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Let Me Entertain You — 50s Style!

What was going on entertainment-wise in the 50s?

television commercial

As part of my research, I looked into how people entertained themselves in the 50s. I have some memories of that time, but they aren’t super clear. Mostly Captain Kangaroo, Lamb Chops and Looney Tunes cartoons. The Road Runner was my favorite, though I always liked that little alien that would occasionally stop by to give Bugs Bunny trouble.

So what else entertaining happened in the 50s? 

Scores of now-classic programs debuted, and various movie stars who initially resisted the call of the small screen began making television appearances. Clicking on a TV and watching Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, and other performers from the comfort of your own home was convenient and cheaper than hiring a babysitter and going to a nightclub or theatre. “I Love Lucy,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “Mickey Mouse Club,” and “The Twilight Zone” were among the tv shows with the most viewers in that era. People also enjoyed watching sports like football and baseball on television. Even Elvis Presley came into people’s living rooms by way of the small screen with his performance on the Ed Sullivan show.

But people weren’t complete couch potatoes. Teens and children enjoyed skating rinks (our “rink” was a farmer’s pond that we’d shovel off before we could skate), as well as playing with hula hoops and frisbees. Teens also enjoyed school dances and sock hops. Additionally, Jukeboxes were a popular form of entertainment in diners and ice cream parlors where you’d drop a coin in to play the top hits of the time.

50s diner

Once a TV set was pretty much in every home, ticket sales at movie theatres took a nosedive. To lure movie-goers back, the motion picture industry utilized innovations like 3-D and wide-screen processes. Also, drive-in movies became popular in the 1950s. 

People, especially teenagers and families drove to the drive-in theater—a massive screen facing a big parking lot. Each car pulled into a parking space beside a speaker about the size of a parking meter. You’d sit in your car and watch the movie on the big screen while listening to it through the speaker which you could remove from its stand and clip onto the car. 

Teenagers could pack all their friends into one car or parents could bring all their kids, the entire family, in one car. 

My mom would make root beer and a huge bag of popcorn and load us all in the family car for this very cheap entertainment. She said they could buy ten hotdogs for a dollar to supplement the popcorn and there was always hope we’d all be asleep before the movie was over. 

Some Drive-Ins had playgrounds with swings for younger children. Drive-ins also had snack bars where you could buy candy, buttery popcorn, and soft drinks to enjoy while watching films like “Rebel Without a Cause”, “Giant”, “South Pacific”, or “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds”. The great thing about the Drive-In was you only paid per car and you had privacy. Couples on a date could cuddle (believe it or not, at the regular theater the ushers would come rap you on the shoulder if you got to close to your honey) and parents didn’t have to worry about their noisy young children distracting other people. 

Back at the regular movie theatres, historical epics with modern special effects and a huge cast like “Ben Hur”, “Cleopatra”, “Quo Vadis”,  and “The Ten Commandments” were prominent. Those movies were meant for the big screen and TV couldn’t compete with them. Also, more films were in color to where it became the norm for the big screen whereas everything on TV was still black and white.  

And, there were so many new movies stars like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson, and Sophia Loren. Children liked the matinee westerns with Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. 

When it came to reading, the latest books by William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway were popular entertainment, though I didn’t become a reader until the 60s. Also, many youthful voices surfaced such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg—antiestablishment authors of the Beat Generation. (I did a quick dive into famous female authors of the ’50s and the only one I’ve read later in my life was Patricia Highsmith. Sigh.) Along with Atomic Age advances in science and technology, sci-fi books grew in popularity to a trending level. Superhero comic books were also a popular form of entertainment in the 50s.

I am glad that the entertainment of the 50s wasn’t all how it looked in the movies and on vintage television. Lol I think what surprises me most is how much of many of these movies and television, and yes, entertainments, were part of my growing up years. I think a lot of the 50s bleed over into the early 60s. lol

What do you remember most about your childhood entertainment?

Perilously yours,

Pauline

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