1965 blackout a part of 1960s pop culture

Event became a subject of TV, movie and song

Posted on Oct 30 2015 in Features

Of all the decades of the 20th century, arguably the 1960s made the greatest contribution to the “popular culture.” That was the decade that gave us such popular pop culture phenoms as the space program; the Beatles; the Super Bowl; “Star Trek” and so on. Here are some pop culture references to Northeast Blackout of 1965:

  • “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?” Released in 1968, this comedy starred Doris Day (in her second movieto last film appearance), Patrick O’Neal and Robert Morse.
    The storyline: Day plays a successful actress. When the blackout cancels her Broadway play for the night, she returns home unexpectedly and discovers her husband, O’Neal, being overly attentive to an attractive female reporter. Infuriated, Day heads to the couple’s weekend house in Connecticut and takes a concoction to fall asleep.
    Meanwhile, Morse, a corporate embezzler fleeing New York with an attaché case full of money, develops car trouble near Day’s weekend house. He lets himself in and unwittingly takes some of the elixir himself, falling into a deep sleep beside her — which sets the stage for the rest of the movie. (Watch the opening on YouTube.)
  • The film’s title tune was sung by The Lettermen. (Hear the song on YouTube.)
  • Folk singer Tom Paxton also wrote a song by the same title about the blackout and performed it days later on the first episode of Pete Seeger’s local New York channel low-budget music show, “Rainbow Quest”. (Watch the show on YouTube; Paxton’s song starts at 26:10 into the show.)
  • In 1968, the British brother band the Bee Gees released the song “Massachusetts,” which uses the blackout as the focal point of a love story. (Watch a performance on YouTube.)acres3
  • At the end of an episode of the TV comedy ”Green Acres,” “Double Drick” (CBS, March 23, 1966), the blackout is theorized to have been caused when Mr. Douglas plugged an extension cord into his only electrical outlet that the inept local gas and electric utility (definitely not an electric co-op) had just installed atop the new pole outside his bedroom window … next to his more famous telephone pole.
  • In an episode of the TV comedy “Bewitched,” “The Short Happy Circuit of Aunt Clara” (ABC, Nov. 10, 1966), the blackout is caused when doddering Aunt Clara casts a carelessly-worded spell while trying to move a piano.
  • ufoWhen no cause for the blackout was immediately apparent, several writers and publications postulated that the blackout was caused by UFOs. This may have been partially inspired by sightings of UFOs near Syracuse and upstate New York prior to the blackout.
  • An urban legend arose in the wake of the blackout, claiming that a peak in the birthrate of the blacked-out areas of New York City was observed nine months after the incident. The myth originated in a series of three articles published in The New York Times in August 1966. The story was debunked in 1970 by a demographer from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who did a careful statistical study that found no increase in births in the affected areas.


Blackout almost had its own ‘goat’

While the cause of the 1965 blackout was still being investigated, many theories for the cause and who was to blame were tossed out. And just as Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, which allegedly kicked over a lantern while being milked, was blamed for starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the 1965 blackout almost had its own scapegoat … or scapecow …or … scapekid.

The New York Times reported at the time that in Conway, New Hampshire, an 11-year-old boy named Jay Hounsell was walking along a road on his way home to supper at dusk that Nov. 9. To pass the time, he picked up a stick and whacked the utility poles he passed.

Only, right as he whacked one, the street light on the pole went out. And then, the lights all over town went out. Terrified with guilt, he ran the rest of the way home.

“His eyes were sticking right out,” his mother recalled later. “I wasn’t sure he hadn’t done something, but I told him it didn’t seem possible that a whack on a pole could put out the whole gizmo.”

Unlike Mrs. O’Leary and her cow, who were only fully exonerated for causing the Chicago fire 100 years later by a historian, Jay and his stick were pretty much let off the hook right away for whacking out the “gizmo” and plunging 30 million people into darkness.

Read the November 2015 Featured Story: LIGHTS OUT!