Wynn Van Dusen ’15 Discovers Utica's Pop Culture History

Wynn Van Dusen '15
Wynn Van Dusen '15

Despite living so close to Utica, the majority of Hamilton students spend little time there. Wynn Van Dusen ’15, however, has developed an interest in the city’s history. Through her Emerson Foundation project, “Remembering ‘The City that God Forgot’: A Study of Pop Culture and Art in Utica, Post World War II,” she is trying to gain a sense of what living in Utica in the era of its decline felt like. Van Dusen is working with Margaret Bundy Scott Professor of Theatre Carole Bellini-Sharp.

In the 1960’s, Dick Clark and Annette Funicello, both of whom lived in Utica, became massively successful in television and radio. At the same time, industry and prosperity in Utica were in decline, and the city became known as “The City that God Forgot.” The people of Utica took great pride in their local celebrities, particularly Funicello, who reached stardom as a member of the Mickey Mouse Club. In her project, Van Dusen wants to know, “What does it do to a city to have two stars make it big while your city is declining?”

In her efforts to answer that question, Van Dusen is interviewing people who grew up in Utica in the 1960’s, focusing on people who were teenagers in that time. She’s found that many of her interviewees remember Utica nostalgically; they miss the bustling version of the city that they remember.

Through their stories, Van Dusen says she is hoping “to get the tone of what it was like to be here.” She's also asking people what kind of music they were listening to and what films they were watching, hoping to get a sense of the pop culture in which Uticans were engaged.  “When we think of the ‘60’s, we think of great music: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, but it was also the time of the Vietnam War and civil rights movement. What part of that did Utica experience?,” she wonders.

Van Dusen herself is delving into the pop culture of the era. In addition to listening to contemporary music, she’s watching films, such as the popular “Beach Party” movies, and television shows, such as American Bandstand and Mickey Mouse Club. She explained that Disney was especially important in 1960’s pop culture: “Because it was really wholesome, it’s what families watched.” Van Dusen is hoping to highlight some common themes within pop culture. From there, she wants to ask, “What does that say about what people were thinking and wanted?” She feels that her examination of popular media will help her to recreate the feeling of what living in Utica was like.

Toward the end of her project, Van Dusen will be using her close understanding of Utica’s culture to write a short play set in the city in the era of its decline. She tentatively thinks that the play will focus on a teenager who hopes to follow a path similar to Annette Funicello’s. Through the play, Van Dusen aims to convey the combination of dejection and hope that seemed to characterize Utica in this era.  “I’m hoping to show a little snippet of what it’s like to be in Utica,” she explained.  She also hopes that putting on a staged reading of the play on campus will help Hamilton students gain a better understanding of Utica.

Van Dusen professed that her own perspective on Utica has changed as a result of her research. She commented, “I’ve learned to be less cynical about it, even though it’s a sad history.” Van Dusen’s also learned that Utica is “a city full of great stories.” She remarked that after spending so much time in the city, “I think you realize how disconnected we are. We at least need to remember [Utica] is there.” Van Dusen concluded, in a message she hopes she can share with other Hamilton students, “It’s important to know where you live and get involved in it.”

Van Dusen is a graduate of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City.

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