January 18, 2023

What I've been watching: December, 2022

In the Hadley household, once the calendar turns to December 1 the entire primetime lineup changes. No more Judd, for the Defense or Star Trek. Say goodbye to Hawaiian Eye and Surfside Six. Call a truce with Combat! For during the month of December, the schedule is turned over exclusively to Christmas programming. And so it is here.

One of the things that most interests the cultural archaeologist in his examination of Christmas past is the Christmas variety show, and thanks to YouTube, we have an amazing assortment from which to choose. I'm constantly making the point here, so much so that you're probably long since sick of it, that the surest way to understand and appreciate a particular era is to watch how it's portrayed on the television of the time. The specific benefit, aside from presenting us with original artists and songs instead of cheap imitations, is that we get to see what Christmas plausibly looked like in the 1960s and '70s, rather than what we in the 2000s think it should have looked like.

The Cowsills on Sullivan in 1967. Dig that white wreath!    
And so, as you make your way through the decades watching Andy and Bing and Bob Hope and Ed Sullivan and the rest, you see when white flocked trees were all the rage, or ones made of silver aluminum or pink plastic. You see pine garlands strung across downtown streets with lights in every store window and bells hanging from streetlights; you see families gathered around the piano singing carols. (And you see the United Nations Children's Choir, which appeared everywhere.) Again, not everyone experienced this—maybe most people didn't. But it wouldn't have seemed out of place for them to see it on TV.

Speaking of color, by the mid 1960s many of these shows are being taped in color, and the art directors know how to make the most of it. I have no idea if people in the Victorian era dressed as colorfully as they do in the specials that try to recreate the feel of a Charles Dickens Christmas, but the palettes in these specials look absolutely wonderful. Not all of these shows survive in color, but enough of them do to remind us of how special color television was back then, how vivid the colors were and how they popped right off the screen. There probably wasn't anything comparable until high definition came along. And the sets—the detail, or the illusion of detail created by the set designers—brought back the hum of a midcentury Christmas in the city, with store windows decorated for Christmas and shoppers crowding the sidewalks. It's something that Gen Z probably wouldn't get (and wouldn't care about), but this is the Christmas I grew up with, and there's something special about seeing it, whether you're watching Andy Williams, Red Skelton, Tennessee Ernie Ford, or The Bell Telephone Hour

Because of YouTube, there are a lot of shows to choose from, meaning you don't have to watch the same ones year after year after year. As I mentioned to someone a while back, there are no less than ten Perry Como specials from the 1960s and '70s on YouTube, most of which have never been commercially released. And while several Bing Crosby specials have come out on DVD, there are even more to be found online. Now, unless you're the biggest Perry Como fan alive, you're not going to watch all ten of them this year; we chose the 1974 and 1983 specials, but we could watch two different shows each year and be covered for five years. Incidentally, the 1983 special, new to us, included an extraordinary look at a Christmas celebration you probably wouldn't see on commercial TV today—a dinner that Perry threw for his guest stars and the entire production team at the home of friend and restaurant owner Andrew Balducci. Of course, with a name like Balducci, you figure they're Italian Catholics, as was Perry, so dinner featured everyone saying grace and making the sign of the Cross, and the program concluded with Perry singing sacred songs at St. Patrick's Cathedral. The reason for the season.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
As part of a totally nerdish desire to reproduce a night's worth of entertainment on NBC, we watched almost exactly what the network aired on December 19, 1968The Little Drummer BoyThe Andy Williams Christmas Show (we substituted 1966 for 1968, because that's what's on YouTube), The Bob Hope Christmas Special, and The Dean Martin Christmas Show. It was fun to see them at the same time and in the same order they aired, as possibly the people who lived in our house in 1968 did. Continuing the theme, we added Hope's Vietnam Christmas show, which aired in January 1969. YouTube also has other Christmas shows from Andy, Bob, and Dean, of course, so we're well-set for awhile. 

The year's viewing also included Christmas shows from Jimmy Dean (1963), Lawrence Welk (1965), Mitch Miller (1961), Garry Moore (1959), Judy Garland (1962), Bing Crosby (The Hollywood Palace, 1966), Frank Sinatra with guest Bing Crosby (1957), and Steve Allen (1961), and animated specials like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town, among others. There were also Christmas episodes of Dragnet ("The Big Little Jesus), Ozzie and Harriet, Jack Benny, Green Acres, and Liberace, to name a few. The quality of these shows varies, just like all television does, and the guests on the variety shows may or may not be to your taste. But one thing is certain: after you've watched one, you won't be able to say you're not in the Christmas spirit.

Besides our favorites, I try every year I track down a new addition or two to add to the viewing list. It seems as if I'm always able to come up with one or two new shows, and it always leaves me convinced that I've milked this for all it's worth, that there won't be any more new ones. Of course I'm wrong; it seems as if I'm always discovering something new (to me, anyway), and this year was no exception. This year we watched 1954's "Babes in Toyland," a delightful adaptation of Victor Herbert's operetta that originally aired live on Max Liebman Presents, utilizing a framing device with Dave Garroway as a department store Santa telling the story to a lost little girl while waiting for her mother to pick her up. Garroway was charming, a real example of the Master Communicator at work, and it was an impressive look at a live production from the early days of television. The kinoscope is in black-and-white, but thanks to Jodie Peeler's picture on the header (a picture from Today with Garroway with Florence Henderson), we can imagine what it must have looked like in color.

Look at the use of color in the Skelton show.  
There was also a color video of the 1962 Red Skelton Show Christmas episode, featuring Red's famous "Freddie and the Yuletide Doll" sketch with Cara Williams. You may have seen this sketch on a black-and-white public domain release, but this video is not only much clearer, it includes the entire episode, with dancer Roberta Lubell, the Mitchell Boychoir, the Modernaires, and Red's monologue. And since it's on the YouTube channel of the Red Skelton Museum (located here in the great state of Indiana), you can be sure it's not going to be taken down due to a copyright claim. 

The Curious Case of Santa Claus is an Australian program from 1982 that uses a documentary style to show how Santa has evolved from the real-life St. Nicholas to Father Christmas to Clement Clarke Moore's "The Night Before Christmas," and how different cultures celebrate him. The story is told by Santa himself (James Coco), who seeks a psychiatrist (Jon Pertwee) because he's suffering from an identity crisis. It contains some very funny digs at the psychiatric profession (when Santa complains about seeing "imposters" on street corners and in department stores, Pertwee asks if he's suffering from multiple personality syndrome); Doctor Who fans will smile every time Pertwee's referred to as "The Doctor." I've had this program on DVD for years, recorded from A&E back when they actually had some class, but this year I watched it on YouTube; imagine my surprise when I found this version contained scenes that had been edited from the A&E presentation for time. It was like seeing it for the first time!

It's not all about TV though, notwithstanding the title of this blog; we watched our annual movies: Miracle on 34th Street, The Bishop's Wife, Going My Way, Holiday Inn, White Christmas, We're No Angels, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and two versions of A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott and Sir Seymour Hicks); we also saw a couple for the first time (The Great Rupert and Come to the Stable). All in all, a good year, and I'm hoping to add some new shows next year. 

At the It's About TV YouTube channel, I have a playlist devoted to Christmas specials; a couple of shows don't allow you to save to a playlist, but the rest of them are all there, and it will get updated from time to time during the year, so feel free to check it out. I hope you'll be introduced to some new traditions there.

As I write this, we're about to start watching Combat!, which you should be able to read about at this same time next month, when I'll be writing about the regular shows I've been watching. TV  

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