Monthly Archives: December 2014

Classic Christmas Television

Christmas shows during television’s Golden Age were different because the rules were a tad more stringent.

The National Association of Broadcasters developed the Code of Practices for
Television Broadcasters
in 1951, defining ethical standards for television programming. Many of us remember seeing the Seal of Good Practice at the end of a show’s closing credits. Among those standards was that “(n)ews reporting should be factual, fair and without bias” and “should be telecast in a manner as to avoid panic and unnecessary alarm.” Ah, the good old days.

So Baby Boomers grew up with variety shows as television staples during the 1950s and 1960s. Every year we looked forward to those shows’ Christmas specials: Bing Crosby, Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett, Dinah Shore, Andy Williams with and without The Osmond Brothers, and the somewhat bland Perry Como. Bob Hope and the USO did an annual Christmas show with the troops in Vietnam until 1972. We all sat on the national couch in the Great American living room collectively enjoying the once-a-year rituals.

But there was one quirk that really made Christmas week special.

Many people are probably unaware of an unwritten rule: no one died on prime-time television programs during Christmas week. Dramatic shows relied on comic relief—often subtle, sometimes uncharacteristic—to meet that requirement. Combat!’s 1962 Christmas night episode, The Prisoner, featured Shecky Greene as a conniving soldier whose scamming gets him paired up with a bombastic colonel played by Keenan Wynn. That was a lot different from “Newborn King,” the 2011 NCIS Christmas episode during which Gibbs delivers a baby in the back seat of a car while ZIva wastes several bad guys in a shoot-out.

Many of the classic movies and Christmas specials from my childhood appear every year, sometimes ad nauseum, as when AMC runs “White Christmas” back-to-back to back. But there are a few that have faded into obscurity.

Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951-1966). Composed by Gian Carlo Menotti and inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Adoration of the Magi, this one-act opera is about a crippled shepherd boy and his mother whom the Three Wise Men visit on their way to Bethlehem. It was done live until 1963, the first time it was videotaped, much to Menotti’s consternation.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). The well-known voices of Jim Backus,
Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy, Paul Frees and others came together in this animated, musical version of Dicken’s story. “All Alone in the World” is the plaintive song young Ebenezer Scrooge sings when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes old Scrooge down memory lane.

Twilight Zone: Night of the Meek (December 23, 1960). Art Carney is a department store Santa fired on Christmas Eve. He finds a bag in the street with a seemingly endless supply of gifts which he gives to the needy kids, and finds redemption. The 1985 Twilight Zone remake with Richard Mulligan and William “Richard Thornburg” Atherton just wasn’t the same.

The Story of Christmas: Tennessee Ernie Ford and the Roger Wagner Chorale (1963). I described this in my last post. Tennessee Ernie Ford Enterprises finally released it on DVD in 2006. Here’s “What Child Is This,” the beginning of the Christmas Gospel according to Luke.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). I was fortunate enough to see this debut, before advertisers chopped it up into the little pieces we see now. If watching Linus explain the meaning of Christmas doesn’t choke you up, I have a load of Kingsford for your stocking.

Rich Little’s Christmas Carol (1978). Rich Little did a one-man version,
impersonating famous people for the cast: W.C. Fields as Scrooge; Paul Lynde as Bob Cratchit; Richard Nixon as Jacob Marley; Truman Capote as Tiny Tim, and many others. My favorite lines:

Marley/Nixon: Don’t you believe me???

Scrooge/W.C. Fields: No. And neither did anyone else.

The Littlest Angel (1969): I mention this one only because of the sick feeling I got watching Johnny Whitaker (Jody Patterson-Davis on Family Affair), plunge off a cliff to his death. I read the book to my kids, a much more pleasant experience.

I’d like to know if anyone else remembers seasonal and/or regional favorites growing up.

The Charlie Brown Tree

Christmas was pretty good when I was young. I hadn’t become acutely aware of being one of the “have-nots” and Christmas was a time when the perpetual underlying tension between my mother and stepfather seemed to fade for a few weeks. I looked forward to the respite, however brief it might be.

One of my memories is of the year we had our own Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Almost everyone bought real trees back then, usually from a fenced-in lot that looked more like a hastily-erected corral. (The only artificial tree was an aluminum one that came with a rotating color wheel. Yuppie hipsters will pay big bucks for something most of us considered butt-ugly and crass.) We’d look around for a five footer that wasn’t dried out and hadn’t started shedding needles. Ten buck or so later, we’d stuff it into the trunk, take it home, and wrestle it into the tree stand, trying to make it look straight and steady enough so it wouldn’t tip over.

Most Christmas light strings were made of thick, tan wires attached to black plastic sockets outfitted with clips that attached to tree branches. Inside lights used the night light-sized C7 colored screw-in bulbs; outside strings had the larger C9 bulbs that were sometimes textured to imitate a flame. We used one white bulb to light up the Star of Bethlehem cutout in the front of my mothers’ old wooden Nativity stable. I never remembered the difference between “series” and “parallel” wiring, only that if a bulb went out on one type, you’d spend hours trying to track down the offender.

Some people lit their trees with the Noma bubble lights. Shaped like candles topping a street-light shaped reservoir filled with fluid, they bubbled when the bulbs heated up, providing hours of entertainment.

We had a couple of Shiny Brite ornament boxes filled with the solid color balls, since most of the original glass decorations had bit the dust in years past. There was always a wad of tangled-up hooks somewhere in the bottom and inevitably one or more hangers would pop out of the ball, daring me to put it back in without crushing the ball.

We never had much money and this year must have been especially tight. My stepfather decided we’d cut our own. That isn’t easy when you live in desert mountains and the dominant species are piñon and scrub oak, but hope springs eternal.

We drove out of town through the new tunnel and backtracked on Old Divide Road, which used to be the only access from the west, to Juniper Flats Road, which led to a plateau high above Route 80. Calling it a road is being charitable. It was a one-lane dirt trail of boulders and gigantic ruts on a 30-degree incline that would bust an axle if one was cavalier.

So we gingerly climbed about a mile until the road plateaued and we could breathe again. It was early evening and the sun was just about to set. We wandered around among the scrub until we came upon something that resembled an evergreen. It was small but I imagined lights and ornaments would make it suffice. My stepfather got out a carpenter’s half-hatchet, whacked the base a few times and we had our tree.

It was a lot smaller when we got home. The tree stand was far too big, so we put it in an old paint can filled with dirt. It looked a lot like Charlie Brown’s forlorn little tree. We dressed it up with one string of lights, a few ornaments and icicles and put a towel around the can for a tree skirt. Mom plugged in the lights and we stepped back.

As Linus would say three years hence, “It’s not a bad little tree. It just needs some love.”

And love made all the difference.

Sounds Of Christmas Past

Christmas music used to be something we used to hear for two or three weeks in December. We had a small collection of Christmas LPs we played on a monaural portable record player until I was in high school when we got our first stereo (bulkier, but still portable). That was long before stores and advertisers inundated us with holiday tunes and Christmas decorations in October.

When I was seven years old, I cried the first time I heard Connie Francis singing “Adeste Fideles.” I covered up by telling my mother I was sad because the record was slightly warped, making Connie sound like she had a bad case of hiccups. I have more than 150 CDs of Christmas music in several genres—classical, pop, jazz, comedy, big-band classics, new age, medieval and world music—there are a handful that remind me of Christmases Past.

 The Andy Williams Christmas Album (1963). Saying “Happy Holidays” was perfectly acceptable back then and wasn’t part of the “War on Christmas.” Andy Williams was still married to Claudine Longet; we watched their Christmas specials on TV. Good times; naïve times.

The Story of Christmas by Tennessee Ernie Ford with the Roger Wagner Chorale (1963). This combines traditional carols with songs from South Africa, Mexico and Japan, tributes to Mary’s donkey and Christmas trees, and the Christmas Gospel. It was the soundtrack to the NBC television special broadcast on December 22, 1963, without commercial interruption.

 Merry Christmas by Johnny Mathis (1958). His version of “Winter Wonderland” was a hit single in the UK and the album was on the Billboard 200 in 1959, 1960 and 1962. My mother was devastated when she found out he was gay, but she still loved his music.

W.T. Grant’s A Very Merry Christmas, Volume 3 (1966 or 1967). This compilation was only available through the now-defunct W.T. Grant department stores. I remember it for Percy Faith’s “Angels We Have Heard On High,” Mahalia Jackson’s version of “Silver Bells,” and Jim Nabors’ “Three Wise Men, Wise Men Three.” I didn’t know that Gomer Pyle could sing!

 Reader’s Digest’s Joyous Noel (1968). This was a four-record set with singers long-past (Enrico Caruso, John McCormack, Marian Anderson, Fritz Kreisler), recent-past (Kate Smith, Mario Lanza, George Beverly Shea, Spike Jones), and then-current (John Gary, Perry Como, Harry Belafonte, Lorne Greene, Vaughan Monroe) among many others. It also had the uncensored version of Glenn Miller’s “Jingle Bells,” with the verse about Mexicans sitting around all day listening to music and drinking tequila. I managed to find a copy on e-Bay a few years ago.

 Christmas With The Norman Luboff Choir (1964). I bought this after hearing “Do You Hear What I Hear?” on the Reader’s Digest album. The only time I’d seen this album in CD format was in the post exchange at the Grand Forks Air Force Base in 1991. I bought it for about nine bucks; Amazon.com was selling a new one for $255.99 at the time I wrote this.

I’d like to know if anyone else has favorite Christmas albums.