.... for more information, move the mouse over the picture.

Can you name these television western themes? -- answers at bottom of page


“I like to see good in the white man, but after this experience, it’s hard to find it ......”
-- John Howard Griffin ("Black Like Me")

As the end of the decade of the 1950’s approached, it was obvious that it was a decade of change, but broader changes in American society were on the way. “The Elvis Era” straddles the decades of the 1950’ s and 1960’s. The biggest changes in life in the United States were pretty much in place by the mid 1950’s. Rock and roll, television, postwar prosperity, the push for college education, the expansion of the interstate highway system: these changes in our society would continue to play themselves out as the decade ended. But for the most part, American society in 1959 was as it had been in 1956. It was still the Cold War that dominated foreign policy and the world stage. On the domestic side, the racial issues that divided our society were still in place.

One personality spans the entire decade. From his pre 1950’s position as The General to his entry into politics (he was wooed by both Democrats and Republicans) to his election, then reelection as President, Dwight Eisenhower in many ways is the face of the 1950’s. In 1959 he was named “Man of the Year” by Time magazine. When Eisenhower had been reelected in 1956, many believed the 22nd amendment (limiting Presidents to two terms) would diminish his effectiveness. But Eisenhower had a quality that attracted people. Even with the country suffering through a recession in 1958, Ike was riding a high tide of popularity. He had successfully parlayed his image at home where everybody “liked Ike” to an international presence as he traveled to Europe and Asia. He also successfully negotiated a visit by Soviet Premier, Nikita Kruschev to the United States. His days with Kruschev in personal conversation at Camp David did wonders to calm public anxiety over Cold War issues.

This image was in sharp contrast to Richard Nixon, the Cold Warrior who confronted Kruschev in the much publicized “Kitchen debate” that took place while Nixon visited the Soviet Union in the summer of 1959. Much of the “debate” (this was not a formal debate, but rather a trading of words that was unplanned and came about when the two leaders were both visiting an exhibition in the Soviet Union) dealt with the relative accomplishments of the two super powers. Kruschev, of course, pointed with pride to his country’s space achievements while Nixon talked of America’s prosperity and household conveniences such as washing machines and color televisions. While the U.S. had made strides in space exploration, the Soviets still clearly had the lead. The Soviet satellites Luna 2 and Luna 3 had both successfully reached the moon, the latter having transmitted the first pictures from the dark side of the moon. But the United States showed its commitment to future space exploration with the launching of the Mercury space program and the naming of the first seven “astronauts.”

Perhaps the most significant political development of 1959 came just as the new year dawned. The revolution led in Cuba by Fidel Castro succeeded and the former dictator, Fulgencio Batista fled the country. In 1958, the United States government had refused guns to the Batista regime. President Eisenhower immediately recognized the new Cuban government and its President, Manuel Urrutia. But by summer, Castro had replaced Urrutia as President. He was invited to tour the United States. During the tour he was questioned by Vice President Nixon concerning the policies of the new regime. The American government was becoming more and more concerned about Castro’s actions which nationalized many businesses and seemed to be moving in directions unfavorable to American interests. The United States began implementing economic sanctions against Cuba.

At home, the nation didn’t appear to be moving ahead in the expansion of civil rights. We were still a nation of discrimination and racial violence. In Virginia, the state repealed its compulsory education law and Prince Edward County closed its schools in order to avoid desegregation. Mack Charles Parker was arrested for raping a white woman in February in Petal, Mississippi. In April he was transferred to the Pearl River County Jail where, with no jailers present, on April 25th a group of men, some wearing hoods, took him from the jail. His body was found on May 4th. Although some of the men eventually came forward, Judge Sebe Dale who was a member of The White Citizens Council, influenced the grand jury not to indict. But the seeds of change to come were being planted. John Howard Griffin was a white man who had a doctor darken his skin so he could pass as a black man. He then traveled through the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, recording his experiences. He made no other changes in his identity, just in his appearance. In 1961, Griffin’s book, “Black Like Me” was published. It would go far in exposing racial prejudice and focusing the nation’s attention on the problem.

America continued to be a nation of “progress.” The St. Lawrence Seaway was completed in 1959, allowing ships from the Atlantic to reach the upper midwest. Coors developed the first aluminum beer can. Recognizing that conventional seat belts allow a person’s head to be bashed against the windshield in an accident, Volvo developed the three point safety belt. Our future was foretold as Texas Instruments engineer, Jack Kirby developed the first microchip. Our past was questioned as Mary Leakey discovers bones in the Oldavi Gorge in Tanganyika that become known as Australopithicus.

Television continued to grow in influence in 1959. Forty-two million American homes had a television set and some already had two sets. RCA sold 90,000 color television sets and “Bonanza” became the first western to be telecast in color. Westerns, sometimes referred to as “horse operas” ruled. There were 30 such prime time shows on the network schedules at some time in 1959, fourteen new ones. This preoccupation with the American West is a little hard to fathom, given that the period lasted only a little over 20 years (1865 - 1888) and the cowboys of the era who were described by Time magazine as, “He stank of bear grease and was usually crawling with "pants rats," as he called his lice. He slept with whores and Indian squaws, because there weren't many other women around,” had little in common with the television version. But the appeal of the Western was as an American morality play in which good and evil were clearly defined and good ultimately always won out. The big guns of 1959 were: James Arness (Gunsmoke), Ward Bond (Wagon Train), Richard Boone (Have Gun), Hugh O'Brian (Wyatt Earp), James Garner (Maverick), Chuck Connors (Rifleman), Dale Robertson (Wells Fargo), Clint Walker (Cheyenne). And a testimony of the popularity of westerns, in March of 1959, the top ten shows in the Nielsen ratings were: Gunsmoke (40.1), Wagon Train (38.3), Have Gun, Will Travel (35.7), The Rifleman (34.0), Maverick (32.9), Wyatt Earp (31.8), Zane Grey Theater (31.1), Wanted, Dead or Alive (30.6). Only nonwesterns in the top ten: Lucy-Desi (34.9), Danny Thomas (34.5) However, television wasn’t just Westerns, “The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis,” and “The Twilight Zone” also premiered in 1959.

In 1959, music became more and more rock and roll. In 1959, the recording industry did more than $600 million. And rock and roll’s share of the market had risen to 42.7%, up from the 15.7% it began with in 1955. But many were still convinced it was a “fad” and that it had no real value. And rock and roll took a hit in 1959 -- the “payola” scandals. In the wake of the quiz show scandals, Congress was encouraged to investigate the practice of “payola” in the record industry. (The term “payola” is derived from “pay” and “Victrola” and means the paying of cash for airtime for a record.) The investigation was perhaps encouraged by the ongoing battle between the rival licensing companies of ASCAP and BMI. The major record labels had long been primarily associated with ASCAP which viewed rock and roll as a fad, but were somewhat upset that BMI (the company that had emerged in the middle fifties and was primarily supported by the smaller, independent labels) was having such success with the rock and roll form. The Congressional committee eventually focused on the disk jockeys, with Alan Freed and Dick Clark being the most well known. The two responded in opposite ways with opposite results. While Clark admitted to conflicts of interest (owning part of “Jamie” records for instance), he agreed to divest himself of such interests. He did deny ever actually receiving any “payola” and came off to the committee as “a fine young man.” Freed denied any wrong doing but he refused to sign a denial of accepting payola. He was promptly fired from his television and radio shows. While Clark would go on to be a major power in radio and television, Freed would die bankrupt in 1965 at the age of 43.

When Americans went to the movies in 1959, they were most impressed by Disney (perhaps due to continual promotions on the television show, “Walt Disney Presents.”) as “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Shaggy Dog” and “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” were all in the box office top ten. Other classic movies of the year were the Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe romp, “Some Like It Hot” and two Carrie Grant movies: Hitchcock’s suspenseful thriller, “North by Northwest,” and the comedy, “Operation Petticoat.” In “Pillow Talk” Doris Day (in this case with Rock Hudson) found a formula that would work repeatedly over the next ten years -- a young career girl striving to maintain her virtue while pursued by a powerful man. But the biggest box office hit of the year also received the Oscar for best film: the Biblical epic, “Ben Hur.”

The Barbie Doll appeared on toy shelves for the first time. The U.S. Post Office banned “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” (a move later overturned by the Supreme Court). Linda Blair and “Weird” Al Yankovik were born. Billy Holiday and Lou Costello died. The last living Confederate soldier (Walter Williams) and the first U.S. soldiers in Vietnam (Dale Buis and Chester Ovnand) died. Tom Landry joined the Dallas Cowboys and Vince Lomardi joined the Green Bay Packers. Alaska and Hawaii joined the union. Broadway said good-bye to “West Side Story” and hello to “The Sound of Music.” Barry Gordy founded Motown. Diana, Flo and Mary joined together to form the Primettes (eventually to be renamed The Supremes), Jan replaced Arnie with Dean. Bullwinkle joined Rocky. Manager George Treadwell fired The Drifters and replaced them with The Five Crowns. A group in Liverpool known as The Quarry Men changed their name to Johnny and the Moon Dogs. Clint Eastwood appeared as Rowdy Yates and Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright. Wayne Newton (17) first appeared in Las Vegas and Joan Baez (19) at the Newport Folk Festival.

We throw a wiffle ball for the first time, drink coffee that’s “good to the last drop” (Maxwell House), use a Conair hair dryer and try on pantyhose. We first hear the immortal words: ""There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call 'The Twilight Zone.'" It’s 1959.

TV Western Themes: Bonanza, Rawhide, Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Maverick, The Rebel, Gunsmoke, Wyat Earp, Cheyenne, Have Gun Will Travel

President Eisenhower met with Soviet Premier Kruschev at Camp David.
Project Mercury was the first U.S. manned spaceflight program. The only one of the original 7 astronauts not to fly a Mercury mission was Deke Slayton.
Fidel Castro led his rebel fighters to an overthrow of the Batista government in Havana in January, 1959.
Accused of raping a white woman, Mack Charles Parker was killed by a mob in Mississippi -- nobody was ever indicted for the crime.
In late 1959, John Howard Griffin was travelling across the South disguised as a black man, trying to learn what it was like to be treated with the prejudice then prevalent in the country.
Rod Serling & Twilight Zone intro from 1959
Alan Freed denied any wrong-doing in the "payola" scandals and was fired.
Cary Grant starred in "North By Northwest" which would become one of Alfred Hitchcock's classic films.
Barry Gordy introduced his Motown label in 1959 with The Miracles' "Bad Girl" being the label's first charted single, #93 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Rocky & Bullwinkle made their dubut in 1959
The Year