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Mr. Pop History Presents 1966 Week-By-Week

Overview by Robert Neill


The most noteworthy craze to hit Pop Culture in 1966 was Batmania. The caped crimefighter Batman had been popular in superhero comic books and movies for decades and in January, 1966 finally got his own prime-time TV series on ABC on Wednesday and Thursday nights. The show was an instant success spawning Batmania, a Pop Culture phenomena so widespread that it reached into all other areas of society, too, from music to movies to bubble-gum cards to fashion to dances to coloring books to anything that could be merchandised as Bat-related.


Although earlier incarnations of Batman had ranged from straightforward and serious to grim anddour, the 1966 TV series was colorful, silly and "campy," emphasizing the concept's more outlandish elements presented in a deadpan manner, as though the paricpants didn't know how absurd it all was. This style was pulled off so perfectly by the "Batman" series, that "camp" became a 1966 buzzword and other TV series tried to emulate "Batman's" style. Extant TV shows that had begun seriously (such as "Lost in Space" and "The Man From UNCLE") followed Batman's stylistic lead and became more "campy."


There had been a connection between teen idol singers and weekly TV series ever since Ricky Nelson became a pop star as a result of his musical interludes on "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet." In 1966, Colgems Records and NBC exploited the rock n' roll merchandising power of prime-time TV by presenting The Monkees, a pop band that recorded songs by top songwriters and built audience awareness for those records by appearing as themselves in a weekly sitcom built around their personalities, music and fictional adventures. The experiment proved far more successful than anyone could have anticipated, with the records and TV show both becoming enormously lucrative. Although many contemporary critics and 'serious' music fans dismissed the Monkees as the "Pre-Fab Four," an artificial band not worthy of respect, the Monkees' records have held up extremely well over the decades, even if the TV show can often be excruciating to sit through. The Monkees were still performing in concert for enthusiastic crowds in the early 21st Century, long after their supposedly more respectable contemporaries had imploded or fallen out of favor.


In addition to the rock n' roll Monkees, genuine simian monkeys also had featured roles in two other new 1966 shows: a weekly seriesbased on the enduring "Tarzan" character and the "Daktari" series about a veterinarian treating sick animals in Africa. Many of the other TV series that debuted in 1966 were the latest entries in some of the genres that were becoming increasingly prevalent on prime-time TV. There were novelty / gimmick shows, like the short-lived, but fondly-remembered astronauts and cavemen time-travel sitcom "It's About Tme." In the wake of "Batman's" success, the same production team develo ped a superhero series based on the venerable "Green Hornet" character. This show was presented in a more serious manner than Batman and failed to duplicate its predecessor's success; it did, however, co-star martial arts legend Bruce Lee, pre-saging the worldwide early-1970's karate / kung fu craze spawned by Lee's later movies. Another new 1966 series that failed to duplicate the popularity of its prototype was "The Girl From UNCLE," a spy show spin-off from the hit "The Man From UNCLE."


The increasing popularity of science-fiction lead to new shows in that genre, too. Irwin Allen's time-travel / adventure series "The Time Tunnel" also ran for just one year. The notorious "Star Trek" also began airing in 1966 and eventually developed into a never-ending global franchise, some of whose fans treat it more like a way of life, an identity and a religion than a space exploration TV series.


Three other 1966 series that have long-outlasted their original incarnations were the daytime game shows "Hollywood Squares" and "The Newlywed Game" and the afternoon supernatural soap opera "Dark Shadows." The spy craze continued with not only American-produced espionage series, but with later seasons of the UK hit "The Avengers" being imported and run on ABC in America. The show's off-beat wit and quirky British-ness captivated US audiences and turned Diana Rigg's Emma Peel character into an international sex symbol. There had been beautiful, strong women on American TV before, but seldom were they tough, butt-kicking, classy dames like Mrs. Peel.


Not all the new shows in 1966 revolved around spies, crimefighters and spacemen. This was also the year that the fairly mundane sitcoms "That Girl" and "Family Affair" began their very popular runs. Other traditional genres like Westerns, cop and lawyer shows and variety programs continued to thrive in prime time, too, but with shows like Batman, The Monkees, The Avengers, Star Trek, It's About Time and the Irwin Allen series, TV was seeming more surreal and bizarre than ever.


Just about any time a fad or trend or entertainer achieves success of phenomenal proportions, an almost-inevitable backlash occurs. Critics, the more fickle fans or anyone who never entirely shared or understood the fad's appeal in the first place will start looking for excuses to bash the pop culture phenomenon, gleefully point out it's flaws or deride it as having deteriorated. By 1966, Beatlemania was firmly entrenched worldwide and that inevitable backlash escalated. Even many Beatles fans were among those upset when the deep-thinking, ever-philosophical Beatle John Lennon expressed ideas that were perceived as sacrilegious and offensive to Christians. Although Beatlemania continued to enjoy widespread support, there was also a sizable groundswell of Beatles-bashing directly resulting from the Lennon musings. This backlash did little lasting damage to Beatlemania, but it demonstrated the Beatles were not entirely the invincible juggernaut they'd once seemed. Some fans never forgave Lennon for his religious viewpoint, including the unstable "fan" who shot Lennon to death in 1980, reportedly citing the 1966 comments as part of his motive.


Although many other British pop musicians also continued their Invasion of the US in 1966, many American acts (some new, some old) racked up impressive record sales that year, too. In addition to the Monkees, the Young Rascals, The Mamas and The Papas and Tommy James & The Shondells all had their first major hits in 1966. Soul music continued to be a favorite, too. In addition to the always dependable Motown artists, soulful vocalists like Percy Sledge, James Brown, Lou Rawls, Dionne Warwick, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding sold records across demographic lines to music-lovers from all ethnic backgrounds.


Although Rock and Roll was developing a harder, more adult-intimidating edge and becoming more musically and lyrically complex, a surprisingly large number of gentle or easy-listening records were also huge sellers. 1966 was the year Frank Sinata sold millions of copies of "Strangers In The Night," his first #1 single since the mid-1950's. Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass were one of the top-selling musical groups of 1966 and many of the year's biggest hits were very conservative, both musically ("My Love" by Petula Clark or "Cherish" by The Association) and lyrically ("The Ballad of The Green Berets" by S/Sgt. Barry Sadler).


Anyone trying to graph the direction popular music was taking in 1966 probably would've given up in frustration as each week's pop charts brought new surprises. Just as America's youth seemed to be growing increasingly removed, remote and alienated from their parents' generation, a so-called 'nostalgia' craze swept America. Although the word 'nostalgia' was bandied about a lot in the late 1960's and early 1970's, this was really an inaccurate nomenclature. Teen-agers and especially college students developed an appreciation for musical, cinematic and other pop culture styles and icons of the 1920's, 1930's and 1940's. Since the audience embracing America's Pop History was too young to remember the Roaring 20's or World War II first-hand, they couldn't really be said to be 'nostalgic' about those eras. The hippie-era generation latched on to old-movie icons like Humphrey Bogart, W.C. Fields and The Marx Brothers and the films themselves of that era became popular again both on television and in revival film house screenings, especially in the vicinity of college campuses.


Some pop historians trace the beginning of this 'nostalgia' craze to Fall of 1966, when one of the biggest hit singles of the year was "Winchester Cathedral" by the New Vaudeville Band. This record sounded more like an anachronistic artifact of the 1930's--complete with Rudy Vallee-style megaphone singing and 'Vo-Dee-O-Do's'--than a hip expression of the Swingin' 60's.


Perhaps young audiences looking for something different latched onto the song "Winchester Cathedral" for its novelty value. Rock n' roll stars of the 50's and 60's (most notably Fats Domino, Connie Francis,The Marcels and Elvis Presley) had frequently taken pop standards of previous generations and re-recorded them for young audiences, but the old songs were usually given fresh arrangements designed to make them sound contemporary and disguise the fact that the songs were from bygone eras. From 1966 on, the fact that the old songs sounded like Pop History relics became their selling point. This fascination with vintage musical stylings lead in subsequent years to retro-hits like "Mama" Cass Elliot's remake of "Dream A Little Dream of Me" and Tiny Tim's outlandish rendering of "Tip-Toe Thru' The Tulips With Me."


The feature films of 1966 reflected many of the genres also currently popular on TV. Spies (such as Matt Helm, Harry Palmer and Derek Flint), private eyes (Lew Harper), science-fiction (underwater, on the land and in outer space) and rock n' roll (Herman's Hermits, the inevitable Elvis) were also a huge part of the theatrical films that year. Even a "Batman" movie with the cast of the TV series was released in the Summer of 1966. The popular TV series families "The Munsters" and the cartoon "Flintstones" also were spun-off into feature film that Summer.


Just as the British were invading the music industry, British films (along with other foreign movies) were becoming very popular with US audiences in 1966. Roughly half the Oscar nominees for acting for 1966 films were from the UK. Some of the remaining nominees were from other foreign countries ranging from Japan (Mako) to France (Anouk Aimee) to Tahiti (Jocelyne Lagarde). British nominees won in the three main categories. "A Man For All Seasons" won Best Picture, with its star Paul Scofield honored with the Actor Oscar for his mesmerizing performance as Sir Thomas More. The London-born actress Elizabeth Taylor was awarded the Actress Oscar for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." The Supporting Actor awards went to Americans: Walter Matthau ("The Fortune Cookie") and Sandy Dennis (also for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf").


1966 was one of those years in which it became trendy for films to run long: 2 hours ("Alfie"or "...Virgina Woolf," for example) or even 3 hours ("Hawaii," "The Sand Pebbles"). Although the content of mainstream movies in 1966 seems somewhat tame by the standards of the 1970's through the present, commercial filmmakers in the mid-1960's were exploring frankly what had previously been topics considered too risque or censorable to present on-screen: sexual perversion, promiscuity, infidelity, miscegenation. Each year, films became progressively bolder and less skittish about presenting such matters. While to some viewers, these adult themes still seemed shocking and scandalous in 1966, other moviegoers were starting to perceive them as fairly commonplace.


That doesn't mean there weren't a lot of old-fashioned, more traditional movies finding audiences that year, too. Also popular were action-adventure thrillers, Westerns, comedies, horror films, fantasies, family-oriented fare, war stories and movies about nuns.

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