The Patio Culture and the
Promise of Joining the Adults' Club
The photograph shows our patio/adults' club c. 1967. The beer and hard stuff is on the picnic table, the cigarettes are lit, the men are talking. Maybe something mellow and Hawaiian is coming out of that turquoise speaker near the ceiling. The psychedelic paper fish float in circles in a school overhead, taking in the discussion.
By the way, I first heard the term "psychedelic" from my father, when he commented on a page of Marvel comic book art I was looking at. That's how much of a counterculturalist I was: I got my with-it jargon from Dad.
My first patio experience occurred when I was about five. When we lived in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles, before we moved to Burbank, my parents and I visited some friends, who were lounging in their patio talking to other friends. To me, the place was the perfect adult environment: The light through the ceiling was filtered and was just right to give the area a secluded, conspiratorial look while still being bright enough for the leisure requirment of actually appearing to be outdoors. There was a bar with tiki nuances, and on the bar was a glass of swizzle sticks bearing the forms of naked women in coral, turquoise and South Seas pastels; the matchbooks on the bar were also unashamedly sexist.
The tables were topped with mosaic-sized tiles, and beers sat on wet coasters. Ashtrays were to be found in abundance, and were of the geometric, pastel-colored abstract type favored in the fifties. The adults were in shorts and short sleeved sport shirts, smoking, occasionally swearing in gruff voices and laughing at jokes I didn't understand. As often as not they were talking about their war days. Most interesting to me, there were a couple of beer signs used as decoration. The most memorable was the Miller High Life one with bouncing lights. (See links at the end of this article for an image.) There was also a Seagram's 7 display behind the bar that somebody must have intercepted on its way to a liquor store. The significance of the big seven wearing the crown mystified me (Why a seven? Is that how many drinks you have to have?), but I was properly awed by its symbolic power and assumed it was the symbol of an adult's club of some kind.
I was introduced by my parents, patronized by their friends, and offered a glass of Bubble-Up and a seat by the bouncing lights. By the time we left an hour or so later I knew I had been exposed to something wondrous. It was a glamorous, sophisticated, heady collection of sights, sounds and smells, and it caused me to wonder about the world of adults and made me look forward to becoming one myself. Being an only child, I had no fellow observer to help me draw conclusions, but this much I did realize: Becoming an adult and a full member of the patio leisure society was definitely something I wanted to do. What I couldn't have known was that by the time I came of age the rules would be changed, thanks to the Beatles, drugs, Viet Nam and the youth culture in general.
Judith Martin, who writes syndicated columns on etiquette as "Miss Manners," observed that not long ago there was a time in America when society was composed of children and adults, and it was easy to tell which was which. A look at the senior pictures in a high school yearbook, even from the fifties and early sixties, showed boys and girls who, by and large, adopted the dress and grooming manners of their parents. They looked like adults and, generally, acted like adults. In fact, a main reason why I prefer crime dramas from the 40's and 50's - the so-called films noir - is because they seem to be about adults, unlike the dramas concerning people of my own generation.
Then came the Beatles, Viet Nam, drug abuse, free love and with it the Baby Boom rise of the youth culture. "Don't trust anyone over thirty," Abbie Hoffman cautioned. And young people listened. Society accepted, then embraced this new sanction of diminished responsibility, exclusionary music, language and sea change in moral behavior. It was cooler to be young, square to be old - "establishment."
In retrospect, I believe I was cheated. When I was a kid, adult behavior consisted of men and women dancing close to the sounds of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, and practicing sophisticated rites of wooing and seduction. The string arrangements were lush and romantic - Dad played Jackie Gleason and Gordon Jenkins albums that fully defined the style. Then came rock and roll, freedom from parentally-imposed restrictions and the celebration of being young. (In some ways my parents became co-conspirators in the movement: In an effort to make me more representative of my generation, Mom bought me a hot green Nehru jacket that I refused to wear. She also tried talking me into wearing my hair like the Dr. McCoy character in Star Trek, and threatened to take me to a barber with a illustrative photo for guidance. "Don't you want to wear your hair like JFK?" she'd ask. I kept my buzz cut - it was easier to remove playground sand from at the end of the day.)
The pacifism, idealism, altered awareness, Eastern mysticism and the relaxed grooming standards my peers adopted during my teenage years confused me, and by the time disco arrived when I turned eighteen, I was deeply disappointed. Sure, culturally we were becoming dominant, but what we had was empty and nowhere as mysterious and promising as the postwar adult culture I had observed when I was younger. Driving was nice, of course, and signing my own cut slips from class was a liberation of sorts, but what happened to the mystique of being an adult? Where were all the other members? What's more, opposition to the war in Viet Nam puzzled me. Wasn't this part of the admission to the club I had been exposed to as a child? How on earth could one talk about their war days, as my parents' friends had, if there weren't any war days?
So, an only child and the result of a late marriage between my mother and father (Dad was 43 when I was born, Mom was 34), I now describe myself as being more of my parents' G.I. Generation rather than the Baby Boomer I am chronologically. When, during the 1968 elections, Ronald Reagan described the anti-war protestors as looking like Tarzan and smelling like Cheetah, I agreed with him. And while I initially accepted the post-Watergate political rhetoric about the need for change and voted for Carter (I believed the media's demonization of Nixon), the choice between Bush and Clinton was easy for me to make: I understood and trusted the World War II generation, especially war heroes, and distrusted my own. A more recent choice between Dole and Clinton was equally instinctive to me.
I certainly admire my parents' generation more than my own; after all, they fought and won the war against Hitler, put a man on the moon and faced down and prevailed over Communist Russia. The society they built is the greatest in history, I think, and while my own generation has had its successes (easy global communications and a war on forms of ignorance like racism), we have not and probably will never be able to duplicate the simple mystery and promise I observed about coming of age during my very first patio experience.
Wes Clark Sr. drinks Ruppert Beer - (Actually, Dad favored Hamms.) My dad once dated a woman who was a photographer. She took this for an ad for Ruppert Beer - I never heard of it. I think this photo was shot in the early to mid 50's. The can is not quite facing the viewer, but the pose and the subject couldn't be better, in my mind. This is what an Adult's Club beer drinker looks like! Wanna hear a tale about World War II? No problem.
In the Sixties, animated beer signs formed an integral part of the adult environment. My family always had a bunch, and we used them for decor in the patio and in the pool hall. When we bought the Lincoln Cafe in 1974 and got a beer and wine license, we had access to many more from the distributors.
The Miller Bouncing Lights - From the early Sixties, and my personal favorite. Green, yellow, red and blue points of light move across a black background in a never-ending progression of arcs of varying height. The thing mesmerized me. I could have watched for hours.
Coors sign - Nothing fancy about this one.
Another Coors sign - Nothing fancy about this one, either.
Coors waterfall sign - A garage-turned-pool hall sign and one of my favorites.
Blatz animated sign - I don't remember where we got this one, but it, too, was in our pool hall.
Hamm's sign - At 51", a monster. From the Land of Sky Blue Waters, of course. It lit up the patio like a football stadium.
Animated Hamm's sign - It's night, and we're sitting on the porch of our lakeside ranch home. The lake is sky blue and placid, and the pines sway gently in the breeze. Wait a minute. Look at the stars - are they forming themselves into... beer glasses? And now "Hamm's?" Say... what was in that trout we fried up?
We didn't own this sign, but I used to see it in liquor stores and wished we did. Hamm's really outdid themselves in advertising in the Sixties. (By the way, there was a freakier variation of this sign with a big, thirsty moon rising over the lake.)
NOTE ABOUT THE HAMM'S SIGNS: I got an interesting e-mail from Jack Hartung, from Minnesota: "You ask, 'I wonder where you would go to see a view like that?' I was there last week! Northwoods legend claims those Hamm's photos were shot at the Arcadia resort on the north end of Turtle Lake (located in northern Itasca County, MN). The view is seen in many of the Hamm's commercials (two islands with the small cabin hidden in the pines). A great area and beautiful scenes."
ADDITIONAL NOTE from Ken Nordlie of Bloomington, Minnesota: "Found your very entertaining and interesting site on a Google search for Hamms Beer Commercial info. I was at a ol' buddy's cabin just three or four doors down from Arcadia Resort on Turtle Lake in northern Minnesota and I can verify that the "Land of Sky Blue Waters" commercials were indeed taken from the point at Arcadia Lodge - a well known spot in the 50s. I'll send along a picture if I can convince my friend to take one on his next trip there. My golf buddy owns Alf Landon's (ever hear that name?) old cabin, and local legend says that Carol Lombard and Clark Gable used to spend time at Arcadia Resort."
Hamm's sign (variation) - Whoa! There are those glasses floating in the sky again... (We didn't own this one, either, but now I'm on a roll.)
Ed McMahon Budweiser ad - I used to have a cardboard stand-up Ed McMahon counter display in my bedroom. As I recall he was balancing a can of Bud on his pointing finger, which used to slowly revolve via a motor and D-cell. This image gives you an idea of what the Big Guy looked like. c. 1968. Thinking about it, Ed (a Marine flyer) is a guy I would have wanted to listen to in the Adult's Club. Even better - he brings a pair of six-packs!
Budweiser shield sign - Another bit of decor for the pool hall.
Budweiser Clydesdale horse sign - Also in our pool hall.
Budweiser Clydesdale team horse sign - A team of horses for my desk.
Falstaff beer sign - It made creaking sounds as it rotated. That pool hall was cluttered with signs...
My thanks to Greg Knight for coining the phrase "Patio Culture" and thus inspiring me to write this little essay.