1964: Pop Culture’s Greatest Year?

Garry Berman
13 min readFeb 20, 2024

It may be merely coincidence that a single calendar year could include an unusually high number of major events in any given sphere of life, yet it did indeed happen in American popular culture sixty years ago, throughout the year 1964.

Let’s take a closer look:

Only five weeks after New Year’s Day of ’64 — on February 9 — the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, one week after “I Want to Hold Your Hand” became their first #1 hit in America. While 728 audience members in the theatre experienced the Beatles singing to them in person, the estimated 73 million more were watching the much-hyped event at home. Sullivan was in his 16th season on the air, and his program had become a staple of American popular culture on Sunday evenings. But this night was to be very different. It quickly became an entertainment event famous for having not only generated unprecedented anticipation, but for surpassing even the highest of expectations.

The reverberations felt throughout millions of households across the country that Sunday evening were immediate. For most parents watching the Beatles’ performance, it was in parts laughable, cacophonous, unseemly, or worse. For their children, however, it was nothing short of electrifying. By the time that single, hour-long program began rolling its closing credits, the Beatles had generated an emotional shock wave of such intensity that it instantly sent an entire generation of American teenagers into a state of sheer exhilaration.

A little less than three months later, and after five years of planning, the New York World’s Fair opened on April 22, twenty-five years after the famous 1939 Fair. Covering nearly 650 acres of land in Queens — some of which had been swamp, some used as a garbage dump — the Fair was the brainchild of New York’s controversial (to say the least) city planner, Robert Moses.

The sprawling grounds of the Fair, with its stainless steel Unisphere and fountains as the centerpiece.

The Fair included 140 pavilions sponsored by such corporate giants as General Electric, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Disney, IBM, Bell Telephone, US Steel, Pepsi Cola, Seven Up, Dupont, RCA, and Westinghouse. Moses needed an average of 220,000 visitors per day to bring the Fair into the black, but fell well short of the goal in its two years of operation (except for the closing weekend, in October of 1965).

Just five days before the Fair’s opening, the barely-finished, $28 million Shea Stadium — the new home of the last-place New York Mets — hosted its first home game for the team. Located just a few hundred yards from the World’s Fair entrance, the sparkling, state-of-the-art stadium welcomed a crowd of 50,312 to see the Mets lose to the Pittsburgh Pirates, 4–3. It would remain the team’s home for the next 45 years.

Shea Stadium with the World’s Fair at the upper right corner.

Elsewhere in New York in 1964, the Big Apple’s Broadway theatres offered several legendary productions, some of which were to become among the longest-running shows of their time.

Oliver! premiered at the Imperial Theatre on 6 January 1963. It continued its run throughout most of 1964, before closing on 14 November after 774 performances. The cast featured child actor Bruce Prochnik as Oliver, alongside Georgia Brown, Danny Sewell, and Barry Humphries (later known as “Dame Edna”), reprising their roles as Nancy, Bill Sikes and Mr. Sowerberry, from the original West End production in London. Clive Revill also starred as Fagin, replacing Ron Moody.

Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical comedy Barefoot in the Park premiered on October 23, 1963.

Simon with Mike Nichols.

The play quickly became a smash, lifting Simon’s success into the stratosphere. Directed by Mike Nichols and starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley as a young couple recently married, the show was to run for 1,530 performances.

It was such a rousing success that Paramount Pictures bought the film and television rights to it, as well as the rights to Simon’s next play (which hadn’t been written yet). Thanks to poor advice from his business manager, Simon agreed to the terms of the deal, forever relinquishing any future film and TV rights to the upcoming play. That next play would be The Odd Couple.

Hello, Dolly! starred stage performer Carol Channing. The show won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Actress in a Musical for Channing. The awards earned set a record which the play held for 37 years. The original cast album reached number one on the Billboard album chart on June 6, 1964, and was replaced the next week by Louis Armstrong’s album Hello Dolly (Armstrong also was featured in the film version of the show, performing a small part of the title song).

Channing as flamboyant matchmaker Dolly Levi.

On March 26, Funny Girl first opened on Broadway, starring Barbra Streisand. The plot is based on the life and career of comedian and Broadway star Fanny Brice and her stormy relationship with entrepreneur and gambler Nicky Arnstein. The production received eight nominations at the Tony Awards; Streisand and Omar Sharif later starred in the film version (for which Streisand would win the Academy Award and Golden Globe).

On September 22, Fiddler on the Roof opened, starring the great Zero Mostel. The show would later become the first musical in history to surpass 3,000 performances. Fiddler held the record for the longest running Broadway musical for nearly ten years, and won nine Tony Awards, including best musical, score, book, direction and choreography. Mostel, as lead character Tevye, and Maria Karnilova as Tevye’s wife Goldie, won as best leading actor and best featured actress.

The 1964 Broadway season also included revivals of Arthur Miller’s drama The Crucible, and the perennial musical favorite West Side Story.

The year was also a good one at the movies, especially for comedies:

The Pink Panther, released in December of 1963, gave audiences their first taste of the bumbling police inspector Jaques Clouseau (the incomparable Peter Sellers), although Clouseau was very much a minor character in this first outing.

Sellers appeared on movie screens again just weeks after The Pink Panther premiered, playing three roles in Stanley Kubrick’s classic, Dr. Strangelove. Hailed as one of the greatest of all black comedy films (and certainly the blackest), Dr. Strangelove takes the concept of total nuclear destruction and turns it into a political farce, with the help of Sellers as American President Merkin Muffley, British Colonel Mandrake, and the psychotic German Dr. Strangelove himself. George C. Scott does a bit of scene stealing as a trigger-happy general, and Sterling Hayden is alternately hilarious and chilling as the crazy Colonel Jack Ripper, who instigates a nuclear crisis, and Slim Pickens as a gung-ho bomber pilot on his way to drop the Bomb on Moscow.

Sellers as Strangelove.

And, only six months after Sellers first stepped into the role of Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther, he was back again in A Shot in the Dark, released in June. Legend has it that Clouseau was originally to be played by Peter Ustinov, who dropped out of the project in favor of starring in Topkapi — a film Sellers had just quit. With Sellers starring as Inspector Clouseau, the first two Pink Panther films marked the beginning of the hugely successful and often tempestuous collaboration between the star and writer/director Blake Edwards. Their clash of egos was never discreet. After A Shot in the Dark was completed, both vowed never to work with each other again. They both obviously had a change of heart, and their work produced some of the funniest comedies ever made. “There is an enormous love-hate relationship that goes on,” Edwards once said, “It’s a big strain at times, but the end result always seems to justify the anguish.”

Sellers and co-star Elke Summer.

One of the more unique films of the year, the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, premiered in the U.S. on July 7. Even if the Beatles had been a fictitious creation, this film would still rank as one of the finest and most influential comedies of the 1960s. Beatlemania was still in its early stages when the group was approached with the idea of starring in their own film. They agreed on the condition that it be written by an experienced professional. Alun Owen, a comic playwright and TV writer out of Liverpool, was chosen to develop a script based on a typical (or what was perceived to be typical) 24-hour period in the lives of the Fab Four. He spent a few days traveling with them and fashioned his script with plenty of their sardonic humor and seemingly boundless energy, if also oversimplifying each Beatle’s individual personality. He also added entertaining fictional characters such as Norm the manager (Norm Rossington), Shake the roadie (John Junkin), and Paul’s trouble-making grandfather (Wilfred Brambell, who was already star of the popular British sitcom Steptoe and Son).

American director Richard Lester took Owen’s script and created a breezy, fast-moving quasi-documentary, following the Beatles on their way to perform for a television variety show. Lester employed innovative camera angles and editing techniques to create memorable scenes and gags that kept audiences entertained in between the new, soon-to-be-classic Beatles songs performed througout the film. Critics as well as the public on both sides of the Atlantic were delighted by the finished product, as were the Beatles themselves.

The opening credits sequence, cleverly capturing the atmosphere of Beatlemania.

Later that summer, on August 27, Mary Poppins premiered to critical acclaim and commercial success, grossing $31 million in its original domestic run. It became the highest grossing film of the year, and at the time of its release, was Disney’s highest-grossing film ever. It received a total of 13 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, with Julie Andrews winning the award for Best Actress.

Dick van Dyke and Julie Andrews, with Karen Dotice and Matthew Garber.

Another musical favorite, My Fair Lady, premiered on October 21, adapted from the 1956 Lerner and Loewe stage musical, based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. The film depicts a poor Cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn, replacing Julie Andrews from the stage production), who meets a phonetics professor, Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison, repeating his stage role), as he casually wagers that he could teach her to speak English so well she could pass for a duchess in high society.

The film became the second highest-grossing film of 1964, and won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (George Cukor), and Best Actor (Harrison).

James Bond returned to movie screens in September in the U.K. (December 22 in the U.S.) in Goldfinger, the third James Bond film starring Sean Connery as agent 007. The film also stars Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore and Gert Frobe as the suave but sinister, gold-obsessed criminal Auric Goldfinger.

The film’s plot has Bond investigating gold smuggling by Goldfinger, and eventually uncovers Goldfinger’s plans to contaminate the U. S. gold depository at Fort Knox.

But it wasn’t necessary to leave home in search of entertainment in 1964. On television, innovative political and social satire re-emerged in January of 1964 when David Frost brought the British hit That Was the Week That Was to America. Created and produced in the U.K. by Ned Sherrin, and nicknamed TW3, the program mixed comedy sketches, songs, monologues, and mock newscasts, using the then-new technique of allowing the cameras to include shots of the audience and various cast members walking on and off the set in between segments.

Frost (far left) and some of the British cast of TW3.

The American version of the show, like its British older sibling, achieved considerable notoriety for its political humor throughout early 1964, and was renewed for the following season. However, as the year’s presidential campaign (between President Johnson and his challenger, Senator Barry Goldwater) came to its climax, TW3 found itself frequently pre-empted by speeches and paid programs by the Republicans, who saw the show as leaning decidedly to the left. By the time it had re-established itself in its time slot, the novelty had worn off, and strong competition on the other networks forced its cancellation in May of 1965.

The American TW3 cast included David Frost (not pictured), Phyllis Newman, Elliot Reid, and Alan Alda.

With daytime soap operas already long established on TV, ABC decided to see how the daytime serial format would fare in prime time. And so, on September 15, Peyton Place premiered, airing new episodes on two nights each week. Based on the novel by Grace Metalious (and the 1957 feature film), the series followed the activities — romantic, criminal, and otherwise — of the residents of the fictional New England town of Peyton Place. The cast featured both acting veterans and relative newcomers. The most notable young cast members who continued successful careers were Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neil. The program aired in prime time for five seasons and returned as a daytime serial in 1972 for two more years. It would serve as a blueprint of sorts for the prime-time soaps of the 80s, such as Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, and others.

Peyton Place (clockwise from left): Ryan O’Neil, Christopher Connelly, Barbara Parkins, Ed Nelson, Tim O’Connor, Mia Farrow.

Bewitched, premiering on September 17, has become perhaps the sentimental favorite among fans of the 1960s comedy-fantasy TV genre, thanks to the charming performance of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stephens, a beautiful young witch who, as a suburban housewife, tries to suppress her powers at the insistence of her frazzled, ad-exec husband Darrin (Dick York, later replaced by Dick Sargeant). No doubt due to its enduring charm, Bewitched lasted seven seasons.

Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York.

The Addams Family premiered on September 18, and was like no sitcom family ever seen on television before. Based on characters created by cartoonist Charles Addams, this macabre family lived blissfully unaware of their overall creepiness. Guests to their home first encountered the tall, menacing butler Lurch before meeting with the cheerful Gomez and alluring Morticia, Uncle Fester (with his playfully destructive hobbies), and their meat-eating plants in the conservatory.

The Addams Family in a lighter mood.

The Munsters debuted on September 24 as a more overt, slapstick-filled satire of classic horror movie characters, but was indeed quite well-written and included some surprisingly clever dialogue, including well-placed pop culture references of the time. The friendly Munster family ventured out of the house and interacted more with the “outside” world than the Addams family ever did, and considered themselves to be a normal American family, but Herman and his brood never caught on that they themselves instilled shock, and even panic, with just about everyone they encountered.

Grandpa (Al Lewis), Herman (Fred Gwynne), Lily (Yvonne DeCarlo) and Eddie (Butch Patrick) spending a quiet evening at home.

A very different type of program premiered that same week, taking advantage of both the Cold War and the success of the James Bond film series. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. took viewers on the spy adventures of Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), and their state-of-the-art gadgets and devices as tools of the trade. The show would be parodied to some degree following season with the debut of the Don Adams sitcom Get Smart.

McCallum, Vaughn, and Leo G. Carroll as their boss, Alexander Waverly.

In October, American viewers saw the Summer Olympics telecast from Tokyo. Earlier in the year, the 1964 Winter Games were held in Innsbruck, Austria, and coverage of those Games was taped and flown by back to the United States, where most events were broadcast in black & white, on the mornings on the days the events were held.

For the Tokyo Summer Olympics, NBC used the Syncom 3 satellite for its coverage, including live, color broadcasts of the opening and closing ceremonies. These were the first color transmissions via satellite from overseas to the U.S., but only the ceremonies themselves were shown in color.

As 1964 entered its final months, it would be difficult to top the Olympics as a major event — unless you include the American presidential election.

President Johnson had been in office just a few weeks shy of one year — since the assassination of John F. Kennedy — on Election Day. His Republican opponent, Sen. Barry Goldwater, was a popular conservative, but ultimately proved too conservative at the time for the majority of voters. Some feared that his aggressive stance on the Soviet Union could, if were he elected, increase the possibility of a nuclear confrontation, exceeding that of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Perhaps the most famous campaign ad of all time, known as the “Daisy” ad, aired — just once — on Labor Day, September 7, at 9:50 p.m., during an NBC broadcast of the film David and Bathsheba, but was seen again on local news stations by millions of viewers. Created by the ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, it was intended to provide a sharp contrast between the image of an innocent little girl counting the pedals of a daisy, and the foreboding voice counting down to a tremendous nuclear explosion.

Many experts have agreed that the ad solidified Goldwater’s image as a warmonger, and, combined with many other factors, led to Johnson’s landslide win in 1964’s final days before the New Year.

Again, every year, chosen at random, consists of trends, special moments, and even historic events throughout the 12-month period. But there was just something special about 1964 and all that occurred in pop culture that year, keeping the country busy with entertainment in all its forms, both fictional and in real life.

Until next time…

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Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.