Sometimes it’s hard out there for a teen idol. When you’re hot, you’re scorching, but few artists seem to fall as fast (or as hard) as they do. Now, I’ve always been one of “poppier” tastes, so I’ve followed plenty of teen idols through the decades, going all the way back to a rather surprising New Kids on the Block phase in the 1990s.
While certain teen idols see their fair share of derision, scoffs and even eye-rolls, they’re also responsible for some delightfully entertaining moments throughout popular culture history. They’re fun, light and often give the at least a snapshot to what was popular with the masses during their respective eras.
So, without further delay, here’s my Top 20 Delightful Teen Idol Moments in Pop Culture.
20.) Rudy Vallee from The Vagabound Lover (1929)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t start with one of the earliest teen idols of the modern era. Many remember Rudy Vallée from his work beginning in the 1940s, with movies like The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and even later in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
However, Vallée first came to prominence during the 1920s as a musician and crooner, bolstered no doubt by the cultural explosion of radio. Before long though, the romantic Vallée found himself appearing on movie screens and becoming a regular fixture on the radio, all the while being chased by a bevy of flappers.
The Vagabound Lover is available here.
19.) Johnny Crawford on The Rifleman (1963)
This is probably one of the deeper cuts to grace this list. Johnny Crawford began working at a preciously young age, and is known as one of the original Mouseketeers. While he was let go after the first season, it didn’t take long for him to bounce back. He joined the cast of The Rifleman in 1958.
By the western’s cancellation in 1963, Crawford found himself one of the many teen stars of the era to be funneled into a music career (thanks to Ricky Nelson, more on this later). Crawford released a number of singles throughout the 1960s, peaking at number 8 with “Cindy’s Birthday”. He was still working in music deep into his career, helming with The Johnny Crawford Orchestra, specializing in big band era dance hits.
The Rifleman is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
18.) Buddy Holly and The Crickets on The Arthur Murray Dance Party (1957)
I love this clip. I mean yes, Buddy Holly was adorable and his music is infinitely enjoyable. He made such a mark on popular culture even though we lost him far too young.
This clips shows what is quite literally a cultural fork in the road. The Arthur Murray Dance Party aired on television throughout the 1950s and was hosted by popular dancer Arthur Murray. From the opening it’s clear that the show has no idea how to classify rock and roll… like contemporary The Lawrence Welk Show, this wasn’t really their demographic. And at the same time, the changes in the music industry had only really began in force two years earlier. The clip’s introduction is humorously ill-at-ease and even the audience behind The Crickets don’t seem quite sure how to react. It’s almost reminiscent of this iconic moment from Back to the Future:
17.) Patty Duke (and Jimmy Dean) on The Jimmy Dean Show (1963)
This clip started with one intention, working Patty Duke onto this list. The young actress took Hollywood by storm when the sixteen year old took home the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her work on The Miracle Worker (1962). Before too long, Duke had her own primetime situation comedy, The Patty Duke Show, and was maneuvered into a singing career, like so many of the others on this list.
Ultimately, this number from (reportedly) The Jimmy Dean Show came out on top. I can’t lie! It’s too cute! Perhaps it’s because I am a Guys and Dolls fan. At the same time though, I am on a personal quest to remind the kids out there that Jimmy Dean is more than simply the breakfast sausage guy.
16.) Lesley Gore in Ski Party (1965)
I waxed poetic on my feelings for Lesley Gore in my list on women’s fashion last month. The early sixties teen idol, best known for iconic songs like “It’s My Party” and “You Don’t Own Me” is a queen among mortals.
This clip comes from the 1965 teen film Ski Party, a later entry in the popular Beach Party franchise. The movie stars franchise regular Frankie Avalon, as well as semi-regulars Deborah Walley, Dwayne Hickman and the always delightful Yvonne Craig.
You can pick up Ski Party, here.
15.) Donna Loren in Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)
I’m sticking with the Beach Party theme in this next spot with my personal favorite of singer Donna Loren’s many appearances throughout the franchise. This clip comes from Beach Blanket Bingo. Coming in 1965, the movie is an absolute delight, and stands as one of the last works in the series to remain faithful to the early formula (Frankie and Annette dancing around on the beach).
Donna Loren appears frequently in a number of fun music numbers. She was a pop culture staple during this period, working regularly, as not only a recording artist, but also in films, on television, and even in advertising– she was the Dr. Pepper Girl!
Donna Loren remains active in the industry. Check out her podcast, here.
14.) Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)
Okay, one more Beach Blanket Bingo stop on this list. While this wasn’t my first Beach Party movie (Pajama Party holds that distinction), this was the first Frankie and Annette installment I watched, and I fell in love with it immediately. This clip features franchise stars (and teen idols extraordinaires) Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello at their iconic and bubble gummy best.
Frankie and Annette are synonymous with pre-Beatlemania American culture, and rightly so. She made her name in the Disney organization beginning in 1955 when she joined the cast of The Mickey Mouse Club. While Avalon began as a recording artist, and is best known for songs like “Venus”, “Bobby Sox to Stockings” and “DeDe Dinah”. Meanwhile, others might know him from this appearance in the 1970s musical Grease in the “Beauty School Dropout” number.
Check out Beach Blanket Bingo, here.
13.) Frank Sinatra (and Betty Garrett) in On the Town (1949)
It would be wrong if I didn’t take a little time to spotlight another of the pre-eminent teen idols, Frank Sinatra. His work in the swooney big band era of the 1940s earned the fabulously blue-eyed singer a place in the hearts of many a war weary radio listener. It didn’t take long for him to hit the entertainment industry with a vengeance, where he quickly became a legend. Before long, the young crooner would evolve into “Old Blue Eyes”, the founder of the Rat Pack and later “The Chairman of the Board”. He remained a fixture in United States popular culture right up until his death in 1998.
It was actually Sinatra’s passing that opened my eyes to the full and amazing scope of popular culture before 1964 (I spent most of elementary school hardcore into The Beatles). However, the tributes and retrospectives that followed his death struck a chord with me and I fell hard. In fact, On the Town was the first of Sinatra’s many movies that I watched, and it is still one of my favorites.
Check out On the Town, here.
12.) Pat Boone (and Ann-Margret) in State Fair (1962)
The 1962 remake of State Fair is a movie which gets a surprising amount of hate (which I’ve never really understood). The film features an all-star cast, including Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, Pamela Tiffin, Bobby Darin, Alice Faye and Tom Ewell. As an Ann-Margret and Bobby Darin fan in particular, I might have actually watched this movie before the much-loved 1945 version.
Pat Boone has become a bit of a tricky figure when viewed through a contemporary lens. However, Boone was of the crooners (similar to Frankie Avalon above) to establish himself as a legend of the pre-Beatlemania era with hits like “Love Letters in the Sand”, “April Love” and “Moody River”.
Boone appears in this clip opposite Ann-Margret in a moment that is positively dripping with a surprisingly sultry vibe you don’t expect in an early 1960s musical (or from Boone, for that matter). When thinking about the loss of cultural innocence happening between the 1950s and 1960s, this is a clear visualization of what was starting to happen. Just what is the mid-sixties sex-kitten doing to the one of the only 1950s crooners you could bring home to mom?
11.) Tab Hunter on The Perry Como Show (1957)
I have so much love for this adorable little clip from the Perry Como Show. We didn’t deserve Tab Hunter. The young actor found himself with a monster hit when he released “Young Love” in 1957.
Now, this variety show segment isn’t the most flattering for Hunter vocally. At the same time, he looks at best uncomfortable, and at worst terrified. However, it’s easy to see the source of his appeal here. There is such a bashful earnestness in this performance that is immediately endearing. You just want to hug himI And paste his picture on your bedroom wall!
It’s difficult to get a real picture of Tab Hunter from this clip, or even from a watch of the early part of his filmography. I recommend anyone with an interest in the actor– heck, an interest in classic Hollywood, to check out Tab Hunter Confidential (2015). The documentary brings such layered story-telling and allows Hunter to be beautifully himself. It’s human and poignant, but by the end of it, it becomes clear just how resilient he truly was.
Check out Tab Hunter Confidential here.
10.) Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas (1964)
If it hasn’t become clear, I’m trying to make sure I hit all the foundational teen idols on this list… and here’s another one! Elvis was… Elvis. I’m not honestly sure if there’s a better way to say it. The man was an icon, a legend and at this point in his career, an institution.
Viva Las Vegas is the first Elvis Presley movie I had the pleasure of watching… probably at too young an age to understand what was really going on. In the Pierce household, we always watched this delightful little movie before every trip to Las Vegas (and there were quite a few). This number shows Presley at his mid-career best. He was slowly evolving past the rock and roller the United States came to love in the 1950s to become the figure we see in the iconic concert specials of the late 1960s. However, despite all this, it’s easy to see just why he was… and remains… so popular the world over.
Check out Viva Las Vegas here.
9.) Edward Brynes (and Connie Stevens) on American Bandstand (1959)
Okay, some of you are rolling your eyes, and I can understand that. However, I’m going to say it… sorry, I’m not sorry. “Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)” was a 1950s novelty tune at its most delightful. Don’t try to wrap your head around it, just embrace it.
Edward Byrnes (who many should recognize as Vince Fontaine from Grease) recorded this with actress Connie Stevens in 1959, during the peak of his popularity thanks to the detective series 77 Sunset Strip. He played a car valet named Kookie…. hence the name. The lyrics, the tone and the mannerisms depicted here are all straight from 77 Sunset Strip.
Meanwhile, Connie Stevens was a relatively new face in the industry, having broken out only two years earlier. However, 1959 was also a hallmark year for her as that was when she joined the cast of the television series Hawaiian Eye.
8.) Ricky Nelson on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1961)
I don’t think it’s too terribly hard to argue that Ricky Nelson is one of the most prominent figures in not only music during the early 1960s, but also the television industry. While still a teenager himself, his skill and talent really changed the pop culture landscape as we know it.
Nelson grew up in front of the American public, making his screen debut in 1952 at the age of twelve. However, as time passed and Ricky aged, producers found a use for him as he grew into his acting skills and developed as a singer. By the early 1960s, Nelson found his voice with a number of hits, all of which he sang on the small screen thanks to his regular role on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Even more telling, in the years before Beatlemania swept the country, almost every television show featuring a teenage character made sure to have these poor performers sing (a few are on this list)… all because of Ricky Nelson.
7.) Connie Francis in Where the Boys Are (1960)
Where the Boys Are is another movie which I don’t believe gets anywhere close to the love it deserves. Not only did the 1960 beach film come three years before Frankie and Annette hit the sand, it did something the industry still struggles with today, it lets women control the narrative. The movie stars Dolores Hart, Connie Francis, Yvette Mimieux and Paula Prentiss, as four college coeds who travel to Ft. Lauderdale for spring break to experience life, love, and boys.
Singer Connie Francis made her narrative, feature film debut in the picture (she’d appeared in earlier movies as herself in singing roles). She emerged as a recording artist in the middle of the 1950s, her popularity gaining speed towards the end of the decade thanks to hits like “Who’s Sorry Now”, “Stupid Cupid”, “Lipstick on Your Collar”, and “Where the Boys Are”.
Check out Where the Boys Are, here.
6.) Shelley Fabares on The Donna Reed Show (1962)
We’ve seen plenty of times on this list how the early 1960s teenagers were all finding an excuse to burst into song. The adorableness of this era knows no bounds. And here’s another!
Shelley Fabares was a staple on television and in feature films throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She acted opposite everyone from Elvis to Tab Hunter, and even Peter Noone. However, before all that she appeared on The Donna Reed Show as eldest daughter Mary Stone. “Johnny Angel” initially appears in a season four episode of the show, before later hitting radio stations and topping the charts.
Fabares continued working deep into the 2000s and is best known to younger audiences thanks to her work on the 1990s sitcom Coach and even through voice work on a number of DC cartoons.
Seasons of The Donna Reed Show are currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
5.) The Monkees in Every Episode of The Monkees (1966)
This isn’t the only appearance of one of these boys on this list! It’s virtually impossible to pick one moment from the iconic, mid-sixties television series The Monkees. It’s all amazing.
The Monkees took shape in the wake of the “Fab Four” with producers hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the groundswell in the wake of the British Invasion. However, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, Davy Jones and Michael Nesmith quickly found their footing, and established themselves as more than actors playing musicians on a sitcom. In fact, The Monkees are more than teen idols. They’re talented musicians, charismatic performers, and they’re a heck of a lot of fun.
4.) The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Okay, these guys had to make the list, of course. The Beatles are iconic not only for culture, but for me. The Beatles Anthology (1995) aired on television when I was in third grade and it completely changed my life. I “fangirled” hard and there there was no looking back. Paul McCartney… *swoon*.
As soon as The Beatles hit it big in 1964, they found themselves on television, radio, and on the big screen. A Hard Day’s Night is probably their best cinematic effort — and captures the group at their most natural. However, Help! quickly followed in 1965 and then the quirky Magical Mystery Tour in 1967. There’s lots to love in the group’s groundbreaking work. If you’re a fan of this era of entertainment and haven’t checked out The Beatles’ movies, make sure to do that.
A Hard Day’s Night is available here.
3.) Eddie Cochran on The Girl Can’t Help It (1956)
Eddie Cochran is a singer who I want to yell about from the rafters. The rock and roll performer hit fast and hard in the post Elvis Presley era with hits like “Summer Time Blues”. However, we lost out on the opportunity to see just where the talented youngster was going when he was killed in a 1960 car crash at the age of 21.
This clip comes from the legendary musical The Girl Can’t Help It which stars the iconic Jayne Mansfield and features some of the earliest (and best) examples of rock and roll on the big screen thanks to performances from legends like Cochran, Gene Vincent, Little Richard and Fats Domino.
The Girl Can’t Help It is available here.
2.) Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo (1959)
As I mentioned above, Ricky Nelson is pretty much the ultimate pre-Beatlemania teen idol in the United States. Despite his young age, his talent saw the television industry rushing to keep up with the standard he set. I’ve been rehashing this point throughout this list. Let’s just agree that Ricky Nelson was a force.
If there’s one place where “teen idols” can struggle, it’s moving from mediums like recording or television into feature films. Ricky Nelson managed this too! Rio Bravo hit theaters in 1959 and starred Nelson alongside a legendary cast made up of names like John Wayne, Dean Martin and Walter Brennan. In fact, the Howard Hawks directed western is still remembered today as one of the greatest of the genre.
Rio Bravo is available here.
1.) Davy Jones on The Brady Bunch (1971)
I had to refer to one of my pivotal moments in teen idol culture for this number one spot. In fact, it was so adorable that it came back almost twenty-five years later. In 1971, the absolutely delightful Davy Jones guest-starred in The Brady Bunch (S3E12) in a fondly remembered arc with eldest daughter Marcia. It’s the stuff of Brady Bunch legend, even today.
In 1995 when The Brady Bunch Movie hit theaters, filmmaker Betty Thomas chose to bring back Davy Jones and pay homage to the popular moment from the series. This is where 9 year old me had my eyes opened to Davy Jones (sigh!). I barely knew The Monkees at this point; though, this would be remedied two years later when the band got back together for a TV special and reunion tour. I saw both! That being said, it was The Brady Bunch Movie that started me down that path, making these scenes with Davy Jones my number one moment.
The Brady Bunch Movie is available here. Meanwhile The Brady Bunch is currently streaming on CBS All Access.
Well, that brings the list to a close! However, when considering the history of music, particularly in the middle of the twentieth century, this is hardly conclusive. There have been so many fun and popular acts, and with the ever increasing crossing of mediums, the number of “teen idols” has only seemed to grow. This isn’t even touching on the the 1970s idols… they could fill an entire list themselves.
What are your favorite teen idol moments in popular culture? Shout them out in the comments.
Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!