The Nifty 50s: State historian Marshall Trimble looks back at a decade worth remembering

The Nifty 50s 

State historian Marshall Trimble looks back at a decade worth remembering. 

The Nifty ’50s spawned bomb shelters, drive-in movies, Hula Hoops, rock and roll music, car hops, McDonalds, Little League baseball, and Elvis.

In 1950, Arizona had a population of 750,000 residents; the city of Phoenix covered only 17 square miles and had a population of 107,000. Scottsdale’s residents numbered 2,000, up from 400 only 10 years earlier. Gas sold for 27 cents a gallon; a new car cost less than $1,500; and $9,000 could put you in a new home. By the end of the decade, the state had grown to 1.3 million and the capital city had nearly a half-million residents. By then manufacturing had replaced agriculture and mining as the number one income-producing industry.

For the first time in Arizona history a woman, Ana Frohmiller, was the Democrat candidate for governor. Her opponent was Howard Pyle, a popular radio personality, and his campaign manager was a novice politician named Barry Goldwater.

Many Arizonans weren’t quite ready to vote for a woman and during the campaign there was some talk of members of the Klu Klux Klan appearing at her rallies. A member of the media asked Ms. Frohmiller what her thoughts were on the Klan and with a straight-face she replied, “I don’t trust any man under the sheets.”

In the spring of 1951, the World Champion New York Yankees came to Phoenix to train at the old Phoenix Municipal stadium on Central and Mohave street. That spring, Arizonans saw the grand finale of one superstar and the birth of another at the old ballpark. It would be Joe DiMaggio’s last year in baseball. His replacement was 19-year-old Mickey Mantle.

In Phoenix, women’s professional softball drew crowds numbering into the thousands. Two of the top teams in the country were the Phoenix A-l Queens and the PBSW Ramblers, led respectively by superstars Charlotte “Skipper” Armstrong and Dot Wilkinson.

The music of the first half of the decade was a startling contrast to the second. Turn on the radio and hear Perry Como crooning nice-guy ballads, or Rosemary Clooney’s novelty tunes like, Come On-A My House, or Eddie Fisher warbling Oh My Pa-Pa.

And then came rock and roll. It began with a 29-year-old ex-disc jockey named Bill Haley and his band, the Comets, who recorded Rock Around the Clock. The song took the youth of America by storm. Unfortunately, Haley had very little hair, which meant he lacked the necessary sex appeal to teenyboppers. The following year, 21-year-old Elvis Presley hit the stage. He had hair––lots of it––dreamy eyes, and a mischievous, impish grin to match. When he began twisting, wailing, and gyrating around the microphone, the audiences went crazy and everyone knew the times they were a-changing.

When the decade began there were only 3.1 million television sets in America. Five years later the number had risen to 32 million. By the end of the decade there were 60 million. The average family watched Gunsmoke, Wyatt Earp, I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, or Leave It To Beaver.

At the time, a pair of Justin cowboy boots was still selling for the same price as they were a decade ago, $36.50. A Stetson cowboy hat had gone up to $22.50, and a pair of Levi’s cost $4.19.

With the Cold War and threat of a nuclear holocaust looming, school children were learning duck and cover drills by crawling under their desks to avoid being vaporized by an atomic bomb. I grew up in the small town of Ash Fork along fabled Route 66 and couldn’t help but wonder, “Why would the Russians want to waste an atomic bomb on Ash Fork?”

In 1955 the first McDonalds opened in Phoenix at the southwest corner of Indian School and Central. It was the first of the franchise in America to use the golden arches in its design. That same year Blakley’s gas stations, an independent dealer with stations all across the state, were giving away a 1955 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 every 55 days. During price wars, gas sold for as low as 19 cents a gallon.

In Phoenix, downtown shopping went into decline as shopping malls like Park Central, Christown and Thomas Mall were established on the outer fringes of the city. Stores like Goldwater’s, Diamonds, Hanny’s, and Korrick’s were among the longtime businesses that opened anchor stores in the new malls.

In the election during the fall of 1958, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 200 and Arizona State College at Tempe became Arizona State University.

Phoenix was experiencing boom times. More construction was done in Phoenix in 1959 than in all the years from 1914 to 1946 combined.

Highway construction, delayed by World War II began in earnest. By the end of the decade the old Black Canyon stagecoach road, also known as the Black Canyon or State Route 69, from Phoenix to Prescott was paved.

The days of an eight-hour drive via the Bush Highway to Payson ended in 1958 when State Route 87. It reduced the travel time to an hour and a half.

It would be another 20 years before Interstate 17 from Phoenix to Flagstaff was completed. What had been an eight-hour drive from Flagstaff to Phoenix was reduced to less than three.

 

 

The Nifty ’50s were good times, the likes of which we might never see again. Here are a few prophetic observations made during that decade:  

“If they raise the minimum wage to $1, nobody will be able to hire outside help at the store.”   

“When I first started driving, who would have thought gas would someday cost 29 cents a gallon.”  

“Did you see where some baseball player just signed a contract for $75,000 a year just to play ball?”

“It’s too bad things are so tough nowadays. I see where a few married women are having to work to make ends meet.”   

 

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