Sunday, December 25, 2005

Yuletide TV Specials

About a year or two before my mother's death, she asked the question one December, "Why aren't they showing any Christmas specials?" I must admit that she wasn't the only one to notice that since the Eighties the American networks have not shown much in the way of Yuletide programming. Indeed, it seems to me that the only Christmas specials to air of late have been the perennial Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman.

It wasn't always like this. I remember that when I was growing up the networks would fill the airwaves in December with holiday special after holiday special, instead of reruns. Even regularly scheduled TV series would have their holiday episodes. In fact, I daresay that in the weeks leading up to December 25, not one night of primetime television did not have at least one holiday oriented show.

I have no idea what the first Christmas TV special was on television, but it seems to me that it may well have pre-dated the start of regular network broadcasts in the late Forties. At any rate, the networks started showing Christmas specials very early in the history of American television. One of the earliest was Amahl and the Night Visitors. In 1951 NBC commisioned composer Gian Carlo Menotti to write a Yuletide opera. The result was the tale of a handicapped young man who lived along the way to Bethlehem. They had difficulty finding a sponsor until Hallmark cards stepped in. Amahl and the Night Visitors became the very first Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation.

Of course, in the early days of network programming, Amahl and the Night Visitors was an exception to the rule. Most Yuletide specials were not dramatic presentations, but usually variety shows hosted by the biggest celebrities of the day. Bob Hope did his first Christmas special on NBC in 1954. His last one would be in 1993. Not to be outdone, Hope's comedy partner/rival Bing Crosby also had his fair share of Christmas specials. Beginning in 1955, Crosby began an annual tradition that would continue until 1977, the year that he died. A short list of the celebrities who had Christmas specials at any given time would include Andy Williams, The Carpenters, The Muppets, Judy Garland, and many others.

Among the earliest of these sorts of TV speicals was one aired December 25, 1950 on NBC. One Hour in Wonderland marks Walt Disney's first entrance into television, as well as one of the earliest examples of a major studio cooperating with the TV industry. The special was essentially a one hour promo for Disney's animated version of Alice in Wonderland. The basic concept of the special was that ventriloquist Edgar Bergen took his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd to a Christmas party held by Disney. There they got to see clips of Alice in Wonderland and other goodies. Disney followed this special up a year later, on December 25, 1951, with The Walt Disney Christmas Show, which was essentially a one hour promo for the studio's animated version of Peter Pan.

For the most part these Christmas specials engaged in the usual sentimentality associated with the season, although they could sometimes have some truly surreal moments. Among the strangest was in Bing Crosby's final, 1977 Christmas special, in which the crooner sang a duet of "The Little Drummer Boy"/"Peace on Earth" with glam rocker David Bowie! Stranger still was Mel Torme's appearance on Judy Garland Show Christmas Special from 1964. Garland refers to Torme as "Mort" and it seems all too clear that the two weren't getting along at the time. Perhaps even more surreal is the fact that Andy Williams' former wife, Claudette Longet, continued to appear on his specials long after they divorced. Longet was later convicted of her lover's murder.

The nature of Christmas specials changed dramatically in 1962 when NBC aired Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. It was the first animated special produced for American television. Created by animation studio UPA in 1949, Quincy Magoo was a bullheaded and near sighted old curmudgeon who was constantly in out and of trouble. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, Magoo was at the height of his popularity. It was then logical that Timex would sponsor a holiday special featuring the old coot. The concept of the special was simple--on Broadway Magoo played the role of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. The special proved popular enough to result in a regular series for Mr. Magoo, which ran for one season on primetime in 1964. The special itself became an annual event on NBC for several years.

Despite the success of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, it would not be the special that would create a stampede towards animated holiday shows in the Sixties and Seventies. That would be left to Rankin/Bass and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Rudolph was created in 1939 as part of a Montgormery Ward advertising campaign. He became even more famous in 1949 when Johnny Marks immortalised him in song. After Rankin/Bass produced the stop-motion animated series of shorts Tales of the Wizard of Oz, Arthur Rankin Jr. approached Marks about turning the hit song into a TV special. Marks was reluctant at first, but eventually gave in. The result was the most enduring Christmas special of all time. It has aired every year since its debut on NBC in 1964--a total of 41 years!

The success of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer would lead Rankin/Bass to produce other specials, many for Christmas and other holidays. Among the Yuletide specials they produced were A Cricket on the Hearth (1967), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970), and The Year Without Santa Claus (1974). Most of their output consisted of stop-motion animation, just as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was. Ironically, their second most famous holiday special would be done in cel animation. Frosty the Snowman, debuting in 1969, was not their first special done in cel animation, but it may be the most famous. It was based on the hit song and retold the story of the snowman come to life. Like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, it has aired every year on one of the American networks ever since.

With the success of Rankin/Bass's holiday specials, many others entered the field. By the mid-Sixties and well in the Seventies, December was filled with animated Christmas shows. Besides Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, the most successful may well be A Charlie Brown Christmas. In the mid-Sixties, the comic strip Peanuts was at the height of its success. Indeed, the Peanuts gang first appeared on television in 1960 in commercials for the Ford Falcon. In 1964 Lee Mendelson began a never to be completed documentary on Charles Shultz, the creator of Peanuts. It was not long after that Coca-Cola approached Mendelson about doing an animated Christmas special featuring the Peanuts gang. Animator Bill Melendez, who had produced the Ford Falcon ads and provided animated segments for Mendelson's documentary, was hired to do the animation. Despite the popularity of Peanuts at the time, A Charlie Brown Christmas very nearly did not make it on the air. CBS executives hated the special and worried about the show's religious content (for those very few of you who have never seen it, at one point Linus quotes the story of Jesus' birth from the New Testament). Fortunately, it was too late for CBS to change their schedule and the show went on as planned. It debuted on December 9, 1965 and has aired every year ever since. It aired on CBS for over 30 years before ABC outbid CBS for the rights to air A Charlie Brown Christmas and other Peanuts specials.

Another holdiay classic was brought to us courtesy of the greatest children's author (and the greatest poet) of the 20th century and arguably the greatest animator as well. In 1957 Dr. Seuss published How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the tale of how a holiday loathing individual (the Grinch) attempted to take Christmas from the innocent inhabitants of Whoville. The book became a bestseller and Seuss's best known work. Animator Chuck Jones (best known for his work with Warner Brothers) and Seuss had worked together on the Private Snafu training films for the U.S. Army during World War II. It was perhaps inevitable that Jones would approach his old friend Seuss about turning his best selling book into an animated Christmas special. Seuss provided the script for the special, an expanded version of his book. Boris Karloff, famed monster star, narrated the special, while Thurl Ravencroft (best known as Tony the Tiger) provided the vocals for the song "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." Jones gifted the special with his usual over the top animation style. How the Grinch Stole Christmas debuted on December 18, 1966 to critical acclaim. It even won a Peabody award. It was a holiday tradition for many, many years.

If there was a golden age for Christmas specials on American television, it was probably the mid-Sixties. At this time several major celebrities of the era hosted their own specials, among them Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Perry Como, and so on. It must also be pointed out that the three of the most famous Christmas specials debuted within a three year period in the mid-Sixties: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1964, A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966. I don't think any three year period before or since has produced as many holiday classics as the years between 1964 and 1966.

Sadly, as the Sixties gave way to the Seventies and the Seventies to the Eighties, fewer and fewer Christmas specials aired on the networks. I rather believe that part of this may be because much of the old guard had died--Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Jack Benny, and so on--and younger celebrities didn't seem much interested in doing television. At the same time the price of animation (both cel and stop motion) went up, so that animated holiday specials were more expensive to produce. At any rate, it seems to me that by the time I graduated high school, the Christmas specials of old had largely given way to reruns of regularly scheduled TV series in December.

Even as someone who celebrates Yule rather than Christmas, this seems very sad to me. As a child much of the Yuletide spirit was generated by those old holiday specials. Indeed, I got a good deal of enjoyment out of them. I can remember looking forward to seeing Rudolph... and A Charlie Brown Christmas each year. I can even remember the night Frosty the Snowman debuted--it was a Sunday and we had just visited relatives that afternoon. It saddens me that many children today will miss the enjoyment of the old holiday specials, having to make due with only the three perennials: Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman (even the Grinch has disappered from network airwaves). The old holiday specials were certainly better than reruns...

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