January 3, 2024

WCCO's Miracle on 9th Street, 1974 - local programming the way it should be

When I was growing up, and for many years thereafter, WCCO, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis-St. Paul, was considered one of the best hard news stations in the United States, and one that took seriously the admonition to provide meaningful public affairs programming to the community. Over the years, the station won five Peabody awards for local programming, and produced documentaries on Vietnam, Northern Ireland, and other heavyweight topics, always looking at the Minnesota angle to the story.

They were also one of the few stations to use the Prime Time Access Rule for the purpose for which it was originally intended, at least for one night a week. Moore on Sunday, a kind of local 60 Minutes, featured in-depth providing the kind of in-depth reporting and commentary that we often say we want from our local stations yet seldom watch; the show ran for two decades and itself won a Peabody. The host of Moore on Sunday was Dave Moore, the legendary anchorman for WCCO from 1957 to 1991, a man who could project the gravitas that is missing so often in local news today.

And yet, that was In addition to being a newsman, Moore was also an amateur actor, occasionally appearing in local theaters. He usually expressed his natural haminess through The Bedtime Nooz, his satirical news spoof that ran late Saturday nights during the '60s and early '70s. However, on December 22, 1974, Moore on Sunday presented something quite extraordinary for a local public-affairs program: an original comedy-drama entitled Miracle on 9th Street.

Miracle on 9th Street (named after the then-location of WCCO's studios) displays the satire typical of The Bedtime Nooz, criticizing the commercialism of Christmas (including the station's own role in it), with wonderful over-the-top performances by weatherman Bud Kraehling as the evil toy manufacturer, Ron Meshbesher, one of the Twin Cities' most prominent attorneys, playing himself as Kris Kringle's defense attorney, and real-life members of WCCO's news team (reporter Rod Challenger, commentator Al Austin, and station manager Sherm Headley). It's filled with inside jokes aimed at Minnesotans of the era, but the gist of the story is as timeless as the movie it spoofs, Miracle on 34th Street. Most of all, it's Moore's portrayal of Kris Kringle, a mix of off-the-wall comedy and poignant warmth, that carries the day.

The story, in a nutshell: Kris Kringle is an elderly man (with white hair and beard), stranded in the Twin Cities when his Amtrak train is forced to layover due to budget cuts. Meanwhile, at the studios of WCCO, the director of a local kids' show is forced to scramble when the announcer scheduled to play Santa (John Gallos) is injured after a picture of Laurel and Hardy falls on his head, knocking him out.* Seeing Kris passing by the studio, the director begs him to substitute for the injured Gallos and play Santa. All he has to do is give each child in the studio audience a toy from the Tuffy Toy Company. 

*The video showing Gallos being hit by the picture is real, having happened while Gallos was hosting the weekly Laurel & Hardy show. It was one of the Twin Cities' most well-known bloopers.

Everything proceeds according to plan until, while giving one of the children a toy robot, Kris notices how poorly made and potentially dangerous the toy is, and calls out Tuffy Toys on the air. The owner of the company, Hiram Blye (Kraehling), is outraged by Kris's criticism of his company, and promptly files a $1 million slander suit against WCCO and Kris, a case that is due to go to trial just before Christmas.

Much as the original Miracle on 34th Street, Miracle on 9th Street functions on multiple levels, eschewing sentimentality in favor of a comedic/satiric parody. In the case of 9th Street, the satire is mostly expressed inwardly, as a spoof of the television business: the director consulting a notebook to make sure he uses the right technical jargon, the banal questions asked by reporters, and most of all the kowtowing to station sponsors. Moore and Kraehling do double-duty, playing themselves during the WCCO newscast as well as their characters in the story, in scenes that are shot on tape, using WCCO's actual news set and graphics. (Imagine today's local anchors deigning to do the same.) In one memorable scene that could have come straight out of The Bedtime Nooz, WCCO reporter Rod Challenger is doing his standup in front of the Hennepin County Government Center when a beautiful young woman walks past him. The cameraman ignores Challenger entirely, following the woman as she continues walking, returning to Challenger only when the annoyed reporter stops talking.

One of my favorite moments occurs later in the report, when Challenger interviews Kringle as part of his story:

Voiceover: During an interview, we asked Kringle what he thought his chances were of being acquitted in the million-dollar libel action scheduled to begin tomorrow in Hennepin County District Court.

Challenger: Mr. Kringle, what do you think your chances are of being acquitted in the million-dollar libel action scheduled to begin tomorrow in Hennepin County District Court?

Kringle: Oh, not bad.

Later, Challenger notes how, with three days to go until Christmas, defense attorney Meshbesher requests a delay in the proceedings "so that his client could attend to some important prior commitments," business that Kringle was reluctant to discuss it in open court "for fear people would laugh." The judge invites Kringle to approach the bench to explain it in confidence; Kringle does so, but "the judge laughed and denied the motion." As Challenger does the voiceover, the report is accompanied by sketches from a courtroom artist (cameras in the courtroom being decades away).

Al Austin, WCCO's editorial journalist and investigative reporter, also has fun spoofing his well-known liberal views, attacking the "powerful Toy Lobby in Washington" in an almost word-for-word parody of his frequent gun control commentaries, simply replacing the word "guns" with "toys." Austin slams dangerous toys as "cheap Saturday morning specials," and concludes with his call that "all toys should be registered." We then see Blye, who has just viewed Austin's editorial, calling the station's editorial feedback line, identifying himself as an "average" viewer and going on to refer to Austin as "a no-good, filthy, pinko, radical idiot." Such satire is the equal of anything in Miracle on 34th Street, all the more amazing because it's being done by the very industry and personalities it targets. 

*Pretty much the same thing my mother called him every time he delivered one of his editorials.

I enjoy this for so many reasons: the multi-leveled satire, the attention to detail in the faux news reports, the in-jokes that Minnesotans would get but that aren't necessary in order to appreciate the show. Most of all, I marvel at the idea of a half-hour comedy being done by a local station, using the station's own personnel, on a public affairs program produced by that same local station. It shows the kind of commitment to the community that the FCC valued so highly back in the day, and which is so lacking now—just like the kids' shows, local movie hosts, and variety shows that have almost entirely bitten the dust. And it isn't even the only time WCCO did something like this; among others, there was One Who Stole at Christmas in 1982 and The Gift of the Magi in 1984.

At a time when informercials and syndicated garbage take up non-network hours and some local stations are shuttering their news operations, it's good to take a look back at the way stations used to operate. Will we ever see anything ljke it again? TV  


  1. Is this on YouTube by chance? It would be worth spending 1/2 hour (or less for commercial-free) watching it.

    1. It is; the link should be in the article, but here it is otherwise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OALp0EpIk0


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!