FCC Chairman Newton Minow’s often-repeated line about the television industry came as a surprise to members of the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961. After all, the medium was not quite 15 years old, and not every American had access to a TV set. Most viewers who did suffered from limited options: only three television networks existed at the time.
Broadcast commentator Edward R. Murrow’s critique of television preceded Minow’s by 3 years. He assailed television executives, chiding them for missing the medium’s potential. Murrow claimed that television threatened to be, in its worst moments, nothing more than “lights and wires in a box.”
Minow’s speech got to the point a lot quicker, and had the power of the U-S government behind it. The Chairman cited a seemingly-endless array of game shows, situation comedies, and private eye dramas. He also mentioned ubiquitous TV advertising, long before infomercials ruled the late-night airwaves.
“Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off,” Minow asserted. “I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”
TV programmers didn’t like Minow’s criticism. The creative industry considered him an elitist snob, unnecessarily attacking a harmless vocation. The reaction included what’s thought to be a direct reference in one of the era’s seminal TV programs: the shipwrecked cast of “Gilligan’s Island” landed after the crash of the “S.S. Minnow.”
But Minow’s view evolved into mainstream fact. Bruce Springsteen’s 1992 hit “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)” at least partially echoed his sentiments. Not that it mattered much; by 2014, the Wall Street Journal estimated that the average American TV viewer’s choices included 200 channels.
The early 1960s saw many rocket launch failures in the United States, all involving unmanned spacecraft. The biggest — and costliest — destroyed an Atlas ICBM booster with a purpose-built Centaur second stage at Cape Canaveral on March 3, 1965. It was supposed to lift a mockup of the unmanned Surveyor lunar lander into space. Instead, it managed an altitude of about 10 feet before crashing back to earth in spectacular fashion.
The Atlas booster was notoriously thin-skinned, so the massive explosion didn’t come as a real surprise when its fuel tanks ruptured on impact. But the extensive damage to the launch pad meant NASA needed to find another launch location. Fortunately, the agency was building another pad nearby, and used it to successfully put another stack, AC-6, into action just five months later.
Ironically, the combination went on to become NASA’s most productive and successful line of launch vehicles over a span of 42 years, with 181 of 197 liftoffs putting unmanned satellites in earth orbit, solar orbit, and on their way to the moon.
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.