Saturday, December 31, 2005

Goodbye and Good Riddance, 2005

Tonight is New Year's Eve. I must say that it can't come a moment too soon. This year has not been kind to me. I've written in this blog about the loss of a friend to suicide earlier this year. I also lost one of my aunts by marriage to cancer. I won't bother you with the details of the other tragedies that have happened in my life in 2005. I guess it is sufficient to say that late in the year it seems to me that I lost any chance I had for happiness. In fact, I fear that I might never be happy. There are some things that time simply cannot heal, and there are some situations in which replacements simply will not do. I guess it's too bad that I am not Christian, as then I could enter a monastery. I suppose there is always the French Foreign Legion. *LOL* At any rate, I am really looking forward to 2006. With any luck it will be a better year and my fortunes will change.

With regards to movies, 2005 was a strange year. The entire year saw the box office in a slump, with fewer people going to the movies in 2005 than had in 2004. Quite frankly, I find this curious given many of the films released this year. Some of them were highly anticipated, among them Batman Begins, King Kong, Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and, most of all, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. One would think with that many blockbusters released in one year that the box office would be booming. Of course, I guess the year saw quite a few turkeys as well--just witness the movie adaptation of The Dukes of Hazzard (moral of the story--bad TV shows make for bad movies...).

Television seems to have been a bit disappointing in 2005. With the success of a unique and original show like Lost, I would have thought the networks would have rushed to develop more unique and original shows. Instead what we got this season were more derivative series--two shows about alien invasions, a Medium ripoff, and yet more reality shows. I suppose I underestimated the average network exec's lack of originality. At least the year saw some short lived, yet very good shows finally come out on DVD. Profit, the brilliant series that ran briefly on Fox in April 1996, was released on DVD this August. At last people beyond its cult following would get to see the revolutionary series. Just a few days ago, on December 26, 2005, the cult show Nowhere Man was finally released on DVD. The show ran for one season in 1995 on then fledgeling network UPN. A cross between The Fugitive and The Prisoner, there hasn't been a series like it before or since.

It seems to me that if 2005 is remembered for anything in entertainment, it may be for the loss of a number of television legends. Indeed, a number of sitcom stars died, some of them the biggest names in television history. This was the year that saw the deaths of Eddie Albert (Green Acres), Bob Denver (Gilligan's Island), and Don Adams (Get Smart). A number of well known supporting actors from sitcoms died as well, among them Elisabeth Fraser (The Phil Silvers Show), Barney Martin (Seinfeld), Frank Gorshin (Batman), Leon Askin (Hogan's Heroes), Pat Morita, and Louis Nye (The Beverly Hillbillies). Among the television legends to pass on were Johnny Carson, James Doohan (Scotty on Star Trek), Skitch Henderson (the first bandleader of The Tonight Show), Paul Henning (creator of The Beverly Hillbillies), Ralph Edwards (creator of This is Your Life and Truth or Consequences), and Peter Jennings. The movies lost nearly as many stars as television did: Virigina Mayo, Ruth Warrick, Ossie Davis, Sandra Dee, Theresa Wright, Ernest Lehman (the screenwriter who wrote North by Northwest), Sir John Mills, Anne Bancroft, Barbara Bel Geddes, director Robert Wise, and Richard Pryor. Literature also lost quite a few big names: Evan Hunter (better known by his nom de guerre, Ed McBain), Hunter S. Thompson, Native American activist Vine Deloria Jr., playwright Arthur Miller, and Saul Bellow. Where the art world is concerned, Native American artist R. C. Gorman died. In the field of animation, Disney veteran Joe Grant and Pixar veteran Joe Ranft both died in 2005. As far as comic books are concerned, they lost their biggest name. Will Eisner not only created The Spirit, the superhero Uncle Sam, Blackhawk, The Black Condor, and The Ray, but he also revolutionised comic books, advocated the recognition of comic books as an art form, invented the graphic novel, and made far too many contributions to the art form to be listed briefly. Even in a year which saw the loss of Paul Henning, Johnny Carson, Bob Denver, Evan Hunter, Arthur Miller, and Anne Bancroft, Eisner may arguably have been the most legendary figure to have been lost.

Anyhow, here's hoping that 2006 is a better year than 2005 was. And here's wishing all of you a happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2005

The Nostalgia Wave of the Seventies

Those of you who grew up in the Seventies might remember the wave of Fifties nostalgia that swept that decade. To a large degree this was nothing unusual. The Fifties had seen a wave of nostalgia for the Twenties that produced such TV shows as The Roaring Twenties and The Untouchables. The Nineties also had its own nostalgia wave for the Seventies. I suppose that every decade sees some bit of nostalgia for another decade.

In this case of the Seventies, it must be pointed out that Fifties nostalgia had been bubbling under the surface for some time before it became an outright fad. Fifties revival group Sha Na Na was formed in 1969. They even performed at Woodstock, resulting in a recording contract for the group. In February 1972 the musical Grease opened off Broadway, moving to Broadway later in the year. That same year Fifties rock legend Chuck Berry had his only number one single, "My Ding-a-Ling." Given these events, it would seem that a fad towards Fifties nostalgia was inevitable. It only needed a movie or song to turn it into an outright craze. Ironically, it would be a movie that was not set in the Fifties that would achieve this.

Directed and co-written by George Lucas, American Graffiti almost never got made and, once made, almost didn't get released. United Artists, who had released Lucas's first feature THX 1138, rejected the script for American Graffiti. It would not be until after Lucas's friend Francis Ford Coppola, fresh from the success of The Godfather, stepped into produce the film that Universal agreed to greenlight it. The movie was shown at a preview at the Northpoint Theatre in San Francisco, where audience reaction was fantastic. Despite a great reception from the audience, Universal executive Ned Tanen thought that the film was "unreleasable." It was only after Coppola offered to buy the film for $1 million (it had been made on a meagre $777,000) that Universal decided to release it. The movie proved to be a smash hit, proving to be one of the highest grossing films of the Seventies. Much of its cast, who were then largely unknown, went on to be stars. Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, and others all went onto stardom. And, of course, it established George Lucas's career and allowed him to go on to make Star Wars.

Of course, as stated earlier, American Graffiti does not take place in the Fifties. Instead, the film is set in 1962. There are a few songs from the Fifties on the soundtrack (most notably by Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry), but most of the songs come from the early Sixties ("Barbara Anne" by The Regents, "Surfin' Safari" by The Beach Boys, "See You in September" by The Tempos, and so on). And there is nary a ducktail or leather jacket in sight. Regardless, somehow this film set in the early Sixties spurred a craze for the Fifties.

As pointed out earlier, the Fifties craze was perhaps inevitable. While American Graffiti was drawing people to theatres in droves, another film was being filmed that predicted that craze. In the cult classic Phantom of the Paradise the music entrepreneur Swan (played by Paul Williams) is credited with the nostalgia craze of the Seventies, through his revival band The Juicy Fruits. Indeed, Phantom of the Paradise features a Fifties style song by the Juicy Fruits, as well as a beach music number that sounds like it could have come from the American Graffiti era.

With America Graffiti a hit at theatres, ABC-TV dusted off a pilot set in the Fifties that had aired as an episode of Love American Style. "Love and the Happy Day" featured Ron Winkler (perhaps the only famous person to star in American Graffiti) as Richie Cunningham, the son of a hardware store owner in 1950s Milwaukee. ABC initially rejected the pilot, but reconsidered given the rising nostalgia craze. The show that resulted, Happy Days, would become one of the most successful shows of the Seventies. The series would generate tons of merchandising, most of it centred around the character known as "Fonzie" or "the Fonz (played by Henry Winkler)." Happy Days proved successful enough to produce an equally successful spin off. Laverne and Shirley starred American Graffiti alum Cindy Williams and Penny Marshal as two young, single women working at a Milwaukee beer plant. For several seasons the two series occupied the top of the Nielsens.

With the success of American Graffiti and Happy Days, it was perhaps natural that revival group Sha Na Na, a group which had existed prior to the Fifties craze, should get their own TV series. Their show debuted in 1977 and ran until 1981.

Of course, not every bit of nostalgia in the Seventies was focused on the 1950s. Released in 1978, Animal House took place in the same year as American Graffiti--1962. But while American Graffiti centred on the car culture of California in that year, Animal House centred on the antics of the fraternity known as Delta House. Like American Graffiti, Animal House would also have far reaching impact. It started a cycle towards similar, low humour films (such as Caddyshack) that lasted throughout much of the Eighties.

Like Sha Na Na, the musical Grease predated the Fifties nostalgia craze. The nostalgia craze propelled the musical to even greater heights of success. For a time it would be the longest running show on Broadway. With the nostalgia craze under way, it was natural that it would be adapted as a movie. Released in 1978, the movie Grease featured Olivia Newton John and John Travolta in the starring roles, and included appearances by Fifties pop star Frankie Avalon and revival band Sha Na Na. It would go on to become the highest grossing movie musical of all time.

Grease appears to have been something of a last hurrah for the Fifties nostalgia craze. While nostalgia for the decade has never completely gone away, the fad itself slowly petered out towards the beginning of the Eighties. Both Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley declined in the ratings. Sha Na Na's show went off the air. It is difficult to say why the fad ended. I suspect part of it may had to do with the fact that many people coming of age in the early Eighties were not born until the Fifties had ended and didn't see anything in the decade about which to be nostalgic. I must admit that while I enjoy the music of the decade (Chuck Berry is hard to beat) and I love the cars they made then (tailfins just add something to a car), I have always hated the fashions of the era (poodle skirts and saddle shoes--*bleh*). Perhaps that is why I was never a fan of Happy Days and I have always hated Grease (although the lack of any good songs might have to do with that, too....).

Of course, much of the reason the fad ended may have had to do with why it began as well. In 1973 the United States was still deep in the Vietnam War, a war that was very unpopular with many Americans. The current president, Richard Nixon, was also unpopular, particularly as his administration was racked with controversy due to the Watergate scandal. Many Americans may have felt the need to escape to what they perceived as a simpler time. This was perhaps especially true of those who came of age during the Fifties. As a result, an industry for nostalgia started to grow, with the formation of Sha Na Na and the debut of the musical Grease. The movie American Graffiti tapped into this need to escape to another era and simply turned this need into an outright craze. By the end of the Seventies, the United States was no longer in Vietnam, Nixon was no longer president, and things were perhaps looking up for many people. As a result, many people may have no longer felt the need to escape to another decade.

Perhaps the main reason the Fifties nostalgia fad ended was that it may have simply run its course. By their very nature, fads are transient phenomena. One day coonskin caps are hot sellers; the next day they don't sell at all. Quite simply, many people may have simply tired of being nostalgic about the Fifties.

Regardless, the Fifties nostalgia craze of the Seventies did have some lingering consequences. Many rock stars from the Fifties and early Sixties saw their careers revived and their sales increased. The fad spurred interest in cars from the period, interest which has lasted to this day among automotive enthusiasts. A market was also created for nostalgia movies. From Diner to Dazed and Confused, all of these films owe something to the wave of nostalgia that swept America in the Seventies. Perhaps the most curious result of the nostalgia wave of the Seventies was a brand new phenomenon--people being nostalgic about American Graffiti, Happy Days, Sha Na Na, and so on. For the first time in the history of man, it seems that people are now able to be nostalgic about nostalgia....

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Two Movies Set at Yuletide

When people think of Yuletide movies, they usually think of It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, or A Christmas Story. I can think of two movies set at the holidays that are rarely mentioned when the subject of Christmas movies come up. Both are two of the funniest comedies ever made, while one of them is perhaps the most romantic movie (short of Casablanca) of all time (indeed, I have to say I do identify with its hero...).

The first is The Man Who Came to Dinner, the 1942 classic. The movie was in turn based on the classic play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. the play debuted in 1939 and became an instant success. Both the play and the movie centre on Sheridan Whiteside, radio host, aurhor, lecturer, and insufferable curmudgeon. Visiting a small Ohio town, Whiteside breaks his leg and must stay with one of the upper middle class families there. He then proceeds to turn the family's lives upside down.

The plot takes place from shortly before the Yuletide to Christmas day. That having been said, there is little in the way of holiday sentiment in the movie. Instead it is one of the all time great comedies, with nonstop jokes and gags. Indeed, for those who think that Generation X invented pop culture references, this movie is proof that we didn't. There are references ranging from Sherlock Holmes to a very early reference to Superman. The screenplay, written by Julius and Philip Epstein (best known for Casablanca), is one of the funniest ever written. This is perhaps why, even though the movie is set at Christmas time, it is rarely mentioned with regards to Yuletide movies. People tend to think of it more as a laugh out loud comedy than a holiday film.

The other holiday movie not often mentioned with regards to Christmas is The Apartment. Released in 1960, The Apartment was Billy Wilder's masterpiece. Indeed, it won several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. The Apartment centres on C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a clerk at the huge Consolidated Life Insurance Company in New York City. Baxter has a unique problem. Becuase he once lent his apartment to someone who needed to change for a wedding, he now finds himself lending his apartment to his superiors for their various rendevous. This puts him in good with his bosses, but makes his life miserable otherwise. His life is complicated even further by the torch Baxter carries for elevator operator Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who in turn carries a torch for the head honcho, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, playing a heel for a change).

The Apartment takes place roughly from late November to New Year's Eve (the end of When Harry Met Sally draws a bit on The Apartment. In fact, one of the pivotal points of the plot takes place at Christmas. Despite this, it is rarely mentioned with regards to Yuletide movies. This is perhaps because Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond blended comedy, romance, and drama in the movie's screen play. Indeed, the movie realistically deals with the compromises made in the business world as well as the dysfunctional relationships (such as the one between Sheldrake and Kubelik) that sometimes get in the way of real love. It is not only one of the funniest movies I have ever seen, it is also one of the most romantic movies I have ever seen. One has to have sympathy for C. C. Baxter. Not only has he pined for Miss Kublik for literally ages, but he has the worst romantic rival in the form of his own boss (the vile Mr. Sheldrake). Indeed, it is easy to identify with Baxter. I think a lot of us guys have had the misfortune to stand by helplessly while the women we love get involved with absolute jerks...

It seems odd to me that neither The Man Who Came to Dinner nor The Apartment are often counted among Yuletide movies. In both films the holidays play a part in the plot--Whiteside must prepare for his annual Christmas Eve broadcast, the Consolidated Life Insurance Company's Christmas party has some important plot develoments. Still, they are rarely counted alongside It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Story. I can only figure it is because they do not deal with holiday sentiment (although the same can be said of A Christmas Story as well...). At any rate, for me they count among the great holiday films of all time.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Day After Christmas?

Today is the day after Christmas. Radio stations will stop playing Yuletide carols today. TV stations will stop airing holiday oriented programming. Many will take down their Christmas decorations. In effect, many will behave as if the holidays are over.

It wasn't always this way. There was a time when the Twelve Days of Christmas were observed. I am not sure when this changed. I seem to recall that in A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, Dickens makes reference to Twelfth Night. At any rate, it seems to me that at some point the Twelve Days of Christmas ceased to be observed, and I think I know why. In America, at least, it became conflated with the Christmas shopping season. While the Twelve Days of Christmas, the Yuletide proper, ran from the evening of December 24 (Christmas Eve) to January 6 (Twelfth Night), the Christmas shopping season runs from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Day.

None of this happened over night. Before the Christmas shopping season could overrun the Christmas season, many things had to fall in place. Indeed, prior the War Between the States, America was sharply divided when it came to the subject of Christmas. The Puritans were highly suspicious of Christmas. No less than Oliver Cromwell considered Yuletide customs to be "heathen traditions." Since New England was largely settled by Puritans, Christmas was not a major holiday there. Indeed, in 1659 the General Court of Massachusetts actually banned any observance of Christmas beyond attending church! Perhaps because of this, Christmas would not become a federal holiday until 1870. There was a very different situation in the American South. The South had largely been settled by Royalists (indeed, my mother's family came here to flee the Cromwellian dictatorship), who had no objections to the festiveness of Christmas. In the South, Christmas was the social event of the year. Indeed, the first states to recognise Christmas as a legal holiday were all in the South--Alabama in 1836, Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838!

Before the Christmas shopping season could develop in America, Christmas first had to become a holiday that was celebrated nationwide. This happened gradually, as New England lost its Puritanical attitudes over the years and American merchants learned that there was money to made out of Christmas. As early as the 1820s and 1830s, sweet shops and candy stores in New York City began to capitalise on the holiday. By 1840 many stores began to advertise themselves as Santa Claus's headquarters. The Christmas shopping season may well have already been in existence by 1870. It was that year that Macy's created its first Yuletide window display and also the first year that they had their first instore Santa Claus.

Another factor that had to fall into place to create the modern American Christmas shopping season was the creation of the holiday of Thanksgiving. In the beginning, Thanksgiving was largely a holiday observed only in New England and a few other states. In the South it simply was not celebrated--no doubt becuase of its Puritan origins. As early as 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the women's magazine Godey's Lady's Book, campaigned to make Thanksgiving a national, legal holiday. Her fight to have the holiday legalised eventually paid off, with Abraham Lincoln signing it into law in 1863. With Thanksgiving now a legal holiday, American merchants could now capitalise on the day after that holiday as the first day of the Christmas shopping season.

I am not sure precisely when the day after Thanksgiving, now called Black Friday, became the first day of the Christmas shopping season, but it must have in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. At any rate it must have been well established by 1924. It was in that year that Macy's held its first parade in New York City, then called the Macy's Christmas Day Parade, even though it was held on Thanksgiving! Then as now, the parade ended with the arrival of Santa Claus. As further proof that the Christmas shopping season was well established by the early to mid-Twentieth Century, consider that in 1939 Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the next to the last Thursday of November at the request of business leaders who wanted a longer holiday shopping season. Eventually public pressure would force the President to move it back. At any rate, it stands as proof that the Christmas shopping season was already established as beginning with Thanksgiving.

If the Christmas shopping season was well established by the 1920s, then it should be no surprise that concerns over the commercialization of the holiday were already being expressed. In 1938 author and Christian minster J. Harold Gwynne preached that "spiritual values" were being buried by "commercial activity." The classic 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street was essentially a protest against the commercialization of the holiday. A similar protest againt such commercialization was expressed in A Charlie Brown Christmas, which debuted in 1965.

Whether the commercialization of Christmas is a good or bad thing I will leave to others to decide, but one thing I do believe--that the Christmas shopping season obliterated the traditional Twelve Days of the Yuletide from people's minds. Consider that as late as 1843, when A Christmas Carol was published, the Twelve Days of Christmas were a thriving tradition, but by 1943 they were only a memory recorded in a popular Christmas carol. Indeed, not only do people fail to recognise the Twelve Days of the Yuletide, but they tend to think of the Christmas season as the Christmas shopping season. They think of it as beginning the day after Thanksgiving and ending with Christmas Day. I have observed over the years more and more people putting up their holiday decorations on Thanksgiving and taking them down the day after Christmas. Often the airwaves are filled with Christmas movies and specials on Thanksgiving Day. This year I saw the first holiday themed commercials of the year one full week before Thanksgiving!

Now I suppose some people might ask why any of this matters. Indeed, some might ask why it matters to me, as I am not Christian (I celebrate Yule, not Christmas per se). Well, I think it matters for three basic reasons. First, it seems to me that Thanksgiving is in danger of losing its own identity. It seems to me that it is becoming less and less its own distinct holiday and more and more a part of the "holiday season." Given that I can see a need for Thanksgiving in the American landscape, given that I think it is generally a good idea to have a day set aside to give thanks to whatever gods one worships, I do not think it is beneficial for Thanksgiving to be absorbed by Christmas. Second, the Twelve Days of Christmas were preciesly that--twelve days. They were twelve days during which people gave gifts, partied, and enjoyed themselves. While the Christmas shopping season is technically longer (nearly a month long), it is also less festive. Much of it is spent shopping and worrying about preparing for the holidays. It is hardly as enjoyable as the Twelve Days of Christmas must have been. In modern day America, when people work more than they ever have, I think it is a good idea to have a long period when people can simply relax and enjoy themselves. Third, there is something to be said for tradition. The Twelve Days of Christmas were celebrated before there even was a Christmas--the twelve days of the holiday known as Geol among the Anglo-Saxons (Yule is the modern word)and observed by nearly all the Germanic peoples. After the conversion to Christianity, many of the customs of Yule were absorbed by Christmas and the Twelve Days of Christmas as we knew them were born. And they were celebrated for centuries before dying out just recently. There is something to be said for the solace and enjoyment given by traditions which have been handed down for ages.

Unfortunately, I don't think any of this is going to change soon. Not only has the day after Thanksgiving long been established as the beginning of the holiday shopping season (and hence the holiday season in many's minds), but retailers are putting out Christmas goods earlier and earlier. At one time it was thought bad form to display any Christmas merchandise or decorations prior to Thanksgiving. Today it is standard procedure. Given that, I don't think we will be returning to the Twelve Days of the Yuletide sooner or later. For better or worse, the Christmas shopping season is here to stay.

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...