By Mike (Roadie) Marino
The Fabulous ’50’s weren’t just about Cold War nuclear politics and the fear of a Soviet takeover of America’s heartland. It was also about Brylcreem, ducktails, ponytails, fuzzy dice, hula dashboard ornaments, rock ‘n roll, V-8 muscle and a Saturday night car culture of testosterone on overdrive. We were Ben Hur and Don Garlits, all rolled into one as we cruised Woodward Avenue in our mighty Motor City mo-sheens, and we owed it all to those magnificent Motown dream machines that cranked out horsepower and style. It was The Chrome-Magnon Decade of Harley Earl’s Jet Age designs that had just the right amount of Liberace flair and panache in every element. The fresh fins of Belairs; stylish, sexy Dagmars big, full and firm, reaching out suggestively and of course, those big chrome grins on giant Oldsmobile grills, ready to eat you alive and smiling all the time as they gained on you in the rearview mirror.. Styling and design had met in the backseat and in a heat of passion created the era of pop culture and chrome meeting asphalt and art.
The Motor City motor culture went from zero to 60 in no time flat, and created a car cruising world on Saturday nights that included, carhops and fast food along with the drive-in movie and the promise of “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”. Drive-in’s had been around since the 1930’s but their numbers exploded during the cruisin’ culture of the 50’s. They popped up like mushrooms across the country and while most could hold 40, maybe 50 cars, some, as was the case at the Ford-Wyoming in Detroit, could hold thousands!!
We paid the price of admission, beer and buddies stashed in the trunk, just one more way to beat the system, and we entered the world of big screen dreams and backseat reality. One by one the cars snaked in, found just right spot, and we were locked n’ loaded and ready for the main feature. The sun was setting beautifully below the horizon and painting the sky with an artists hand, and it was getting dark so it was time for the speakers to crackle to life and soon the giant screen would be filled with Giant Spiders from Mars and The Atomic Lizards from Hell!! Flying saucers, mutants, zombies, hot rod flicks and hot rod chicks; just where did all these aliens, atomic lizards, and juvenile delinquent hot-rodders from hell come from anyway? The answer was in a nitro fuel mixture of nuclear politics and The Red Dread of the march of the Soviet Union. Little green men with a Red philosophy goose-stepping across Iowa, trying to conquer the red, white and blue of Senator Joe McCarthy, while Kevin McCarthy protected us from “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”!
Godzilla, or “Gojira” as it was originally called, was a Japanese import that was born in the aftermath of Hiroshima. The nuclear nightmare that ended WWII would give birth to a subtle anti-nuclear and anti-war reptile called “Gojira”. In the original, Gojira rises from the cloud of atomic testing in the Pacific Atolls, and the result was a radiation-belching beast that would challenge an unsuspecting world. Eventually, it was released as “GODZILLA: THE KING OF THE MONSTERS” in the United States, where they surgically inserted Raymond Burr as the protagonist of the film. His “insertion” and the two second delay dialogue is what makes this film so damned enjoyable. Godzilla was an immediate hit and as a result created it’s own economic Hiroshima at the American drive in movie box office, not to mention fostering a whole new cult genre of silver screen screamers.
Black leather and bad attitudes also took their toll at the box office as piston pumping hotrod flicks raced across the celluloid landscape. Two of the earliest V-8 films of the Holy Chrome-man Empire were “The Devil on Wheels”, released in 1947, and “Hot Rod” in 1950. In “Hot Rod” the lead character is actually a Motor City Mo-sheen..a souped up ’32 roadster, but also featured the soon to be Dobie Gillis on TV, Dwayne Hickman. The greatest casting however was to include Tommy Bond who was “Butch” in the old Our Gang comedies, yep, the same guy who used to beat the snot out of Alfalfa. Then along came “Dragstrip Girl”, the all time cult classic released in 1957 that grabbed the country by the throat as the high octane version of “The Attack of the 50 Foot Dragstrip Woman”!! It featured Frank Gorshin, who later would gain fame as the Riddler on the high camp “Batman” TV series, and also starred real life dragster hero, TV Tommy Ivo, who would go down in the books with the likes of Mickey Thompson and Big Daddy Don Garlits!!
There was, however, one film above them all that grabbed us by the sensibilities of the times, and it’s impact was due to the performance and persona of a young man who rocketed out of the cornfields of Fairmont, Indiana (“Where Cool Was Born”) and would shortly lodge himself firmly into the fabric of American pop culture legend. James Byron Dean, the cool one, emerged in his red jacket in the film “Rebel Without A Cause” and his portrayal of youth in angst struck a resonant chord with it’s audience. The new kid in school trying to fit in, and the adage you can’t please everybody certainly applies. Brilliant portrayals by some of the finest actors of the day, including Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. (Mineo would be stabbed to death in 1976 at the age of 37, and Natalie Wood drowned under mysterious circumstances in 1981 at the age of 43) The film has many classic scenes but the fave rave involves not just James Dean, but a classic, sexy ’49 Merc. The Merc stole the scene and not surprising for any automotive lover of pure design as art. The scene is a challenge to the Dean character, Jim Stark, by his antagonist, Buzz. It’s a go for broke chicken run scene where Jim and Buzz rev their engines, as they get ready to race towards the Oceanside cliffs and Pacific oblivion. Buzz gets his jacket caught on the door handle and can’t make his escape. He goes over the edge and only Jim Stark remains. In the film our hero avoids an untimely death, but it wouldn’t be long and in reality would Porsche out on a lonely stretch of California asphalt at the age of 24. An icon for the ages.
Godzilla has gone into semi retirement and only a handful of drive-in movie’s remain. Most stand lonely, forlorn and forgotten. Weeds taking the place of cars and speakers, the sounds of radio’s no longer audible and you don’t even have to pay anymore when you pass the empty gate to visit the empty screen…quiet and silent. Sometimes, though, if you listen carefully you can hear the faint sound of a car approaching in the distant, coming closer. It’s a little hazy, almost like witnessing a dream as you peer through the fog of the Fifties. You stand quietly as the car gets closer, and as it races by you in a ghost fog, you’ll swear that you saw a young man in a red jacket, smiling, as he drives by in the most beautiful car you had ever seen…a drop dead gorgeous ’49 Merc!!!
This Dharmabum Roadhead writer’s work has been described as DELIGHTFULLY WIERD and WICKEDLY WONDERFUL!! Mike (Roadie) Marino is a publisher of an on line magazine called ROAD TRIPPIN’ USA. It’s an asphalt kickin’ journey of Roadside Nostalgia and American Pop/Car Culture for the Chrome-Magnon in all of us. The style is lock n load and deals with the realm of where Pop Culture and Chrome meet Asphalt and Art!!
Mike also writes a monthly feature column under the banner THE ROADHEAD for the award winning Offbeat Travel zine. His column deals with bizzare ashpalt and roadside oddities and locales from mechanical museums to Cadillac Ranch. Mike is also a freelance writer of travel and history pieces that have been published in magazines and ezines in the US and Europe.
Most current project includes toiling endlessly on his first book about Pop and Car Culture in America of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Although born in the rustbelt of industrial Detroit, he’s also been the definitive son-of-a-beach and has lived in a treehouse in Honolulu, the tie dyed spare change neighborhood of Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, as well as the North Beach district..where the Beat Goes On!!
Today Mike (Roadie) Marino lives in Missouri near the banks of the Missouri River with his word processor. In addition, to writing and backpacking, Mike has a penchant for Hawaiian shirts, Jimmy Buffett albums and Corona Beer. If you would like to use any of Mike’s articles some of which are included here, contact him at the email address below or at firstname.lastname@example.org He also accepts contract work and what the hell, a good agent wouldn’t hurt either. So contact him for rates and information. Now…Have Fun Reading…Grab A Cold Corona..And Kick Asphalt!!!