Those of you who grew up in the Seventies might remember the wave of Fifties nostalgia that swept that decade. To a large degree this was nothing unusual. The Fifties had seen a wave of nostalgia for the Twenties that produced such TV shows as The Roaring Twenties and The Untouchables. The Nineties also had its own nostalgia wave for the Seventies. I suppose that every decade sees some bit of nostalgia for another decade.
In this case of the Seventies, it must be pointed out that Fifties nostalgia had been bubbling under the surface for some time before it became an outright fad. Fifties revival group Sha Na Na was formed in 1969. They even performed at Woodstock, resulting in a recording contract for the group. In February 1972 the musical Grease opened off Broadway, moving to Broadway later in the year. That same year Fifties rock legend Chuck Berry had his only number one single, "My Ding-a-Ling." Given these events, it would seem that a fad towards Fifties nostalgia was inevitable. It only needed a movie or song to turn it into an outright craze. Ironically, it would be a movie that was not set in the Fifties that would achieve this.
Directed and co-written by George Lucas, American Graffiti almost never got made and, once made, almost didn't get released. United Artists, who had released Lucas's first feature THX 1138, rejected the script for American Graffiti. It would not be until after Lucas's friend Francis Ford Coppola, fresh from the success of The Godfather, stepped into produce the film that Universal agreed to greenlight it. The movie was shown at a preview at the Northpoint Theatre in San Francisco, where audience reaction was fantastic. Despite a great reception from the audience, Universal executive Ned Tanen thought that the film was "unreleasable." It was only after Coppola offered to buy the film for $1 million (it had been made on a meagre $777,000) that Universal decided to release it. The movie proved to be a smash hit, proving to be one of the highest grossing films of the Seventies. Much of its cast, who were then largely unknown, went on to be stars. Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, and others all went onto stardom. And, of course, it established George Lucas's career and allowed him to go on to make Star Wars.
Of course, as stated earlier, American Graffiti does not take place in the Fifties. Instead, the film is set in 1962. There are a few songs from the Fifties on the soundtrack (most notably by Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry), but most of the songs come from the early Sixties ("Barbara Anne" by The Regents, "Surfin' Safari" by The Beach Boys, "See You in September" by The Tempos, and so on). And there is nary a ducktail or leather jacket in sight. Regardless, somehow this film set in the early Sixties spurred a craze for the Fifties.
As pointed out earlier, the Fifties craze was perhaps inevitable. While American Graffiti was drawing people to theatres in droves, another film was being filmed that predicted that craze. In the cult classic Phantom of the Paradise the music entrepreneur Swan (played by Paul Williams) is credited with the nostalgia craze of the Seventies, through his revival band The Juicy Fruits. Indeed, Phantom of the Paradise features a Fifties style song by the Juicy Fruits, as well as a beach music number that sounds like it could have come from the American Graffiti era.
With America Graffiti a hit at theatres, ABC-TV dusted off a pilot set in the Fifties that had aired as an episode of Love American Style. "Love and the Happy Day" featured Ron Winkler (perhaps the only famous person to star in American Graffiti) as Richie Cunningham, the son of a hardware store owner in 1950s Milwaukee. ABC initially rejected the pilot, but reconsidered given the rising nostalgia craze. The show that resulted, Happy Days, would become one of the most successful shows of the Seventies. The series would generate tons of merchandising, most of it centred around the character known as "Fonzie" or "the Fonz (played by Henry Winkler)." Happy Days proved successful enough to produce an equally successful spin off. Laverne and Shirley starred American Graffiti alum Cindy Williams and Penny Marshal as two young, single women working at a Milwaukee beer plant. For several seasons the two series occupied the top of the Nielsens.
With the success of American Graffiti and Happy Days, it was perhaps natural that revival group Sha Na Na, a group which had existed prior to the Fifties craze, should get their own TV series. Their show debuted in 1977 and ran until 1981.
Of course, not every bit of nostalgia in the Seventies was focused on the 1950s. Released in 1978, Animal House took place in the same year as American Graffiti--1962. But while American Graffiti centred on the car culture of California in that year, Animal House centred on the antics of the fraternity known as Delta House. Like American Graffiti, Animal House would also have far reaching impact. It started a cycle towards similar, low humour films (such as Caddyshack) that lasted throughout much of the Eighties.
Like Sha Na Na, the musical Grease predated the Fifties nostalgia craze. The nostalgia craze propelled the musical to even greater heights of success. For a time it would be the longest running show on Broadway. With the nostalgia craze under way, it was natural that it would be adapted as a movie. Released in 1978, the movie Grease featured Olivia Newton John and John Travolta in the starring roles, and included appearances by Fifties pop star Frankie Avalon and revival band Sha Na Na. It would go on to become the highest grossing movie musical of all time.
Grease appears to have been something of a last hurrah for the Fifties nostalgia craze. While nostalgia for the decade has never completely gone away, the fad itself slowly petered out towards the beginning of the Eighties. Both Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley declined in the ratings. Sha Na Na's show went off the air. It is difficult to say why the fad ended. I suspect part of it may had to do with the fact that many people coming of age in the early Eighties were not born until the Fifties had ended and didn't see anything in the decade about which to be nostalgic. I must admit that while I enjoy the music of the decade (Chuck Berry is hard to beat) and I love the cars they made then (tailfins just add something to a car), I have always hated the fashions of the era (poodle skirts and saddle shoes--*bleh*). Perhaps that is why I was never a fan of Happy Days and I have always hated Grease (although the lack of any good songs might have to do with that, too....).
Of course, much of the reason the fad ended may have had to do with why it began as well. In 1973 the United States was still deep in the Vietnam War, a war that was very unpopular with many Americans. The current president, Richard Nixon, was also unpopular, particularly as his administration was racked with controversy due to the Watergate scandal. Many Americans may have felt the need to escape to what they perceived as a simpler time. This was perhaps especially true of those who came of age during the Fifties. As a result, an industry for nostalgia started to grow, with the formation of Sha Na Na and the debut of the musical Grease. The movie American Graffiti tapped into this need to escape to another era and simply turned this need into an outright craze. By the end of the Seventies, the United States was no longer in Vietnam, Nixon was no longer president, and things were perhaps looking up for many people. As a result, many people may have no longer felt the need to escape to another decade.
Perhaps the main reason the Fifties nostalgia fad ended was that it may have simply run its course. By their very nature, fads are transient phenomena. One day coonskin caps are hot sellers; the next day they don't sell at all. Quite simply, many people may have simply tired of being nostalgic about the Fifties.
Regardless, the Fifties nostalgia craze of the Seventies did have some lingering consequences. Many rock stars from the Fifties and early Sixties saw their careers revived and their sales increased. The fad spurred interest in cars from the period, interest which has lasted to this day among automotive enthusiasts. A market was also created for nostalgia movies. From Diner to Dazed and Confused, all of these films owe something to the wave of nostalgia that swept America in the Seventies. Perhaps the most curious result of the nostalgia wave of the Seventies was a brand new phenomenon--people being nostalgic about American Graffiti, Happy Days, Sha Na Na, and so on. For the first time in the history of man, it seems that people are now able to be nostalgic about nostalgia....