A Long Time Ago, In a Land Not So Far Away…
The possibilities were endless. Nursing homes and retirement communities, it seemed, had effectively taken over the state of Colorado. With one set of grandparents dead and one set of grandparents not responding to my emails, I armed myself with deadly precision and accuracy up to speeds of 100wpm and listened as some lady I never met told me about the good old days.
Carol Lookabaugh. 74 years old.
On the Record
When I asked about what records she listened to and who her favorite recording artists were, she talked about the Carpenters, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Johnny Cash – but she mentioned Elvis Presley about five times. “Elvis, naturally,” she said, as though her preference was not due to an unshakable melody tugging at her heart, but was merely a social decision which had been made for her. Naturally she liked Elvis – since everyone else did, too. This is curiously antithetical to the highly-individualized tastes of the teens of today – try as I might, I cannot conjure a single musical figure who everyone is naturally expected to enjoy in this day and age.
Her financially meager existence was mirrored by those around her; she said she couldn’t even remember her “wealthy” girlfriends owning a record player. She couldn’t even remember how much a record cost, she’d bought so few of them. When asked where she got her records from, she told me that she bought them from whatever store was in the neighborhood – she wasn’t raised in the big city, after all. There were less franchises at that time and less musical selection. There was a smaller range of musical tastes and genres. I would be willing to bet that most big cities didn’t carry anything different in their stores than the local shops did. Even if they had, it didn’t seem as though most people were able to afford record players and records to play on them, so the music business wasn’t nearly as convenient nor as massive as it is today.
On the Radio
This woman was one who’d grown up in a home of very little means; she was one of the middle children in a casserole of thirteen siblings. She was a country girl who did a lot of chores. Her memories involving recorded music are vague; she couldn’t even recall if they’d had a record player at all. She’d had a tiny radio which accompanied her as she did mountain after mountain of dirty dishes. She told me that her favorite programs were My Gal Sunday and Shadow Knows. When I asked why, she explained, “They were convenient to the times when I was doing the dishes, I guess.”
She dismissed the idea that any type of media censorship was conceivable then and asserted that parental limitations on media were virtually non-existent, due to the innate integrity of the music and film of her time. She consistently suggested that I survey the younger generations to discuss parental censorship issues. Such a thing wasn’t even discussed in her time. “No, I was fortunate to grow up in the 50’s; it was an extremely good era for that kind of stuff. We could walk the streets and we never had any of the concerns that we had in the 60’s and 70’s. We didn’t have to worry about walking down the street and someone’s gonna steal from you; there wasn’t even a war going on when I was a teenager. One when I was a kid and one when I was married, but during the time when I was a teenager, we didn’t even have wars,” she insisted. This seemed to correlate with the fact that she found out about the artists that she listened to exclusively from the radio. Since radio at that time was a singular, unalterable source, and since there was very little opportunity for content tweaking from the masses, I’m guessing that anything unconventional didn’t get its pinky in the door. “It wasn’t like it is today where you can buy all the garbage you want,” she criticized; then added, “We were pretty limited in choice.”
She recalled having occasional static on the radio, remembering that it faded in and out when the radio technology first came out. But when she was a teenager, she said, they had very good technology. She couldn’t recall any major changes in the airwaves when FM came out other than a few extra channels.
Overall, I was receiving a “so-what” attitude from her toward radio and music. She seemed disinterested in the entire enterprise. This indicated to me that she saw the music and radio stations of her time as a media with which she was saddled; one from which she didn’t derive much pleasure due to her lack of options. Maybe she didn’t even like the music back then; it appeared to me as though she settled for the types of entertainment that she chose, as opposed to freely choosing things which appealed to her. There was very little variety then and, due to that fact, I believe that many people derived very little pleasure from what they got stuck with.
“Well, most people just had little bitty TVs; they were – you know the little black-and-whites that they have? That’s what we had. You were just lucky to have a TV period,” she recalled unenthusiastically. She mentioned that, at the time of her childhood, the country had been recovering from the depression; she didn’t recall her own family having a household television until she’d already moved out and gotten married. That her aunt owned a television set when she was young stuck out in her mind; she used to watch her aunt’s TV when she’d visit. However, the same sentiment of indifference crept into this discussion as well – to her young eyes, it wasn’t that different from going to a movie, except that you could watch it at home.
When I asked her what she remembered about the commercials, she told me that there weren’t nearly as many commercials back then as there are now. She said there might have been one or two commercials for every half hour of television. She told me that she remembered very little about the commercials themselves except for a few jingles – she claimed that “they” (meaning the media) had to make the commercials interesting and catchy to get people’s attention. She also extrapolated regarding the size of the screen, saying, “If we had seen a screen like the ones we have now, we’d have thought we were in the movie theater.”
Carol told me about the first time her father took her to the movies; she’d seen the Disney movie, Fantasia. She seemed to invoke a bit of enchantment at the memory of her first movie-going experience; she called it a “fantasy musical.” She again referred to herself as a country girl, explaining that she wasn’t in league with her peers when it came to viewing films; she said that many other teens probably went to the theater once or twice a month, whereas she didn’t get much opportunity to do so. When her father took her and a few siblings to see Fantasia, it was a rather large family expense. Her favorite films growing up were Bette Davis and Doris Day romance flicks, such as Move Over, Darling and Pillow Talk. She also remembers Al Jolson, the white man who made a living impersonating black singers. “Al Jolson was a pretty famous singer; he was kind of – he sang a lot of negro songs and painted himself black to be able to sing those and he did it real good and that’s how he got his popularity,” she reminisced.
Gone With the Wind was another huge hit in the theaters; Carol came to comprehend the far-reaching scope of this blockbuster when she saw that stage performances were copying the movie. Its Academy Award wins launched it starkly into the public eye.
Perhaps the most telling answer I obtained from this septogenarian was her last response. I asked Carol what movies were the most influential for her. She questioned the exact meaning of “influential,” and I defined it as something that changed her perspective, point of view, or outlook on life. She replied, “The only thing that I could kind of say… Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, Vivien Leigh – all those gals were very lady-like and the men were gentlemanly so that’s kind of what you expected to get when you grew up and got married; it influenced the way you thought about adults and marriage and that kind of thing.”