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Recalling the BIG and bold 1980s

Library of Congress
Photographer Carol Highsmith captured this 1987 image on the mall in Washington, D.C. The quilts were made by residents of San Francisco, California, in memory of those who had died of AIDS. They were displayed in Washington, D.C., to make people aware of the disease.

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By Laura Szepesi
Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, 4:54 p.m.

“Greed is good.” That was the credo of stockbroker Gordon Gekko in the film “Wall Street” — and the mantra of 1980s “yuppies,” who proclaimed themselves “The Me Generation.”

Yuppie men wore button-down oxford shirts and anchored their Dockers trousers with suspenders. Yuppie women had big hair, bigger earrings and wore blazers with shoulder pads to rival an NFL player's.

It was a time of torn jeans and leg warmers, power dressing and Madonna fashions, and Michael Jackson cavorting in a ghoulish music video called “Thriller”; a time when Americans craved things, things, things — whether or not they could afford them.

An era of firsts

The 1980s was an era of firsts. Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court; Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to run for vice president (she lost); and Christa McAuliffe was to be the first female teacher in space — however, she and seven others perished when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in February 1986.

The 1980s started on a positive note, when 55 Americans held hostage in Iran were freed in late 1980 after 444 days in captivity. It was decade filled with happy royal news. British Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981; Charles' younger brother, Prince Andrew, wed Duchess of York Sarah Jane Ferguson in 1986. (Neither marriage endured and the divorced Princess Di was killed in a car accident in 1997.)

The Pittsburgh Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl in 1980. The next year, Pittsburgh native Tony Dorsett, Hall of Fame running back for the Dallas Cowboys, was named the National Football Conference's Player of the Year.

President Ronald Reagan survived being shot in March 1981 by John Hinckley Jr. Beatle John Lennon wasn't as lucky — he was gunned down outside of his home in December 1980 by Mark David Chapman.

A series of murders in Atlanta caused furor in the early 1980s. Twenty-three African-American children, adolescents and adults were slain between 1979 and 1981. Wayne Williams was convicted of two of the adult murders but the rest of the killings have never been solved. Although many people believe Williams was the culprit, it has never been proven.

AIDS epidemic

The nation became aware of a new and deadly blood-borne disease in the early 1980s. Originally called gay cancer, its official name was Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Knowledge expanded in a hurry when it was disclosed that Hollywood star Rock Hudson had AIDS (he died in October 1985).

Technology flourished in the 1980s. DNA research opened up a new world of forensics, including its use in criminal cases; the first successful DNA conviction was in 1987. Although personal computers date to the 1970s, they came into their own during the 1980s — especially once Apple introduced its Macintosh computer in 1984.

In keeping with computers, nerds and geeks — such as Apple's Steve Wozniak — were considered cool, while air-headed Valley Girls were “grody to the max.” “Where's the beef?” was a catchall phrase for fast food, thanks to a famous television ad campaign by Wendy's restaurants.

Blue elves called “The Smurfs” thrilled smallfry, little girls clamored for Cabbage Patch dolls, little boys pretended they were Ghostbusters or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — and ALL kids needed Nintendo and Super Mario Brothers.

In clubs, breakdancing was the rage, along with the slam and the vogue (thanks to Madonna). Music tended toward new wave, punk and hip-hop. Up-and-coming musicians included M.C. Hammer, Vanilla Ice, LL Cool J and Whitney Houston, who wanted “to dance with somebody.”

‘The Brat Pack'

Young moviegoers favored films featuring “The Brat Pack” — a group of actors including Andrew McCarthy, Molly Ringwald, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall and others: movies like “St. Elmo's Fire,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink.” For a perfect slice of 1980s, tune in to “The Big Chill” (1983) the next time it's on TV. National Lampoon's “Griswold Family” was born when “Vacation,” starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo, was released in 1983.

Also on the screen was Eddie Murphy as a wisecracking Beverly Hills Cop several times over. Kids found the wrinkled-face alien “E.T.” utterly irresistible and were titillated and terrorized by “Gremlins” — twice. Men who saw “Fatal Attraction” would forever fear cheating on their wives,” and Dustin Hoffman won the Oscar for donning stockings, a dress and a wig in 1982's “Tootsie.” Other big Oscar winners were 1985's “Out of Africa” starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, and 1989's “Driving Miss Daisy,” featuring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman.

Television saw its share of scandal when evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker plundered “The PTL Club's” coffers. Tabloid shows like “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” and “Geraldo” came into their own. Popular comedies included “Roseanne,” “Cheers,” “The Golden Girls,” “Designing Women,” “The Cosby Show” and “Wonder Years.” And, of course, nothing summed the '80s up better than the extravagant nighttime soaps like “Dallas,” “Dynasty” and “Knott's Landing.”

The decade ended much like it began, with a mix of bad and good news. 1989 saw students killed in China's Tianamen Square and a huge oil spill along the Alaskan coast from the tanker Exxon Valdez.

As for positive news, who can ever forget President Reagan intoning, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” referring to the Berlin Wall, which tumbled down in 1989, officially ending Communism in the Soviet Union? It was a flashy ending to the flashy “Me Decade” of the 1980s.

Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.

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