Golden State, Golden Youth: The California Image in Popular Culture, 1955-1966


May explores the creation and dissemination of idealized images of California youth culture—broadcast, for example, through beach movies such as Gidget, TV shows such as the Mickey Mouse Club, and the music of the Beach Boys—that came to dominate the popular imagination in the 1950s and 1960s.

Read More Show Less
... See more details below
Paperback (1)
$30.88 price
(Save 4%)$32.50 List Price
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (16) from $1.99   
  • New (1) from $26.94   
  • Used (15) from $1.99   
Sending request ...


May explores the creation and dissemination of idealized images of California youth culture—broadcast, for example, through beach movies such as Gidget, TV shows such as the Mickey Mouse Club, and the music of the Beach Boys—that came to dominate the popular imagination in the 1950s and 1960s.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Wholly fascinating in its savvy take on the making and manipulation of popular culture. (Los Angeles Times)

How, when, and where did the youth culture that has so profoundly transformed this nation originate? Thanks to this elegantly researched and argued study by Kirse May, we now have the answer. (Kevin Starr, State Librarian of California)

Los Angeles Times
Golden State,Golden Youth [is] wholly fascinating in its savvy take on the making and manipulation of popular culture.
Los Angeles Times
Golden State, Golden Youth [is] wholly fascinating in its savvy take on the making and manipulation of popular culture.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807853627
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 4/29/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Kirse Granat May is a historian who lives in Vancouver, Washington.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Golden State, Golden Youth
The California Image in Popular Culture, 1955-1966

By Kirse Granat May

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807853623

Chapter One

Suburban Eden

The idea of California was born when Spanish explorers christened their discovery after a mythical island full of wonders, referred to in chivalric literature. With that name, California held the promise of potential treasure and first entered the realm of fantasy.[1] The discovery of gold in 1848 and the consequent influx of settlers enhanced California's identity, granting it a special place in American mythology and belief. The Gold Rush reinforced the vision of California as a place where dreams came true. From the beginning, the history of California was told from a white perspective, dismissive of the Native and Spanish past, using the gold discovery as the dawn of the California story. The boosters who followed, particularly those who settled in Los Angeles, continued to construct a mythology based on the dreams of white migrants.[2]

In 1850 California became a state, a region filled with promise for the future. When gold claims panned out, new dreams arose. To those who followed the rush to gold, California remained unique: a place to regain health, live on the frontier, build a railroad, exploit agricultural possibilities, discover oil, or make fortunes in real estate. For newcomers, it was still the land of the second chance, glowing with opportunity amidst sunshine. The dream was simple: "that because of a place called California, life might be better."[3] In the 1880s Southern California became the focus of a speculative real estate campaign, drawing tens of thousands to the paradise of a "family-size suburban lot amidst the orange groves."[4] This heralded opportunity for white settlers excluded those outside the booster portrait, creating the image of Los Angeles and California as "the sunny refuge of white Protestant America," in stark contrast to the immigrant experience of the rest of the nation.[5] Despite its exclusiveness, California's possibilities fostered a reputation for racial progressivism, offering a clarion call to black migrants as well. After a trip to California in 1913, W. E. B. Du Bois praised Los Angeles in his paper The Crisis: "Out here in this matchless Southern California there would seem to be no limit to your opportunities, your possibilities." Du Bois saw Los Angeles as "wonderful. Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed."[6]

Despite gold rush lore and the claims of boosters, California did not always inspire the stuff of dreams. Counter to the golden promise ran a current of negative imagery, a recognition that all was not sunny or bright. From its earliest days, California was not a dreamland but a battleground, often marked by exploitation and tragedy, plagued by racial conflict and social strife. Many of those who looked at California were continually torn between Edenic portrayals and corrupt visions, as the California dream came into harsh contact with challenging reality.[7] Often the reality of California, from the failures of gold seekers to the disappointments of would-be Hollywood starlets, was evoked by critics and naysayers to answer "each charming ingredient of the boosters' arcadia" with a "sinister equivalent."[8]

Yet, the early booster fantasies were overshadowed by the propagandists of the twentieth century, as California came to represent all that was promising about the nation's future. At the core of the image-making machine was Hollywood, growing as a motion picture colony in the 1910s. This new industry intensified earlier ideas of fantastic opportunities, adding a new kind of riches in stardom. World War I brought growth to California, and the Great Depression attracted Dust Bowl refugees with the promise of jobs.[9] In the darkest economic times, people continued to make the trek, strong proof of the belief in California as the special exception.[10] The migration after World War II, however, dwarfed all previous periods and helped push California to center stage. For new Californians trying to create a fresh start in the golden land, there was not a difficult past, only a bright future. As Carey McWilliams put it in California: The Great Exception, the state was now a "giant adolescent," filled with "new and shiny" suburban towns.[11]

The explosion of interest during the postwar period created salient images, new myths of California life building on the old. National attention sponsored in-depth coverage of lifestyles and cultural changes. Magazines, television, music, and film acted as conveyors of these ideas and, while reflecting the realities of the postwar environment, mythologized life in California. The state's growth, "the continuing inner migration to the legendary far-off land of El Dorado," stood out in an era of broad and significant transformations in the United States.[12]

The demographic and economic changes spurred by World War II accelerated development in California, which was a major part of the "New" West's emergence. In 1945, Life magazine predicted that the "California way of life . . . may in time radically influence the pattern of life in America as a whole," as it offered "the most glowing example" of postwar "modern living."[13] The United States experienced a "westward tilt," the result of "a nation so prosperous and so mobile that its people are free to go in search of a more luxurious way of life." Wallace Stegner described the space from Seattle to San Diego as "the national culture at its most energetic end . . . not a region, but the mainstream, America only more so."[14] Irving Stone wrote in late 1954 that California was a land "where life achieves a vibrancy man never knew before." The special nature of this golden land, while "not yet utopia" meant that humanity was on the cusp of "creating an anxiety free people."[15] "There is a general agreement that California . . . is a land apart" a 1955 article argued. As a "land of promise," the state had a "uniqueness" that provided a "melting pot where old ways and traditions are most easily discarded and where innovation and experimentation have their freest rein."[16] In his best-selling book on class behavior, The Status Seekers, Vance Packard wrote that California enjoyed a "yeasty social climate" in a "violently expanding economy"; as a result of the "free-and-easy frontier spirit," its residents were "the least status-conscious people . . . in the nation."[17]

World War II drastically altered the entire West with its influx of defense spending and people, but Los Angeles experienced a singular transformation. The war brought 340,000 blacks to Los Angeles for industrial work and armed forces service, enormously increasing Southern California's diversity.[18] City officials responded with the formation of a Human Relations Commission in 1943, one of the first cities in the nation to sponsor such a program. The African American population continued to grow after the war, from 97,000 in 1945 to 460,000 in 1960.[19] More blacks migrated to California than to any other state, mirroring the tremendous white flood during those same years.[20]

Los Angeles quickly surpassed San Francisco, the boomtown of the first gold rush in the previous century, as the state's new center. Glowing reports of opportunities replaced wartime stories of racial tensions, insufficient housing, and crowded streets. The Los Angeles Times reported in December 1945 that news of western job growth was spreading "like the story of the discovery of gold . . . luring hopeful men whose dreams are spun of golden opportunity."[21] Officials estimated in 1959 that 567 people arrived in Los Angeles County daily, and that a population of 6 million was within sight.[22] Fifteen years after predicting the boom in Los Angeles, the Times reported in 1960 that the city appeared "more fresh and full of promise today than she ever did in her boisterous youth."[23]

By 1965, the population growth of Los Angeles had "eclipsed every other metropole in the nation," with all of Southern California part of its nexus.[24] This journey ranked among the largest migrations in American history.[25] The lure of "sunshine and opportunities" continued to draw people westward, with the "station wagon" replacing the "covered wagon" of an earlier time.[26] National Van Lines, a moving company, tapped into this symbolism with its 1950s brochure. It showed a moving van heading across the desert. In the ghostlike shadows above, an ox-drawn covered wagon hovered, explicitly making the connection between the two great migrations.[27]

Most Americans made the trek by car. The Californian and the automobile were inseparable, despite the pollution the mobility habit created. The car was bred naturally for California, with its favorable climate, attractive scenery, and abundant good roads.[28] Before the war, Los Angeles began constructing urban expressways more ambitiously than anywhere else in the country. This system was essential, as residents favored private transportation for 86 percent of their travels in the 1950s.[29] The 1954@-55 highway budget was the largest of the fifty states, yet planners could only say, "at the moment we are no longer losing ground."[30] Freeways supported the vision of Los Angeles as the "ultramodern metropolis," creating a fragmented suburban sprawl that appeared to make the good life universally accessible. In reality, criss-crossing freeways destroyed ethnic neighborhoods and obscured from view troubled neighborhoods like Watts. From the freeway, Los Angeles and other California communities could mask their appearance, truly looking to the mobile observer "like White City West."[31]

Los Angeles, due to its size and suburban sprawl, stood at the apex of car culture, offering vast freeways and the economic prosperity that guaranteed car ownership. Only six states had more cars than Los Angeles County.[32] By 1960, approximately two-thirds of the land in metropolitan Southern California supported car-related needs: highways, roads, driveways, freeways, parking lots, service stations, and car lots.[33] The urban freeways of California were objects of wonder as well as concern. Life presented a foldout cover of traffic in Los Angeles, describing it as "seemingly boundless in size and energy."[34] Others looked at the monstrous freeways of California and said, "I've seen the future and it doesn't work."[35]

Commentators agreed that trends in California were a forecast for the future of the United States. World War II had "integrated" the state into the nation, but California was now "the America to come."[36] Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown declared in 1963, "What we want the whole country to be, California already is."[37] For Cosmopolitan's cover story "The Rush for Gold and Happiness," one author argued that in California "the enormous potential pleasures and problems of our machine-powered civilization have come into startling focus."[38] In 1962 Look magazine chronicled the growth of the state in an issue that was headlined, "Tomorrow's hopes and tomorrow's headaches are here today in our soon-to-be largest state."[39] To study California was to examine the "best place in the world for facing the problems of the future," since it was a place where "the future is happening every day."[40] These commentators hinted at the double-edged sword of the California phenomenon, suggesting that potential "headaches" and "problems" could accompany growth and change.

National opinion surveys heralded California as the "best" state in the union.[41] In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Gallup polls consistently ranked California number one as a vacation spot, an "ideal place to live," and the most beautiful state with the most beautiful cities. Americans in late 1956 mentioned California most frequently as the state where they would most like to relocate, citing job opportunities and climate as the main attractions.[42] In 1960, a Look poll revealed that 11 percent of Americans, if given the opportunity, would choose to move to California.[43]

California's boosterism filtered out the state's long history of racial conflicts, promoting the golden land as an ideal spot for minorities as well. National magazines and polls proclaimed the city and the state racially progressive. In 1957, Look called Los Angeles "a race relations success story," heralding its example to the rest of the nation. The city avoided urban conflict, moving "outward not upward," escaping the "massive slum areas that blight the centers" of eastern cities.[44] Los Angeles, on the surface, did not suffer from the recognizable urban dilemmas of housing projects and run-down apartment buildings.[45]

While California attracted both blacks and whites, minority newcomers found their choice of residence limited. The 1960 census revealed Los Angeles as more segregated than any city in the south, with fewer minorities living in suburban enclaves than all other northern cities with the exception of Chicago and Cleveland.[46] Poverty and widespread unemployment belied the image of golden postwar opportunity. These contradictions were largely ignored, leaving communities like Watts to simmer in discontent, allowing California to maintain its promise and its rosy suburban image.

Institutions and business ventures braved the westward journey as well. Television became a Hollywood studio staple after spending its early years as primarily a live, New York-based operation. The Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team joined the New York Giants in "their flight to the Pacific" in 1958, settling in Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively.[47] In language reminiscent of the previous century, columnists wrote of the "gold rush west" and wondered if "the Dodger-Giant Gold Rush" would "pan out."[48] In the world of professional basketball, the Minneapolis Lakers traveled to Los Angeles, and the Philadelphia Warriors were reborn as the Golden State Warriors in 1961.[49]

With its growing population, the state became politically vibrant. The war in the Pacific and the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco increased awareness of the state's significance.[50] California politics were seen as a foreshadowing of national trends and a threat to "New York's century-old political leadership."[51] A 1955 Los Angeles Times editorial discussed the massive population growth and predicted a future harvest in congressional representation. The editors also pointed to the role that California had played "in the history of this nation" and to the idea that her "destiny" portended a "greater role in the future."[52] "Its politics will touch all of us," declared Collier's in 1956, recognizing that "the age of California independence has begun."[53] The Saturday Evening Post reported that the state provided "an almost ideal locale for studying the forces realigning both parties through the entire nation."[54]

The early 1960s brought a contentious controversy between New York and California, with the eastern state challenging the population claims of its western rival. The statewide egos tied to migration numbers acted as political and rhetorical weapons. In a 1962 advertisement the Los Angeles Times teased the story "California Population Now Exceeds New York," wondering what day that headline would appear.[55] Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown proclaimed December 31, 1962, as "Population Day," a special holiday to celebrate California's growth.[56] By 1963, census projections had the Golden State officially pulling ahead of the Empire State in population. New York City acted as the melting pot of European peoples in the nation's early history, but Los Angeles became the postwar gathering place, creating a society of new settlers.[57]

As newcomers without deep roots, many postwar Californians were pressed to create a sense of community and identity. They received guidance in that task from magazine writers, public relations experts, and boosters who downplayed the state's difficulties and stressed its advantages and attractions. This explosion of media coverage, the idealization of California as both model and magnet, was an exercise in regional mythmaking.[58] In 1959 Look profiled the state's tremendous growth in a special issue heralded as "sixty pages on vast, crowded, incredible California." In its back pages and print smaller than that of the banner headline, the articles inside described water shortages, high taxes, and the state's eccentricities.[59] Life called the population explosion "The Call of California" in a 1962 special issue devoted to the state's "splendor, its excitement, and why people go, go and go there." California hopefuls "have arrived, impelled by necessity or lured by a dream," it explained. "They have pursued the rainbow, as far as they can, to the rim of the United States."[60] "One thousand Americans head for the same ocean each day" reported a 1962 Newsweek cover story.[61] Even a New York Times author sarcastically wondered whether the massive move to California was "fulfilling the dream of all people through the ages."[62]

ill. 1 (Life magazine cover—The Call of California)

Yet, as one magazine declared, "The California way of life is something that people are usually violently for or violently against."[63] Another image, less than positive, disparaged promoters and questioned the glowing reports of settlers and columnists, occasionally rising above the din of postwar praise. Many were critical of the cultural sameness manifested in suburban culture. On the cultural defensive, New York and other eastern magazines attacked California's expanding influence, protective of their region's leadership in the arts, fashion, and politics. One writer entitled his piece, "I Hate Southern California," offering his critique on California's boosterism. Travelers to California, he wrote, were victims of "propaganda initiated by the Southern Californians and carried to you by the published media, the movies and television" with little "semblance of the truth." Those migrants, "largely from the hillbilly sections of the country," swayed by the inundation of positive images, had seemingly ignored the problems of crime, smog, and strangeness that were paramount in the critical view of California life.[64] A columnist in Esquire, as part of a May 1963 cover story on "True and False Values in the State of California" offered cynical pointers to prospective Californians: "You are going from a city to a state," he wrote. "It does not matter where you plan to settle in California; it won't be a city." Bemused, he advised: "The first thing to buy is an eastbound return ticket. Keep it in some place safe, like your hand."[65]

Critics vented particularly at Los Angeles, as its apparently helter-skelter growth was permanently altering what had been a quiet, unassuming town. "Sun-kissed vistas are smothered in smog, frenzied traffic makes driving an obstacle race, and the great subdividers disfigure the city's natural beauty" railed one native in Look.[66] In its December 1958 column on the nation's weather, Newsweek also recognized the problem of smog in the city of angels. It featured a picture of a woman breathing "pure crystal clear air" from a canister strapped to a man wearing a gas mask. "For want of fresh air, hair turned green" read the caption.[67] The growth of Los Angeles served as a cautionary tale to the rest of the nation, the "prototype" of an "auto-addicted" society.[68] The negativity of the critics questioned the shiny gloss of some magazine portrayals.

By and large, positive portraits of life in California overpowered pessimism. The constant California coverage in mass media publications meant that millions of Americans repeatedly read about life in the Golden State, attracting the interest of those who wanted to become part of the good life the magazines portrayed.[69] With seemingly little hesitation or doubt, thousands continued to come. For these newcomers, unburdened by and unaware of California's more complex and troubled past, the focus was on capturing a specific lifestyle, a California dream tuned to the desires of the postwar era.

In their journey west, prospective Californians strove for membership in a new middle class, with lifestyles created by postwar affluence. These Americans enjoyed the luxury of leisure time and money to burn. For a cover story in July 1956, Look examined "The Great American Week End," the $2 billion a year spent on leisure's growth industries. With "mass recreation on a staggering scale," postwar families created new activities. For the young, backyards became "vest-pocket amusement parks" filled with "yard sized playthings" unmatched by those of previous generations of children.[70] Life also profiled this new consuming obsession in a December 1959 issue entitled "The Good Life." The cover featured "zestful Americans," white, middle-class suburbanites, enjoying ice skating, painting, relaxing poolside, dancing, celebrating a birthday, and gardening. The article focused on leisure as an integral part of American life and predicted its increased prominence in the 1960s. From the province of "a wealthy few," free time had become big business. With this freedom, an editorial proclaimed, Americans can "pursue true happiness . . . [and] raise standards of excellence higher than any in the world's past."[71]

Where better to celebrate this culture of leisure? This growing middle class was cradled and nurtured in California, a place tuned to the possibilities of the postwar economy. As part of its profile of "new frontiers in living . . . the life that lures the East," Look entitled its story on life in Los Angeles as "the art of living bumper to bumper." Yet the story focused on the life of a family of four, enjoying their barbecue, outdoor swimming pool, and jaunt to the Pacific beach, stressing "spaciousness and easy living" and not traffic problems.[72]

The suburban lifestyle came together to create a "new culture complex," most intrinsically dominant in California and aspired to by millions of Americans. As D. W. Meinig argued in his influential article "Symbolic Landscapes," the suburbs of California became part of the iconography of America, taking its place with the midwestern street and the New England town as the symbols for good family life. This symbol became particularly powerful in the postwar era. Its single-story homes, green lawns, and two-car garages marked the "landscape of California suburbia," with its easy access to burgeoning freeways. The diffusion of the landscape was made possible partly by the geographic location of Hollywood, which with its product presented an ideal "as if it were the best in American life, an obvious standard to strive for, a model for the future."[73]

As historians of American living patterns have demonstrated, the archetypal suburban landscape traveled across the country, bringing with it an attendant idealized lifestyle.[74] Developers across the United States used the "California fantasy" regardless of building locale. Subdivisions across the country could employ the images of "informal living, ideal weather and movie star glamour." One might find a "Hollywood closet" in a Cape Cod@-style house in New Jersey.[75] Imitations of Californian architectural styles like bungalows, Spanish stuccos, and ranch houses popped up in suburbs everywhere. In particular, the ranch house typified the outdoor leisure living most closely identified with California. This design represented the "new ideal of family" to homebuilders, advertisers, and buyers.[76] This diffusion of styles was possible because the popularized view of life in California was, as Meinig argued elsewhere, "more than locational and environmental, it was fundamentally cultural."[77] If Americans couldn't move to California, they could live a suburban lifestyle that closely approximated the experience and move someplace like it, striving to achieve the picture of blissful suburbia of magazine portrayals. As the United States became a suburban nation, a "metropolitan tilt" matched the western one.[78]

Real estate developers advertised the "California living" concept to young baby boom families, a lifestyle focused on patios, barbecues, and swimming pools.[79] The outdoor private pool represented the essence of leisure and consumption. By 1959, Californians owned nearly 40 percent of the nation's home pools.[80] The celebration and appeal of informal living, in fashion and in discourse, corresponded to ideas about the universality of middle-class membership and aspirations.[81] A 1962 advertisement in the Los Angeles Times for a housing development in Simi Valley typified this kind of marketing. It depicts a father relaxing on his patio, overlooking rolling hills and sunshine. The mother, in heels and apron, is serving lemonade, while the son plays on the jungle gym with his cowboy gun hanging nearby and his dog playing happily. The ad nicknamed the area "Secure Valley," promising that prospective buyers "won't find a healthier, happier, more carefree environment in which to raise your family."[82] Not everyone celebrated the suburban ideal. An Esquire article in 1963 criticized the unbridled growth of suburbs in California and these marketing strategies. Historically, the state's images and the promise of opportunity acted as an "opiate of the people." In the 1960s, the author argued, Americans looked to "California as the quintessence of life in a capitalistic society."[83]

ill. 2 (Simi Park real estate ad)

California had "a nation looking on," anxious for news of "the mystical 'Western way of life.'"[84] Millions shared the dream of a "palm-shaded 'pad' with a patio, ten dollars down, 100 years to pay . . . lotus land on the installment plan."[85] Editors and writers appealed to popular interest in the "invigorating climate and independent spirit" of the state and included innumerable articles in their magazines.[86] A popular feature showcased transplanted families in their new California homes. Better Homes and Gardens profiled five families to show "what it's really like to move to California," highlighting the generally positive and happy new residents. In 1960, Changing Times looked at the Stanleys, transplants from Chicago. For this family, it reported, "pleasure and comfort come first . . . and work is simply what pays for it." The article outlined household and recreation costs, contrasting those figures with life in the Midwest. Mr. Stanley, despite the increased expense, problems of smog, and traffic difficulties, felt positive about the family's move. He believed that "living is easier and informal and the kids eat up the outdoor life. We all do get more sheer pleasure out of being alive."[87]

California imagery was not only class-oriented, it was fixated on youth. In earlier waves of migration, California had attracted "older folks in search of retirement nirvanas." The postwar pattern was different, with "over 80 percent of these modern takers of Mr. Greeley's advice . . . young families in their twenties and thirties."[88] In 1940, the median age in California was the oldest among the forty-eight states and four years older than the country as a whole.[89] The postwar period changed that demographic, as California became the "promised land" for young parents, producing a bumper crop of kids. In a 1945 Life article one father expressed what thousands of others believed: "My kids have a better chance to be healthy here than anywhere else."[90] The New York Times reported that these newcomers had "more children than the average American family."[91] By 1959, California ranked first in public school enrollment.[92] Schools found it difficult to keep up, with "twelve or thirteen new school rooms" needed every day.[93] One out of every ten school children in the nation attended school in California.[94]

The group most able to realize "the good life," the dreams of leisure and consumption, were the baby boomers. Many product trends and leisure time activities focused on their needs and desires. A Life cover story affirmed this by calling the baby boom children "a built-in recession cure." The explosion of families and economic growth meant that the United States had "a business bonanza in the needs of its kids," with a "new consumer every seven seconds."[95] Teenagers personified these trends, defining themselves by products consumed and leisure activities enjoyed. This youth culture, seen as separate and distinct from that of adults, was a "leisure class" in "a society so affluent that it [could] afford a large population of unemployed consumers."[96]

The average age in California steadily fell, a reflection of family migration and birthrates, and this nurtured a "child-centered" culture. The symbol of this world was "the California teen-ager, speeding with smug assurance down the freeway . . . as if the freeway and all it leads to were designed just for him."[97] The state itself was a teenager, "its rapid growth . . . attended by the bizarre qualities of adolescence."[98] Fashions and fads, the "provinces of the young," focused on California youth as part of the national fixation on the state.[99] Popularized lifestyles of California kids intertwined with symbols of the good life.

California's youth had not enjoyed such a positive spin in the years immediately following World War II. Instead, a negative characterization of the nation's youth reigned in mass media portrayals. Stories about juvenile delinquency captivated and concerned the nation, with explanations ranging from the threat of nuclear war, poor parenting during World War II, the impact of film and television, the new power of rock and roll, and class and racial tensions. This outbreak of concern about the nation's youth and the attention paid to troubling flash points was part of an overall anxiety about postwar changes.[100] The children coming of age in the early 1950s, born during the Depression and growing up in wartime, were what Collier's called the "most publicized, analyzed, speculated-upon, worried-about, frowned-upon generation of teen-agers in modern times."[101] In its 1957 cover story on teenagers, Look magazine explored the questions "why they go steady, why they go wild, why they don't listen" with evident concern. The article also pointed to the excesses of leisure time that might foster an environment for mischief.[102]

Discussions of California's youth mirrored national trends. The Saturday Evening Post chronicled the California Youth Authority's difficulties in dealing with a youthful wave of transients "geographically at the end of the line."[103] In early 1955, Harper's reported that California had a runaway juvenile delinquent problem, "40 percent worse than the national average," as youth poured into the state "by the thousands."[104] Sensational and popular stories detailing youth riots at reformatories had California settings.[105] The Los Angeles Times shared the obsession with juvenile delinquency. In June 1955 it began a series of seven articles detailing the activities of the juvenile courts and the city's delinquency problems. The paper profiled young murderers, thieves, and violent criminals and the various institutions that housed them. These state detention centers and jails, the articles explained, "will never wait for patients, not so long as there are delinquent children and delinquent parents, broken homes and demented young minds."[106] Front-page headlines in the Times spotlighted the activities of "frolicsome" graduating seniors who broke bottles and made noise, resulting in the arrest of thirty students.[107] As in the rest of the country, the use of the word "teenager" in a headline usually meant crime or trouble. By the mid-1950s the predominant image of California kids reflected the national fear of this generation's criminal behavior, spending power, and cultural influence.

At the height of these societal fears, the true baby boomers, those born after 1945, began to grow up. As the cohort aged, more positive models of baby boomer life replaced earlier images of delinquency. Stories of monstrous teens gave way to reports of well-behaved, well-meaning, middle-class teenagers, and California offered the perfect setting for a positive model. These earlier anxieties never disappeared, but the frequency of negative reports, attention by government, and concerns over media influence lessened. The problems that typified the mid-1950s seemed to vanish.[108]

Look's January 1956 cover named postwar youth the "most maligned generation in our history" while pointing out that despite media and news representations, "95 percent" were not delinquent.[109] Newsweek raised the percentage, with stories of "the healthy 97 percent that count" supplanting more "disquieting" stories of youths at the drag strip or rumble. "Our Good Teen-Agers," the magazine reported in November 1959, were the overwhelming majority and "perfectly normal." Not surprisingly, "speeding along the California freeways" was one of the places these "good kids" could be found.[110] The city council of Modesto, "sick and tired of hearing about" juvenile delinquency, sponsored a high school contest to nickname "non-delinquents." "Hi-fi citizens" received the top award, with "juvenile honorees, topteens, teamagers, and goal getters" named as honorable mentions.[111] In 1957, Good Housekeeping profiled a Los Angeles suburb where, it reported, "the problem of social behavior has been largely settled" with a plan of townwide rules for youth regulating bedtime, dress, and behavior.[112]

"Teen-ager" still appeared in Los Angeles Times headlines, and of course there was juvenile crime to report. However, the youths featured in its pages were more likely to be cover girl models and wholesome young people on their way to the prom.[113] Media focus on California supported this altered cultural perception and provided a place for new icons of middle-class youth to be created. Instead of looting and violence, stories described the "upstanding young" winners of the city's posture contest.[114] In national articles, the predominant picture was one of smiling youth enjoying the perks of the middle class. Leisure time was not an invitation for teenage trouble, rather it was a special ingredient contributing to the healthy development of youth. A 1957 Cosmopolitan issue described California as a "Teenagers' Paradise" where "mountains, beaches and play-conscious cities add up to a teen-age pleasure-land." The feature's pictures showed California teens playing in a band, cruising through a suburban neighborhood, innocently kissing in the park, picnicking, attending a rodeo, going to the movies, anxiously answering a teacher's questions in a high school classroom, serving in church as altar boys, strolling through an amusement park, and enjoying a formal dance. The myriad activities were necessary, the writer explained, because "California teenagers possess boundless energy and unlimited capacity for fun making."[115]

California was the home state and breeding ground for America's own superkids. As a result of outdoor activity and warm weather, young Californians bested their fellow Americans in health and energy. "In California," a 1959 issue of Cosmopolitan explained, "the boys and girls grow bigger and more beautiful. They are longer of leg, deeper of chest, better muscled than other American youngsters. Even their feet are bigger." What created such "tanned, healthy, exuberant, active" youth? The environment of California was part of it, providing "a packed suburban life that vies with expensive resort living" typified by healthy eating, year-round swimming, skiing, surfing, sailing, and sports. Such prolonged exposure to the sun created "anxiety-free youngsters." Outdoor leisure time did not preclude success in academics, as students also applied "their enthusiasm and exuberance to school work and [got] good grades."[116]

As part of its cover story on California in 1959, Look described the state's young people who "roar about in convertibles and sports cars." "Mountain climbing and skin diving" replaced "juvenile delinquency" as wholesome leisure time activity. These kids were "happy-go-lucky, big, bronzed and beautiful."[117] In that same issue, another article profiled the "co-eds" of Stanford and UCLA who had "[more than] only good looks in their favor." Despite the geographical space between the two campuses, the article argued, "these girls . . . share the same values and views," avoiding the "carousing of previous generations."[118] In the fall of 1962, Life reported that California's young women, just waiting to be immortalized in song, were the "prettiest, biggest, lithest, tannest, most luscious girls this side of the international date line."[119] In a 1963 book entitled California: The New Society, Remi Nadeau attempted to explain the sunny outlook and "ascendancy of teens," arguing that the state offered "too much life to be lived to sit around crying doom for long." For this reason, he believed, California youth were "more free, and more carefree, than their counterparts in other regions."[120]

The popular culture representation of Los Angeles youth was marked by its exclusion of minorities and nonsuburban youth. If minorities were featured in magazine profiles, it was to show that California's baby boomers were well equipped to carry out the democratic promise, using images that manufactured racial harmony. In 1957, Look examined Los Angeles, the city with "perhaps the greatest potential for racial trouble." Instead of conflict, the article noted, Los Angeles demonstrated "what people of different races can do to live side by side in harmony." The profile included pictures of this harmonious living, young Asians and African Americans laughing with white students on state campuses.[121]

Life offered another example of this tactic in August 1965. "The Young Americans," a Los Angeles@-based choir group, boasted a membership of "wholesome, handsome teen-agers with conventional haircuts." Along with their melodic singing of patriotic songs, show tunes, and spirituals in their red, white, and blue costumes, the group represented Los Angeles's harmonious diversity, including black and Asian teenagers in their ranks.[122] California kids, representing the future in so many positive ways, were employed to highlight positive strides in racial understanding.

These articles offered reassuring models of California youth. Tuned to their adult readership, their content influenced the mythmaking. Young people also responded positively to these images, mirroring the adult dreams of California. Look's 1960 poll asked teens: if income were unlimited, what would their plans for the future be? The majority expressed interest in a "sports car and a big house in California." A large percentage also believed that "the West is best for both fun and opportunity."[123] A 1963 poll taken of high school students nationwide posed the question, "Where would you like to live most of your life?" The largest percentage of those polled chose the West. In addition, of those teenagers who already lived in western states, 75.5 percent were satisfied to remain there.[124]

All eyes, if not all steering wheels, were turned in California's direction. Its growth, combined with the influence of the baby boom, fostered the image of the state as "perfect" for families and a home for beautiful and happy kids. The media blitz offered a golden promise, a reassuring vision of the family and the nation's future in its "good" young people. The model of youth represented California trends and middle-class America to the extreme: mobile, capitalistic, outdoorsy, consumer-oriented, involved in harmless, well-meaning fun. Here was the hopeful future of America unhampered by inclement weather or lack of opportunity. Such snapshots ignored other realities. The actual ethnic and racial make-up of California went unrepresented. The reality of California's history of conflict as well as the dark side of the dream remained in the blurry background. There were apparently no poor or troubled in the Golden State. With few exceptions, these exclusionary and positive images predominated.

From 1955 to 1966, the youth culture of California appeared in a variety of popular culture guises. Magazine subscribers read profiles of California teens, television viewers watched California images on the small screen, moviegoers enjoyed the antics of Gidget, radio listeners heard the celebratory music of the Beach Boys, and teens purchased fads and fashion with a California spin. The first step in the evolution of the California youth image came in the mid-1950s, when entertainment mogul Walt Disney capitalized on the mix of California dreaming and the lifestyle of baby boom families. Packaging this environment in new ways, Disney was the most culturally powerful entertainment figure of the age, wielding a wide influence in the lives of the baby boom generation. His playground encased the magic of California in concrete and steel, and his forays into the new medium of television achieved unprecedented popularity. The overwhelming success of his creations was due to masterful manipulation of California youth images.

Excerpted from Golden State, Golden Youth by Kirse Granat May. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Suburban Eden 9
2 California Disneying 27
3 Come Along and Sing Our Song 49
4 Gidget Without a Cause 67
5 Wish They All Could Be California 95
6 Beach Blanket California 117
7 Berkeley and Watts 135
8 Reagan's Conservative Wave 169
9 Endless Summer 185
Notes 193
Bibliography 213
Index 241
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)