fine bottle of California Zinfandel, I sat down and watched the movie “Grease.” The movie was released in 1978 when I was eight years old, and as my sister and I were both in dancing class, my parents took us to this clever addition to the great tradition of Hollywood musicals. Even at that tender age I could relate to the archetypal storytelling: there was the blonde-haired virgin princess, a hot rod chariot race against an evil villain, and a group of misfits following a leader and his buddy, which was a reflection of myself and my childhood friend who would one day become Captain Crozier. When I got to college and became an English major, I came to see that “Grease” had played a pivotal role in the development of my consciousness — which kicks in precisely at the age of eight — and the sense of life as a story, with all the men and women merely players in a cosmic drama of which they are unaware.

The 1950s, which is the setting of “Grease,” and its curious attractor qualities would routinely manifest themselves in my life. When I was 15 my friend and I watched “Back To The Future,” and I remember riding our bikes home in the dark filled with restless energy for what adventures life had in store for us. Two years later “La Bamba” came out, severing my interest in the culture of my own era and inaugurating me into ceaseless investigations of the past. I probably started watching “Twilight Zone” reruns around this time, and saw “American Graffitti,” which was set in ’62 and filmed near my home town. During the swing dance revival of the late ’90s, when I became an instructor and choreographer, I eventually tired of the Big Band sound and much preferred to dance to jump blues and early rock and roll. This scene from “Don’t Knock The Rock” remains my favorite swing dance number ever filmed:

When I eventually got my own hot rod, a “rockin’ little roadster” I’d stuff my board into and go surfing, I’d play ’50s West Coast jazz or rare doo-wop tracks with the sun on my face and wind in my hair. On the more adult side of the ’50s, I would write a piece for L’Uomo Vogue on the swingin’ space-age bachelor phenomenon of the ’50s, write about midcentury Americana here at Ivy Style, and hold Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman’s film “Indiscreet” from ’58 as one of my all-time favorites.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I spent the summer of 2020 tracing my way through my early childhood in the ’70s. But at some point I realized that my formative years were as much about the ’50s and ’60s as they were about the ’70s and ’80s. With constant exposure to “Happy Days” and old B movies on television, the imagery of the 1950s as some magical and mysterious era that had just preceded my entrance onto the world stage was inescapable. And this personal nostalgia was reflected in society at large: so much had happened in the late ’60s and early ’70s — vast social change, and the disillusions of Vietnam, Watergate and political assassinations — that America was looking bittersweetly backward throughout its pop culture productions of the 1970s, and no work better exemplifies the sense that a point of no return had been passed than George Lucas’ film “American Graffiti,” which chronicled a lost world that had disappeared a mere 11 years before.

As the wine steadily disappeared as wine is wont to do, several scenes in “Grease” took a poignant bite of my reflective heart. There’s the theme of star-crossed lovers, as in “Romeo And Juliet” or “The Age Of Innocence,” who are oppressed by both their social environment and their own human failings, as in Danny’s false behavior when he sees Sandy at the pep rally and capitulates to the pressures of maintaining a persona in the face of the collective, rather than express and validate his true feelings. And now, as a 50-year-old man who’s been to his own inner hell and back, how full of meaning is Sandy’s short number after the car race, when she becomes conscious of the inner voice calling her to embrace her shadow in order to grow, to undergo an ego death that is terrifying and yet necessary:

Look at me, there has to be
Something more than what they see
Wholesome and pure
Oh so scared and unsure
A poor man’s Sandra Dee

Sandy, you must start anew
Don’t you know what you must do?
Hold your head high
Take a deep breath and sigh
Goodbye to Sandra Dee

By the time the film reached its finale, the wine was gone and I was feeling like an alien anthropologist watching some cultural curiosity salvaged from a brief sliver of time. As the troupe sang “We Go Together,” and the camera floated up to the clouds — the place where the gods look down on the tragicomedy of human events— “Grease” suddenly appeared to me like a strange chapter in the history of the European peoples. For thousands of years they had survived in the cold north, worshipping the sun, living through ice ages and floods. Eventually they tamed the horse, invented the chariot, and migrated outward, spreading culture and language from Reykjavik to Benares. In the second millennium after Christ, they discovered and settled a vast continent, slowly building this new civilization westward under the aegis of Manifest Destiny. And when this so-called Faustian man reached the limit of this frontier at the shores of the Pacific, he found himself in a Golden State of perpetual sunshine. And when the Depression and World War were behind him and California became a booming land of prosperity, there lay in his lap a lifestyle that would have made his forefathers stare in rapt wonder at children riding to school in their own motorized chariots and celebrating their initiation into adulthood with the privileged triviality of amusement park rides.

Here it was, the summit of everything the ancestors had struggled for. They’d finally found paradise, and for a brief moment could sing in the sunshine. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

14 Comments on "My ’50s Childhood"

  1. Superb. Truly. Uttered as one who’s become well acquainted with higher wisdom— the sort earned by way of suffering.

    “…the imagery of the 1950s as some magical and mysterious era.” This isn’t illusory. It was precisely that. So much about modern life was confirmed and affirmed in that extraordinary moment —discreetly codified. Established.

    We emerged from two world wars and an extended depression as more than survivors— we were noble conquerors. Finally the citizens of the bright and “shining city on the hill” had claimed victory. We will continue to judge our future self collective) according to that moment. We’re not misguided in doing so. Had our leaders paid closer attention to the lessons of hard-fought, blood-stained victory, we would approached everything from civil rights to women’s rights to care for the poor to the so-called “Communist threats abroad” with greater wisdom.

    It behooves us to revisit and appreciate the best of that moment. Pardon me for a imagining, but, had JFK lived, there’s no telling what we could have done and become. We’re allowed, I think, to imagine subsequent decades of consistent and steady progress—without the Vietnam war, Watergate, and, well, the 1970s.

    November’63 marked the end of more than just Camelot. The sense of national unity we had spent decades building through war and diplomacy — it dissipated in a matter of days. The savages raided the fort and killed our better princes.

    Beware of the savages.

  2. *…”could and would have become…”

  3. James Anchor | October 11, 2020 at 12:41 pm |

    “Grease” was bad enough the first time I watched it.
    Perhaps my adoption of Ivy style was a reaction to those repulsive characters.
    I adhere to the style even more strongly today.

  4. repptieupstateNY | October 11, 2020 at 1:26 pm |

    you can never go wrong with a 50s West Coast jazz soundtrack-Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Art Pepper etc (Baker works for me in all moods, in all seasons. . . )

  5. I hold the ending of “American Graffiti” to be one of the most nostalgic and bitter-sweet moments of film that I’ve ever seen. The pensive and slightly melancholy shot of Curt looking out of the window and seeing the Thunderbird parallel the plane from the ground but slowly fading out captures so much without a single word of dialogue. To see love and, furthermore, an epoch slip away just as suddenly as they appeared captures the soul of a film attempting to grasp what it means to be aware that you’re growing up. The pairing of “All Summer Long” by The Beach Boys with the credits makes for a somber moment when you realize we are all trying to find the endless summer.

  6. I was born in the late 1940’s. Now I am a grumpy old man. One of my older friends tells me that I am grumpy because I grew up at the best time in human history, in the best place in the world. As a consequence, I cannot be satisfied now. Old America died along with JFK in 1963 thanks to LBJ’s Vietnam war and the resulting degeneration and coarsening of our culture.

  7. Speaking of economy of expression, Brutus, please contact me about writing something for the site. You’ve got the start of something right there, and if you can write a paragraph like that, you can write about anything you wish.

    C.

  8. I hasten to add that had our brilliant, stylish (indeed, as chronicled here, Chipp-wearing prince) lived and thrived, we would have been spared not only Vietnam and Watergate and the 1970s, but also the rise and success of neoconservativism and Reaganomics. November ‘63 was the sea change. By 1969, we were lost. We still are.

    Again, CC, an insightful and eerily prophetic piece. Both wistful and prescient. It has the feel of an introduction to a much longer work.

  9. Thank you, SE. If you don’t have a copy of my storybook released earlier this year, let me send you a copy. Email me.

    C.

  10. We must continue to find and take pleasure in the small niceties of life, for instance today’s J. Press navy pheasant tie and chocolatey brown suede half-wings. Ahhhh.

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich

  11. This rings true. Even as a European, in the 1970s the ‘American 1950s’ seemed like a magic combination of innocence, fun, possibilities, youthfulness, etc. Grease was fun and American Graffiti was very influential (and arguably a ‘better’ film).

    It was only in later years that I dialled back to the 1920s-1930s. The 1950s were my first ‘period’ crush.

  12. I agree with you much more than I’m allowed to say.

    [But let’s not forget where the burning carbon in those motorized chariots has taken us.]

  13. Everything I learned about America and being an American was learned watching Happy Days and Leave it to Beaver and I feel that I am a better human being thanks to those two shows.

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