Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, Now it looks as though they’re here to stay, Oh I believe in yesterday.
It is a movie about the bittersweet reminiscences of a group of 1960s college radicals, whose reunion 15 years later takes place at a friend’s funeral. The background music was played by groups who shaped 1960s rock— the Beach Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Spencer Davis. Those two elements—the plot and the songs —made The Big Chill one of the most profitable movies of 1983. In the first 26 weeks of showings in theatres across the United States and Canada, the $13-million film grossed more than $70 million. But more significantly, The Big Chill’s appeal laid bare a generation’s yearning for the past and made it the bench mark for a North American nostalgia binge that has been gaining momentum ever since.
Zest: Wistful reflection has always been a characteristic of middle age. But the current zest for the past is both unprecedented and relentlessly pursued by advertisers, moviemakers, television programmers and editors of periodicals. Some Canadian television STATIONS-CBC TV affiliate CKVR in Barrie, Ont., 70 km north of Toronto, for one—now run series from the 1950s and 1960s in prime time. Many TV commercials use music from the same period to push products ranging from butter to spark plugs. And most private music-and-news radio stations in the United States and Canada have abandoned hard rock for the softer sounds of 20 and 30 years ago.
Convertibles made in North American plants have reappeared in automobile showrooms during the past six years, and baseball cards are hot items again. Vintage diners, equipped with soda fountains, counter stools and jukeboxes, are reintroducing cities across the continent to calorieladen meat loaf, gravy and mashed potatoes. And New York City entrepreneur Peter Diamandis was so convinced that the past was here to stay that last January he launched a nostalgia publication—a newsmagazine of the recent past. Called Memories, its cover bears the words “The magazine of then and now.”
At the heart of the looking-back phenomenon are the senior members of the baby boom, the 35to 42-yearolds who were born in the years immediately following the Second World War. People in that population bulge now have money to spend and vivid memories of the political, cultural and academic turmoil of the 1960s that shaped their lives (page 50). With that combination, it is not surprising that the vendors of style, leisure and entertainment have turned to the music and images of that fateful decade to focus popular emotion. The Big Chill, said Richard Fischoff, the 41-year-old senior vicepresident of Hollywood’s Tri-Star Pictures Inc., did not create the nostalgia boom. Rather, he said, Lawrence Kasdan, the film’s director, “was responding to what a lot of the people he knew were thinking and feeling about their lives, and the movie simply articulated it.”
Trips: In any event, once-tranquil Memory Lane has become a freeway—with television particularly prone to trips back to its own childhood. One reason, said Rick Du Brow, television editor of The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, is the fact that the executives who control the industry were children during the 1950s and 1960s. They grew up on a TV diet of Bonanza, I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver.
The reruns have also revived the careers of their stars: Andy Griffith,
from the old Andy Griffith Show, is now playing a folksy lawyer in NBC TV’s Matlock, a heftier Raymond Burr surfaces periodically in specials built around the defence lawyer that he played in the old Perry Mason series. Still, Andrew Wernick, the director of the Institute for the Study of Popular Culture at Peterborough, Ont.’s Trent University, said that, rather than saluting nostalgia, the recycling of plots and performers “exhibits a kind of real exhaustion.” Added Wernick: “It’s as though the culture is running out of new ideas.”
Hot: The media are recapturing the past in other ways, as well. But thousands of North Americans—soldiers, draft dodgers and protesters on both sides of the border—have still not resolved their personal feelings about the Vietnam War. That is evident by the success of such recent movies as Platoon, Hamburger Hill and Full Metal Jacket. Now, television will try to deal with Vietnam. CBS already offers Tour of Duty. NBC has ordered two pilots: one, called Shooter, revolves around combat photographers in Vietnam; the second, China Beach, is about three women who are stationed in South Vietnam. ABC is planning The Wonder Years, the story of a 12-year-old boy in 1968. Said Du Brow: “The 1960s and Vietnam will be the next hot trend.”
The nostalgia wave has already surged over commercial radio. In major cities in Canada and the United States, radio stations that once concentrated on the Top 40 commercial
rock hits, which teenagers and young adults favor, have bowed to the demands of advertisers for music that will attract the middle-aged baby boomers. Three years ago Vancouver’s CFUN jettisoned its hard-rock format and replaced it with a softer blend. It includes Simon and Garfunkel, the Suprêmes, the Beatles and other 1960s groups that recorded what has come to be called “classic rock.” Said program manager Neil Gallagher: “I guess you would call it a lighter, contemporary sound. Most of our programming is nostalgia, if you want to call it that.”
Toronto’s once rock-solid CHUM FM has also adopted a more mellow image. Said program director Ross Davies: “Safe sounds appeal to the baby boomers.” But the formula has a drawback for radio stations, said Davies—“potentially dynamite, up-andcoming music talent may be getting passed over.”
Rock: Many young listeners, in fact, prefer listening to rock’s senior citizens (page 52). Kim Freeman, the radio editor of Billboard, the U.S. music-industry trade journal, said that 12to 18-year-olds have become an important segment of the radio audience for classic rock. Last week George Harrison electrified old and new fans alike with the vague promise that he might rejoin the other surviving Beatles, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, to “write a tune and play together.”
Meanwhile, other groups from the 1960s currently experiencing revivals, including The Grateful (and greying) Dead and The Monkees, are already drawing teenage crowds. Said Tom Chiusano, vice-president of New York’s WXRK FM station: “There is a new generation which thinks The Who is new music.”
Members of that generation may be similarly misled—although the baby boomers will not be—if they ever get to see a television series that at the moment bears the working title At the Beach. Gail and Graeme Murray of Vancouver’s Black Rose Film Productions have a $1.5-million budget for a pilot that will begin shooting soon in the beach community of White Rock, south of Vancouver. The story, said Gail Murray, will explore the lives of seven “somewhat rebellious” teenagers — which is what Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were supposed to be when they cranked out sand-and-surf movies in the 1960s under such titles as Beach Blanket Bingo.
Back: If the under-20-year-olds are patient, they probably will be able to watch the Beach originals because old films are vigorously back in style—on television, video cassettes and in revival movie houses, once on the way out but now rapidly regaining popularity. Last Feb. 19 Cineplex Odeon opened the Biograph Cinema on New York’s West 57th Street, calling it the city’s “newest revival house.” The inaugural movie: Easter Parade, starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, made in 1948. And Cineplex’s Canada Square complex in midtown Toronto, which ordinarily offers only first-run features, is into its third week with the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman 1942 classic, Casablanca.
Although the nostalgia boom mainly revolves around the generation that grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, its ingredients are clearly not limited to those decades. Last December Cineplex and The Toronto Star collaborated on a survey that received responses from 25,000 people who were asked to name their all-time favorite movie. Gone With the Wind, made in 1939, led the top nine. The Sound of Music (1965) was second, and of the remaining seven, only three were made after 1965— Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Star Wars (1977) and E.T. (1982). The other choices for the all-time best: Casablanca (1942), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Ben Hur (1959) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Early last February a CineplexNew York Post poll asked readers for their favorite motion picture made in or about New York City. The top two in the list of 10: West Side Story (1961) and Miracle on 3Uh Street (1947).
Even the diner has been reborn.
Like many other lifestyle trends, it began in California. New ones, with menus presenting plain-Jane 1940s and 1950s dishes, are opening in U.S. and Canadian cities almost weekly. Said Colleen Bates, restaurant critic of the
magazine L.A. Style: “People like to sit down to a fattening meal. They are meals we all grew up on and they make us feel good.”
In California, entrepreneur Richard
Melman has opened two diners of the five-outlet chain called Ed Debevic’s— named after a fictitious Polish immigrant from the 1950s. Melman’s waiters and waitresses sing and dance on black-and-white floor tiles; the tables
and chairs are made of old-fashioned Formica, and the jukebox is loaded with such old 1950s rockers as Buddy Holly, the Platters and Elvis Presley. As well, dinners cost as little as $6, and weekend patrons line up for two hours despite the advice offered by a sign on the wall. It reads “If the wait is too long, we have another restaurant in Chicago.”
Revival: Dave Mazzorana, who manages the Beverly Hills Ed Debevic’s, said that the venture has succeeded because “the food is good, the staff is entertaining and there is a resurgence of the 1950s.” At the Rose City Diner in Pasadena, Calif., the waitresses wear beehive hairdos, and departing customers receive free bubble gum.
The diner revival has also reached Canada. At Terry Howard’s Café S’il Vous Plaît in Vancouver’s west end, customers eat such dishes as macaroni and cheese and alphaghetti soup for $5—the top price on the vintage cash register. Said Howard, 32: “I kind of play on that nostalgia for Mom’s home cooking.”
Last December in Montreal, Frank Teufel opened Studebaker bar and diner, with a restored 1950 Studebaker Champion car on display. The restaurant plays songs by Elvis Presley, Chubby Checker and the Four Tops, and patrons who are unfamiliar with the twist and other old dance styles can take free lessons on Tuesday nights. “People have real, genuine fun here,” said Teufel. “They leave with smiles on their faces.”
At the other end of the nostalgia dining spectrum is The Rainbow Room atop the RCA building at New York City’s Rockefeller Center. The owners have spent an estimated $31.5 million recreating the nightclub’s heyday during the 1930s and 1940s. Restaurateur Joseph Baum has even brought back cigarette girls—four of them, in fact. Wearing pillbox hats, puffed sleeves, slit skirts, high heels and fishnet stockings, they glide among the tables murmuring a once-familiar refrain: “Cigars? Cigarettes?”
Minis: The enthusiasm for then over now has brought back more than cigarette girls. The male interest in fur coats, which had declined by the 1930s, has revived to the point where men make up almost 10 per cent of that market in the United States and Canada. Many women are also again wearing miniskirts—a style that evokes memories of London’s Carnaby Street and the Swinging ’60s—as well as elegant off-the-shoulder dresses modelled on the fashions of the 1950s.
And in Richmond Hill, Ont., near Toronto, Aurora Cars Ltd. makes a two-seat sports convertible. Said Aurora’s vice-president James Payton: “Our customer is somebody who wanted a car like this in the 1960s and couldn’t afford it.” Because the car costs $53,500, the number of buyers is limited.
The trappings of the nostalgia boom do not explain the emotions that fuel it. Declared Faith Popcorn, the chairman of BrainReserve, an influential Madison Avenue marketconsulting firm: “We did not know it then, but in the 1950s we were happy. Now, things are so unpredictable and out of our control that we are demanding our security back.” Trent University’s Wernick said that the 1960s generation experienced “the possibility of the world around us changing. The sadness is that the world did not change. The politics got confused, and we were scattered to the winds.” But in the diners, in the re-created music and in the safe world of television reruns, nostalgia at least offers an opportunity for fleeting reunions.
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