Part 1 of 6
When you hear the phrase “teen idol,” it depends on both the era and the stage within the era that helps determine who was “popular” at any given point in time. Nor is the timing gender-specific, in many ways, the “rules” for who became a teen idol and who didn’t quite make it seem to work across the board regardless of sex, race, or other factors. In this series, we’ll take a look at who were “the ones” teens were crazed about. Who adorned the bedroom walls of teenage girls and boys everywhere? Did they act? Did they sing? Did they do both? Part one takes place in the smashing 60s.
Born Eric Hilliard Nelson in 1940, Rick Nelson became a major teen heartthrob in the late 50s, and this title carried over into the 60s and 70s. First co-starring in the “Ozzy & Harriet Show” with his parents and older brother David. His career continued on with singing becoming a major focus of his from the late 50s throughout the 60s, along with his making movies with John Wayne. One of the cooler things we found out doing the research was that Nelson graduated from Hollywood High School while working double-time doing television and movies. Nelson was also the first teen idol to utilize television to promote hit records. Father Ozzie Nelson even had the idea to edit footage together to create some of the first music videos. This creative editing can be seen in videos Ozzie produced for Rick’s hit song “Travelin’ Man.” Some of his other hits were “Poor Little Fool” “Hello Mary Lou”, and “Teenage Idol”. In 1972, Nelson reached the charts for the final time with “Garden Party”, a song he wrote in disgust after an Oldies Concert at Madison Square Garden where the audience booed. As the story goes, Nelson was disenchanted with performing after this and felt that the boos were because he played new music rather than his older standards. Sadly Nelson, who had always had a fear of flying, died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve in 1985.
As the breakout star of the hit film “Gidget” in 1959, Sandra Dee entered the 60s breaking the hearts of teenage boys everywhere! Born Alexandra Zuck, she became a professional model by the age of 4 and eventually progressed to shooting local television commercials. At age 12, she was ‘discovered’ by producer Ross Hunter, and Dee recalled that she “grew up fast”, surrounded mostly by older people. She moved to Los Angeles to act at age 15 and graduated high school early in order to perform. Despite several bouts with anorexia, she would have 9 films to her credit by 1960, when she married “Come September” co-star Bobby Darin in December. They had one son in 1961, and Dee continued to act throughout the 60s until her divorce from Darin in 1967. After that, her career began a downward spiral. The very disenchanted Dee told one interviewer “Look at this – a cigarette. I like to smoke. I’m 25 years old, and it so happens that I like to smoke. So out in Hollywood the studio press agents are still pulling cigarettes out of my hand and covering my drink with a napkin whenever my picture is taken. Little Sandra Dee isn’t supposed to smoke, you know. Or drink. Or breathe.” She would continue to make guest-starring appearances in television, her final appearance in 1983. In 1994, her son Dodd Darin published a book about his parents, “Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee” in which he chronicled his mother’s rampant anorexia, drug and alcohol problems, and her claim that she had been sexually abused as a child by her stepfather, Eugene Douvan. Dee became a self-described recluse after her final TV appearance, and sadly she passed away from complications from kidney failure in February 2005.
Frankie And Annette
As the original beach party duo in the 60s, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were considered every girl and boy’s perfect teen dreams! Both were young, talented, good-looking, charming, and appealing to all ages. Annette Funicello started her career as one of the original (and most popular) Mouseketeers in the late 50s, and her vast popularity won her many more roles in Disney features. Singer, Paul Anka, was noted to have a crush on her, however, as the story goes, Walt Disney overprotected Annette not allowing Anka to date her, which broke Paul’s heart. This resulted in his song “Puppy Love”, inspired by his hopeless romantic crush on her. Once her Disney contract ended, Annette entered the “Beach Party” era of the 60s along with Frankie Avalon. By the time the 60s hit, Avalon was already a huge teen idol, with many films and hit songs to his credit. The beach party movies only enhanced his appeal to women and made him one of the most sought-after men of the 60s. “Beach Party”, “Muscle Beach Party”, Bikini Beach”, and “Beach Blanket Bingo” were all huge hits in the mid-60s with offshoot films like “Pajama Party” starring either one or the other. American International Pictures would move her on to stock car films like “Fireball 500” along with Fabian, and Annette’s final film of the 60s “Thunder Alley” with just herself and Fabian. The duo of Frankie & Annette would again star together in the 80s film “Back to the Beach”. It was during the filming of this, and subsequent promotion of the movie that Annette started having severe balance and dizziness issues but kept this information to herself. She removed herself from the public eye until rumors of alcoholism in 1992 forced her to go public with her diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. She became a spokesperson for MS until the disease took away her ability to walk in 2003, to speak in 2009, and sadly, finally her life in 2013. Avalon went on to make guest appearances on TV shows and in movies through the 70s and 80s and form a skin-care line. He also married his wife in 1963, despite his agent’s fears it would ruin his teen following. They have 8 children and 10 grandchildren and still reside in California, not far from the beaches that gave Avalon a boost to his career.
It would be a travesty to have a “teen idols” article without giving a nod to the “King of Rock & Roll,” Elvis Presley. Born Elvis Aron Presley, he was also a twin with his older brother, Jesse Garon, being stillborn. His family relocated to Memphis when he was 13, and he began his music career shortly thereafter. Interestingly, Presley could not read music, and played by ear. His movie career began in 1956 with “Love Me Tender”, more movie and television appearances quickly came his way before he was drafted into the Army in 1958. While he was in the Army, his label would continue to release his music, and by the time he was honorably discharged in March 1960, he returned to the US as a full-fledged teen idol. In fact, the train that carried him from New Jersey to Tennessee was mobbed all the way, and Presley was called upon to appear at scheduled stops to please his fans. He immediately went into the studio to record new material, also made numerous TV appearances and began again regularly acting in feature films. After a few modestly successful dramatic roles, Presley would revert to the formula that made him successful – musical comedies, released with corresponding soundtrack albums. Hal Wallis, who produced nine of them, declared at that time, “A Presley picture is the only sure thing in Hollywood.” Presley also returned to the US with a well-guarded secret – a very young girlfriend named Priscilla who would eventually move in with him in Memphis and would marry him in 1967. His only child, Lisa Marie, was born 9 months after the wedding.
It was around this time that RCA executives realized the “formula” had gone dry when his “Clambake” soundtrack registered new lows for a Presley album. The following movie and soundtrack “Speedway” was even more dismal, sending Presley into a bout with depression. However, his manager Col. Tom Parker was already in action. Parker simply shifted his plans to television, where Presley had not appeared since the Sinatra Timex show in 1960. He maneuvered a deal with NBC that committed the network to both finance a theatrical feature and broadcast a Christmas special, simply called “Elvis”. Reporter Jon Landeau summed it up very nicely, saying “There is something magical about watching a man who has lost himself find his way back home. He sang with the kind of power people no longer expect of rock ‘n’ roll singers. He moved his body with a lack of pretension and effort that must have made Jim Morrison green with envy.” And just like that, Presley was back on top. He would continue to tour, selling out large auditoriums, and remain a huge star until the mid-70s, when he lost all interest in recording and touring. RCA was a little concerned, and had noted the deterioration of his health, and suspected rampant drug abuse. A scathing expose’ of his drug use and abuse, written by 3 former bodyguards was released August 1, 1977. 16 days later, Elvis was found unresponsive on his bathroom floor. Attempts to revive him failed, and he was tragically pronounced dead. Many different theories as to cause of death have appeared, with the main cause initially indicated to be drug abuse. However, in 1994 the Presley autopsy report was officially reopened. Dr. Joseph Davis, who had conducted thousands of autopsies as the Miami-Dade County coroner, declared at its completion, “There is nothing in any of the data that supports a death from drugs. In fact, everything points to a sudden, violent heart attack.” After death, Elvis became somewhat of a larger-than-life icon, and his albums continue to sell today.
To be continued:
The late 50s and 60s brought us the beginnings of the “teen idol” phase. There are so many more that we should mention, so we decided to make this a series. Stay tuned for part 2, as the 60s becomes the 70s, and the teen idol craze explodes!