The Late 1980s

The Wacky, Tacky, and Softsational Side to the 1980s

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The late 1980s (modern 80s)were the more clever, sleek, and cunning side to the 1980s. For starters, children, teens, and young adults were dressing like our parents in the late 60s and early 1970s. Some of the best pop culture for Xennials came out of the late 1980s. Out of the entire 1984 to 1992 period, the late 80s (1987-1989) had the most backlash against the culture started in the era before it. RoboCop, Spaceballs, The Church Lady on SNL, and even Harry and the Hendersons were all anti-mid 1980s movies and sketch characters on late-night TV shows. Of course, I didn't catch all of that in the late 1980s as I was too busy trying to have a good time in those days.

The late 80s were the epilogue to the year 1986. With the late 60s nostalgia booming towards the end of 1986, it was time for 70s nostalgia to move in. The Mets had won the World Series of 1986, so the world fell in love with "The 70s Team" all over again as a result. New York colors (Mets and Knicks colors) were adorned by boys and men who wore the caps, jackets, jerseys, and boxer shorts from late 1986 to 1992. Miami Hurricanes and Oakland Athletics gear were like Mets memorabilia for anyone who loved California as a tourist spot.

The late 80s were one huge nostalgia-fest for Baby Boomers. The world was not only looking back to the 50s, 60s, and 70s in the 1980s but the 30s and 40s (because of the 60s revival), also. After "I Wanna Be a Cowboy" hit the airwaves, bolo ties became one of the mainstays to have in the late 1980s (Swatches and car watches being the other ones). Nothing said classy in a late 80s school photo like a colored button-down shirt with a bolo tie. Bluegrass music and country music became cool to younger audiences after the bolo tie trend blew up in 1987.

The late 1980s could be known to some as the time when children born between 1981 and 1983 were going to sleep with BIG dolls. Let's see...there was Teddy Ruxpin, My Buddy, My Pet Monster, The Pillow People, and obscure lines like My Child. I think we can blame the popularity of Cabbage Patch Kids in 1983 for the end of the mid-80s to late 80s doll craze, but it could have been the nostalgia that Baby Boomers had for dolls from the 40s and 50s (in general). As a child, there was nothing funnier for me than watching someone I knew pop in any cassette in Teddy Ruxpin in place of the actual storybook cassettes and watching Teddy sing it. Teddy Ruxpin was scary when the batteries wore out, though.

The late 80s are best remembered by my micro-generation for all of the great 'kids shows'. I guess you could say that Pee Wee Herman in the mid to late 1980s was a Toys Я Us kid and 50s nerd (without the glasses) in one package. I was a little scared when I first saw the show in '86 or '87, but a part of me still loved how artsy the set and props were. I never knew why Pee Wee laughed as hard as he did throughout the series, but the show was so wacky, zany, and off the wall to me as a child that it was like I was in the Playhouse with Pee Wee. PEE WEE! Hah haah! I wanted the happiness I saw Pee Wee with on all of the merchandise from pull string dolls to the heavy sweaters. There almost could have been a Pee Wee’s Adulthouse Fireplace where a more mature Pee Wee would wear the Christmas tree sweaters that many Americans had from 1987 into the 90s and his hors d'oeuvres, rug, and couch interacting with him and his guests, but I won’t talk about that.

Double Dare, which aired after school (for me) in syndication where I lived, was a children’s game show that was the Pee Wee’s Playhouse of all game shows for children until Fun House came along late in 1988. Double Dare was one of those children’s game shows that made children watching it feel invincible. The Pick-It obstacle on Double Dare was ‘grody’, but it looked exciting to do. As a child, I found it odd that Double Dare had variations like Family Double Dare and Super Sloppy Double Dare when it was not anywhere near where Wheel of Fortune was in the mid to late 1980s into the 90s. I never cared about owning Double Dare merchandise like the board game, Nintendo game, yo-yo, or shirts. I feel like the host, Marc Summers, deserves more prestige to his name than the host of Double Dare (Marc Summers was a great host), nonetheless.

The late 1980s offered quite a few good (badly dated by today’s standards) power ballads. Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” was the biggest one back then. From the opening sounds, I thought it was “Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry or “Alone” from Heart. Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from the movie Mannequin was what you get when arena rock is put in a blender with classic rock, soft rock, and space rock (lots of glitter). It was a nice song that your parents could slow dance to if they were in the mood for that. Of course, there were copycat acts in the late 80s before and after Grace Slick left Starship in the very late 80s.

Well, "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" was part of the softsational side to the late 1980s, let's get to the wacky and tacky elements to the late 80s.


1987

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ALF was one of the greatest characters to come out of the 1980s and the 1980s from 1981 to 1989 had a lot of character! ALF was like a MAD Magazine spoof of E.T., only better. By the late 80s, more creators and producers were getting tired of the 1980s being closer to 1977, so that made for excellent experimentation in the mid to late 1980s. As a child, I thought ALF was one of the lost Muppets until I saw ALF move his feet and do things like being a couch potato with the youngest of the tanners, Brian Tanner. Long story short, I found it odd to see a Muppet-like Alien full of so much personality away from other Muppet-like creatures on primetime. ALF's actions were subliminally lewd most of the time when ALF wasn't being loud, slobbish, and cracking jokes.

Basically, ALF was a loveably messed up Muppet-like E.T. for us children then. I started to lose interest when ALF caught on with more people my age. The bizarre sitcom changed dramatically after the dolls were in toy stores and got worse as more items like trading cards, shirts, comic books, TV Trays, watches, puzzles, games, and phones came to stores. Over the course of the late 80s, ALF grew to be more obnoxious, 'clean', and became almost human (every time you saw ALF on screen he was wearing something). I almost lost it when I found out that ALF's real name was Gordon Shumway! What kind of bull was that that they were trying to sell viewers?! How does an alien have a human name like Gordon Shumway?! This was mid to late 80s Baby Boomer humor, but even ALF deserved better than that. I mean, come on!

In 1987, it was hard to escape the saxophone, trumpet, and kettle drums. Jazz instrumentals like “Songbird” by Kenny G were mainstream radio songs. One of the best uses of a rhythmic trumpet in the mid to late 80s was in the single “Diamonds” by Herb Alpert. There were background vocals by Lisa Keith, but Janet Jackson stole the whole song with her lead vocals. I didn’t listen to too many radio song lists in 1986, but you could not be alive and not know of Janet Jackson after the Control album. To young girls of that time, Janet Jackson was the late 1980s. Anyway, dance-jazz as you could call it was taking over in 1987.

In the late 80s, the boys of the time (like me) were leaving behind Luke Skywalker, G.I. C-3PO (Optimus Prime), and Pogo Bals for anthropomorphic Masters of the Universe. Sadly, for us, everything was in reverse—the boys got the cats as presents and the dogs went to the girls. For some reason, the early packaging for Thundercats figures always reminded me of Minute Maid cartons and cans then. I liked the card backers used for The Berserkers and after better than the early 1986 stuff. I never got to see every episode of the weekday cartoon or own any toys (didn’t like the size). When you think about it, the Thundercats stage was just right for its time (we were between He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).

The Pound Puppies was one of those Care Bears type properties, but with a Cabbage Patch Kids angle to it. The cartoon for Pound Puppies was very mid-80s as early 50s nostalgia was quite prevalent in it. There was a character named Cooler for crying out loud! As you would expect, Cooler was the Fonzie of the series. I remember Pound Puppies as the 30-minute toy commercial where the characters looked nothing like the dolls at all. The dolls all had sleepy eyes for some reason. The whole idea behind Pound Puppies, like Cabbage Patch Kids, was that they were coming from the pound to your home. That hardly ever made sense to me in 1987 — dogs usually hate being picked up to go to the pound, being locked away in cages and then released to an owner (even Gizmo hummed a song in his cage at the store). The Pound Puppies had a placid nature completely (the pound keeper probably tranquilized them all every day).

Towards the end of the mid-1980s, the surfer image was being pushed on children and teenagers by Baby Boomers who were looking back to the mid to late 60s. Life was a beach everywhere we went in Jams shorts, T&C Surfwear, Billabong clothes, Quiksilver clothes, Ocean Pacific, and Rude Dog Sportswear. Not going to lie, it was fun living life on ‘the loose side’ in surfwear from 1987 to 1992. I think I loved the colors of the shirts and shorts the most over the designs, designer names, and clothes. I can’t recall a time when I didn’t feel like somebody in my acid wash denim jackets, acid wash jeans, and surf wear shirts. I couldn’t wear Jams shorts from 1987 to early 1991 like other boys in my age group because I was afraid of how I would look in shorts with excessive print designs (running shorts were in fashion for guys like me).

1988

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1988 started out with a bang for pop-culture followers in America. ABC quickly started to catch steam in early 1988 with wholesome sitcoms like Growing Pains (actor Kirk Cameron was a big deal in '88), Head of the Class, Perfect Strangers, Mr. Belvedere, and most importantly Who's The Boss?. Growing up, I did not watch too much of Who's The Boss? but I found the theme song to be a rather pleasant sounding song. Still, it was one of the most innovative new sitcoms of the 1980s. As I recall, there were two women, one little woman, a man, and a little man in one house together. It was very different from the syndicated sitcoms of the time like Charles' In Charge and She's The Sheriff. The viewer had to ponder who was really the head honcho of the Bower residence (the place where all of those main characters mentioned above stayed).

The breakout character on the show was Samantha Micelli who was Alyssa Milano, the daughter to Anthony Micelli played by Tony Danza from Taxi (very early 80s Cheers-Esque show). Samantha had a lot of spunk as a child in the mid-1980s, but she became America's favorite female teenager in the late 80s. Teen girls could not get enough of her big hair and awesome style, while teen guys thought she was very attractive. In the days before everyone had the internet, children and teens kept up with what their favorite celebs were doing by watching Entertainment Tonight and reading Tiger Beat magazine. The plethora of magazines modeled for teenagers like Teen Magazine, Seventeen, Tutti Frutti magazine, and the then-new Sassy magazine allowed the teens of the 1980s to feel the way their parents did in the 1950s and 1960s. Alyssa Milano was the ultimate pin-up girl of the late 1980s in the same way both of the Coreys (Corey Haim and Corey Feldman) were to females at that time. Basically, everything about Alyssa Milano in the late 80s WAS the late 80s (though Janet was the ringleader to all things late 80s in 1986).

The summer of '88 can be remembered for two things: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Nike ad campaigns. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was one of the greater Close Encounters of the Third Kind-like movies of the 1980s for me. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was based on the novel of the same name, but the movie was a treasure in that it was everything the late 1980s represented. There was tacky fashion from the character Roger Rabbit, wacky tension between the two main characters (the cool, yet hyperactive Roger and straight-laced Eddie Valiant (Bob Haskins)), and real soft bonds of love between characters at times. Of course, after one viewing of the movie for me, I HAD to own any merchandise with Roger Rabbit on it (I had a shirt and Jessica Bunny poster from mid-1988 to early 1991).

In the middle of the late 80s, the late 80s were going through what some would call an identity crisis. Before 1988, Adidas was the sneaker company of choice, whereas Nike became the sneaker company of choice from the very late 1980s into the 1990s. The legendary "Just Do It" commercial aired for the first time ever in the summer of 1988. Then, much later on, the world was introduced to a character named Mars that spoke of a future celebrity athlete who could jump to outer space in the sneakers being advertised. Just like that, boys, teenage boys, and men entered a new stage of the late 1980s (where buying expensive sneakers and shirts were 'sweet'). I never owned a pair of Nike high top sneakers in those days. The neon Converse All Star high tops were sufficient for me or even Pro Wings (sneakers you would find at department stores like K-Mart).

In 1988, the late 80s were shifting away from what was started in the 1970s and earlier eras of the 1980s. Instead of 'Darth Vader with the red candle coming out of his black lightsaber molded into his hand', more boys were picking up this Michelin Man-like character to do battles with their other action figures. Ghostbusters was everything to boys of the late 1980s in 1988. There was the syndicated afternoon show and Saturday morning series in the fall of that year (Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters). The role-playing toys were more important to children and some teens at the time than the action figures (being a Ghostbuster for Halloween was the new He-Man). The one fact to take away from the action figure line was that the individually packed ghosts were almost larger than the Ghostbuster figures.

Cartoons and TV specials highlighting the importance of teamwork were really unique to children of the 1980s from 1988 to about 1991 or 1992. Those cartoons and TV specials got my generation ready for the workplace earlier than school did for some of us. The Real Ghostbusters cartoon and merchandising were in its middle phase in late 1988. Children of the 1980s were starting to see less TRGB merchandise that looked like it could have belonged to the 1984 movie and more TRGB cartoon-centered products. I haven't looked at the toys in a long time and that is probably because I was disappointed by them in the 1980s and early 1990s. The toymakers did not capture the feel of The Real Ghostbusters show or characters at all with any of the toys and I knew both the toy line and cartoon were over completely when The Real Ghostbusters morphed from being a 30-minute toy commercial with ties to the 1984 movie to a full-blown Merrie Melodies-like cartoon (Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters).

The California Raisins, on the other hand, were a great PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) figurine line from 1987 to early 1990 in my eyes. The California Raisins were the biggest TV commercial ad mascots to come out of the mid-1980s, so The California Raisin figurines were on the level of Smurf figurines to my micro-generation. Some of The California Raisins figurines were sold at the Southern restaurant chain Hardees and the other ones were sold at stores like Tower Records (perfect spot for them). As a 9-year-old, I thought The California Raisins were The California Prunes (homemade California Raisins costumes even made the people wearing them look like purple and black Grapes). As I recall, The Calfornia Raisins were not a brownish-yellow like raisins are, but light and solid purple. There were TV specials, a Saturday morning cartoon, books, wind-up toys, dolls, car sun visors, and etc. etc. (you name, they made it). The California Raisins were really a great way for Baby Boomers to introduce their children to their favorite music from the 1950s and 1960s (it worked, too).

1989

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1989 was the year when the late 1980s broke away from the earlier half of the era almost entirely. Members of Generation X and older Xennials were going to music stores like Sam Goody, Tape World, Camelot Music, and Coconuts. Compact Discs were taking off in the very late 1980s because of children having their parents purchase music and teenagers buying the then-hit albums mostly. From late 1983 to about 1993, mall culture was ‘first-rate’. When the children of that time could not get to the mall, we would walk (yes, walk) or drive with someone older to the nearest department store. So, music was at the top of every must-have list of items for the holidays.

In 1989, there were still some singles that older members of Generation X could enjoy on the Billboard 100 charts in the Billboard magazine, but late Gen X and XYer culture had just about dominated the charts. The late 80s into the early 1990s were what I call the ‘Dance Party USA and Club MTV days’. There were so many young acts on the charts and different music genres that some of us had a hard time keeping up with the music fads in those years. The oldies station was all my parents would listen to in the car from 1989 to 1992 or 1993. New 80s music was radically different from anything The Silent Generation and Baby Boomers had growing up (so my parents were not fans of 80s music at the time).

The teen pop sensation happened for the last members of Generation X and Xennials in the late 1980s before it did for Millennials in the mid to late 1990s. There was New Kids on the Block, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Kylie Minogue, Martika, Rick Astley, Boys Club and Tracie Spencer (not only the musical group The Jets anymore). Most of the time, their albums came in long-boxes found in the slots where the vinyls used to go at record stores. Because most children wish to be adults, my generation clanged to the teen pop like we did syndicated shows with teens in it like Out of This World (alien teenage girl show), Small Wonder (teenage robot girl show), My Secret Identity (teen superhero show that wasn’t Superboy), and The Munsters Today on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.

New Kids on the Block was the most memorable of the teen pop scene that seemed to have come out of nowhere in late 1988 and ‘made it big’ in 1989 due in large part to the support of girls, pre-teen girls, teenage girls, and some women. In fact, New Kids on the Block was the biggest boy band to come out of the 1980s. I listened to their songs from time to time back then (especially “Step by Step” in 1990), but I wouldn’t admit out loud on the courtyard. Unlike groups before, there was this large anti-New Kids campaign from Metal rock fans and adults alike. From mid-1989 to 1991, quite a large audience of people made fun of the band name. New Kids on the Block became “New Kids of the Blech”, “New Squids on the Block”, “New Kids of the Barf”, and “New Kids on Block”. Still, I don’t think I have ever witnessed a boy band with as much merchandise as the New Kids had from late 1989 (especially early 1990) into 1991.

Debbie Gibson was previously a pop singer for teenagers in late 1987 with songs like “Shake Your Love”, but all of that changed in 1989. Debbie Gibson became a dance-pop singer with the album and single “Electric Youth”. Younger audiences took a liking to “Electric Youth” in accordance with the fans she had from 1987 and 1988. Debbie Gibson short brim and wide brim hats were a fad in ‘89 with girls and teen girls like flip-up glasses in that year with boys and teenage boys. Debbie Gibson and Paula Abdul both were the most idolized musicians for girls from 1989 to 1991 like Janet Jackson was from 1986 to 1988.

I wasn’t into Debbie Gibson or Tiffany in the late 80s, because their stuff was ‘too VH1’ for my ears. With that said, I couldn’t get enough of Paula Abdul in the late 80s and early 90s. Paula Abdul was more to my speed with songs like “Knocked Out”, “Straight Up”, “Cold Hearted Snake”, “Forever Your Girl”, and “Opposites Attract”. That was all great music to work out to from 1989 to 1993. Paula took center stage in 1989 as a Lakers girl, choreographer, dancer, and singer. After one listen of any song from her Forever Your Girl album, you could tell that the 1970s and most of the 1980s were officially behind us. As an adult, I’m not sure if I liked the President George HW Bush days as much as the President Ronald Reagan days, but I would take the President George HW Bush years over the Clinton years and after.

The one large factor comes to my mind whenever the spring and summer of 1989 are mentioned — Ghostbusters 2 and Batman in theaters. Ghostbusters 2 was ‘the be-all and end-all’ of late 80s movie soundtracks. There were Baby Boomer artists like Sir Elton John on the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack along with early Gen Xer artists like Oingo Bingo, but it is best remembered for late Gen X artist who had an attitude. Before 1989, you did not hear too many artists who could take the music from a street art form and fuse it with soft music. The song “On Our Own” was the most successful of the blockbuster movie ending songs back then. After “On Our Own” went to number one, it seemed like every teenage guy wanted to be cool (kewl or kool, however, you spell it)[kind of an offshoot of the mid-50s to 60s revival].

Anybody of age who was alive in 1989 knew what came shortly after all of the hoopla for Ghostbusters 2. The end of the spring into the summer of 1989 belonged to Batman. I wanted to see Batman badly in mid-1989 as it was ‘the modern 1978 Superman’ that we all needed to depart from the old 1980s (the part that was more like the mid to late 70s). My generation had moved on from living in the new 50s and new early to mid-1960s to the new late 1960s and early 1970s. It was beautiful! The 80s had felt like a long-time period before December 31st of 1989 rolled around, so at the time, some people were exhausted from living at the start of the 1980s up to June 19th of 1989.

Before 1989, the late 60s Batman was the contemporary version of a live-action Batman. Tim Burton’s Batman was Beetlejuice (who I learned of in ‘89) mixed in with Bob Kane’s invention of Batman and it ‘knocked our socks off’ to see the new Batman (as I called him then). The ‘89 Joker was supposed to be bigger than Lex Luther in the ‘78 Superman, but I think most children my age went to see Batman ‘kick butt’. Batman really kicked off the whole late 60s and early 70s spy look or funeral look of dressing in all black for Generation X and Xennials in ‘89. The Batman symbol and 80s illustrated Joker shirts were a hot commodity in 1989 as they could be paired with anything from Levi 501s to elastic colored shorts to high waist acid wash pleated Z. Cavaricci jeans. Batman really knocked the competition like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids out of the park that summer.

Batman toys along with Tyco Remote Controlled cars, music activated Rock‘N Flowers, Barbie (30th anniversary), Micro Machines, LEGOLAND toys, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, and the Nintendo Entertainment System were the toys every child went window shopping and newspaper ad surfing for in the last year of the 80s. Toys from the not too distant past like Star Wars action figures and Atari 2600 had found themselves in the toy bin at Salvation Army in ‘89. Video game sections in stores in the 1980s were starting to look like they would for the last time in the 2000s. From what I remember, there was a wide variety of games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, but the Super Mario Brothers series (Mario Brothers, Super Mario Brothers, and Super Mario Brothers 2) stuck out like a sore thumb to 10 years old me.

1989 was the year of "The World of Nintendo" for those of us without Nintendo Entertainment Systems. There was a huge war between two Nintendo 'tapes' (as we called them back then). You were either team Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link or team Super Mario Brothers 2 (from the year before). Those titular characters were appearing in TV shows and movies like The Wizard for the first time in the very late 80s. My earliest exposure to the other characters in Super Mario Brothers 2 and Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link was through The Super Mario Brothers Super Show! cartoon segments. I wanted everything that had to do with Mario from late 1988 to early 1991, but The Legend of Zelda merchandise was 'radical' in addition to the Super Mario Brothers items [fantasy themed products were 'too 80s' for me to beg my parents for, though].

In the very late 80s, everything was raw and saccharine at the same time. The network ABC metamorphosed into a basic cable channel that had bits and pieces of every new show on other channels that were successful from 1986 to 1987. 10 year old me was most captivated by The Wonder Years because I had not seen any true-to-life high school dramedies or period pieces before that point in the 80s. The Wonder Years did more for my imagination about the days of my parents' young adulthoods than the stories my parents told me in the late 80s and early 1990s. The one thing I didn't like about The Wonder Years was when the cutesy factor of Kevin was played up.

Still, I prefer to watch The Wonder Years over Thirtysomething any day. That fall of 1989 season of The Wonder Years really helped to usher in the 1970s nostalgia (which I thought was still 60s nostalgia at the time). There was no other drama where you could see the earliest version of Big Bird and hear the song "I Can See Clearly Now" by Johnny Nash in late 1989. Basically, The Wonder Years made me want to be my late father was so I could see more time periods. 1990 was when my parents saw the late 60s and early 70s influence in everything (girls started wearing straight hair, hippie flowers stuck to our bedroom desks, smiley shirts on girls and more varsity jackets than before). To this day, I will binge-watch any season of The Wonder Years that comes on TV as it was one of the greatest period pieces of my time.

The holiday season of 1989 was the most important part of the 1980s for me. GameBoy was referenced in everything I did from July of '89 to the end of 1989. I knew the Nintendo Entertainment System was out of the question in the very late 80s, so I pressed my parents for a GameBoy, any keyboard, Hit Stix, the Batman soundtrack, or a large set of baseball cards. I did not get any of those that year, but there were some nice Tiger LCD video games, board games, and Rubik's Magic Puzzles for me. Looking back on that winter season, the greatest gift I received was being of age to see the complete 80s decade and earliest years of the 1990s before the 'whatever goes' fashion times (late 1991 to 1996).

Just like that, my generation had a cultural identity before the end of ‘89. Watching 30-minute toy commercials or teen dramedies while wearing TV commercial ad mascot shirts, and honoring of all things Nintendo Entertainment System as children is what the males of my micro-generation are known for. I guess the female XYers get a kick out of wearing old New Kids on the Block shirts, searching for Electric Youth perfume by Revlon, and reading Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club book series with their scented pop-a-point pencils to turn the pages. Regardless of our backgrounds, all Xennials can agree that there will never be another time like the 1980s. In the 90s, it all had to come down faster than the Berlin Wall that November of '89, but there was still one more analog age year to go [1990] and I'll discuss that in the next article.


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If the 1980s made me who I was, then the 1990s had to be my time. The remnants of my 80s childhood were all still around in the early 1990s (1990-1992), so those are the years I want to discuss in my next article.


Don't go anywhere, RetroJunkers. Part 3 of this series is coming soon and I promise you that you won't be disappointed. I will be delving into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze of 1990, the beauty of seeing Disney Renaissance movies in the theater at night, and NBC teen sitcoms my generation watched in 1992. It was time to say bye-bye to the 20th century and welcome the 21st century with open arms in the 1990s, but were we making a big mistake...find out soon.

Until next time, RJ. Peace out!