Like you, I spent the occasional day home from school watching re-runs of Happy Days. Unlike you, I looked cool while doing it.
For most of us born after the fact, Happy Days represented the signature cultural perspective on the 1950’s — an era when guys wore varsity sweaters and trousers and girls wore skirts, saddle shoes and big ass ribbons in their hair. “Greasers” like Fonzie and his swarthy little cousin Chachi represented the rebellious types who dropped out of school and dared the authorities with their insouicant popped collars and leather jackets.
That the show was called “Happy Days” was also important, because it fed the belief that before the tumultuous 1960s, Americans existed in a post-war haze of genteel propriety and innocence.
Of course that was all fucking bullshit.
The decade of the 1950s was home to all sorts of political cultural upheavals, from McCarthy’s red scare to the rise of Jack Kerouac and the beatniks, be-bop jazz, bomb shelters, and Holden Caulfield. So how did it go from that to Happy Days?
According to this article in Columbia College Today, the answer is this:
If you didn’t immediately recognize it, the band pictured above is Sha Na Na. I remember the retro Doo Wop band for its short-lived television comedy show, and for its occasional performance on those public television fund drives. The band also wrote most of the songs used in the movie Grease.
What I didn’t realize is that Sha Na Na “invented” the 1950s:
With surprise, Marcus reports that “Sha Na Na, the first and most successful” of the Fifties redefiners, were not, as he had supposed in his youth, “‘juvenile delinquents from Queens … The band was actually formed,” he reports with amazement, “of Columbia College students, many of whom were classically trained … ” (pp. 12–13).
Classically trained indeed. Case in point: “Grease” only became “the word” (as the musical later claimed in its famous title song) because George Leonard ’67, the group’s theoretician, studying Greek and Latin, happened to be taking Columbia’s famous classicist Gilbert Highet. While George was sitting in Highet’s class, struggling to think of a name for the first concert, Highet picked up his book, The Classical Tradition and — rolling all the “r”s in his rich Scottish accent — intoned Poe’s poem: “The glorrry that was Grrrreece … the Grrrrandeur that was RRRome!” George had his title: “The Glory … that was Grease!”
The (this is a weird thing to type) intellectual upstarts that created Sha Na Na were big into Susan Sontag and her academic deconstruction of camp — so in a way what they were doing was art on a number of different levels. But they did it so well — and Grease and Happy Days were so popular — that entire generations of humans began to forget all the turmoil that had engulfed the 1950s and instead thought of it as an era in which the worst that could happen was a dance-brawl between the jocks and the greasers.
And where there are mass self-delusions, there are politicians only one step behind:
In Ronald Reagan’s time, Marcus documents, politicians began invoking a Columbia College fantasy as if it had been history, and trying to ally themselves with it. “Conservatives [in the Reagan Era] parlay(ed) the cultural nostalgia for the Fifties that had circulated in the 1970s into the basis for a political offensive … ”(p. 58). Marcus describes in detail how Bill Clinton fought for parity by casting himself as a worthy descendant of Elvis. Baby Boom politicians have battled during four presidencies over who was the genuine heir to a Fifties that was itself a kind of artwork.
So I guess the lesson is that the fifties didn’t die when Fonzie jumped the shark, because they were already dead. Also, why am I reading Columbia College Today at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning?
Sha Na Na and the Invention of the Fifties [CCT]