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50 Things You Won't Believe Are Turning 50

Happy birthday to the Eagles, 'The Exorcist,' Laffy Taffy and much more

spinner image two candles shaped like a five and a zero for fifty
Geri Lavrov/Getty Images

This year marks the 50th anniversary of these iconic brands, songs, movies, places and other things that have helped shape American culture over the last half century.


"American Pie”

Don McLean's iconic eight-minute-long “American Pie” rocketed to the top of the charts when it was released on the album of the same name in 1971 — striking a chord with its mood of nostalgia and disillusionment.

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One of the biggest bands of all time started as backup musicians for Linda Ronstadt in 1971. Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner decided to start their own group, and the Eagles was born — and took off. The band's Greatest Hits 1971-1975 is the best-selling album of all time, with 38 million copies sold.


John Lennon composed “Imagine” in just one session in May 1971 at his grand piano in England. Since its release on Oct. 11, 1971, it has been covered by Liza Minnelli, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young and Lady Gaga — and Bono has said that the song is the reason he went into music.


Janis Joplin's album Pearl was released posthumously in January 1971, and went on to be certified quadruple platinum. Her cover of Kris Kristofferson's “Me And Bobby McGee” soared to the top of the Billboard Charts three months later.

Earth Wind & Fire

When Maurice White relocated to L.A. with friends and fellow musicians Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead, he changed their band's name from the Salty Peppers to Earth, Wind & Fire, after the three elements in his astrological chart. They released their self-titled debut album in 1971.

"What's Going On"

Marvin Gaye's “What's Going On” was released on Jan. 20, 1971, and reached number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Rolling Stone ranked it fourth in its list of 500 greatest songs of all time.

"How Can You Mend a Broken Heart"

Though they made their American TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968, it wasn't until 1971 that Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb — collectively The Bee Gees — made it to the top of the Billboard charts with “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” from their Trafalgar album.


Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Gene Wilder brought the candy man to life in the film version of Roald Dahl's 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which premiered on June 30, 1971. Timothée Chalamet is reportedly set to play Wonka in an upcoming musical film based on the the story.

The French Connection

The crime drama, which premiered Oct. 9, 1971, won Oscars for best picture, direction, screenplay and editing, and Gene Hackman won an Academy Award for his portrayal of detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle.

Diamonds Are Forever

Sean Connery hung up his tux after his last performance as Bond — James Bond — in Diamonds Are Forever, which premiered Dec. 17, 1971. He starred alongside Jill St. John, the first American Bond girl.

Dirty Harry

One of movies’ most famous lines came from Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry: “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” Eastwood, who plays San Francisco police inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan, performs all of his own stunts in the movie.

spinner image film still from a clockwork orange closeup of malcolm mcdowell
AA Film Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

A Clockwork Orange

Based on the Anthony Burgess 1962 novel of the same name, this dark film by Stanley Kubrick premiered on Dec. 19, 1971, in New York City. It depicted a volent dystopian nightmare — too disturbing for some, but preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Play Misty for Me

Clint Eastwood starred in a second hit film in 1971, Play Misty for Me, as a radio disc jockey stalked by a female fan (Jessica Walter). The thriller was also Eastwood's directorial debut.

The Last Picture Show

Cybill Shepherd made her silver screen debut in The Last Picture Show, starring alongside Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn. Adapted from the 1966 Larry McMurtry novel of the same name, the film was released on Oct. 22, 1971, and nominated for 22 Academy Awards.


In 1971, George Lucas established the production company Lucasfilm in San Francisco, where he could “shake up the status quo ... of how movies were made and what they were about,” as he has put it. In the decades since, he has transported moviegoers to galaxies far, far away — and Lucasfilm was acquired by The Walt Disney Co.


All in the Family

Crotchety, bigoted Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) became one television's legendary figures on this Norman Lear-produced sitcom that ran from 1971 to 1979. The first show of its kind, it tackled the era's most controversial issues, from the Vietnam War to feminism, and won four Emmys for outstanding comedy series.

Masterpiece Theatre

PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, now simply known as Masterpiece, began its run on Jan. 10, 1971, with the series The First Churchills, and is now “the longest-running prime-time drama series in American television history,” according to PBS.


The Lorax

Dr. Seuss's classic children's book published in 1971 depicted the story of the Lorax, a creature who “speaks for the trees” when its beautiful forest is threatened by the Once-ler — an allegory about the dangers of consumerism at the expense of the environment that still resonates today.

The Exorcist

Author William Peter Blatty took the horror genre to the next level when he wrote The Exorcist, published in 1971, and spawning the famous film version in 1973. Prior to writing the best seller, Blatty was a comic novelist and screenplay writer for comedian Peter Sellers. In a 2011 interview with NPR, Blatty said, “I have no recollection of intending to frighten anyone at any point in time."

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Writer Hunter S. Thompson put a lot of himself into the fictional/nonfictional stories of drug-fueled adventures in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. It was published in 1971, in a two-part series in Rolling Stone and as a book. Terry Gilliam directed a 1998 movie adaptation staring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro.

Swamp Thing

DC Comics character Swamp Thing, a humanish-plantlike creature, made his colorful debut in House of Secrets #92 in 1971. He later became the star of an entire series; there are more than 700 comic books in which he appears.

The Winds of War

Herman Wouk's epic 800-plus-page family saga was a best seller in 1971. The World War II-era novel, featuring the stoic Naval Officer Victor “Pug” Henry, was the author's follow-up to 1951's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Caine Mutiny, and preceded War and Remembrance in 1978. A 1983 TV miniseries based on the book drew a whopping 140 million viewers.

Food and drink


It's hard to believe, but when the first Starbucks opened in Seattle's Pike Place Market on March 30, 1971, it didn't serve any brewed coffee; instead, the store sold bulk whole bean coffee, tea, spices, coffee makers, grinders and teapots. Today, Starbucks is all about serving hot and cold drinks, and seems to be on every corner, with more than 30,000 stores around the world.

"I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke"

One of the most iconic advertisements of all time first aired in July 1971 with the song “I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke.” The ad, created by Bill Backer of the McCann Erickson ad agency, featured 500 young people recruited from schools in Italy singing together on an Italian hilltop.

Quarter Pounder

This burger was first introduced in two McDonald's restaurants in Fremont, California, in February 1971. Its price in those days? $0.59 for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Now it'll set you back about $3.80.

spinner image cocoa and fruity pebbles breakfast cereal boxes
Kristoffer Tripplaar / Alamy Stock Photo


Breakfast bowls got a bit sweeter when Cocoa PEBBLES and Fruity PEBBLES appeared on grocery store shelves in October 1971. The cereals were rebranded from the original Sugar Rice Krinkles and featured — as they still do — an image of Fred Flintstone on the box. The name of the cereal was inspired by Pebbles, Fred's daughter in the cartoon.

Hamburger Helper

The rising cost of beef nudged Betty Crocker to find a way for its customers to stretch their budgets, and Hamburger Helper did just that. It made its national debut in August 1971 with five flavors — Beef Noodle, Potato Stroganoff, Hash, Rice Oriental and Chili Tomato. About a quarter of U.S. households bought the one-dish meal maker in its first year.

Hard Rock Cafe

Craving a good old-fashioned hamburger during their time in London, Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton took matters into their own hands and opened their first American diner-style Hard Rock Cafe in an old Rolls Royce dealership in 1971. Today, Hard Rock Café Inc. is owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida and has rock-themed cafes, casinos and hotels in more than 65 countries worldwide, all decorated with music memorabilia.

Laffy Taffy

When Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was set to release in 1971, Quaker Oats Company created a Willy Wonka-themed range of candies that included Laffy Taffy. The sweet treat is still sold today, produced by the Ferrara Candy Company, with silly jokes inside every wrapper. (As in, “What do you call a tree that grows in your hand?” Answer: “A palm tree.")


Walt Disney World

More than 10,000 guests visited the Magic Kingdom when it opened along with Walt Disney World Resort on Oct. 1, 1971. A handful of the rides and attractions that debuted on opening day are still there, including Main Street, U.S.A.; Mad Tea Party; the Haunted Mansion; and, of course, “it's a small world.” The company is going over the top to mark its golden anniversary, kicking off 18 months of “The World's Most Magical Celebration” on Oct. 1.


When the first Amtrak train left New York for Philadelphia on May 1, 1971, a new era of rail travel began in the U.S. Today, Amtrak travels on 21,400 miles of railway to more than 500 destinations across 46 states, Washington, D.C., and three Canadian provinces.

Southwest Airlines

When Southwest Airlines took flight on June 18, 1971, one-way fares were $20. The new airline flew 108,554 passengers that year. Fast-forward to 2021 and Southwest has more than 4,000 weekday departures to 121 destinations — and more than 130 million passengers flew with the LUVly airline in 2019.

Three National Parks

In 1971, three national parks were added to the National Park Service's roster: Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, and Utah's Arches and Capitol Reef national parks, both of which were previously national monuments. Since then 26 parks have been added, for a total of 63.

Six Flags Magic Mountain

When Six Flags Magic Mountain opened May 29, 1971, in Valencia, California, entrance fees were $5 for adults and $3.50 for kids. Now tickets start at $45, and the “Thrill Capital of the World” boasts 19 coasters, more than any other theme park.

Tampa International Airport (TPA)

TPA's ground-breaking hub-and-spoke-designed terminal opened on April 15, 1971. The design put the Florida airport on the map, earning worldwide recognition as “an airport of the future.” It's now in the midst of a massive expansion project that will allow it to accommodate up to 34 million passengers a year.

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Malibu Barbie

California dreamin’ took hold of the Barbie collection when Malibu Barbie came onto the scene as part of The Sun Set in 1971. With a twist ‘n turn waist, bendable legs and “long, long hair you can comb!” she was a hit with kids everywhere. She still had a weirdly proportioned body with feet forever frozen to fit high-heeled shoes. Mattel's Fashionista Barbie collection now includes dolls with more realistic curves, wheelchairs and a spectrum of skin tones.

Floppy Disk

Computer storage as we know it began in 1971 with an 8-inch disk that held 80 KB of data. By comparison, today's smartphones have at least 32 GB of storage space, or 32 million KB.


It's hard to believe something so integral to our lives started as a side project from engineer Ray Tomlinson, who sent the first email in 1971.

Federal Express

When Yale University undergrad Frederick W. Smith wrote a term paper in 1965 that proposed “a system specifically designed to accommodate time-sensitive shipments,” he most likely didn't realize that he had essentially conceptualized an entire industry. The company that would become Federal Express (FedEx) was born in August 1971, and today its network covers most of the globe.


One of our favorite card games was born out of family games of Crazy Eights. Merle Robbins, a barber by trade, wound up writing the directions to Crazy Eights on a deck of cards to avoid family arguments, and invented Uno with the help of his family. He sold the decks out of his barbershop, and then he and his wife, Marie, hit the road from their home in Ohio to sell the game at campground clubhouses. Uno was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2018.

26th Amendment

The 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age for U.S. citizens from 21 to 18, was passed by Congress on March 23, 1971, and ratified July 1, 1971. The amendment allowed an estimated 11 million new voters to take part in the 1972 elections.

Video Arcade Games

Before PacMan and Donkey Kong came Computer Space, the first video arcade game created by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, who would introduce Atari a year later. The single-player game was a “basic space-war type game where single players control a rocket ship and face off against two flying saucers or, in the two-player version, players battle each other,” according to the International Arcade Museum.

The Oregon Trail Game

In an effort to help Minnesota schoolchildren learn American history, then-student teachers Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger created The Oregon Trail in 1971. The computer game enabled students to act as Western settlers bound for the Pacific Coast, and “choose which items to bring, how fast to travel, and what to do when food ran low or disease struck.” Many other versions of the game have followed the original.


The National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations (NASDAQ) was created “so that investors could trade securities on a computerized, speedy, and transparent system,” and began operating on Feb. 8, 1971, with 250 listed companies. Today, NASDAQ is the world's largest electronic stock exchange.

Bed Bath & Beyond

What started in 1971 as two stores in New York and New Jersey primarily selling bed linens and bath accessories expanded into a network of 1,020 stores across North America. It's in the midst of streamlining and modernizing many of them, in the face of serious competition from other retailers.

spinner image early photo of greenpeace activists and their first boat
Bettmann/Getty Images


In protest of U.S. nuclear testing off the coast of Alaska, a handful of activists leased a small fishing boat in 1971 with an intent to put themselves in harm's way to bring attention to their cause. Today, Greenpeace has more than 2.8 million members worldwide and is focused on preventing and exposing environmental abuses.

Nike Swoosh

Graphic design student Carolyn Davidson created the iconic Nike swoosh logo, receiving just $35 for her efforts in 1971 — about $235 in today's economy. (She was rewarded with valuable Nike stock and more benefits in later years.)


Incorporated in 1970 with nearly 90 original member stations, National Public Radio's first national news program, All Things Considered, debuted on May 3, 1971.

Pocket Calculator

We carry calculators with us every day on our smartphones, but the first pocket calculator hit the market in 1971. The Busicom LE-120A “HANDY-LE” cost $395, or about $2,650 in current dollars.

Soft Contact Lenses

If you're one of the estimated 45 million people in the U.S. who wear contacts, you're probably grateful for the invention of soft contact lenses. They were approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1971.

Susan B. Barnes is a longtime travel writer who’s written for AFAR, Allrecipes, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and others.

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