In the dopey hippie-mentors-square-padawan film Flashback, Dennis Hopper, riding easily on his 60s street cred, optimistically observed that “The 90s are going to make the 60s look like the 50s.” Uh, yeah. Somehow, Hopper’s character missed the fact that another era already looked like the 50s — the 80s — thanks to an over-investment in mid-century nostalgia made in the 70s. More to the point, the 80s version of the 50s seems to have supplanted reality, rendering the era as a postmodern play-date sandwiched between the bomb and the pill. And the 80s too, seem to have become conflated with its own rosy vision of the 50s. The eras are linked, in part, because they bookend the Cold War — that, and Reagan clearly nicked his haircut from the Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank, which has just opened in 1950.
How the 70s made the 80s Look Like the 50s
Consider a recent “Totally 80s”-themed event presented by the Santa Rosa Charter School, the poster for which featured a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers, the sunglasses first made iconic in the 1950s by the likes of James Dean and Roy Orbison. On the wane by the early 80s, the brand enjoyed a stratospheric resuscitation after inking a deal with Burbank-based Unique Product Placement, which pimped and subsequently placed the shades in about 300 movies and television shows into the mid-80s (could Risky Business-era Tom Cruise have peered through another brand of sunglasses as darkly?).
Our cultural yen for 50s nostalgia began steeping in the 70s, most notably with George Lucas’ seminal (and best) flick American Graffiti (which is actually set in the early 60s — per its bus ad “Where were you in ’62?”). That Lucas only had to wait 11 years before shooting his 1973 love-letter-to-a-bygone-era is testament to how radically the world had been changed by the 60s.
Likewise, given the cultural baggage of the 70s (Watergate, disco), family-oriented television eagerly embraced Happy Days, which owes a substantial genetic debt to American Graffiti, as well as much of its principle cast. Ditto its spin-off Laverne and Shirley. 1978’s Grease, set 20 years prior to its release, deepened the nostalgia craze with catchy tunes and the momentary resurrection of 50s teen idol Frankie Avalon. Moreover, revival act Sha Na Na had its own short-lived show in 1977 and Richard O’Brien’s rock opera paean to 50s science fiction double features, The Rocky Horror Picture Show began its climb to cult status.
Though the bridge to 50s had been built in the 70s, it took yet another Happy Days spin-off to cross fully into the 80s. And it wasn’t Joanie Loves Chachi. Even more improbable, it was the man from Ork. Robin Williams’ ADHD-afflicted spaceman Mork first appeared in the fifth season of Happy Days in a thinly-veiled launch of the character in his own series, Mork and Mindy, which ran from 1978 to 1982. In at least two more instances, Mork interacted with the Fonze et al, bouncing between both shows and eras because, as he professed, he enjoyed the 50s when life was more “humdrum.”
50s vs 80s: If Looks Could Kill
The idealized 50s of Richie Cunningham and crew germinated for three years and sprouted as the Back to the Future franchise in 1985. As aspiring rock guitarist Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox’s time travel itinerary finds him departing the 80s and arriving in the 50s via an upgraded DeLorean. And, of course, the Wayfarer-wearing Huey Lewis performed the film’s signature tune “Power of Love” (Lewis’ “Hip to Be Square” ode to social conformity was later used to better, if chilling effect, in the 80s-set American Psycho).
Thanks to the abundance of 50s imagery, fashion at my 80s-era junior high began to morph, which accounts for the unfortunate outbreak of flat-tops. Just as suddenly, Godzilla tchotkes demanded shelf space, Peggy Sue got married and 50s-inspired diners spread with a virulence not seen again until the advent of Starbucks. Seth MacFarlane’s gang at The Family Guy observed this later 80s/50s phenomena in “I Dream of Jesus,” episode 2, season 7. Upon entering a diner donned in 50s decor, Lois observes to her kids “There’s a lot of history here. 50s diners were really popular in the eighties.”
If Santa Rosa Charter School’s “Totally 80s” event is any indication, the tide of 80s nostalgia is rising. Perhaps they got it right and instead of skipping down Memory Lane in Sperry Topsiders, wore their Wayfarers at night so as not to be blind The Day After. In the real 80s, kids, we didn’t expect a flashback — just a flash.