Monday, 19 December 2016

Christmas Variety Specials on American Television

There was a time when the schedules of the American broadcast networks would be filled with Christmas variety specials during the month of December. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Christmas variety specials, they were essentially Christmas specials in the form of variety shows. They were generally hosted by big names in music or comedy. Over the years artists ranging from Judy Garland to The Carpenters hosted Christmas variety specials. The typical Christmas variety special would feature plenty of music and often some comedy skits as well.

Although they are relatively rare on American broadcast television today, from the Fifties to the Seventies Christmas variety specials were incredibly popular. For the week of December 9 to 14 in 1974, Bob Hope's Christmas special was the number one programme on the air. His old friend Bing Crosby's Christmas special was the third ranked show for the week. For the week of December 7 to 13 in 1975 no less than four Christmas variety specials ranked in the top ten programmes for the week. Bob Hope's Christmas special was the second highest rated show for the week, while John Denver's Christmas special came in at number 3 and Dean Martin's Christmas special came in at number. 4. Mac Davis's Christmas special lagged behind at a still very respectable number 7 for the week.

The tradition of Christmas variety specials actually began in the days of Old Time Radio. Many radio shows would have Christmas-themed editions that aired during the holiday season. Bing Crosby, one of the all time champions when it came to Christmas variety specials, hosted his first Christmas special on radio in 1935 as a special edition of his regular radio show. Mr. Crosby hosted Christmas editions of his radio show until it went off the air in 1954. In 1955 he started an annual tradition of Christmas radio specials that aired under the title of A Christmas Sing with Bing. These specials lasted until 1962. Bing Crosby's old friend Bob Hope also began hosting Christmas specials on radio in the Thirties. The December 20 1938 edition of The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope had a Christmas theme and featured Arthur Lake and Penny Singleton as Blondie and Dagwood, among other guests.

It may well be impossible to say definitively what was the first Christmas variety special to air on the American broadcast television networks. That having been said, it is safe to say that they began very early. Like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, crooner Perry Como was one of the all time champions when it came to Christmas variety specials. It was in 1948 on his own regular show, The Perry Como Chesterfield Supper Club, that he hosted his very first Christmas special. Perry Como hosted one Christmas special a year on The Perry Como Chesterfield Supper Club until 1954. From 1955 to 1958 he hosted one a year on his next show, The Perry Como Show. From 1959 to 1966 he hosted a Christmas special each year on Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall. Afterwards Perry Como continued to host Christmas specials regularly from the late Sixties into the mid-Eighties. His last Christmas variety special, Perry Como's Irish Christmas, aired in 1994.

Bob Hope also hosted Christmas variety specials from the earliest days of television. His very first, Hope for the Holidays, aired on Christmas Eve in 1950. Afterwards Bob Hope hosted Christmas variety specials on a regular basis. In fact, during the Vietnam War there would be some seasons in which he hosted two Christmas variety specials. The first, aired in December, would be one of his typical Christmas variety specials. The second, usually aired in January (well after the holidays), would be a recording of one of his USO shows for the troops in Vietnam. Bob Hope hosted Christmas specials throughout the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. His last Christmas special, Bob Hope's Cross-Country Christmas, aired in 1991.

Oddly enough given how long he had hosted Christmas specials on radio, Bing Crosby would not begin hosting Yuletide variety specials on television until much later than either Perry Como or Bob Hope. He was a guest on the 1957 Christmas edition of The Frank Sinatra Show, titled "Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank". The first of his very own Christmas specials, The Bing Crosby Christmas Show, would not air until 1961. Bing Crosby may have started hosting Christmas specials later than either Perry Como or Bob Hope, but once he got started he hosted either a Christmas special or a Christmas edition of a regular show every year until his final special in 1977. His 1964 Christmas programme was an episode of his short-lived sitcom The Bing Crosby Show. In 1965, 1966, 1967, and 1968 he hosted the Christmas editions of ABC's variety show The Hollywood Palace.

Interestingly enough, Bing Crosby's first Christmas special, The Bing Crosby Christmas Show, and his final Christmas special, Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, bookended each other quite well. Both were filmed in London. Both featured exclusively British guests (Dame Shirley Bassey and Terry-Thomas on the first; Twiggy and David Bowie on the last). English actor Ron Moody was featured prominently in both specials. What makes this even more interesting is that at the time Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas was filmed, no one realised it would be Mr. Crosby's last Christmas special. He died only a few weeks after the special was shot (for more on Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, read my post on it from last year).

Andy Williams would be another one of the all time champions when it came to hosting Christmas variety specials. His own variety show, The Andy Williams Show, debuted in 1962, and he hosted a Christmas edition of the show every year it was on the air until 1967 when it was cancelled, and he did so again when it was revived from 1969 to 1971. In fact, Mr. Williams introduced the now classic Christmas song "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" on the 1963 Christmas edition of his show (the song was written by the show's vocal director, George Wyle, with his writing partner Eddie Pola). Starting in 1973 Andy Williams began hosting Christmas specials on a somewhat regular basis, in addition to appearing as a guest on other performers' specials (most notably Bob Hope and Johnny Cash's specials). His last Christmas special was actually the December 17 1997 Christmas edition of The Daily Show. It was appropriately titled, "The Andy Williams Christmas Special". What amounted to a "greatest hits compilation" of moments from Andy Williams's Christmas specials, Happy Holidays: The Best of The Andy Williams Christmas Shows, aired in 2001.

It would probably take a book to discuss every single Christmas variety special that aired on the American broadcast networks from the Fifties to the Eighties. The Sixties saw Christmas variety specials hosted by such luminaries as Judy Garland, Mitzi Gaynor, Danny Kaye, and the King Family. If anything it seemed as if there were even more Christmas variety specials in the Seventies. Among those hosting Christmas special in the Seventies were such entertainers as The Carpenters, Johnny Cash, Mac Davis, John Denver, Jackie Gleason, and The Muppets. Between December 1 and Christmas Day for much of the Seventies several Christmas variety specials aired during any given week.

Sadly, the Christmas variety specials would go into a swift decline in the Eighties. Such stalwarts as Perry Como, Bob Hope, and Andy Williams continued to host them, but there would be fewer and fewer such specials as the Eighties progressed. By the Nineties the number of Christmas variety specials each year had slowed to a trickle, although a few entertainers, such as Kathie Lee Gifford (who hosted several in the mid-Nineties), carried the tradition on. By the Naughts the Christmas variety special was very nearly extinct.

As to why Christmas variety specials fell out of vogue, there are probably several reasons. Foremost among these may have been changing musical tastes on the part of the American public. The sort of traditional American pop, sung by artists from Bing Crosby to Andy Williams, began to decline in popularity with the rise of rock 'n' roll in the Fifties. As the Fifties became the Sixties and again when the Sixties became the Seventies, American music diversified even further, so that it  became difficult to find a performer who would appeal to a majority of viewers in the way that Perry Como, Bing Crosby, or Andy Williams had. Another problem is that, unlike the crooners before them, most rock artists and R&B artists showed little interest in appearing on television beyond the occasional performance on the variety shows of the era. The Who might appear on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. They probably would not host a Christmas special on American television even if they had been asked.

Another reason for the decline of Christmas variety specials on American television is quite simply that American television itself began to diversify. From the late Forties to the Eighties, American television was dominated by the broadcast networks. It was an era when many communities in the United States had access to as few as two to three TV channels. The Seventies and Eighties saw tremendous growth in cable television and hence cable channels, so that the broadcast networks had competition that they never had before. Through the Eighties, Nineties, and Naughts, the broadcast networks would gradually lose their audience to the numerous cable channels that had emerged. This not only affected the networks' regularly scheduled programmes, but the Christmas variety specials as well. Indeed, even the beloved classic animated specials would feel the brunt of the decline in the broadcast networks' audience, so that ultimately only Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman would air annually to this day without interruption on one of the networks.

Although they are still not as common as they once were, the Teens have seen a bit of a comeback for the Christmas variety special. Indeed, for a time NBC seemed to be trying to bring the format back. Starting in 2011 modern day crooner Michael Bublé has hosted one Christmas special a year on NBC. In 2012  country singer Blake Shelton starred in Blake Shelton's Not So Family Christmas on NBC.In 2013 pop singer Kelly Clarkson hosted Kelly Clarkson's Cautionary Christmas Music Tale.  This year a capella group Pentatonix hosted their own Christmas special on NBC.

NBC is not the only broadcast network to air Christmas variety specials of late. Last year Fox aired Taraji and Terrence's White Hot Holidays, hosted by Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard. Taraji P. Henson hosted a Christmas variety special by herself on Fox this year. Even a streaming service has produced its own original Christmas variety special. Last year Netflix debuted A Very Murray Christmas, a variety special starring Bill Murray that was very much an homage to the variety specials of old.

It is difficult to say whether Christmas variety specials will ever truly make a comeback. At the moment it seems unlikely that they will ever be as common as they were in the Sixties and Seventies. That having been said, it seems possible that they could at least become less rare than they were in the Nineties and the Naughts. After all, there have already been several Christmas variety specials that have aired in the Teens. Christmas variety specials might never be as common as they once were, but it would seem that they are not ready to disappear entirely quite yet.

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