It’s a new year. And as we look forward, we also look back.
Anniversaries — what happened 10, 20, 30, 100 years ago — are a good way to gauge where we are now, and where we’ve been. Hard to believe there was ever a time when Star Wars, Sgt. Pepper, Harry Potter or jazz were new. But they were. And not so long ago, either.
Here are 17 pop culture icons having big birthdays in 2017.
Recorded jazz, March 7, 1917: “Livery Stable Blues,” released by the Original Dixieland Jass [sic] Band, doesn’t get high marks from most jazz historians. But it was the first disc to be issued as a “jazz” record, and it was a huge hit, paving the way for others. Later that same year, Wilbur Sweatman’s band became the first African-American musicians to record jazz.
Movies with sound, Oct. 6, 1927: The Jazz Singer was not really the first “talkie” (sound movies had been attempted as early as the 1890s), but it was the film that launched “the talkie revolution.” Once it hit big, silent movies were history.
Spam, July 5, 1937: It’s the mystery meat that’s fun to eat. People developed a taste for this tinned foodstuff during World War II, when other kinds of nourishment were unavailable, and many love it to this day. And as Monty Python discovered, it’s as much fun to say as it is to eat. “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam …” More recently, we’ve discovered it’s less fun when served online.
Hobbits, Sept. 21, 1937: J.R.R. Tolkien published his children’s book The Hobbit 80 years ago, giving readers their first glimpse of Middle Earth. There would be more to come.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dec. 21, 1937: The same year as The Hobbit, a different breed of little people heigh-ho’d their way into moviegoers’ hearts. “Snow White” was the first feature-length animated film; it was a game-changer for Disney, and for Hollywood.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Sept. 18, 1937: This coming-of-age novel by Zora Neale Hurston was ignored by the mainstream press at the time, and patronized by many of Hurston’s fellow — male — Harlem Renaissance writers. Forty years later, it became the cornerstone of a new black literary movement, as women novelists from Alice Walker to Toni Morrison sang its praises.
Casablanca, Nov. 26, 1942: Here’s looking at you, kid. Hollywood’s most beloved love story is still worth toasting, three-quarters of a century later.
“Good Rocking Tonight,” June, 1947: There will always be arguments about what was the “first” rock ‘n’ roll record, but this famous tune by Roy Brown (later covered by Elvis and many others) is a good candidate.
On the Road, Sept. 5, 1957: Jack Kerouac’s beat bible was the road map for a generation of seekers.
West Side Story opens, Sept. 26, 1957: The Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim show, which runs 732 performances, expands Broadway’s horizons and makes new themes and approaches possible.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, June 1, 1967: With this seminal album, “rock ‘n’ roll” becomes “rock” – and the Beatles become lionized as never before.
The Graduate, Dec. 21, 1967: Mrs. Robinson seduces Benjamin, and the film (Dustin Hoffman’s debut) seduces America.
Roots, Jan. 23, 1977: The original Roots begins its hugely successful run on ABC, making black history mainstream and starting a national conversation.
Star Wars, May 25, 1977: It’s the movie event of a generation, and the super-hit that ushers in the “new” Hollywood of tent-pole releases and product tie-ins.
The Simpsons, April 19, 1987: They make their bow as a special attraction on The Tracey Ullman Show and go on to become the longest-running cartoon series in TV history. Thirty years later, they’re still going strong. Ay Caramba!
Titanic, Dec. 19, 1997: Depending on your age, sex and disposition, it’s either the most overblown white elephant in Hollywood history, or the most swooningly romantic film that any teenager ever saw seven times in one week. Either way, it was monster hit, an Oscar sensation (11 awards) and a career high point for director James Cameron and star Leonardo DiCaprio.
Harry Potter, June 26, 1997: The bespectacled boy wizard made his first appearance between covers under the title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the UK. It became Sorcerer’s Stone in America — but any J.K. Rowling title, by any other name, would smell as sweet. By 2001, when the first movie came out, no patronus spell in the world could stop Harry Potter.