By: Vince Farinaccio
On August 6, 1961, Vineland received a telegram of congratulations from President Kennedy.
In 1961, Vineland’s male residents were preoccupied with growing beards for the city’s centennial, young women vied for the prestigious role of Centennial Queen and everyone had a hand in either helping to organize or participating in the events celebrating Vineland’s 100th year. It was a special occasion for the town, but for the rest of the nation it was business as usual.
On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the country’s 35th president. In March, the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution granted Washington, DC residents the right to vote in presidential elections.
By April 27, three months before Vineland’s celebration began in full, Kennedy’s administration directly confronted the Cold War with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in a CIA attempt to overthrow that country’s leader, Fidel Castro. Within two days, the plan had failed. On August 6, Vineland mayor Albert Giampietro received a Western Union telegram from President Kennedy congratulating the city on its 100th birthday.
In this era prior to the Super Bowl, the American Football League championship team was the Houston Oilers in a 10-3 victory over the San Diego Chargers, while the Green Bay Packers took the National Football League crown by winning 37-0 over the New York Giants.
In Major League Baseball, the season’s schedule expanded from 154 to 162 games. During Vineland’s summer of festivities, the New York Yankee’s Roger Maris was on his way to hitting 61 home runs to establish a record for the newly expanded season. ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports debuted on April 29, 1961. The Boston Celtics defeated the St. Louis Hawks four games to one to win the National Basketball Association Championship.
The July 7 official launch of Vineland’s centennial festivities welcomed 2,000 residents who turned out for the burial of Mr. Ray-Zor, a symbolic gesture to the men of the town to lay aside their shaving tools and sport the beards fashionable back in 1861. Five days earlier, Nobel Prize-winning American author Ernest Hemingway had died.
Vineland’s centennial celebration concluded September 4 with 12,000 to 15,000 people participating in a chicken barbecue, a baby parade, beard contests, and an appearance by Philadelphia TV personality Sally Starr, whose Popeye Theatre was a local favorite. Over the next several months, additions to the weekly television lineup would include the game show Password, the animated series Top Cat, the sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, the reality TV forerunner Candid Camera and a talk show with host Mike Douglas that originated in Cleveland and would move to Philadelphia in four years.
Throughout 1961, when Vineland residents weren’t celebrating the town’s centennial, movies offered another entertainment option. That year, the top-grossing films released included West Side Story, Splendor in the Grass, and three Disney offerings—The Absent-Minded Professor, The Parent Trap and 101 Dalmatians.
Also released that year was The Misfits, which featured Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in their final screen roles, and the film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, with a tour-de-force performance by Sidney Poitier.
Of local interest is the movie Too Late Blues, which had its premiere in France in November 1961 and would reach U.S. theaters the following year. But before that, its director/co-writer John Cassavetes would arrive in Vineland in October 1961 to scout the town and the Vineland Training School as locations for his next film, A Child is Waiting. Cassavetes would eventually select a California facility for the movie and within a few years be proclaimed a leading innovator in independent film.
The soundtrack to Vineland’s centennial year offered an array of what are now considered classic recordings. Elvis Presley released “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Patsy Cline provided “I Fall to Pieces” and the Willie Nelson composition “Crazy,” Ricky Nelson hit the charts with “Hello Mary Lou” and “Travelin’ Man,” and Ray Charles offered “Hit the Road Jack.” The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’” brought a bit of California to the East Coast, Dion’s “Runaround Sue” and Del Shannon’s “Runaway” were variations on a theme and the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” would soon capture the attention of an unknown British musical group called the Beatles.