The 1950s Arts and Entertainment: Headline Makers

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The 1950s Arts and Entertainment: Headline Makers

Milton Berle
Leonard Bernstein
Marlon Brando
Jack Kerouac
Marilyn Monroe
Edward R. Murrow
Jackson Pollock
Elvis Presley

Milton Berle (1908–2002) In the summer of 1948, Milton Berle was a veteran vaudeville, radio, nightclub, and film performer who had never quite attained major stardom. He was signed by NBC to make several appearances on The Texaco Star Theater (1948–53), a new variety show. Berle was an immediate hit and, in September, became the program's permanent host. He was beloved for his noisy comedy routines, his contagious laughter during these skits, and his outrageous costumes. He was America's first great television star. He is fondly remembered as "Uncle Miltie" and "Mr. Television."

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) Leonard Bernstein was a man of many talents: a symphony composer and conductor, concert pianist, impresario (a director of a concert company), teacher, and composer of music for stage and screen. During the 1950s, he scored the music for the classic film On the Waterfront (1954) and collaborated on two celebrated Broadway stage productions, Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957). In 1958 Bernstein became music director of the New York Philharmonic, as well as the orchestra's resident conductor. Most prominent of all, perhaps, was his knack for making classical music appealing to audiences of all ages.

Marlon Brando (1924–) Marlon Brando was the foremost practitioner of "method acting" during the 1950s. He started out on the stage, winning instant fame in 1947 with his legendary performance as the brutish Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. He recreated the role in the 1951 screen version, and earned an Academy Award playing an angst-ridden longshoreman in On the Waterfront (1954). Other celebrated Brando roles include a rebellious, leather jacket-clad motorcycle gang leader in The Wild One (1954) and Mafia boss Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972).

Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) Of all the novelists who earned fame during the 1950s, Jack Kerouac stands out because of the type of books he wrote, as well as his writing style. Both may be best described as spontaneous and free-spirited. In On the Road (1957), his landmark novel that became the Beat Generation bible, Kerouac's words flow in a stream-of-consciousness manner. His nonconformist characters, based on the lives of the author and his peers, strike out on their own and trek across America on odysseys of self-discovery.

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Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962) Marilyn Monroe was the premier Hollywood movie star and sex symbol of the 1950s. However, she was no mere beauty who maintained her stardom simply by posing. She was a serious actress and superb comedienne, whose talents, sadly, were over-looked during her lifetime. Her acting skill was recognized only after her tragic death at age thirty-seven from an overdose of barbiturates. The vision of Monroe standing over a New York City subway grate in The Seven-Year Itch (1955), with a gust of wind causing her dress to billow above her waist, remains one of the decade's enduring pop-culture images.

Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965) Edward R. Murrow was a respected journalist who practically invented radio and television news reporting. He first earned fame during World War II (1939–45) with his radio broadcasts from London during the Battle of Britain. Murrow's two important 1950s television shows were Person to Person (1953–61), on which he visited the homes of public figures, and See It Now (1952–55), on which he reported on public issues. His news reports, from his sobering coverage of the Korean War to his defiant exposé of the trickery of Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957), made him a television legend.

Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) Although he died halfway through the decade, Jackson Pollock was the 1950s' most successful and notorious abstract expressionist painter. His most famous works are enormous drip paintings consisting of layers of multicolored splashes. During the last half-decade of his life, no American artist won as much popular attention as Pollock. However, he was just as legendary for his boorish and abusive behavior and his fondness for alcohol. He died at age forty-four while on a drinking binge when the car he was driving veered off a winding road near his studio in East Hampton, Long Island.

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Elvis Presley (1935–1977) Elvis Presley was the first great 1950s rock and roll star. Countless teenage girls panted when Presley shook his hips, snarled, and belted out "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock" or crooned "Love Me Tender," three of his early hits. In 1956, RCA-Victor sold ten million Presley "singles" (also known as 45s or 45-rpm records; these were small vinyl records with one song recorded on each side). However, two years later, Elvis was drafted into the U.S. Army. While he remained a star for the rest of his life, he no longer was the unbridled, premilitary "Elvis the Pelvis."

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The 1950s Arts and Entertainment: Headline Makers