The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1959 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1959

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Title Page | 1949 | 1950 | 1951 | 1952 | 1953 | 1954 | 1955 | 1956 | 1957 | 1958 | 1959 | 1960 | 1961 | 1962 | 1963 | 1964-1989 (Part 1) | 1964-1989 (Part 2) | 1964-1989 (Part 3)
Buddy Holly, Ben-Hur
Space Monkey, Mafia
Hula Hoops, Castro
Edsel is a no-go

1959 saw the birth of the Barbie doll, the famous quiz show scandals (later to be made into a film), and the admission of Hawaii as the 50th US state. But what else happened?

Buddy Holly

The bespectacled wonder first shot to fame with Peggy Sue in 1959. Read much more about him in this entry.


In 1925 MGM1 produced a spectacular silent film, Ben-Hur, based on a novel by General Lew Wallace. In 1959 they released a remake. Directed by William Wylder, lasting three and a half hours and subtitled A Tale of the Christ, it was to be the most expensive film shot to date.

Preparation for shooting stretched to six years and another half a year was required for on-location work in Italy. Filmed in 'glorious technicolor' for wide-screen viewing and with more crew and extras than had ever been employed before, the $15m bill represented a great risk for the studio.

Charlton Heston was chosen to play the title role - he had enjoyed much success with an earlier bible epic, The Ten Commandments, and possessed both the screen presence and physique to portray the part to the full. In support were Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd and Hugh Griffith, with the main female roles taken by Haya Harareet, Martha Scott and Cathy O'Donnell. The evocative score was written by Miklos Rozsa.

Ben-Hur was one of the most honoured, award-winning films of all time. It was nominated for twelve Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston - his sole career Oscar), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director (William Wyler), Best Colour Cinematography, Best Colour Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Score, Best Film Editing, Best Colour Costume Design, Best Special Effects, and Best Screenplay. It was the first film to win eleven Oscars - it lost only in the Screenplay category. Contrary to the commonly-believed urban belief, no stuntman lost his life in the filming of the famous chariot scene. It is far more likely that this happened in the earlier film.

The plot revolves around the betrayal of a Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur2, by the new Tribune of his province, his Roman friend Messala3. This betrayal sees Ben Hur enslaved and forced to work on a galley for three years and his mother and sister imprisoned. During a sea battle he saves the life of his commanding officer who takes him back to Rome to become a charioteer. This officer eventually frees and adopts him. Ben Hur is reunited with his childhood sweetheart who hides the fact that his mother and sister have become lepers and tells him they are dead. Encouraged by an Arab horse breeder he enters a final chariot race and competes against his betrayer. He wins the race and Messala is fatally injured, on his death bed telling Ben Hur that his family are lepers. He finally reconciles with his family when they insist upon seeing Jesus. This they do, but only en route to the crucifixion. Due to an earlier kidness shown by Jesus to Ben Hur in his period of enslavement, Ben Hur gives water to Jesus. After sheltering in a cave his mother and sister are cured of their leprosy by the rain which falls after Jesus' death. This impacts on Ben Hur and he overcomes his thirst for revenge on Rome and becomes a Christian.

Space Monkey

The image foremost in the public imagination when it comes to the early days of space exploration is probably one of a chimp being helped into or out of a shiny silver nosecone. The chimp would, of course, be wearing a NASA jumpsuit of some kind and possibly one of those goldfish bowl helmets. However, the historical reality is of course somewhat different.

The first monkey launched into space was Gordo, a squirrel monkey who rode Jupiter AM-13 into orbit on December 13, 1958. Gordo, also known as Old Reliable, survived the launch and a brief foray into orbit. Sadly, the failure of a flotation device in the nosecone of his vessel meant he couldn't be recovered alive. His Stuff, it seemed, just wasn't Right.

Gordo's legacy as the first 'space monkey' was carried on in 1959 by a rhesus monkey called Able and a spider monkey called Baker. Able and Baker were sent into orbit aboard the Jupiter AM-18 in May of 1959. They survived both the trip and the recovery becoming the first creatures to do so.

The procedure of sending animals into space carried on, and in 1961 a chimp called Ham became the first ape in space, followed by Enos in November of the same year. Their sacrifice, and the test results gained from their missions, made it possible for much more famous names to be launched into orbit and eventually to the moon.


The origins of the Mafia are somewhat vague, partially because it has never actually been a united organisation. It is believed to have formed as early as the 13th century in Sicily, when village elders (the heads of the prominant local families) would organise the men of the area to provide food and supplies for those displaced by the French army by raiding and pillaging French supply depots. Thus the key components of secrecy, criminal activity, and feudal-type structure all developed early on. Over the years various Mafia families took greater control over the Italian countryside, selling surplus raided food to other regions of Europe in exchange for other supplies. It wasn't until the rise of Mussolini that that the government even attempted to take action against the Mafia. When he was taken from power at the end of the Second World War, many anti-Mussolini activists, including Mafia members, were put into positions of power.

Meanwhile, the Mafia was exported to America with the immigration of many Italians around the turn of the century. In particular, Don Vito Cascio Ferro is believed to have created the first American Mafia in 1893. The Mafia became powerful during Prohibition in the 1920s, and was believed by many to be closely tied to the labour movement and the AFL-CIO4. Beginning in the 1970s, the American government cracked down greatly on Mafia activities and it has largely gone underground, despite the popularity of movies like The Godfather and TV shows like 'The Sopranos'.

In 1958, the FBI's Central Research Section created a document entitled 'The Mafia Monograph', detailing the background and history of the organisation and how it had historically been exported to the USA. This document became colloquially known as the 'Mafia Bible' and was used extensively by the FBI and other US Law Enforcement agencies in their campaign against organised crime.

Hula Hoops

Ancient artifact, 1950s craze and modern performance art. The humble hula-hoop's been there, done all that.


The use of hoops as a toy, and in children's games, dates back to ancient times. There are records of games including hoops in ancient Egypt and Rome and during the medieval and renaissance periods in Europe. Pieter Brueghel's 'Children's Games' (1560) illustrates the popularity of the hoop as a toy perfectly. Most evidence seems to point to the hoop's being bowled along the ground with a stick. Let us jump forward a few centuries...

You Crazy Kids

It was the casual remark of an Australian that inspired the hula-hoop craze that swept the world in the 50s and 60s, although it took a couple of enterprising Californians to take that casual remark and generate said craze. Hearing the idle comment that the kids 'Down Under' used bamboo hoops for exercise in gym class, the Californians Richard Knerr and Arthur 'Spud' Melin thought 'hmmmm...'

The hoops were made of a plastic called Marlex, and the name 'hula-hoop' came from the hula dances of the Hawaiian Islands that people seemed to imitate when twirling the hoops. The idea of the game was to twirl one or more hoops around your waist/torso/neck/arm/foot/leg/body part of choice for as long as possible. It was plugged not only as a children's game, but as an exercise for keeping fit and toned.

Wham-O, the company that initially manufactured the hoop, sold 25 million hula-hoops in the first two months, followed by 100 million international orders.The initial craze was short-lived, however...

Baby, Look at me Now!

Like so many things these days, people who are seriously into 'hooping', as it now seems to be known, certainly don't do things by halves. Hooping is a dedicated performance art, as anyone who has seen performances by groups such as Cirque du Soleil will testify. Hoops are also used in dance, meditation and fire hooping (yes, that's right, twirling one or more burning rings around your body).

The world record for hula-hooping the most hoops at the one time is held by Cia Granger of Finland, who spun 83 standard sized hoops at once for 3 full revolutions.


To tell the truth is the first duty of all revolutionaries; to fool the people always brings the worst consequences.

Born in the Oriente Province of Cuba on August 13, 1926, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was the son of a local landowner. Having been educated by the Jesuits and gained a law degree, he married into one of Cuba's wealthiest families and was expected to settle into a comfortable lifestyle - but he was always a rebel.

Having gone into private law practice with two partners in Havana in 1950, Fidel's idealism was directed into helping the under-privileged poor of Cuba. For this purpose, he planned to campaign for a seat in Parliament in the 1952 election for the reformist Cuban People's Party - but the government of President Carlos Prio Socarras was overthrown in a coup d'├ętat led by General Fulgencio Batista and the election was cancelled.

Following a failed attempt to have the new regime declared illegal by the Cuban courts, Castro turned to more direct methods. On July 26 1953, he led an attack on the Moncada Barracks in Oriente Province, about half of the 165 attackers were killed and Fidel and his brother Raul were captured. They remained in prison until released in a general amnesty in May of 1955.

Still determined to overthrow the Batista regime Castro went on a fund-raising tour, first in the United States and then to Mexico where he met up with the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. A group of Cuban exiles were formed into a force known as 'The 26th of July Revolutionary Movement', and these 82 men launched an attack on the north coast of Oriente Province on December 2, 1956. Badly planned, the attempt met with defeat; only twelve of the original attackers survived. The twelve fled to the Sierra Maestra mountains and from there they waged a guerrilla war against Batista's government. With the aid of an effective propaganda campaign, the rebel force grew to over 800 men. On January 1, 1959 Castro led his victorious army into Havana after General Batista fled the country.

The new government was quickly recognised by the US but relations soon became strained as American-owned properties were nationalised and an agreement was made to buy oil from the USSR. By early 1960 the situation had deteriorated to the stage that the US government broke off all diplomatic relations with Cuba and a state of 'Cold War' existed between the two countries.

Castro's increasingly Marxist-Leninist policies, intended to improve the lot of the peasant classes, led to discontent among the Cuban middle-classes - many of whom fled to the US, establishing a large anti-Castro community centred in Miami, Florida. This encouraged a CIA backed attempt to destabilise Castro's rule. Further estrangement between the two countries was evidenced by the 'Cuban Missile Crisis' of 1962 which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

In the years since those early excitements the relationship between the countries seems to have stabilised somewhat5, with just the occasional flare-up to remind the world of the presence of of a Communist state in America's backyard.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of other Communist regimes has affected the Cuban economy adversely and led to an attempt to increase revenue by promoting tourism to the island. But despite this apparent softening of his stance and the appearance of grey in his famous bushy black beard, Fidel Castro still appears to be very much in control of his beloved country.

Edsel is a No-go

Back in 1956, Ford Motor Company realised that there was a gaping hole in their range of medium-sized cars. This meant that Ford was losing customers to other manufacturers when the time came to move up market, the very ones that they could ill afford to lose.

Their solution to this problem was to put into action plans for an entirely new car division and an entirely new car. A car named after the Henry Ford's son, Edsel. The design of the car was to be completely unique - distinguishable from any angle. And the promotional build-up of the car would be like nothing else.

After a massive promotional campaign, which included multi-page 'teaser' advertisements in major national magazines, some 2.5 million Americans poured into Edsel dealerships on 'E-Day', September 4, 1957. But it was quickly apparent that few cars were actually being sold. The public expectation was much higher than the car could live up to, and sales reflected the disappointment. This expectation led to forecasts sales of around 200,000 whereas in reality the sales for the first year were only 68,045.

A redesigned car was then released for 1959 with significant changes made to increase sales. The new models looked less different to other makes. The large number of different models was reduced, Pacer and Citation were discontinued. Smaller engines were offered. For the first time a six cylinder engine was available as a delete option, reducing the price by $50, a worker's weekly income. Production was concentrated to a single plant. The Teletouch transmission (shifting was done by push buttons in the steering wheel and an electric motor at the transmission housing), a gimmick customers loved, was no longer available because of technical problems.

All this didn't help. Edsel's market share shrank to 47,396 sales for 1959.

It had all gone pear-shaped for the Edsel; by the time the first 1960 Models were coming off the production line, Ford had already decided to scrap the model entirely and concentrate on smaller cars, which were becoming increasingly popular. It announced this decision to the public on November 19, 1959.

Today less than 6000 Edsels survive, and each one is a cherished classic. The 1958 Edsel advertising said it best:

Once you've seen it, you'll never forget it. Once you've owned it, you'll never want to change.
1Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.2Charlton Heston.3Stephen Boyd.4American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations.5Although there are constant rumours of CIA attempts to remove Castro from power, particularly the story of an attempt to poison the Cuban leaders trademark cigars.

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