Production studios made gritty police and detective dramas a staple of American broadcast television long before the 1960s. The early part of the decade saw the introduction of popular investigators who plied their trade in some of the most exotic locations on earth.
It’s too bad these dramas hit the small screen before the advent of color television. Viewers could only imagine the vivid scenes that would later become an integral part of the series’ plot (i.e. Hawaii Five-O, Miami Vice).
Surfside 6 (1960-62): Let’s see: Miami location? Check. Investigators based on a boat? Check. Casual beachside fashion? Check. All that’s missing is a live-in alligator on board.
Warner Brothers Television’s Surfside 6 aired for two seasons on ABC. Sadly, it went up against two of the era’s most popular family shows, “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Danny Thomas Show” on CBS. Troy Donahue and Van Williams co-starred in the effort, so you can’t blame Warner Brothers for trying.
77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964): Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Roger Smith played two Los Angeles private detectives working out of a high-style, prestigious address on Sunset Boulevard. Warner Brothers again made their location appeal obvious from the opening titles, but the biggest impression came from comic relief character Gerald Lloyd “Kookie” Kookson III, played with hair-combing, hipster campiness by actor Edd Byrnes.
Coronado 9 (1960-1): By now, using the precise location in the title had become a pattern for some detective shows. Rod Cameron starred as a former U. S. Navy intelligence officer turned private detective in San Diego. He worked out of his house. Clearly, his clients had no problem tracking him down. Neither did the bad guys. The syndicated series lasted only 39 episodes.
Hawaiian Eye (1959-1963): ABC/Warner Brothers cornered the television market on detective shows set on location. But Hawaiian Eye probably featured the most credible of story lines, considering Hawaii’s recent statehood and growing appeal to mainland tourists. Casting actor Robert Conrad as a part-Hawaiian character reduced the realism.
Hong Kong (1960-61): Actor Rod Taylor proved that journalists could be private detectives, too. Especially in the crazy heat of Hong Kong, which the short-lived series depicted as an up-for-grabs locale boasting dramatic natural beauty. The 20th Century Fox Television show used footage from spots that predated the modern high-rise boom. Still, Hong Kong proved an enduring international hit, and boosted Taylor’s Hollywood profile prior to his starring role in Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
New Yorker Kitty Genovese’s murder became one of the best-known — and least understood — cases of its kind. It gave birth to one of the signature social characters of the decade: the innocent-yet-guilty witness to violent crime.
An assailant stabbed Genovese to death outside her home in Kew Gardens, Queens, at around 3 a.m on March 13, 1964. It’s documented that at least a handful of neighbors heard her cries for help, but didn’t interpret them as someone needing rescue from a knife-wielding killer. The New York Times revealed the brutal nature of the attack two weeks later, and reported that 37 people listened to Kitty Genovese die. In the article, a neighbor told the reporter he asked a second one to call the police, uttering the infamous phrase, “I didn’t want to get involved.”
Strangely enough, a well-known science fiction writer was among those who moved the story into the realm of exaggeration. Harlan Ellison wrote screenplays for a number of popular 1960s television series, including the original Star Trek. He penned a newspaper article savaging those who failed to come to Genovese’s aid.
Rolling Stone magazine published Ellison’s story, which reported that 38 people heard the crime and did nothing, in 1971. By mid-decade, social psychologists were using the Genovese case in their introductory textbooks, claiming that despite what you’d think, larger numbers of bystanders actually decrease the likelihood that someone will step forward and help a victim.
But in fact, the research was flawed, because it relied on media accounts of the event which were ginned-up for their sensationalist value. Further review found that police interviewed only less than a half-dozen witnesses, and that nothing close to the number of 37 people — or 38 or as many as 41, depending on the urban legend you happened to read — watched or listened to the murder take place.
Kevin Cook, author of Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America, theorizes that “some harried civil servant gave that number to the police commissioner,” who passed it onto the Times. Reporter A.B. Rosenthal’s subsequent article was a gripping read for a country recently numbed by the death of President John F. Kennedy.
By the time someone updated Kitty Genovese’s murder with fact, several decades’ worth of social psych students had been convinced of the power of the so-called “bystander effect.” The legend still lives on in popular culture, and taints the people of the Kew Gardens neighborhood to this day.
Malcolm X spoke to an audience at Cleveland’s Cory Methodist Church on April 3. He’d split from the Nation of Islam just a month before, and everyone listened to hear if the move meant a shift toward the mainstream, non-violent approach advocated by the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Malcolm X’s words basically eliminated that particular suggestion:
“It’s time now for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for; what we’re supposed to get when we cast a ballot; and that if we don’t cast a ballot, it’s going to end up in a situation where we’re going to have to cast a bullet. It’s either a ballot or a bullet.”
On April 20, a packed courtroom heard Nelson Mandela’s long-awaited speech at his trial for sabotage, guerilla warfare, and furthering acts of communism in South Africa. Mandela was already serving time alongside a dozen other leaders of the African National Congress. This follow-up brought his chance to put the South African government on trial for injustice and a legal system tilted toward the country’s white minority. Mandela backers Anthony Sampson and Nadine Gordimer helped the legendary South African leader craft a 3-hour long speech, which ended like this:
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Experts anticipated Mandela to receive the death penalty at the end of the trial. Instead, the court convicted and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Mandela sat in stir for 27 years before he was released, and won election as President of South Africa.
Malcolm X lost his life to an assassin’s bullet on February 25, 1965.
Las Vegas endures as one of those rare places where the mass entertainment vibe of the early 1960s still survives in the United States. Its popularity lasted through the tumult of the latter half of the decade, then fought through the disco era in the 1970s, while battling a reputation as a resting place for has-been acts. Vegas rebounded in the ’80s and ’90s, and re-established itself as the country’s go-to party city for the early 21st century. Yet the reasons that earned the moniker “The Entertainment Capital of the World” seem lost to history today.
Meyer Lansky. The mob accountant worked with gangster Bugsy Siegel to build the Flamingo hotel and casino in the mid 1940s, sparking the rise of a dozen more gambling-themed establishments over the next decade. America’s Post-War affluence sent tourists — and their money — to the Fremont Street hotels, and top-name entertainers followed. Other small cities hoped to compete for the Las Vegas ticket, but Lansky’s entertainment connections in Los Angeles and New York made it a moot point.
Howard Hughes. He didn’t move to Las Vegas until 1966, but his interest in the city started much earlier. The business visionary developed plans to take over the top gaming hotels and move Vegas into a modern, entertainment-focused tourist mecca. Aviator Hughes had dodged death twice while testing aircraft in the 1940s. His adventurous attitude created a new buzz for the one-time wild west outpost.
Elvis Presley. The King’s association with the Entertainment Capital was highlighted by 1964’s “Viva Las Vegas”: race car driver (and helicopter pilot) Elvis enters a grand prix race being held in the city, meets a swimming instructor played by Ann-Margret, and gets a job as a waiter. Several musical-comedic scenes ensue before the climactic race against rival Ceasare Danova, and a sentimental wedding scene at the Little Church of the West.
In addition to the classic theme song, the movie brought the first images of Las Vegas as a wholesome, family-friendly destination, not to mention a diversion for the spring break college crowd.
Ceasar’s Palace. Motel owner Jay Sarno used $35 million in Teamster’s money to construct a landmark mega-hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard in 1962. When it finally opened 4 years later, Ceasar’s Palace boasted the biggest and best of what passed for Vegas entertainment architecture: a 14-story hotel tower, lavish water fountains, and extravagant swimming pools overlooked by statues evoking the greatness of the Roman Empire. Appropriately, Ceasar’s went on to attract the most famous entertainment figures of the decade, from the United States and overseas.
The Rat Pack. The infamous band of entertainment raconteurs actually started in New York during the 1950s. The group brought its act to Nevada and turned into one of Vegas’ must-see attractions during the early 1960s. Part of the intrigue surrounding the performances was not knowing who would show up — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop, Corbett Monica, Peter Lawford — whom they would bring along, and what they’d do when they got there. The unpredicability of the Rat Pack further enhanced what would become the “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” philosophy.
History hardly remembers anyone who is the second to do anything important. Such is the case of NASA astronaut Scott Carpenter, who was only the second American to orbit the earth on May 24, 1962.
Carpenter followed John Glenn’s historic Friendship 7 flight, but few people recall how Carpenter got his assignment, what happened when he was in space, nor even what he named his Mercury capsule (Aurora 7). NASA meant to put Donald “Deke” Slayton into orbit after Glenn, but Slayton’s heart murmur diagnosis kept him earthbound, and the space agency pressed backup Carpenter into action.
Carpenter’s flight started smoothly enough. Then, his spacecraft used too much fuel and suffered a guidance failure during re-entry. It sent Aurora 7 more than 200 miles past the Atlantic Ocean recovery zone. While the Navy picked up other astronauts within minutes after splashdown, it took searchers three hours to find Carpenter, during which commentators questioned if he’d actually survived the trip.
Ironically, the second NASA orbital mission developed an unusual curse. Two years after Slayton’s grounding, Carpenter himself was found medically unfit for further spaceflight after injuring his arm in a motorbike accident. Undaunted, Carpenter took his pioneering spirit beneath the sea. He spent 28 days living in the Navy’s Sealab II on the ocean floor near California in 1965.
It’s one of the favorite subjects for historians and fashionistas alike: the disappearance of men’s headgear during the early 1960s. In fact, hats never went away, but they did go out of fashion, and the generation gap that followed created a cultural marker: a societal shift based on what men wore on their heads.
JFK: It’s known that that Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, sold hats for a while. It’s widely assumed that the 35th president, John F. Kennedy, destroyed the men’s hat-selling industry. Kennedy actually wore the traditional silk-fabric top hat during his inauguration, but, like his predecessors, left it at his seat during his speech. In addition, almost every image of Kennedy that appeared in newspapers, magazines, and on television thereafter showed him sans hat. Popular male entertainers of the day followed suit. Hat-wearing fashion might have been slowly declining by 1960, but JFK and the Camelot era pushed it over the brink.
Nikita Khruschev: Kennedy’s opposite number in the Soviet Union, Premier Nikita Khruschev, contributed to the trend. Ironically, the eternal bad guy in the Cold War wore a white hat during his televised face-off with then vice-president Richard Nixon during the “kitchen debate” in 1959. Khruschev lauded the merits of communism over capitalism, while Nixon promoted the symbolism of American prosperity. All three American television networks broadcast the exchange. Khruschev appeared clownish in his demeanor, but there was no joking when he faced-off against Kennedy in the political brinksmanship that followed during the early 1960s.
Byrlcreem: The British hair-care gel became ubiquitous in the USA due to a catchy jingle broadcast on television and radio. By 1960, men made sure nothing would mar the product’s impact on the well-groomed image. If you had hair, you wanted Brylcreem on it, and nothing covering it. The popular TV ads touted the perceived impact on the opposite sex, and even made it appear the imported cream could create an eye-catching style all by itself.
But even Brylcreem’s popularity would be creamed by another British import.
The Beatles: German stylist and photographer Astrid Kirchherr is credited with creating the Beatles’ image. Kirchherr disagrees, remembering that many young men in Germany, including her then-boyfriend, went for the long-haired look. Her photos soon had Brits ditching the Brylcreem and adopting the style, especially after John Lennon and Paul McCartney were pictured wearing the cut in Paris. George Harrison asked Kirchherr to cut his hair the same way. Kirchherr’s relationship with early Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe is the stuff of young-romance legend (Sutcliffe died of a brain hemmorage on the eve of a Beatles tour of Germany in 1962), but her lasting contribution to pop culture endures as a stylish hallmark of the Korean K-Pop music scene of today.
West Side Story: It took “Hair” to bring hirstuteness to center stage on Broadway, but 1957’s West Side Story got there first. Creator Jerome Robbins packed the modern-day Romeo and Juliet drama with youthful hairstyle trends born in the early ’50s, and only goofy Officer Krupke and old square Detective Schrank wore a hat. The long-awaited film adaptation did not disappoint in 1961. It earned 11 Academy Award nominations and won ten of them. Male hat-wearers became synonymous with close-minded, old-fashioned, buffoonish authority figures. Unless you played baseball.
Today it would be unthinkable that the leader of a democratic nation would suddenly disappear without a trace, never to be seen again. Yet that’s precisely what happened in the bizarre case of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt on December 17, 1967.
Holt left a group of associates to go swimming alone, at Chevoit Beach on Port Phillip Bay in southern Victoria, Australia. The area near the city of Melbourne was known for dangerous currents and rip tides, but Holt was said to be a better-than-average swimmer. Good judgement, apparently, was not one of his strengths, and he quickly disappeared beneath the waves. A two-day search by Royal Australian Navy divers and local volunteers yielded nothing. Holt was declared missing and presumed dead.
As might be expected, the vanishing of an international head of state led to a wide range of conspiracy theories. One urban legend said Holt was abducted by aliens. Another suggested he was a double agent for the Chinese government, plucked from the water by a submarine dispatched from Beijing.
Ironically, one can find an athletic center named in Holt’s honor near Melbourne. Its centerpiece, and most popular feature, is an outdoor swimming pool.