OF the many notable Americans we lost in 2010, three leap out as paragons of a certain optimistic American spirit that we also seemed to lose this year. Two you know: Theodore Sorensen, the speechwriter present at the creation of J.F.K.’s clarion call to “ask what you can do for your country,” and Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat who brought peace to the killing fields of Bosnia in the 1990s. Holbrooke, who was my friend, came of age in the Kennedy years and exemplified its can-do idealism. He gave his life to the proposition that there was nothing an American couldn’t accomplish if he marshaled his energy and talents. His premature death — while heroically bearing the crushing burdens of Afghanistan and Pakistan — is tragic in more ways than many Americans yet realize.
But a third representative American optimist who died this year, at age 91, is a Connecticut man who was not a player in great events and whom I’d never heard of until I read his Times obituary: Robbins Barstow, an amateur filmmaker who for decades recorded his family’s doings in home movies of such novelty and quality that one of them, the 30-minute “Disneyland Dream,” was admitted to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress two years ago. That rare honor elevates Barstow’s filmmaking to a pantheon otherwise restricted mostly to Hollywood classics, from “Citizen Kane” to “Star Wars.”
“Disneyland Dream” was made in the summer of 1956, shortly before the dawn of the Kennedy era. You can watch it on line at archive.org or on YouTube. Its narrative is simple. The young Barstow family of Wethersfield, Conn. — Robbins; his wife, Meg; and their three children aged 4 to 11 — enter a nationwide contest to win a free trip to Disneyland, then just a year old. The contest was sponsored by 3M, which asked contestants to submit imaginative encomiums to the wonders of its signature product. Danny, the 4-year-old, comes up with the winning testimonial, emblazoned on poster board: “I like ‘Scotch’ brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it.”
Soon enough, the entire neighborhood is cheering the Barstows as they embark on their first visit to the golden land of Anaheim, Calif. As narrated by Robbins Barstow (he added his voiceover soundtrack to the silent Kodachrome film in 1995), every aspect of this pilgrimage is a joy, from the “giant TWA Super Constellation” propeller plane (seating 64) that crosses the country in a single day (with a refueling stop in St. Louis) to the home-made Davy Crockett jackets the family wears en route.
To watch “Disneyland Dream” now as a boomer inevitably sets off pangs of longing for a vanished childhood fantasyland: not just Walt Disney’s then-novel theme park but all the sunny idylls of 1950s pop culture. As it happens, Disney’s Davy Crockett, the actor Fess Parker, also died this year. So did Barbara Billingsley, matriarch of the sitcom “Leave It to Beaver,” whose fictional family, the Cleavers, first appeared in 1957 and could have lived next door to the Barstows. But the real power of this film is more subtle and pertinent than nostalgia.
When the Barstows finally arrive at the gates of Disneyland itself and enter its replica of Main Street, U.S.A. — “reconstructed as it might have been half a century earlier,” as the narration says — we realize that the America of “Disneyland Dream” is as many years distant from us as that picture-postcard Main Street was from this Connecticut family. The almost laughably low-tech primitivism of the original Disneyland, the futuristic Tomorrowland included, looks as antique in 2010 as Main Street’s horse-drawn buggies and penny-candy emporium looked to the Barstows.
Many of America’s more sweeping changes since 1956 are for the better. You can’t spot a nonwhite face among the family’s neighbors back home or at Disneyland. Indeed, according to Neal Gabler’s epic biography of Disney, civil rights activists were still pressuring the park to hire black employees as late as 1963, the same year that Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington and Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” started upending the Wonder Bread homogeneity that suffuses the America of “Disneyland Dream.”
But, for all those inequities, economic equality seemed within reach in 1956, at least for the vast middle class. (Michael Harrington’s exposé of American poverty, “The Other America,” would not rock this complacency until 1962.) The sense that the American promise of social and economic mobility was attainable to anyone who sought it permeates “Disneyland Dream” from start to finish.
The Barstows exemplified that postwar middle class. Robbins Barstow’s day job was as a director of professional development for a state teachers’ union. His family wanted for nothing, but finances were tight. Once in California they cheerfully stretch their limited expense money ($300 for the week) by favoring picnics over restaurants. As they dive into the pool at the old Huntington Sheraton, the grand Pasadena hotel where they’re bivouacked, they marvel at its reminders of “bygone days of more leisurely and gentle upper-class style and elegance.”
The key word in that sentence is “bygone.” The Barstows accept as a birthright an egalitarian American capitalism where everyone has a crack at “upper class” luxury if they strive for it (or are clever enough to win it). It’s an America where great corporations like 3M can be counted upon to make innovative products, sustain an American work force, and reward their customers with a Cracker Jack prize now and then. The Barstows are delighted to discover that the restrooms in Fantasyland are marked “Prince” and “Princess.” In America, anyone can be royalty, even in the john.
“Disneyland Dream” is an irony-free zone. “For our particular family at that particular time, we agreed with Walt Disney that this was the happiest place on earth,” Barstow concludes at the film’s end, from his vantage point of 1995. He sees himself as part of “one of the most fortunate families in the world to have this marvelous dream actually come true” and is “forever grateful to Scotch brand cellophane tape for making all this possible for us.”
Only 15 months after the Barstows returned home, America’s faith in its own unbounded future, so palpable in “Disneyland Dream,” would be shaken by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite. Could it be that America, for all its might, entrepreneurship and brainpower, was falling behind its cold war antagonist in the race to the future? It was in that shadow that John F. Kennedy promised a New Frontier that would reclaim America’s heroic destiny, and do so with shared sacrifice and a renewed commitment to the lower-case democratic values central to both the American and Disneyland dreams of families like the Barstows.
This month our own neo-Kennedy president — handed the torch by J.F.K.’s last brother and soon to face the first Congress without a Kennedy since 1947 — identified a new “Sputnik moment” for America. This time the jolt was provided by the mediocre performance of American high school students, who underperformed not just the Chinese but dozens of other countries in standardized tests of science, math and reading. In his speech on the subject, President Obama called for more spending on research and infrastructure, more educational reform and more clean energy technology. (All while reducing the deficit, mind you.) Worthy goals, but if you watch “Disneyland Dream,” you realize something more fundamental is missing from America now: the bedrock faith in the American way that J.F.K. could tap into during his era’s Sputnik moment.
How many middle-class Americans now believe that the sky is the limit if they work hard enough? How many trust capitalism to give them a fair shake? Middle-class income started to flatten in the 1970s and has stagnated ever since. While 3M has continued to prosper, many other companies that actually make things (and at times innovative things) have been devalued, looted or destroyed by a financial industry whose biggest innovation in 20 years, in the verdict of the former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, has been the cash machine.
It’s a measure of how rapidly our economic order has shifted that nearly a quarter of the 400 wealthiest people in America on this year’s Forbes list make their fortunes from financial services, more than three times as many as in the first Forbes 400 in 1982. Many of America’s best young minds now invent derivatives, not Disneylands, because that’s where the action has been, and still is, two years after the crash. In 2010, our system incentivizes high-stakes gambling — “this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place,” as Calvin Trillin memorably wrote last year — rather than the rebooting and rebuilding of America.
In last week’s exultant preholiday press conference, Obama called for a “thriving, booming middle class, where everybody’s got a shot at the American dream.” But it will take much more than rhetorical Scotch tape to bring that back. The Barstows of 1956 could not have fathomed the outrageous gap between this country’s upper class and the rest of us. America can’t move forward until we once again believe, as they did, that everyone can enter Frontierland if they try hard enough, and that no one will be denied a dream because a private party has rented out Tomorrowland.