1957 Was the Year of the Icons

Robert Siegel revisits 1957, a year that somehow managed to generate many musical, cultural and scientific icons: West Side Story, The Music Man , Waiting for Godot, Bridge on the River Kwai, Sputnik and more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For the second time in recent days, we're commemorating something that happened 50 years ago in 1957. Last week, it was 50 years of "Westside Story." Today, it's 50 years since Sputnik. The coincidence sent me googling 1957, a year that I actually remember, albeit with the imperfect memory of someone who was 10 at the time. And it turns out that a remarkable number of very memorable things happened that year, not each of which will get an entire commemorative segment on the program. So here are some things that happened 50 years ago.

When I hear 1957, first, I think of cars growing fins. As late as 1954, a Chevrolet's taillights were tucked in tight as hospital corners. But by 1957, they had started protruding sleekly, providing some imaginary aerodynamic advantage. Form no longer followed function, but fantasy.

At Ford Motor Company, evolution produced a more dramatic mutation - a hideous new car named for one of the Ford offspring.

(Soundbite of Ford Edsel car advertisement)

SIEGEL: In the face of such lunacy, it was reassuring to know - as one knew for certain in 1957 - that American carmakers were smart, efficient and destined for eternal success. 1957 was the year that two baseball teams completed the job that Lewis and Clark started and Harris and Greely encouraged - connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Coast.

Unidentified Man#1: The stockholders and directors of the Brooklyn Baseball Club have today met and unanimously agreed that the necessary steps be taken to draft the Los Angeles…

Unidentified Man#2: …to transfer the New York Giants franchise to San Francisco.

SIEGEL: There would be life in California. Teams would fly there in airplanes. Brooklyn was spiritually eviscerated to whatever extent that the spirit possesses viscera. On Broadway, it wasn't just "Westside Story" that opened.

(Soundbite of musical "The Music Man")

Unidentified Man#3: (Singing) Seventy-six trombones led the big parade with a hundred and ten cornets close at hand.

SIEGEL: Now, if you will multiply the number of trombones and cornets in "The Music Man" by the number of years since 1950, well, never mind. Before playing some more sounds of 1957, I'll share one other memory. In 1957, they caught the mad bomber. He was what passed for a terrorist in those days, planting bombs all over New York City for obscure reasons. He turned out to be a disgruntled and demented former employee of the utility, Consolidated Edison. Even if he had been caught sooner, it's unlikely the Dodgers or Giants would have stayed in New York. As for other things that happened in 1957, take a listen.

Dr. SEUSS (Writer): The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day.

(Soundbite of song "All Shook Up")

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Singer): (Singing) A well, I bless my soul. What's wrong with me? I'm itching like a man on a fuzzy…

Mr. JACK KEROUAC (Novelist): So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey.

(Soundbite of song "Tammy")

Ms. DEBBIE REYNOLDS (Singer): (Singing) I hear the cottonwoods whispering above.

Mr. SAMUEL BECKETT: What's the good of losing heart now? That's what I say. We should have thought of it a million years ago in the 90's.

President DWIGHT EISENHOWER: I have, today, issued an executive order, directing the use of troops under federal authority to aid in the execution of federal law at Little Rock, Arkansas.

(Soundbite of song "You Send Me")

Mr. SAM COOKE (Singing): (Singing) Darling, you send me. I know you send me.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Sounds of 1957. When the "Cat was in the Hat," Elvis Presley was "All Shook Up, Jack Kerouac was "On the Road," Debbie Reynolds was "Tammy" and Samuel Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon were waiting. Sam Cooke's saying "You Send Me" and President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock. We also heard the theme from "Bridge on the River Kwai" and the beeps of Sputnik launched on this day in 1957.

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