The 1950s may have occurred half a century ago, but a new exhibit at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art suggests the decade has never been more current.
The similarities between that decade and the beginning of the 21st century are striking, said Debbe Goldstein, who curated "At Home With Ozzie and Harriet: Mid-Century Design." Both eras have been characterized by a lust for technological advances, a rise in the influence of new forms of media and debates about patriotic behavior. Terrorism is the modern equivalent of the atom bomb, when it comes to unspoken fears.
"But most importantly, the values of the 1950s are the ones that people are trying to emulate today," Goldstein said. "But those role models didn’t really exist: Ozzie and Harriet Nelson were so interesting and cogent for this exhibit, because they were like the first reality show. Viewers believed in them as a real family — but it was a reality that never existed but through the lens of television. That sort of innocence and sanctity that they try to project is very much with us today."
"At Home With Ozzie and Harriet" isn’t an encyclopedic show about the ’50s — there are no poodle skirts or letter sweaters. Everything in the show, from Mad magazine to a 1959 Chevrolet El Camino, was selected because of its design and its influence.
"The car is interesting because if you think of a typical car in the ’50s, the first one that comes to mind is probably a ’57 Chevy or a ’59 Cadillac with the fins," Goldstein said. "But for this show, by luck and design, we got an El Camino because I think it’s a perfect car for Arizona — a hybrid for how we live here. For the exhibit, I sort of imagined a family in Arizona in the 1950s and the choices they’d make living here and what would influence them.
"And Mad magazine was interesting to me because it transformed itself into ‘Saturday Night Live.’ The whole idea that the magazine didn’t have advertising, so it doesn’t have editorial censorship, didn’t change the fact that Alfred E. Neuman turned into an icon of instant recognizability."
So the Blakely service station glasses, Barbie doll or Philco Predicta television are treated "not so much as artifacts as memory clues," Goldstein said. "Living under the threat of the bomb and the Cold War and searching for Communists, I think that people really wanted something comfortable and secure in the objects and life they surrounded themselves with."
Some of the items on display in "At Home With Ozzie and Harriet" are on loan from East Valley residents who heard about Goldstein’s plea for period pieces: Joe Schwartz, former vice president of Herman Miller, offered period furniture and Larry Grow, chief financial officer of General Dynamics, contributed vintage flashcards and "Fun With Dick and Jane" books.
"It was exactly what I was looking for," Goldstein said. "The people who came were adorable and had great stuff, and it also brought in people who may not have any kind of affiliation with contemporary art or museums but were interested in being a part of their community."
Related talks and events
The museum has planned a series of supplementary events dedicated to themes related to the "Ozzie and Harriet" exhibit. All occur at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 E. Second St.; for more information, call (480) 994-2787.
7 p.m. today: Pat McMahon and Ben Tyler discuss "The Wallace and Ladmo Show," the local children’s TV show that ran from 1954 to 1989. Virginia C. Piper Theater. $10 includes exhibit admission.
Noon Feb. 11: George Ramsay, professor emeritus at Wittenburg University, discusses "What Makes a Classic Design" at a brown-bag lecture. Exhibit tour follows. Stage 2 Theater. Free.
7 p.m. Feb. 19: Exhibit curator Debbe Goldstein moderates a discussion about midcentury design with a panel that includes Joe Schwartz, former vice president of Herman Miller, and John Wyatt, dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin West. Stage 2 Theater. $7.
Noon Feb. 25: George Ramsay, professor emeritus at Wittenburg University, discusses design trends — innovation vs. mediocrity — in a brown-bag lecture. Exhibit tour follows. Stage 2 Theater. Free.
Noon March 10: Richard Herrera, professor of political science at Arizona State University, discusses the 1950s House Committee on Un-American Activities and the blacklisting of prominent screenwriters who refused to answer the committee’s questions. Exhibit tour follows. Stage 2 Theater. Free.
6:30 p.m. April 8: Prasad Boradkar, assistant professor of industrial design at Arizona State University, discusses material culture in the 1950s, from product and graphic design to popular entertainment. Museum lobby. Free.