Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Time Machine

The past couple of days brought to mind times of long ago. Occasionally, certain circumstances will trigger recollections from the past. A comfort food will remind me of a school day lunch. The smell of baking releases thoughts of childhood Saturdays. These memories usually arrive unexpectedly and are brief, sweeping through my brain like a spring breeze.

No doubt such incidents occur to everyone on occasion. But recent events have sent me recalling an entirely different time and place - the 1950s.

A couple of days ago I read that Annette Funicello had passed away. It was sad news.  I had read that for many years she had been fighting multiple sclerosis. My knowledge of MS is scant, including only that it is quite debilitating and progressive. No doubt Annette's failing health had been a difficult challenge for her and for her family. But I hope she took some comfort from knowing of the joy that she brought to us all during a very different world of the 1950s and 60s.

The U.S. of the 1950s was truly a wondrous time. The post-war boom was well underway, jobs were readily available. Returning soldiers could buy a house and finish college on the G.I. bill, in many instances forever raising their standard of living. Many families drove new cars, sometimes more than one! New innovations were coming into vogue. Wall-to-wall carpeting was a luxurious addition to any house. Consumers were exposed to new methods to clean and iron clothes, freeze and store food.

It was also a world of nuclear fears, of rehearsing the now-silly practice of "Duck and Cover." Drills were carried out in classrooms across America so that we would all know how to prevent injury in the event of nuclear war. This was also the period of Senator Joe McCarthy and worries of Communist infiltration. Children still lived in fear of summertime polio. A lot of things were going on and not all of them were nice.

Into this melee of progress/confusion came television. House by house, the homeowners on our block succumbed to purchasing a television. In 1954, we bought our first television, which cost an amazing $350, steep compared to the cost of living at the time. But television was new and exciting and provided a glance into a whole world outside our small, smug communities.

Along with television came such personalities as Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and other stars from stage and radio who had been drawn to this new medium. Even the kids soon grew accustomed to such names as George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jackie Gleason and Jack Benny, already familiar to the adults for many years.

In 1955, The Mickey Mouse Club debuted and our world was enlarged for kids on our terms. The troupe of players in the show, later called the "original" mouseketeers, were cute, energetic youngsters attired in white sweaters, wearing "hats" resembling black mouse ears. They were more than just someone's idea of kids. They really were like us. Some had special talents. Cubby O'Brien was a wiz on the drums. Bobby Burgess was a good dancer, a talent he later displayed on The Lawrence Welk Show. Johnny Crawford moved on to stardom as Chuck Connors' son on The Rifleman.

But for many of us, it was all about Annette Funicello. Very popular with viewers, she represented what it was like to be accepted while being a little different. With her dark eyes and hair, she was almost exotic by little girl standards. She was growing up along with us, acting as a leader in segments and getting more media exposure than some others in the Club. But Annette maintained an air of modesty and humility that viewers appreciated. She was a star in her own right but that fact didn't appear to overwhelm her or her fans.

Her career continued for several post-Club years in a series of "beach" movies in which she co-starred with Frankie Avalon. On her passing, Avalon praised Annette's spirit, kindness and warmth. Those of us who enjoyed her years on The Mickey Mouse Club already felt a certain appreciation for those traits.

The 1950s was a time before celebrities flaunted their time spent in rehab, then strutted and posed for media attention. It was a good time, a sane time. I hope that Annette realized how her warmth and civility reached little girls across the country. She showed us that you didn't have to be petite and blonde to be a part of -- and even stand out from -- the crowd.

We will miss Annette Funicello and others like her who influenced an entire generation by her poise, grace and unassuming nature.

No comments:

Post a Comment