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Mr. Pop History Presents 1962 Week-By-Week

Overview by Robert Neill


1962 may not have a reputation as one of the seminal years in Pop History, but several of the events that took place in 1962 did indeed play a major role in shaping the Pop History of the rest of the 20th Century (and beyond).


Filmed and written fiction built around spies and secret agents had been fairly commonplace long before 1962. The release in October '62 of the James Bond movie "Dr. No" with Sean Connery, however, kicked off a world-wide spy craze that continued not only throughout the entire 1960's, but which was still being copied and parodied for the next 40+ years. The film series inspired by Ian Fleming's books about British Secret Service Agent 007 became the prototype for a glut of movies, TV shows, literature, comic books, pop records and other forms of entertainment capitalizing on the new mania for tales of international espionage.


October of 1962 was also the month in which Johnny Carson replaced Jack Paar as the regular host of NBC-TV'spopular "Tonight Show." Although there had been other excellent talk-shows and talk-show hosts previously, Carson mastered and perfected the genre, becoming the template and standard by which talk shows have been judged ever since. Johnny Carson continued to host the "Tonight Show" for a phenomenal 29 years and his influence on the field continued long after his retirement. For many comedians and other performers whose careers developed during the Carson years, being invited to appear on Johnny's "Tonight Show" was considered to be The Gig that proved they had reached the big-time.


Another historic event in 1962 whose impact wasn't fully recognized until later was the release of "Surfin'," the first record by The Beach Boys. Although the pop music sub-genre which became known as 'surf music' had already begun developing among other musicians prior to this record, The Beach Boys soon became the iconic and musical center of the vortex of the Pop Cultural movement embodied by 'the surf sound.' By the end of 1962, a follow-up Beach Boys single, "Surfin' Safari," was a huge hit. The distinctive harmonies, "surf-guitar" riffs, beach imagery and California-lifestyle subject matter promulgated by The Beach Boys' music continued to be an influential element in Pop Culture long after 1962.


The American public's fascination with the lives of President John F. Kennedy, his wife, children, siblings, in-laws, entire extended family and political adminstration was also exploited toward the end of 1962 - in the release of the satirical record album: "The First Family." Comedians impersonated the familiar voices of the Kennedy family engaged in hilarious dialogues and situations. The parody album proved to be an enormous best-seller, for many weeks out-selling most of the musical records in release at the time. Snippets from the album received considerable airplay on the radio, as though they were hit songs. The "First Family" album spawned an entire sub-genre of comedy albums imitating the concept.


One early 1960's phenomenon that remained relatively unexploited by the entertainment industries was the American public's intense fascination with space exploration. The news media had provided detailed coverage of every aspect of the selection, training and space flights of America's astronauts for a public that was obsessed with the Space Program and who treated the astronauts like movie stars. Americans were equally intrigued by the space missions of Soviet cosmonauts. Usually show business could be counted on to jump on any craze this widespread in an attempt to wring as much money out of it as possible, yet the entertainment industry was surprisingly skittish about exploring space-mania.


Other than occasional astronaut- or space invader-themed episodes of Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" anthology TV series, fictional prime-time television pretty much ignored America's astro-obsession during the first several years of the 1960's. Other than Disney's 1962 movie "Moon Pilot," theatrical films seemed equally oblivious to the Space Program. In 1961, Bill Dana had had a hit record with his comedy routine about Jose Jimenez as an astronaut, but music influenced by space-mania was rare in the early 1960's. It wasn't until the mid-1960's and late-1960's that pop music, movies and television caught up with America's fascination with the real-life Space Program. Why was the entertainment industry avoiding a subject matter for which there was a potentially huge market? Were the industry moguls really 'afraid of science-fiction' as Ray Bradbury suggested in 1962?


One trend that was inescapable in early 1962 Pop Culture was a revival of the Twist. That dance hit had re-entered the pop music charts at the end of 1961 and by early 1962 just about every other musician who released an album managed to shoehorn the word 'Twist' into the album's title whether it belonged there or not. Feature films built around the Twist were rushed into theatres and even the usually fad-ignoring TV sitcom "The Dick Van Dyke Show" incorporated into one February episode a dance craze based on the Twist.


Although rock n' roll music was still perceived by many in 1962 as a trend that had already played itself out, other Pop Culture observers weren't quite so sure anymore. Some radio stations were starting to have second thoughts about the recent softening of their playlists.


Easy-listening, instrumental, teen-idol, girl-group and other softer, gentler forms of pop music continued to prevail in 1962, but by the end of the year a somewhat rougher, louder, more energetic and not-so-parent-friendly element was re-inserting itself into the music aimed at young America. The influence of 1950's rocker Chuck Berry's guitar riffs, for example, could be heard in the newly-emerging surf music. In Spring of 1962, wholesome Shelley Fabares could have a mellow-sounding #1 pop hit rhapsodizing about her dreamy crush on "Johnny Angel;" by Autumn of 1962, the much earthier Crystals were boasting about a moody, unconventional boyfriend in "He's A Rebel," a much more raucous #1 record with a rock n' roll wall-of-sound and rollicking saxophone solo. There was still plenty of room on the charts for all styles of music, but popular new groups like The Four Seasons or the artists produced by Phil Spector made rock n roll's opponents wonder if they'd really won the anti-rock battle after all.


Two enduring television sitcoms debuted in 1962: "McHale's Navy" and "The Beverly Hillbillies." The former was one of several 1962 military sitcoms, a genre that flourished in the 1960's and 1970's, but which has since become almost extinct. "The Beverly Hillbillies" often proved to be one of the highest-rated shows on 1960's television, lasted until 1971 and led to the creation in subsequent years of other 'rural comedies' like "Green Acres" and "Petticoat Junction."


Not much else new or influential was happening in prime-time television in 1962. Most of the same genres that had been dominant in previous years continued to thrive: westerns, sitcoms, doctors, cops & lawyers, reporters, action-adventure, variety shows, game shows, etc. Animated cartoons continued to grow in popularity as part of the networks' evening schedules. 1962 also saw an unusually large number of news programs in prime time. The previously-ubiquitous 'private detective' TV genre disappeared by the end of 1962, but eventually made a comeback. TV programs in color were becoming a much bigger portion of the overall prime-time schedule, but many black-and-white series continued to be popular, too.


Some of the most successful movies of 1962 were also remarkably long: two or three hours or longer! The 1962 movies that won Oscars tended to be epic historical dramas like Best Picture "Lawrence of Arabia" or serious explorations of social issues like "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "The Miracle Worker," which between them accounted for three (Gregory Peck, Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke) of the four acting category winners. "The Days of Wine & Roses" was a sobering account of the self-destructive lives of alcoholics. "Birdman of Alcatraz," "David and Lisa," and "The Manchurian Candidate" were among the other earnest 1962 movies to receive acclaim.


Soap opera style melodramas also continued to be popular in 1962, with Ed Begley winning a Supporting Actor Oscar for "Sweet Bird of Youth." A surprise hit and multi-Oscar nominee was the Grand Guignol horror film "What Ever Happened To Baby Jane." Not all 1962 movies were deadly serious, however. Also popular were frothy romantic comedies like the imported "Divorce-Italian Style," fantasy-adventures ("Five Weeks In a Balloon" or "The Wonderful World of The Brothers Grimm"), musicals like "The Music Man" (also Oscar-nominated), 'muscleman' movies inspired by the popular "Hercules" film series, horror, love stories, westerns, family-oriented entertainment, crime dramas and all the other genres the film industry had long-since perfected.

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