Of course, the 50s weren't exactly a perfect decade. There was oppressive conformity, red scare paranoia and rampant discrimination against women and minorities. Check the first few seasons of "Mad Men" for a recap. Yes: Great cars, great clothes, not-so-great pent-up anxiety and horrible treatment of the office Steno pool.
But back to the 1970s: It's hard to know where or when the 50s nostalgia trend started. However, looking back, the most visible indicator is "American Graffiti," made by future "Star Wars" director George Lucas and starring a whole mess of folks who would go on to do other stuff in the decade, such as Richard Dreyfuss, Suzanne Somers, future "Shirley" Cindy Williams and future Han Solo, Harrison Ford. And, right at the center of things, real 50s kid, Ron "Opie" Howard.
The film is actually set in 1962, but captures what we think of when we think about 50s teenagers: Lots of cruising the drag, watching "submarine races," jukebox rock'n'roll, and conflicts between and squares, hipsters, hoods and jocks.
It's a pretty funny movie, as I recall. And it's the first of several 70s movies to have a hugely soundtrack associated with it -- available on 8-track!
"American Graffiti" probably made permanent our nation's obsession with 50s-style diners.
Concurrent to "American Graffiti," was "Grease," a 1971 musical focused on many of the same teen themes as "Graffiti," but with more singing and dancing. It was turned into a film, too, of course, in 1978 - starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. My wife can sing the whole dang score.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and designer Vivienne Westwood were reviving the 1950s British Teddy Boy look in their London boutique, Let it Rock.
My main introduction to 50s music, however, was 1978's "The Buddy Holly Story," starring the still-relatively-sane Gary Busey as the doomed Texas Rocker. I saw the film in fifth grade and it inspired a life-long love of Holly's music and 50s rock'n'roll.
Meanwhile, on TV, there was "Sha Na Na," a cheesy variety show hosted by a singing-dancing band that was actually ahead 50s revival curve, having performed at Woodstock in 1969.
But the most visible 1950s nostalgia trip on the tube was the long-running "Happy Days." It was by far the most popular TV show among my elementary school crowd.
Though obviously green-lighted due to the success of "American Graffiti," the roots of the TV show pre-dated the film. In 1971, Ron Howard, Anson Williams and Marion Ross all appeared in an unsold TV pilot called "New Family in Town," which was recycled into an episode of ABCs anthology "Love, American Style."
Later, when George Lucas was casting "Graffiti," he asked to view the pilot in order to determine if Ron Howard would be a good fit for his film. He was, and the film's huge success is what enabled the pilot's original producer Gary Marshall to sell ABC on the idea of a 1950s-set sitcom.""New
Here's a look at the original "New Family/Happy Days" pilot: