Nostalgia for the iconic summer of 1969 has gripped the entertainment industry in recent months. Events such as the first moon landing, the Woodstock music festival, and the killing spree by devotees of Charles Manson brought momentous highs and lows, and still captivate Americans 50 years later.
Recent efforts by entertainers to capture the intensity of the era include a TV series (Mindhunters) and a new Quentin Tarantino movie (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) about the Manson murders, a failed plan to host a three-day music festival called Woodstock 50, and the upcoming release of a remastered version of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, which came out as the summer waned in September. The period is often remembered for its political unrest, racial tensions, and the Vietnam War, but not everyone was focused on social turmoil that year.
“There was a dispute going on in the culture,” author Larry Eskridge told me. “[But] some of the most popular content was very safe, very vanilla.”
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as lovable outlaws, became the year’s top grossing film. The movie challenged traditional Western and frontier narratives of the past, depicting atypical cowboys who at times sought love, peace, and a second chance.
Other pop culture events delivered much-needed cheer that year, too. Television shows The Brady Bunch and Sesame Street debuted. So did Eric Carle’s famous children’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Elvis Presley’s 10th album, From Elvis to Memphis, which led to his onstage comeback at the Las Vegas International Hotel after an eight-year hiatus. And as the summer moved into fall, New York’s “Miracle Mets” overcame seven years of futility, aided by a late-season collapse by the Chicago Cubs, to win the World Series.
Meanwhile, the Jesus Movement, a counter to the hippie and drug countercultures, was gaining significant momentum by 1969. Coffeehouses, churches, and other outposts sprouted up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and throughout the Pacific Northwest, offering beleaguered hippies a safe haven, free food, communal homes, and the gospel message.
“It was a true seeker moment,” said Eskridge, who wrote God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (Oxford University Press, 2013). “It was filled with disillusionment and a sense that things were unraveling … but that spiritual unrest sent many young people searching.”