Browse The Decades
Mr. Pop History Presents 1961 Week-By-Week
Overview by Robert Neill
Many fans of classic entertainment associate television of the 1960's with novelty or gimmick sitcoms about genies, witches, Martians, talking cars, or monster families. In 1961, the already-popular syndicated "Mr. Ed" series--about an architect and his talking palomino pal--moved to CBS, where its galloping success eventually helped inspire these countless other gimmick series.
Another 60's genre just beginning was the secret agent / spy show. This form of entertainment didn't explode in popularity until a year later, prompted by the success of the James Bond movies. In the Spring and Summer of 1961, American viewers got a glimpse of spies-to-come with the "Danger Man" TV series starring Patrick McGoohan. Some Pop Historians try to rewrite the 1960's by claiming "The Avengers" was the first British series to air on network television in prime-time, but "Danger Man" beat "The Avengers" to that distinction by several years.
Other TV classics debuting in 1961 were "Hazel," "Car 54, Where Are You?" and the perennial favorite "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Therest of the networks' prime time schedules included Westerns, doctors, cops and private eyes, family-oriented sitcoms, musical-variety programs, dramatic anthologies, cartoons, game shows, and sporting events.
Pop Music of 1961 was between trends and somewhat hard to categorize. Rock n' Roll was mis-perceived by many as a dying fad. Although The Everly Brothers, Fats Domino and the post-Army Elvis Presley were still having hits, many of their contemporaries from the first wave of highly-energetic, rhythmic rockers had ceased to do so, due to a variety of reasons, ranging from death to legal problems to religious conversion. The Beatles-fueled British Invasion was still three years away.
The gap left by the lack of a clear direction for popular music was filled by an eclectic assortment of musical genres: pop-rockers like Del Shannon; folksingers like The Highwaymen; soulful crooners like Ben E. King and Sam Cooke; easy-listening orchestral music like Bert Kaempfert's; "teen idols" like James Darren and Ricky Nelson; cross-over country stars like Jimmy Dean; even a revival of interest in 1950's-style doo-wop lead to hits like The Jive Five's "My True Story." Many of these musicians could really rock out when they wanted to, but 1961 was a good year to play it safe, with ballads and violins replacing backbeats and guitars.
1961 was also a great year for what has since become known as "The Girl Group Sound" regardless of whether it was performed by actual groups like The Shirelles and The Marvelettes or by an individual such as Linda Scott or Janie Grant.
Much has been made in the 21st Century about members of minority groups 'finally' winning Oscars. To win an Oscar for 1961, however, it actually helped to have a strong ethnic background. The Best Actor and Actress Oscar winners were from Austria and Italy (Maximilian Schell and Sophia Loren), respectively. The Best Picture winner from 1961 was 'West Side Story,' the oft-lampooned dancing-street-gang musical in which many of the main characters were Hispanic. Best Supporting Performance Awards were won for that film by Puerto Rico-born Rita Moreno and by George Chakiris, the only Oscar-winning actor that year actually born in the United States.
In 1961, numerous low-budget "Psycho" rip-offs started making their ways into theatres, along with the other more traditional horror films. Counterpointing these grisly (and sometimes sleazy) thrillers, old-style Hollywood glamor ("Breakfast At Tiffany's") was still in fashion, too, along with conventional tough guy heroics (Gregory Peck in "The Guns of Navarone," "Charlton Heston in "El Cid.") Hollywood's two popular, unconventional, dark-haired leading men--Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis--were well-represented in 1961 movies, too.
Many of 1961's dramatic releases were serious like the Marlon Brando revenge Western "One-Eyed Jacks" and the gritty pool room drama "The Hustler" with Paul Newman. Even more prevalent were the type of melodramatic soap operas that in restrospect would get labeled "chick flicks:" "The Sins of Rachel Cade;" "Splendor In The Grass;" "Summer And Smoke;" "Something Wild." And that's just the ones starting with the letter 'S;' it continues on through the rest of the alphabet, too.
1961 dramatic films also included the mature exploration of the sort of topics that might have been considered too controversial or shocking in earlier decades. "The Children's Hour," for example kept intact the Lesbian content of Lillian Hellman's famous play, rather than dodging it as the 1936 version had done. "Judgment At Nuremburg" was a powerful look at Nazi War atrocities, complete with gruesome newsreel footage. "The Mark" followed the attempts of a convicted sex offender to re-enter society after serving a prison term for the attempted seduction of a child..