So what's going on this week? Christmas, that's what! Even the feature articles from the shiny section have the Yule spirit, from an epic Christmas poem by Allan Sherman that manages to work in the names of almost every series on TV ("Hail and greetings of the season/to Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleazon") to a profile of model turned aspiring actress Chris Noel (to borrow from Norelco, even her name spells Christmas) to a pictorial for The Story of Christmas, which featured an epic animated sequence I first wrote about back at the motherblog.
Despite the fact that we all know what Christmas programs are really for - that is, to move merchandise - there's still no shortage of festive programming on Christmas week. Jackie Gleason's Saturday night show includes the Valley Youth Chorale of Brooklyn, and Jackie's reading of Bishop Fulton Sheen's "Prayer for Peace." An hour later, Lawrence Welk's music makers through their own Yuletide bash, and Joey Bishop's sitcom has its own seasonal show, with friends squabbling over who's going to play Santa for the baby's first Christmas.
Sunday features an early morning (9am CT) CBS special, "To Men of Good Will," featuring opera stars Roberta Peters and Charles Anthony as soloists in Hugh Wolf's cantata "Christmas Night" (you can hear that piece here), a replay of NBC's "Coming of Christ" special (which I mentioned last week), and the Wonderful World of Disney's delightful "From All of Us to All of You," which you can still find if you look hard enough:
The evening concludes with two classics: the aforementioned Story of Christmas with Tennessee Ernie Ford, and the famous (or infamous, if you prefer) Judy Garland Christmas Show. Now, I have both of these and I'll be watching them tomorrow night (assuming you're reading this Saturday). Joanna Wilson tells us about the show here, while you can catch it below:
St. Olaf College is justifiably famed for its annual Christmas Festival, which is an annual standard on public radio and television, but even in 1963 they could be counted on for an appearance on KTCA, the local educational channel. This year's program, on Monday night, consists of a half-hour of Yuletide songs, and is an excellent warmup for NBC's Sing Along With Mitch Christmas show at 9pm. Oh, and there are Christmas-themed episodes of Andy Griffith and Danny Thomas as well.
Christmas Eve brings us a 5pm concert by the Southwest High School choir on Channel 5, a performance of Handel's Messiah on Channel 2, and Red Skelton's Christmas show, including the annual showing of Freddie the Freeloader and the rag doll (played by Cara Williams). In 1963 it's being broadcast in color, but here's an earlier, black-and-white version.
There's another hour of Christmas music on Channel 2 at 9pm, up against Garry Moore's Christmas show on CBS, and Bell Telephone Hour's annual Christmas program, hosted once again by Jane Wyatt. In case you're wondering, yes - Jane does read the story of the Nativity, as she did in last week's Guide.
Christmas Eve wraps up with five - count 'em, five - church services, which indicates more than anything, I think, how the perception and portrayal of religion on television has changed over the years. After a program of Christmas music on NBC (in place of Johnny Carson), Midnight Mass is telecast live from St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Meanwhile, CBS offers a United Church of Christ service from Washington, D.C., ABC has a double-header - an Episcopal service from St. John the Divine in New York City, followed by Midnight Mass from the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, and Channel 11 gets into the act with a midnight service from Dr. Reuben K. Youngdahl's Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. (I talked about the good Doctor a bit here.)
There was still Christmas programming to be had on Christmas Day itself. At 10am, NBC has its annual telecast of the Episcopal service from the National Cathedral in Washington, at 7pm Channel 4 has a half-hour of music from the same Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church*, NBC broadcasts its annual presentation of Amahl and the Night Visitors at 8pm in an all-new production that would wind up severing the relationship between the network and composer Gian Carlo Menotti (see here for details), and Channel 5 follows that with an hour of local Christmas shows - a skating show from the Figure Skating Club of Minneapolis, and a concert by the Maurice Le Gault Chorale. And at 10pm, Channel 11 shows Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire - all in all, not a bad way to end the day, don't you think?
*Since Channel 4 was the regular home of Dr. Youngdahl's daily inspirational program, perhaps they wanted to reinforce that relationship, seeing as how the Christmas Eve service was broadcast on Channel 11.
Something that I find interesting about Christmas week programming is what happens to regularly scheduled series. As you probably know from looking at the TV listings, non-reruns are hard to find during the holidays, but thus was not always the case. Variety shows used the week to do their Christmas programs, of course, and in the case of shows such as Red Skelton's, the episode could be repeated yearly (and was probably demanded by the show's viewers). Series such as Andy Griffith had a Christmas episode or two that they'd done during the series' early years, which would pop up in reruns. Even Dr. Kildare had a Christmas episode, though it isn't shown this week.
But take a show like The Fugitive, one that isn't likely to have a feel-good Christmas story - what happens to it? Well, in this case, it was business as usual. Not only did ABC air a first-run episode on Christmas Eve, it was one of the show's seminal episodes - "The Girl from Little Egypt," the story that more than any other tells the backstory of The Fugitive. Our hero, Dr. Richard Kimble, recovering from being hit by a car, drifts in and out of consciousness - and his unconscious self mumbles the story of who Kimble is and how he came to be tried and convicted for his wife's murder. I find it extraordinary that such a pivotal episode as this would be shown on Christmas Eve, up against two holiday programs. But then, as I'm always reminding myself, things were different back then.
A handful of scattered programming notes from the rest of the week - Joan Crawford makes a rare television appearance on Friday night's Route 66. Also on Friday, there's an episode of Jack Paar's show that features both Jonathan Winters and Peter Ustinov - I would have liked to have seen that. Ronald Reagan's emergence into the political scene continues as he hosts a syndicated documentary, The Truth About Communism, that appears Thursday evening on Channel 11.
This is the part of our weekly review where one of our favorite features usually appears - Sullivan vs. The Palace. But before The Hollywood Palace can begin, the ill-fated Jerry Lewis Show has to come to an end. Lewis' two-hour talk/variety show is one of the more celebrated flops in television history (Kliph Nesteroff provides many of the gory details here), and this Saturday it airs its final episode, which has the potential of actually being pretty good: a two-man show featuring Lewis and Sammy Davis, Jr. However, . . . Starting on January 4, the first half of Lewis' timeslot will be taken over by Palace and its frequent host, Bing Crosby.
Everything isn't all holiday cheer, though. A somber note hangs over Sunday; at 3:30 that afternoon, NBC and CBS provide coverage of President Johnson participating in a candle-lighting service at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the one-month anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Johnson himself makes a few remarks, and is followed by singer Marion Anderson.
Later in the afternoon, at 5:30, Johnson appears again to light the National Christmas Tree on the White House lawn, carried live on NBC. It may seem late to be doing this only three days before Christmas (by comparison, this year it was done on December 6), but the lighting had been delayed until the end of the official 30-day period of mourning for Kennedy; presumably, had Christmas fallen during that period, the tree would have remained dark. The very lateness in the season of this ceremony must have rendered it somewhat bittersweet.
You can see footage from these two ceremonies below.
Bowl season: this week's edition looks a lot like that from last week. We've got the Liberty Bowl (being played for the fifth and final time in Philadelphia; after a one-year stopover in Atlantic City, the game settles down in its current home of Memphis) and the Bluebonnnet Bowl, being joined today by one of the then-frequent all-star games, the 16th annual North-South Shrine Bowl from Miami. Back in the days before endless bowl games and around-the-clock televised football, the all-star games provided both fans and scouts a glimpse of very good players on teams that weren't quite good enough (or prominent enough) to make it to one of the bowl games. Considering that Pittsburgh, 9-1 and the nation's #4 ranked team, wasn't even invited to a bowl, this means there was some pretty good talent out there - more than enough to fill several games' worth of rosters.
Sunday's pro scene is barren, to say the least. The NFL, which you might recall chose to play the weekend of JFK's assassination, has wrapped up the regular season, with the Bears and Giants in the off-week before next Sunday's championship showdown. (There were no playoffs back then either, just two divisions whose winners played for the title.) On the other hand, the AFL, which had postponed its games on November 24th, is in its final weekend, and viewers are treated to a shootout between the Houston Oilers and Oakland Raiders, with the Raiders outlasting the Oilers 52-49. Sounds like one of this season's games, doesn't it?
Finally, a word about TV Guide itself. I'm quite fond of this issue, as you might have gathered; not only are many of the programs in it available via DVD or YouTube, it's just bursting with Christmas cheer. It even includes an ad with "Holiday Greetings" from the writers and editorial staff of TV Guide. From the advertising to the cover itself, there's no doubt about the season.
Sadly, such is no longer the case. As you can see from this assortment of TV Guide covers, Christmas is now just another day in the publishing business.
By the late 70s the word "Christmas" had disappeared from the cover, replaced by a generic Christmas tree shorn of any particular religious significance; by 1983 the cover wasn't even about "Christmas" - the story was about The Love Boat, with a wreath (where the ship's anchor would be) the only sign of the season. By the end of the 80s even that had vanished. To be fair, there is a "Holiday Preview" that appears early in December with details on programs airing through the season, but as you can see, the wishy-washy "Holiday" has taken center stage.
I know that one can't live entirely in the past; hell, the fact that I'm using social media to write about this, typing on my laptop while watching one of the 150+ TV stations we get through cable, is proof enough of that. You have to adapt to survive. And, as my recent stay in the hospital illustrates, I'm much happier with the medical technology of today than I would have been with that which existed during the time of my favorite programs.
Still, I can't keep from mourning a time that no longer exists. Whenever I watch a vintage Christmas show for the first time, it's a thrill - whether the show's any good or not, it's new. (No matter how much I love Bing Crosby, seeing him host his 1966 Christmas show on Hollywood Palace for the 20th time can get kind of tired.) And that's what saddens me about television today; back in the 50s and 60s, the shows were new. Since you couldn't watch them year after year (unless they were repeated), new product had to be generated each season.
Now, we're stuck with a finite amount of supply. With the exception of the odd special every few years, there's little new Christmas programming that's actually memorable. NBC's recent live Sound of Music broadcast may not have been any good (I can't say; I didn't see it, and don't really like Sound of Music anyway), but it was an event. That's one of the things that made Christmas programming special back then. And that, as much as anything, is what we're missing today.