When I think of the 1950s I think of crew cuts, beige sofas, Edsels, doo-wop, McCarthyism and Velveeta casseroles. As a product of the 1950s, I spent my formative years glued to a black and white TV set in the living room. Born in 1953, most of that decade remains a hazy memory. Thankfully.
I do remember seeing President Eisenhower on TV and asking my grandmother, “Who is that funny, bald guy?” She responded with such reverence and sincerity that it frightened me, “He is our president, Richard.” I gently backed away from that conversation.
When I learned of the topic for the Chautauqua presentation scheduled for Friday and Saturday here in Kearney, I sighed. “The Fifties in Focus,” presented by Humanities Nebraska, sounded like a trip back to a place I’d rather forget. Regardless of that initial apprehension, I will attend the events because I trust Humanities Nebraska to present important information in a brilliant way.
And I also believe that the very things we fear the most can enrich our lives, if presented in small doses and in the correct order.
The event actually starts with a concert of surf music 6:30-9 p.m. Thursday in Downtown Kearney: The Bricks, followed by a fashion show at 5:45 p.m. Friday at the Merryman Performing Arts Center. The real meat of the event follows with a talk by William I. Hitchcock, author of “The Age of Eisenhower” and professor of history at the University of Virginia, at 7 p.m. Friday.
I hope to learn enough about the 1950s to better understand my revulsion of that decade. On Saturday, an entire day of breakout sessions at the Kearney Public Library will feature a core of specialists well-versed in topics such as the history of rock ‘n’ roll, civil rights, the interstate highway system, sports in the 1950s, immigration and popular culture in the Eisenhower era.
Oral histories will be gathered on Saturday by volunteers from the University of Nebraska at Kearney and Senior College of Central Nebraska.
The climax of the Chautauqua-style event features Becky Stone portraying civil rights activist Rosa Parks and Lenneal Henderson as Supreme Court member Thurgood Marshall at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at The World Theatre. These events let modern audiences witness these people in a unique way that allows us to better understand the backgrounds and situations that made history. The talk will close with a question-and-answer session, while in character, with Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall.
Best of all, the events are free.
I asked Kristi Hayek Carley, program manager for Humanities Nebraska, how an event like “The Fifties in Focus” helps us better understand our life today. She cited the situation in Korea as an example. The volatility of North Korea, stemming from the Korean War, still affects world peace today. How better to understand that situation than to return to the 1950s with the aid of clear hindsight and the vision of experts who can help put the decade in focus?
Despite my reservations of exploring the bland years of my childhood, I will be in the audiences on Friday and Saturday to learn and discover more about the 1950s. And if you need a further dose of the 1950s, consider taking in “Rebel Without a Cause,” a film released in 1955 starring James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo at The World Theatre on Friday or Sunday.
Rick Brown is a Hub staff writer.