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Mike Tussey: Fins, fads, doo whop, flat tops and cruisin’. . . the cool 50’s and memories we cherish

The calendar says it’s 2023.

Today, we live in a time of the Internet, I Phones, videos, face time calls, Zoom, UTube, Tic Tok and the list goes on.

A young Mike Tussey in 1955

Once upon a time, 73 years ago the decade of the 1950’s dawned on America.

100 years ago, America was in the midst of what was called, “The Roaring 20’s.”

Today, it’s very likely that few even think of the mid 20th century except for an Octogenarian like me.

You’re thinking, what was so special about those 10 years from the last Century that’s worthy of even thinking about today?

It was 1950, World War II ended 5 years earlier, and the Baby Boomers were on the way. The dawn of the new decade brought a bright sunlight with the America’s dream of owning a home, raising a family, owning a car and simply enjoying life.

The girls of ’57 and Jantzen

I graduated High School in 1956 and that meant I grew up in the 50’s and was smack dab in the epicenter of the decade of “cool.” But, was exactly was “cool”?

The #1 Hit TV series “ Happy Days” that ran from 1974-1984 accented it all with a character named “Fonzie.” You remember him.

Sure you do.

Fonzie’s leather Jacket, tight jeans, collar up, ducktails and always speaking cool with an “in” tone of speech and vocabulary.

If you were in High School then, it was imperative that your persona reflected a sense of cool, a sense of control. It was not only your behavior that had to be cool, it was in how you dressed that gained attention. The guys knew and so did the girls, what was in style and what was cool and accepted by your peers.

The incomparable ’57 Chevy complete with fins.

So, let’s slide back to the mid 50’s and if you were a teenager, here’s what the guys would be wearing:

Blue Jeans – preferably Levi’s and worn low on the hips with a very thin belt — casual trousers had to have a 14” peg, white buck shoes ( ala Pat Boone ), collars up, sleeves rolled up, flat top haircut, or James Dean Ducktails.

A little touch of peroxide for the blonde look, a Zerex Anti Freeze jacket for the winter, however, it had to be red like the one James Dean wore in the 1955 movie “Rebel Without a Cause.”

The Girls preferred anything Jantzen. That meant long skirts and sweaters along with saddle oxfords or penny loafers and by all means, a Jantzen swim suit. Indeed, blue jeans were ok, but not out in public much.

The historic Bluegrass Grill

Being “cool” also extended to cars in the decade which unveiled an exciting look for the new cars that translated into ‘Fins”. Even today, the 1957 Chevy Bel Air is legendary. The late 50’s cars featured not only fins, but push button drive, and even cars with a 3 tone paint job. 1955 was the first year that factory air conditioning was available from Ford, Chevy, Plymouth, Hudson, Mercury, Studebaker and Dodge.

Every September or October, America would look forward to the new and exciting looks of the Big 3:
Chevy, Ford and Plymouth would unveil their new cars for the coming year. The competition was fierce. Back then, you could bet that there were dramatic changes in the styling and colors. You never knew what the new models would look like. Today, it’s difficult to tell a Honda from a Hyundai. 
In fact, the cars when they arrived at the dealerships, were completely covered by huge tarps to protect the “new look” for the showrooms unveiling date.

A 50’s flavored movie entitled “AMERICAN GRAFITTI” came out in 1973. This movie embodied the very essence of the cars of the era and a phenomenon that would come to be known as “Cruising.” Gas was cheap back then, about 24 cents a gallon. So, you and your friends could pile into your wheels and everyone chip in for a $1 worth of gas that would take care of your cruising needs all night.

The Alfon Theater of the 50’s

Back in Ashland, all this was going on just like across America. We even had a Hot Rod Club with a great name-“ The Asphalt Angels.” These guys dressed like Fonzie, and you could bet their vehicles were lowered, spinners on the wheels and engines souped up punctuated with Hollywood mufflers. It just had to be. Our “Cruising “ Headquarters” in Ashland was an incredible place to be, the legendary BLUEGRASS GRILLE. The ‘GRASS was the epicenter where you could cruise going round and round, looking for your friends, honking, playing your AM radio loudly with the hits of the day. Eventually, we would park and order a Giant Hamburger called, “The Flying Saucer” complete with fries of course.

After formal dances like at Dreamland Pool, it was on to Peebles Restaurant for a late night treat.
Cruising became a “thing to do” in America. If you had a convertible, it was obligatory that you put the top down and hit the streets.

What about the music of 50’s?

Elvis was just getting started in ’55, Bill Haley and the Comets had the #1 hit and National Anthem of Rock and Roll, “Rock Around the Clock.” Doo Wop was rockin too. Dick Clark was flipping the hits in Philly with his new TV show “ Bandstand” in 1956. It was so much of a smash hit, ABC came calling and put Dick on National TV every afternoon with “American Bandstand” through 1989.

For me, I even became a DJ in 1961 playing the hits at night on my “Sandman Serenade” Show on WIRO. Our music was heard at home with a standard radio or our favorite transistor radio as well. The phonograph that played the 45 rpm discs or even an LP (long play) disc at 33 1/3 rpm, became very popular as did the local record shops.

An ad for the Trail Drive-Inn in 1956

Cruising may have began in the 50’s but have no fear, it would even move in the 1960’s as well. In 1960, there was a monster hit movie called “Where the Boys Are” with Connie Francis singing the title hit. The movie was all about college spring break where the coeds flocked to Fort Lauderdale to cruise the beach highway, hit the sands and visit the Elbow room. Good reason for all that. It was where the boys are.

Back in Kentucky at the Bluegrass especially on a Friday or Saturday night, it was where both the Guys and the Girls were indeed cruising and were hanging out big time. The ‘Grass is where you could meet your next date, or possibly, your spouse to be. I know all about that because one Saturday night, I put the top down on my ’56 Chevy Bel Air and headed to the ‘Grass. A short time later, I met my wife Jo at the Bluegrass in 1961 and we were married that summer, 62 years ago.

So, what did we do besides Cruising and hanging out?

Dick Clark and American Bandstand

A typical date would be to take in a movie, but not at the theater, you headed to a local Drive In Theater. What a great idea the Drive In was. You sat in your car with your date, top up or down, with refreshments and just have a ball. . .

If you need a reference point to how it looked, just remember the 1978 movie “ GREASE” when Danny took Sandy to the Drive In. That’s the way it was.

Once in awhile it was time to catch a movie downtown with theaters such as the Alfon, Capital or Paramount. As a youngster in the late 40’s I could see a movie for 15 cents and candy bars were just a nickel. By the mid 50’s not much more and the movies were great as well.

My wife Jo and me in my ’56 Chevy Bel Air convertible Summer of ’61

In 1953, the Ashland Jaycees came up with an idea of a community YOUTH CENTER. This would be where teens gathered for dances, games and refreshments. Simply put, it was a chaperoned environment designed for the kids to meet new people and have some fun.

So, for many of us who lived those wonderful years, you can bet we cherish every moment, every friend, and every golden memories of a lifetime. I know I do. Sure the challenges were all there, things we had to overcome and contend with. But, the bottom line, some of us have even made it to 2023.

By the way, the “Cool Guy” wearing all the 1956 Fads of the Day was… a very young me.

Mike Tussey has “retired” from a 60-plus-year career as a legendary play-by-play announcer for over 2000 football, baseball, and basketball games, including most recently for ESPN+. His career also includes a stint in law enforcement, teaching and coaching, and writing books, including the “Touchdown Saints.” He grew up in Eastern Kentucky and now lives in Florence with his wife, Jo. He has opened another “Door of Opportunity” and is now a regular columnist for the NKyTribune.

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  1. Ric Robinson says:

    It was a great time! And you mentioned one of my radio/TV hero’s, Dick Clark. He hosted American Band Stand throughout almost the entire rock and roll era. My older brother and I use to watch him almost every afternoon during the early years before it went national. We made it a point to watch that very first addition of the national broadcast. As young kids we felt like we were a part of something special.
    Music certainly brought us all together and DJ’s like you were household names and superstars!

  2. Rik says:

    that was a cool time, fun. not like today everything’s political, blah!

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