Saturday, December 26, 2015

When To Take Down Christmas Decorations?

In our household there has always been a bit of a disagreement as to when to take down our Yuletide decorations. My sister would just as soon that they came down on the day after Christmas (Boxing Day in many English speaking countries). My brother and I prefer taking them down on New Year's Day, although we have waited until January 2. Of course, in all honesty I would just as soon leave them up until January 5.

In the 21st Century United States, just as there is a good deal of variation in when people put up their decorations, there is also a good deal of variation in when they take them down. Many will have taken their Christmas decorations today (in fact, our neighbours appear to have done so). Others, like us, will wait until January 1 to do so. Less common are those who take them down sometime between December 26 and January 1.

Of course, it wasn't always this way. As a child I remember our family always kept our Christmas decorations up until January 1. We never considered taking them down earlier. What is more, all of our neighbours were the same way. It seems to me in the late Sixties and in the Seventies, at least in mid-Missouri, it was unknown for people to take down their Christmas decorations prior to New Year's Day. In fact, I think some even kept them up until January 2. The custom of keeping one's decorations up until New Year's Day is even seen in movies. The bulk of the plot of Ocean's 11 (1960) takes place on New Year's Eve, yet the casinos in the movie still have their decorations up. In fact, Ocean's 11 was shot from January 26 to February 16 1960, so the filmmakers had to persuade the casinos to keep their Christmas decorations up longer than normal so that it would look like, well, New Year's Eve!

While taking down one's holiday decorations on January 1 seems to have been the norm forty to fifty years ago, there was a time people kept them up even longer. When the Twelve Days of Christmas were observed, decorations were often kept up until Twelfth Night (either January 5 or January 6, depending upon which church calendar one observed).  It was considered unlucky to keep them up any longer. Even earlier, during the Elizabethan Era, Christmas decorations were kept up until Candlemas (February 2 or modern day Groundhog Day in the U.S.) and it was considered unlucky to keep them up after that.

Given at one time Christmas decorations were kept up much longer, the question is, "Why do so many take them down as early as December 26?" I have no idea how the date for taking down Christmas decorations shifted from Candlemas to Twelfth Night, but I think I know how the date for taking down decorations shifted from Twelfth Night to New Year's Day and now December 26 in the United States. Quite simply, the American holiday shopping season is to blame. As early as the 1900s the day after Thanksgiving (now known as Black Friday) was established as the first day of the Christmas shopping season. Quite naturally, stores insisted on promoting their holiday shopping sales with Christmas imagery. This is why the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (which was originally the Macy's Christmas Parade, even though it took place on Thanksgiving) always ends with the arrival of Santa Claus. As time wore on, people conflated the holiday season with the holiday shopping season. The traditional Twelve Days of Christmas had already been losing ground in the United States in the 19th Century. The 20th Century Christmas shopping season nearly obliterated any observance of them.

With the Twelve Days of Christmas no longer observed, people began taking down their decorations on New Year's Day instead of Twelfth Night. In the late 20th Century this would be complicated by the phenomenon called "Christmas creep", whereby stores started putting out holiday wares and using holiday themed advertising at earlier and earlier dates. In the mid-20th Century one did not see any Christmas advertising until after Thanksgiving. By the 1990s it was often sometime in mid-November. By the Naughts it seemed as if November 1 was the day that Christmas advertising began. This being the case, many Americans may have started thinking of the holiday season as beginning on November 1 or at least sometime before Thanksgiving. The end result is that while people might put up their decorations on Thanksgiving or Black Friday, they take them down on December 26.

Traditionalist that I am, I find this sad. For me it is not a simple case that my parents never took down our decorations before January 1. It's a case that I have always thought the traditional Yuletide, the Twelve Days of Christmas, is superior to the "holiday shopping season". At least in the United States, the imagery of our secular Christmas season is linked to winter. When one thinks of Christmas, one thinks of snow and snowmen and wintry weather. Even Santa Claus is said to drive a sleigh. On November 1 it is still autumn across the northern hemisphere, including the United States, and snow is highly unlikely on that date except for a very few places in North America. Given the imagery of Christmas is all geared towards winter and the fact that traditionally it is a winter holiday (indeed, the winter holiday), it makes more sense to celebrate it from December 25 to January 5. It makes no sense to celebrate it from November 1 (before it is even Thanksgiving) to December 25. As to returning to the Twelve Days of Christmas, it would actually be advantageous for stores to do so. Think about it--instead of one big day for gift giving (December 25), they would have twelve whole days for which they could encourage people to buy gifts!

Regardless, we will be taking our Yuletide decorations down on New Year's Day as we always do. To me the holiday season is far from over and I really do not like to see decorations taken down any earlier. Of course, I do hope one day that I can talk my brother into agreeing to taking them down on January 5....

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas 2015

As is usual here at A Shroud of Thoughts, I offer you some vintage Yuletide pinups for your holiday!

First up is actress and singer Anna Maria Alberghetti, who is waiting for Santa!

Next up is Shirley Jones, who is basking among her presents (from her many admirers, no doubt).

Next is Dorlores Dorn, who is apparently pitch hitting for Santa when it comes to delivering presents!

Miss Jeff Donnell is relaxing in the snow with her presents!

Cyd Charisse has worked her telephone cord into a holiday greeting!

The lovely Ann Miller and her Christmas stocking!

And one more shot of Ann Miller, because one can never have enough Ann Miller on Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"Merry Xmas Everybody" by Slade

Among the most popular Christmas songs of all time in the United Kingdom is "Merry Xmas Everybody" by Slade. It is most probably Slade's biggest hit of all time and one of the biggest selling Christmas singles in Britain. It also sold well elsewhere in the world. While it did not chart in the United States, over the years it has become much more familiar to Americans (particularly due to its repeated use on Doctor Who) and hence more popular Stateside as well.

In 1973 Slade was one of the most successful bands in the United Kingdom. They already had an impressive five number one records ("Coz I Luv You", "Take Me Bak 'Ome", "Mama Weer All Crazee Now", "Cum On Feel the Noize", and "Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me"). They had many more singles that reached the top twenty. With such success, the band, as well as their label (Polydor Records) decided that they should record a Christmas single.

The song ultimately emerged from a melody that bassist Jim Lea had come up with earlier, as well as a song that lead vocalist Noddy Holder had written in 1967 ("Buy Me a Rocking Chair"). Ultimately Jim Lea's melody would be used for the verses, while Noddy Holder's old song would provide the basis for the chorus. Slade decided that they wanted the song to be about a typical British family Christmas. With the British economy in a poor state, Noddy Holder said of the song later, "I think people wanted something to cheer them up – and so did I." Ultimately the lyrics would reflect this, with lines such as "Are you hanging up a stocking on your wall?" and "Are you waiting for the family to arrive?"

While "Merry Xmas Everybody" portrayed a typical British family Christmas, it was actually recorded in the United States, where Slade was on tour. It was in the late summer of 1973 that Slade recorded the song at the Record Plant in New York City. The initial recording took five days to complete, but the band did not like the finished product. As a result they rerecorded the whole song.

Their effort appears to have been worth it, as "Merry Xmas Everybody" sold half a million in advance copies. It entered the UK singles chart at number one, becoming the third such song by Slade to do so (the other two were "Cum On Feel the Noize" amd "Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me"). So great was the demand that Polydor had to use their French pressing plant to make more copies. Needless to say, "Merry Xmas Everybody" was the Christmas number one for 1973, beating out , "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday" by Wizzard (which peaked at number 3). Curiously, "Merry Xmas Everybody" remained on the charts well past Christmas. It remained in the number one slot until mid-January and remained on the chart into February.

"Merry Xmas Everybody" also did well outside of Britain. It went to no. 1 in the Republic of Ireland, and hit the top ten in Belgium, Germany, and Norway. It did not chart in the United States, where for whatever reason Slade never was particularly successful. 

What is more, "Merry Xmas Everybody" has repeatedly re-entered the UK singles chart. It re-entered the chart every year in the first half of the Eighties. It once more re-entered the chart in 1998. Since 2006 it has re-entered the chart every year. Not surprisingly, it was certified platinum in 1980.

Despite the success of "Merry Xmas Everybody", the song would be the last number one record for Slade. The band still regularly hit the top ten into 1975 and the top twenty into 1976, but found their fortunes turn for the worse in the late Seventies when most of their new singles failed to chart at all.

"Merry Xmas Everybody" has been covered several times through the years. In 1990 The Mission recorded a version under the name "The Metal Gurus". R.E.M. covered the song in 2007. In 2012 power pop band Sloan released a cover of the song as a free digital download. This year Train recorded a version of the song.

Here it should be pointed out that "Merry Xmas Everybody" has featured in five Doctor Who episodes, including "The Christmas Invasion", "The Runaway Bride", "Turn Left", "The Power of Three", and "Last Christmas".

"Merry Xmas Everybody" remains popular and shows no sign of declining in popularity. It is arguably one of the most successful Christmas rock songs of all time. Indeed, in a a 2007 poll carried out by MSN Music, it was voted the most popular British Christmas song. Noddy Holder has even jokingly referred to "Merry Xmas Everybody" as his pension plan due to the amount of royalties he receives from it.

Without further ado, here it is, "Merry Xmas Everybody".

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Animated Christmas TV Specials of the Sixties

For most people the holiday season means hearing their favourite Christmas songs and watching their favourite Christmas movies. For younger Baby Boomers as well as the entirety of Generation X and Generation Y in the United States, the Yuletide also meant watching their favourite animated Christmas TV specials. From the Sixties into the Eighties several animated Christmas specials were produced, to the point that for many youngsters they became one of the most anticipated parts of the holiday season. Sadly, they would decline in the late Eighties, so that many Millennials would not experience them, at least not in the numbers that younger Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Yers knew them.

Today it must seem to members of Generations X and Y as if there had always been animated Christmas specials. While regular network television broadcasts in the United States commenced in 1946, however, it would not be until 1962 that the first animated Christmas special would emerge. In 1962 Mr. Magoo was a phenomenally popular cartoon character. Unfortunately, theatrical animated shorts had gone into a steep decline in the Fifties. This meant that despite Mr. Magoo's popularity, UPA, the studio that had produced the Mr. Magoo shorts from 1949 to 1959, was not doing particularly well financially in the late Fifties and early Sixties. UPA turned to television to help increase its revenue, producing The Gerald McBoing Boing Show for CBS in 1956 and The Mr. Magoo Show for syndication in 1960. It should prove as no surprise, then, that Lee Orgel (then UPA's Director of Programme Development) struck upon the idea of Qunicy Magoo playing Scrooge in an animated production of A Christmas Carol.

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol did not play as a straight adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but instead as if Quincy Magoo was an actor playing the role of Scrooge in a Broadway musical.  In fact, the opening featured Mr. Magoo arriving at the theatre where the production of A Christmas Carol took place, while the closing featured Mr. Magoo and the other players taking their bows (the near sighted Mr. Magoo destroying the sets in the process). Regardless, it was a somewhat faithful retelling of Dickens's tale, complete with songs by composer Jule Styne and  lyricist Bob Merrill.

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol debuted on NBC on December 18 1962. The special proved to be a rousing success. It not only received over all positive reviews from critics, but it also did very well in the ratings. In fact, it did so well in the ratings that it led to the short-lived primetime series The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, with Mr. Magoo playing various characters from literature. The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo lasted only a single season, from 1964 to 1965. Perhaps more importantly, Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol would lead to more animated Christmas specials produced in the Sixties, many of which have become classics.

It would be two years before another animated Christmas special would debut, but arguably it would be the most popular animated Christmas special of all time. Rankin/Bass's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer debuted in 1964 and has been aired every year on broadcast network television ever since, sometimes multiple times a year. It was in 1955 that Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass founded Videocraft International, later renamed Rankin/Bass. Videocraft International  specialised in stop-motion animation, producing television commercials as well as the stop-motion animation TV series The New Adventures of Pinocchio and the cel animated TV series Tales of the Wizard of Oz.

Arthur Rankin Jr. just happened to be neighbours with Johnny Marks, the composer of the phenomenally successful Christmas song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". Mr. Rankin suggested to Mr. Marks  that the song could be adapted as a TV special produced using stop motion animation. Johnny Marks was reluctant, fearing that the special could endanger the success of his biggest hit song, but eventually Arthur Rankin Jr. won him over. In fact, Marks even wrote new songs for the special, including the now classic "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold." The script, written by Romeo Muller, drew upon Marks's song for inspiration, expanding on the story considerably.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer debuted on NBC under the umbrella title The General Electric Fantasy Hour on December 3 1964. It proved to be an incredible success in the ratings. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer continued to air on NBC until 1972, when it moved to CBS. It has remained a Christmas tradition at CBS ever since. Not only has it aired every single year, but sometimes it has been aired multiple times. The success of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would not only guarantee that there would be more animated Christmas specials over the next few years. It also guaranteed that Rankin/Bass would become the leader in classic holiday specials. Over the next two decades Rankin/Bass would produce several more Christmas specials, some of which would prove to have lasting success like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Given the success of Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, more animated Christmas specials would arrive almost immediately. What is more, the next two holiday specials would be classics nearly on the level of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Arguably the years 1964 to 1969 marked some sort of Golden Age of Animated Christmas Specials, with several of the classics debuting in that time frame.

In fact, the next animated Christmas special has aired on broadcast network television every year since its debut, one of the very few to do so. By the late Fifties and early Sixties Peanuts was not only phenomenally popular, it was the most popular comic strip in the world. The Peanuts gang made their television debut in commercials for the Ford Falcon in 1959, appearing in introductions for The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show (which Ford Motor Company sponsored). The spots were animated by Bill Melendez. Bill Meléndez later provided animation for the unfinished documentary on Peanuts and its creator Charles M. Schulz titled A Boy Named Charlie Brown, produced by Lee Mendelson.

While Lee Mendelson found himself unable to sell the documentary, he did receive a call from John Allen of the McCann Erickson Agency proposing a half-hour Peanuts Christmas special. Lee Mendelson agreed to the proposal in hopes of selling his documentary. The proposed special was set to be sponsored by Coca-Cola. The animation was provided by Bill Melendez. Production lasted for six months, with the last four months dedicated to creating the animation. In fact, A Charlie Brown Christmas was not completed until ten days before it was set to broadcast.

In many respects, it might have been fortunate that A Charlie Brown Christmas was completed late. CBS executives hated the special and criticised very nearly every aspect of it. Producer Lee Mendelson was honestly convinced that if it had not been scheduled to broadcast the very next week, CBS would have decided against airing it. Fortunately, A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on December 9 1965 to high praise from critics. It also proved to be the second highest rated programme of the week, beaten out only by the juggernaut that was Bonanza. The success of  A Charlie Brown Christmas would lead to over 35 more Peanuts specials. A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on CBS annually until 2000, when it moved to ABC. It has aired on that network ever since.

The following year yet another classic animated Christmas special often ranked among the greatest ever made debuted. Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas was based on the highly successful 1957 book  How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss (the pen name of Theodor Geisel). During World War II Theodor Geisel served in the animation department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces. It was while  he was in the Army that he became friends with legendary animator Chuck Jones. Together the two of them worked on the series of "Private Snafu" Army instructional cartoons. Given the success of the book and the success of animated Christmas specials on American broadcast network television, it should then come as no surprise that Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones decided to produce a TV special based on the book.

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas debuted on December 18 1966 on CBS. It proved very successful. It received fairly good reviews upon its debut. It also did very well in the ratings. CBS aired Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas annually until 1986. In 1988 cable channel TNT began airing the special annually. In 1996 Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas finally returned to broadcast network television, airing on The WB. It remained there until 2006 when it moved to ABC. As of 2015 it now airs on NBC.

While the years between 1964 and 1966 saw the debuts of three of the most successful animated Christmas specials of all time, 1967 would not. That is not to say that an animated Christmas special did not debut in 1967. Cricket on Hearth was Rankin/Bass's second animated Christmas special. It was very loosely based on the Charles Dickens novella of the same name. It also happened to be very different from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in several ways. First, it featured a live-action introduction and closing with actor and comedian Danny Thomas. Second, it utilised cel animation rather than stop motion. Third, Cricket on the Hearth also featured a fairly big name voice cast. Danny Thomas, his daughter Marlo Thomas, Hans Conried, Paul Frees, and Roddy McDowall all provided voices for the special. The animation on Cricket on the Hearth was handled by the Japanese animation studio TCJ, who also produced the classic anime series Gigantor, 8th Man, and Prince Planet. It marked the only time Rankin/Bass and TCJ worked together.

Sadly, despite the talent involved Cricket on the Hearth would not be a success. While Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas would go on to annual airings for literally decades, Cricket on the Hearth would disappear quickly and would soon be nearly forgotten by all but Rankin/Bass fans.

This would not be the case for the Rankin/Bass Christmas special that debuted the following year. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy was a stop-motion animated special based on a popular song. The Little Drummer Boy was written by Romeo Muller, who had previously written Rankin/Bass's specials Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Cricket on the Hearth. It also boasted a fairly big name cast. Greer Garson served as the narrator. Jose Ferrer voiced the villain Ben Haramad, and Paul Frees provided the voices of all three Magi. Child actor Teddy Eccles provided the voice of the lead character--Aaron, the little drummer boy. The Little Drummer Boy was sponsored by the American Gas Association and debuted on NBC on December 19 1968.

The Little Drummer Boy did well in the ratings upon its debut in 1968. It continued to do phenomenally well in the ratings throughout the Seventies. In fact, it may well have been the most popular Rankin/Bass stop motion animated Christmas special aside from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for much of the decade. It aired on NBC annually until 1984. In 1985 it moved to CBS, who aired until 1988. ABC began airing it the following  year and did so until 2006. The Little Drummer Boy then moved to the cable channel ABC Family, where it has aired ever since.

The following year Rankin/Bass would have another hit animated Christmas special on their hands. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman was based on a popular song. Unlike Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, it utilised cel animation rather than stop motion animation (here it must be noted that contrary to popular belief it was not the first Rankin/Bass Christmas special to do so--as noted above Cricket on the Hearth also used cel animation). The animation was handled by the Japanese animation studio Mushi Production. Even in 1969 Mushi Production had an impressive history. It was founded by none other than Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. Indeed, the studio had already produced the anime shows Astro Boy, The Amazing 3, Kimba the White Lion, and Princess Knight, among others.

Frosty the Snowman featured a fairly well known voice cast. Jimmy Durante served as the narrator on the special. June Foray, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel among many other cartoon characters, provided the voice of Karen, many of the children, and the schoolteacher. Character actor Billy De Wolfe voiced  Professor Hinkle the magician. Paul Frees voiced Santa Claus and other characters. Comedian Jackie Vernon, who voiced Frosty the Snowman, may have been the only member of the cast who was not well known at the time.

Frosty the Snowman debuted on CBS on December 7 1969. It did phenomenally well in the ratings upon its debut. In fact, it was the number one show for the week. Frosty the Snowman has continued to do well in the ratings over the decades. Along with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas it has aired annually on a broadcast network without interruption ever since its debut. Unlike Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman has never aired on any network other than the one on which it debuted. For the past 46 years it has only aired on CBS.

With the continued success of animated Christmas specials, it should come as no surprise that 1970 saw three new animated Christmas specials, although two of them emerged from countries other than the United States. The first to debut was The Night the Animals Talked. The Night the Animals Talked was a cel animated special based on a story by Peter Fernandez. Mr. Fernandez may be best known for his voice work on Speed Racer, but he also wrote the English version of Mothra (1961), as well as episodes of Astro-Boy, Gigantor, Speed Racer, and Marine Boy. Reportedly Mr. Fernandez had first created the story as a script for an MGM Records children's record. It was directed by legendary animator Shamus Culhane, who had worked over the years with Walter Lantz, Fleischer Studios, Walt Disney Productions, and Warner Brothers. The Night the Animals Talked featured three songs by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne. It was produced by Italian company Gamma Film.

The Night the Animals Talked was based on the legend of how the animals talked when Jesus Christ was born. It debuted on ABC on December 9 1970. Despite the talent involved,  The Night the Animals Talked  would not see the success that earlier animated specials of the Sixties saw. It only aired three more times on an American broadcast network, last airing on ABC in 1973.

The second animated Christmas special to debut in 1970 emerged from Australia. Air Programs International (API for short) had produced  the television series Arthur! And the Square Knights of the Round Table in 1966. It was in the late Sixties that API embarked on a series called Family Classic Tales, the first of which was an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It debuted in Australia in 1969.

API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol came to the United States via Jack Thinnes, Media Director at Sive Advertising in Cincinnati, Ohio. He saw a two minute demo of  the special and it occurred to him that a series of animated specials that adapted literary classics might suit his client, toy manufacturer Kenner. This resulted in s Famous Classic Tales, a series of specials that aired on CBS. API's A Christmas Carol then became the very first television special aired on under the Famous Classic Tales title in the United States. It debuted in the United States on December 13 1970.

API's A Christmas Carol did very well in the ratings on CBS, so much so that it would air annually on the network for fifteen years. Following API's A Christmas Carol, other entries in API's Family Classic Tales aired as part of Famous Classic Tales in the United States as well.

The third animated Christmas special to debut in 1970 was another product of Rankin/Bass. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, and Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town was based on a popular song. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town utilised stop-motion animation. As might be expected, it was written by Romeo Muller and directed by Jules Bass.and Arthur Rankin Jr.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town featured some of the most impressive voice talent to ever work on a Rankin/Bass production. Fred Astaire voiced S.D. "Special Delivery" Kluger, a postman who narrates the special. Mickey Rooney voiced Kris Kringle/Santa Claus. Keenan Wynn voiced the Winter Warlock. Paul Frees not only voiced Burgermeister Meisterburger, but several other characters.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town proved to be fairly popular, but initially it did not prove to have the lasting power of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, or even The Little Drummer Boy. ABC aired it annually until 1981, after which Santa Claus is Comin' to Town disappeared from prime time network television for many, many years. It would later air as part of the cable channel's ABC Family's "25 Days of Christmas" December programming block. At last in 2005 Santa Claus is Comin' to Town returned to ABC, where it once more airs annually. It also continues to air on ABC Family as well.

If anything animated Christmas specials would become even more common in the Seventies. At least one animated Christmas special, sometimes more, would debut each year during the decade. Despite the sheer number of animated Christmas specials that debuted in the Seventies, none of them would see the success of such specials from the Sixties as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, or Frosty the Snowman. Even Rankin/Bass could not quite repeat their earlier success, although such specials as The Year Without a Santa Claus proved fairly popular.

Sadly, as the Seventies became the Eighties time took its toll on the animated Christmas specials. Even many of the old standbys would fall by the wayside. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town ceased airing on ABC after 1981. Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol would also leave broadcast network television in the early Eighties. Even Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas would stop airing on network television after 1986. Ultimately only Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman would continue to air annually uninterrupted on network television.

Fortunately many of the specials would find new life on cable. TNT began running Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1988. Eventually it returned to network programming. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town would find a home on ABC Family, only to return eventually to ABC itself. Currently of the Christmas specials that emerged in the Sixties, six are once again airing annually on broadcast network television (Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown ChristmasDr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town). That is more than any other decade. It would seem that it is true the classics never quite go out of style.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Twelve Greatest Christmas TV Episodes I've Seen

If the brightly coloured lights, decorated trees, holly, and mistletoe were not enough to let one know it is the Yuletide, then watching television would certainly alert him or her to it. In both the United States and United Kingdom television shows have had a long tradition of airing Christmas themed episodes during the holiday season. In the United States these holiday episodes have always aired during the regular runs of shows sometime in December. In the United Kingdom they more often than not take the form of "Christmas specials", often airing on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Either way there have been many great Christmas episodes of various shows on both sides of the Pond.

In the spirit of the holiday I thought I would list the twelve greatest Christmas episodes I have ever seen. I chose twelve because it is a number inextricably linked to the holiday. I've specified that they are episodes I have seen because I could not very well include episodes of shows I have not seen (contrary to popular belief I have not seen every show ever made). It was hard for me to decide on a favourite, much less list them from best to least best, so I've elected to list them in alphabetical order by the title of the show.

1. Alfred Hitchcock Presents "Together": What is the holiday season without a little murder? Joseph Cotten plays Tony Gould, who finds himself with a bit of a problem at the office Christmas party when his mistress calls him and tells him that he must divorce his wife and marry her. When his mistress confronts him at the office, he kills her. Unfortunately for Tony, that's when his real problems begin. Joseph Cotten gives one of his best television performances ever, while the direction by Robert Altman foreshadows his work in film.

Here it must be pointed out that Alfred Hitchcock Presents featured other Christmas episodes also worthy of inclusion on any best list, including " Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid" and "Back for Christmas" (directed by Hitchcock himself),

2. The Avengers "Too Many Christmas Trees": The only Yuletide episode of The Avengers is also one of its strangest. John Steed is having terrible nightmares that seem to be coming true. Its climax takes place at a Christmas party held by a man who collects all things Dickensian. This episode features some of the best interplay between John Steed and Emma Peel, and even an in-joke involving a reference to Steed's former partner, Mrs. Cathy Gale. We even get to see Emma dressed up as Oliver Twist.  Sadly, "Too Many Christmas Trees" was the only Yuletide episode of The Avengers.

3. The Andy Griffith Show "A Christmas Story": Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry is willing to let moonshiner Jim Muggins spend the holidays with his family rather than in jail. Unfortunately, Mayberry's resident Scrooge, wealthy department store owner Ben Weaver demands that Andy keep Sam in jail even if it is Christmas. Fortunately Andy is able to come up with a solution that will keep everyone happy. With "A Christmas Story" The Andy Griffith Show accomplished something very few American sitcoms could with their holiday episodes. It is sweet without being overly sappy, yet at the same time hilariously funny. Sadly, The Andy Griffith Show never had another Christmas episode.

4. Blackadder "Blackadder's Christmas Carol": In between the series Blackadder The Third and Blackadder Goes Forth there was this Christmas special set in the Victorian Era. As might be expected from the title, "Blackadder's Christmas Carol" is a pastiche of Dickens's novella. The twist is that its protagonist is not a mean and stingy miser like Scrooge, but instead the only truly decent person in the long line of Blackadders, Ebenezer Blackadder. Ebenezer is the kindest man in England, so much so that others take advantage of his generosity. "Blackadder's Christmas Carol" is one of the best episodes of Blackadder ever made and one of the best send-ups of A Christmas Carol.

5. Community "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas": Of all the sitcoms ever aired, Community is one of the very few that could get away with a stop-motion animated Christmas episode. The episode begins with Abed viewing the world as if it was a stop-motion animated special in the style of the old Rankin/Bass specials. This convinces him that this will be the most important Christmas ever. To this end he draws his friends into a quest to find the meaning of Christmas. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is a remarkable achievement not only for capturing the look of the old Rankin/Bass specials, but even the feel of those specials, right down to the songs. What is more, better than most Christmas episodes of other sitcoms, it captures the meaning behind the Yuletide in a way that is profound.

6. The Dick Van Dyke Show "The Alan Brady Show Presents": The Dick Van Dyke Show only featured one Christmas episode, and it did not appear until the show's third season. Fortunately it was well worth the wait. In "The Alan Brady Show Presents", the fictional star of The Alan Brady Show decides that instead of using the script his writers (Rob Petrie, Sally Rogers, and Buddy Sorrell) wrote for his Christmas show, he will simply hand the show over to the writers themselves. Rob, Sally, and Buddy, along with Buddy's life Laura, then find themselves in front of the camera performing what is essentially a Christmas variety show. For any other sitcom this might be disastrous, but The Dick Van Dyke Show had one of the most talented casts of all time. Dick Van Dyke (Rob Petrie) is one of the greatest song and dance men of all time. Mary Tyler Moore (Laurie Petrie) is a trained dancer. Rose Marie (Sally Rogers) is a singer and comedian whose career goes back to when she was three. Morey Amsterdam had been a comedian since the days of vaudeville. "Alan Brady Presents" then turned out to be the best Christmas episodes of any TV show ever.

7. Doctor Who "The Next Doctor": It is perhaps because of Charles Dickens's novel A Christmas Carol that Christmas and the Victorian Era are so intertwined in the minds of English speakers. Then what could be better than a Doctor Who Christmas special set in Victorian London? "The Next Doctor" finds the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) arriving in London on Christmas Eve in 1851. It is not long before he encounters a man who thinks he is The Doctor (Morrissey). What is worse is that there are Cybermen about as well. "The Next Doctor" is easily the best of the Doctor Who Christmas specials. Not only does Morrissey give a great performance as "The Doctor" (I'd always hoped they do a spin-off series with him), but the whole special has a nice steampunk feel to it.

8. Father Ted "A Christmassy Ted": Father Ted simply wants a quiet, run-of-the-mill Christmas. Unfortunately, given Father Ted's usual luck, his Christmas turns out to be anything but run-of-the-mill. Quite simply, things keep happening to keep Father Ted from having the perfectly ordinary Christmas he wants, until it is clear that this Christmas will be nothing but ordinary. Father Ted only had one Christmas episode, which is a shame. "A Christmassy Ted" is easily one of the best episodes of a show that produced a number of remarkable episodes.

9. The Jack Benny Program  "Christmas Shopping Show: "Christmas Shopping Show", wasn't exactly a new idea when it first aired on December 18 1957. Episodes in which perpetual skinflint Jack Benny tried to do his Christmas shopping all in one day had been done a few times before on his radio show. That having been said, "Christmas Shopping Show" might be the best permutation of the idea. Much of the reason the episode is so good is that it features many of Jack Benny's regular performers. Mel Blanc plays a poor store clerk with the misfortune of having to serve Mr. Benny.  Jack has the misfortune of crossing a floorwalker played by Frank Nelson (the "Yeeeeeeeeesssss? man"). There are also appearances by Richard Deacon, Benny Rubin, and, of course, Eddie Anderson as Rochester. "Christmas Shopping Show" is easily one of the funniest Christmas episodes of a TV show ever made.

10. The Mary Tyler Moore Show "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II": "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II" deals with an experience all too many have had in real life. Mary not only has to work Christmas Day, but Christmas Eve as well. She had been planning to spend Christmas Day with her parents in her hometown, but has to cancel when she learns that she is working Christmas Day. She then decides to spend Christmas Eve with her best friend and neighbour Rhoda, only to agree to work Christmas Eve in place of a fellow employee at the TV station who hasn't gotten to spend Christmas with his family in years. "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II" is not only extremely funny, but also very touching as well. By the way, the episode's title is a reference to the 1966 That Girl episode "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid", which was also written by James L. Brooks (co-creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show).

11. WKRP in Cincinnati "Jennifer's Home for Christmas": WKRP in Cincinnati produced what what is considered by many to be the greatest Thanksgiving episode of all time, "Turkeys Away", but the show also produced one of the best Christmas episodes as well. "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" deals with a problem common at the Yuletide. Quite simply, everyone seems to have Christmas plans except for Jennifer, who has no family to spend the holiday with. "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" is not only a very funny episode, but also a very touching one as well. It gives new life to a premise that was fairly old by the time WKRP in Cincinnati got to it. WKRP in Cincinnati also did one other Christmas episode, "Bah, Humbug", which is also highly recommended.

12. The X-Files "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas": The X-Files was always at its best when it steered clear of its convoluted mythology and simply did "monster of the week" episodes. This is not only the best Christmas episode ever written for The X-Files (there had been two earlier Christmas episodes), but also one of the best "monster of the week" episodes ever. Quite simply, at Mulder's insistence, Mulder and Scully investigate an allegedly haunted house in which two lovers had committed suicide. As it turns out, the house is actually haunted, with the ghosts played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin. Not only does "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" have all the trappings of the holiday but it is also a very effective X-Files episode, with all the thrills and chills one can expect from the very best episodes of the show. As might be expected, Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin give fantastic performances as the doomed lovers haunting the mansion.

Monday, December 21, 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.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

R. O. Blechman's CBS Season's Greetings Spot From 1966

 Today it is not unusual for the American broadcast networks air interstitials in which stars of their various shows wish the audience "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings". There was a time, however, when the broadcast networks were a bit more creative with their "Season's Greetings spots. A perfect example (and quite possibly the most famous such interstitial of them all) was one first aired by CBS in 1966. This "Season's Greetings" spot would air for years on CBS, last airing sometime in the Seventies. It remains one of the best remembered "Season's Greetings" spots in the history of television.

If CBS's 1966 "Seasons Greetings" spot is remembered today, it is perhaps because of the talent who created the spot. It was designed by R. O. Blechman, who at various points in his career was an animator, an illustrator, a cartoonist, and a children's book author. His first book, The Juggler of Our Lady, was published when he was only 23. He later went to work for Storyboard Inc., a studio specialising in special effects and commercial animation. His cartoons were published in such magazines as Harper's BazaarPunch, and Esquire. He would go on to create a well remembered animated commercial for Alka-Seltzer in 1967 and found the commercial animation studio The Ink Tank. He produced the 1977 PBS special Simple Gifts and directed the 1984 PBS special The Soldier's Tale.

The actual animation for the spot was done by the legendary Willis Pyle. Mr. Pyle began his career at Disney, working on the classic films Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi. After his military service in World War II he went to work for UPA. There he worked on several classic shorts, including "Ragtime Bear" (1949--the first appearance of Mr. Magoo) and  "Gerald McBoing-Boing" (1950). He later did a good deal of work in television, including the special Halloween Is Grinch Night. He also worked on the 1977 feature Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure. Willis Pyle celebrated his 100th birthday on September 2 2014.

 R. O. Blechman's "Season's Greetings" message would be rerun for several years on CBS, running into the Seventies. It remains fondly remembered by many. Special thanks to Steve of MovieMovieBlogBlog for pointing this piece of classic animation out to me!