Monday, 21 December 2015

Bing Crosby's Merrrie Olde Christmas

Aside from Gene Autry, perhaps no other celebrity has been so strongly linked to Christmas as Bing Crosby. His biggest hit was a Christmas song, "White Christmas". What is more "White Christmas" was not merely Bing's biggest hit, but remains the biggest selling single of all time seventy three years after its release. What is more he starred in some of the most popular holiday movies of all time: Holiday Inn (1942, in which "White Christmas" originated), Going My Way (1944), The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), and White Christmas (1954). As if that wasn't enough, beginning with radio he hosted Christmas specials each year for literally decades. When he filmed his final Christmas special, Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas in September 1977, I rather suspect very few at the time realised it would be his last.

It was in 1935 that Bing Crosby hosted his first Christmas special, although it was as a special edition of his radio show. He continued to do yearly Christmas editions of his radio show for its entire run, until it went off the air in 1954. In 1955 he began an annual tradition of Christmas specials on radio that aired under the title of A Christmas Sing with Bing. These specials on radio would last until 1962.

Strangely enough for someone who had done Christmas specials on radio for literally decades, Bing Crosby would not start doing Christmas specials on television for many years. He did appear as a guest on a Christmas edition of The Frank Sinatra Show in 1957, "Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank". That having been said, the first of his very own Christmas specials would not air until 1961. Curiously, that special, The Bing Crosby Christmas Show, was filmed on location in London. Among the performers on that special was British actor Ron Moody.  Bing Crosby would appear in a Christmas special every single year for the next sixteen years, although in 1965, 1966, 1967, and 1968 they were editions of the variety show The Hollywood Palace (which Bing often hosted).

It was in September 1977 that Bing Crosby and his family began a tour of the United Kingdom that included two weeks at the London Palladium. It was because of this tour that it was decided that Bing Crosby's 1977 Christmas special would have a British theme. It was filmed at Elstree Studios in London that September. Its guests were entirely British. Ron Moody, who had appeared in Bing Crosby's first television special, played several different roles (including Charles Dickens and a parody of Bob Hope). Other guests included Twiggy, Stanley Baxter, the Trinity Boys Choir, and, most surprisingly, glam rock star David Bowie.

The concept behind Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas was fairly simple. Bing Crosby and his family are invited to spend their Christmas with a distant English relative, Sir Percy Crosby (one of the many characters played by Ron Moody). Over the course of the special two guests show up at Sir Percy's estate, David Bowie and Twiggy. Ron Moody also plays the ghost who haunts the castle, a jester of the Crosby family from centuries ago who is obviously meant to be a parody of Bob Hope.

Aside from the fact that Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas would be his last Christmas special, it is the presence of David Bowie that would ultimately make it the most famous Christmas special Bing Crosby ever did. It had been planned for David Bowie to perform "The Little Drummer Boy" as a duet with Bing Crosby. Unfortunately David Bowie refused to sing the song, even going so far as to say that he hated it. With only hours to go before filming, musical director Ian Fraser, composer Larry Grossman, and script writer Alan Kohan wrote a new song, "Peace on Earth", in only about 75 minutes. David Bowie would then sing "Peace on Earth" as a counterpoint to Bing Crosby singing "The Little Drummer Boy". The sequence was filmed on September 11 1977. For years bootlegs of  "Peace on Earth"/"Little Drummer Boy" by David Bowie and Bing Crosby circulated. At last, in 1982 RCA released "Peace on Earth"/"Little Drummer Boy" as a single. It peaked at no. 3 on the UK singles chart and has remained a staple of American radio stations ever since.

Here it must be pointed out that David Bowie's duet of "Peace On Earth"/"Little Drummer Boy" was not his only appearance on the special. Later in the special Bing Crosby introduced David Bowie's video to his current single, "Heroes". While the  "Peace On Earth"/"Little Drummer Boy" sequence has often been described as surreal, the insertion of a late Seventies rock video into an otherwise rather traditional Christmas variety special seems a bit odd. Still for David Bowie fans (such as myself), it is a treat.

Of course, while Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas is now famous for "Peace on Earth"/"Little Drummer Boy", it featured many more sequences than it. There was also a rather long sequence in which Ron Moody and Twiggy play various characters from Charles Dickens's novels while singing a specially adapted version of "Where Would You Be Without Me?" from The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Twiggy and Bing Crosby also sing a duet of  “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Ron Moody and Bing Crosby also get to sing together as well. In character as Sir Percy, Ron Moody sings Stephen Sondheim's "Side by Side" with Bing and his wife Kathryn. Towards the end of the special there is a sing-along with Bing, his family, Ron Moody, Twiggy, and the Trinity Boys Choir.

Perhaps fittingly and most certainly poignantly given it would be his last Christmas special, Bing Crosby sings "White Christmas". What makes the sequence all the more touching is that the set seems somewhat reminiscent of the "White Christmas" sequence from Holiday Inn, right down to the Christmas tree.

Sadly, Bing Crosby would die not long after the filming of Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas. On October 13 1977 Bing played eighteen holes at the La Moraleja Golf Course not far from Madrid, Spain. During the day Bing Crosby seemed happy and was obliging to photographers and fans. He lost the golf match to his partner by only one stroke. Sadly, that evening Bing Crosby collapsed not far from the clubhouse at  La Moraleja Golf Course. At age 74, Bing Crosby had died from a massive heart attack.

Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas aired five weeks later, on November 30 1977 on CBS. It would be Bing Crosby's last Christmas special.  In many ways it served as a fitting bookend to the first one from 1961. Both were filmed in London. Both featured British guests (Dame Shirley Bassey and Terry-Thomas on the first; Twiggy and David Bowie on the last). Both featured British actor Ron Moody. While it is doubtful that anyone realised it would be Bing Crosby's last Christmas special, in many ways it was fitting that it was.

Today Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas remains Bing Crosby's best remembered Christmas special, primarily because of the presence of David Bowie. That having been said, it should be remembered for much more. It's not even a simple case of it being Bing Crosby's last Christmas special. It was one of the best Christmas specials Bing ever made. Not only does it include the famous "Peace on Earth"/"Little Drummer Boy" sequence, but also some touching renditions of other Christmas songs, including one of Bing Crosby's best renditions of "White Christmas" ever.

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