Saturday, December 17, 2022

Johnny Marks: Composer of Christmas Songs

The average person might not recognize the name "Johnny Marks," but it is an almost certainty that they have heard more than one of the songs he wrote. Quite simply, Johnny Marks was the composer of some of the most famous Christmas songs of all time, including "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," and "A Holly Jolly Christmas." It is an interesting fact that while Mr. Marks wrote some of the most successful Yuletide songs of all time, he did not celebrate Christmas himself. Quite simply, Johnny Marks was Jewish.

Johnny Marks entered the field of writing Christmas songs through one of his family. His sister was married to Robert L. May, the former advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward who, in 1939, wrote the children's story "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as a promotion for the retailer. Eventually Montgomery Ward would give Robert L. May the rights to the story and the character. It was in 1948 that Mr. May persuaded his brother-in-law Johnny Marks to adapt "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as a song.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was offered to Gene Autry, who had already seen some success with his own Christmas song, "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane." Gene Autry initially rejected the song, but his wife convinced him to record. He recorded "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in June 1949 and it was released that September. It proved not only to be the biggest hit of Gene Autry's career, but quite possibly the most successful Christmas single of all time besides "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby.

Johnny Marks would follow "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" with several more Christmas songs, among them "When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter" and "An Old-Fashioned Christmas," but he would not have another hit until "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" by Bing Crosby in 1956. While Johnny Marks wrote the music to "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," it had originated as the poem "Christmas Bells" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863. "Christmas Bells" had been set to music as early as 1872, when organist John Baptiste Calkin did so. Johnny Marks set the poem to his own music in 1956 and it was recorded by Bing Crosby.

It was two years later that Johnny Marks would receive a writing credit on the song "Run Rudolph Run" by Chuck Berry, although Mr. Marks actually had nothing to do with the song and was simply given a credit due to the character of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. While Johnny Marks actually had little to do with "Run Rudolph Run," he would write a rock 'n' roll Christmas song also released in 1958. Johnny Marks asked twelve year-old Brenda Lee to record "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," although she did not understand why given she had yet to see a good deal of success. Upon its initial release in 1958, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" did not perform particularly well on the charts. It also did not do well when it was re-released in 1959. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" finally took off in 1960, when it reached no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100. It would continue do well afterwards every holiday season.

Johnny Marks's next hit Christmas songs would come about because his very first Christmas hit, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." One of Johnny Marks's neighbours in the early Sixties was Arthur Rankin Jr., a producer with Videocraft International Ltd. (later known as Rankin/Bass Productions Inc.). It was Arthur Rakin Jr. who suggested to Mr Marks that the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" could be adapted as a stop-motion animated television special. Johnny Marks was initially reluctant, but eventually Arthur Rankin Jr. was able to sell him on the idea of the television special, but to provide songs for the special as well.

The songs Johnny Marks wrote for the television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would prove to be a success. Indeed, two of the songs would become hits for Burl Ives (who narrated the special) and would go onto become Christmas standards. "A Holly Jolly Christmas" has since been covered by several artists, and the original Burl Ives version would return to the charts several times over the years. "Silver and Gold" from the special would also prove to be popular.

Johnny Marks would not repeat the success of the songs from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, although he would write songs for two more Christmas television specials. Johnny Marks also wrote songs for the 1975 DePatie-Freleng cel-animated television special The Tiny Tree, and the special included his 1959 song "A Merry Merry Christmas to You." The following year he provided songs for Rankin/Bass's sequel to their classic 1964 television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rudolph's Shiny New Year.

Johnny Marks died on September 3 1985 at the age of 75 from complications from diabetes. He left behind a legacy of hit Christmas songs that are matched by very few. "Johnny Marks" may not be a household name, but his songs certainly are.

Friday, December 16, 2022

The Norelco Santa Claus

Chances are good that if you are an American of a certain age, you remember television commercials done in stop motion animation of Santa Claus riding an upside-down, electric razor across a snowy landscape. The commercials were for Norelco electric razors and aired for years each holiday season. They proved to be among the most popular commercials of all time and remain fondly remembered by many.

Norelco is the brand name used by Koninklijke Philips N.V. for its electric razors in the United States. Phillips was founded in 1891 in Eindhoven by Gerard Philips as company that made light bulbs. It was in 1939 that Philips expanded into the electric razor market, although they were unable to introduce their electric razors into the United States until 1948 due to World War II. Philips was prevented from using the "Philips" name in the United States by American electronics company Philco, who argued that the names of the two companies were similar enough to result in confusion. For the American market Philips then created the name Norelco, short for "North American Philips [electrical] Company." It was in 1981 that Philips bought Philco, thus allowing Philips to use their name in the United States if they chose to. Of course, by that time Norelco was a recognizable brand name in United States and as a result Philips would continue to use the name. It was in 2005 that Philips started branding their electric razors in the United States "Philips Norelco," in the first step in phasing out the "Norelco" name. As of 2022, however, their razors are still branded "Philips Norelco."

The Norelco stop-motion animation television commercials featuring Santa Claus first aired in 1961. There really isn't any information on the origin of the commercials to be found online. Norelco's advertising agency at the time was C. J. LaRoche & Company, so I would presume the idea for the ad originated in their offices. As to who actually created the stop-motion animation for the commercial, that remains a mystery. Because of its similarity to the stop-motion animation of the Rankin/Bass television specials, there are those who have assumed that they were responsible for the Norelco Santa Claus ads. That is not the case and, in fact, the first Norelco Santa Claus ad aired three years before Rankin/Bass's first Christmas special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (which debuted in 1964).

From the beginning the plot of the Norelco Santa Claus ads roughly remained the same. It featured Santa Claus riding an upside down electric razor attachment over a snowy landscape, usually with an instrumental version of "Jingle Bells" playing. Apparently in some of the earlier commercials there was a jingle, performed to the tune of "Jingle Bells," that  went "Floating heads, floating heads, floating all the way/Norelco is the shaving gift to give on Christmas day." The commercials would end with "Norelco" spelled as "Noëlco," with the slogan, "Even our name says, 'Merry Christmas.'"

The Norelco Santa Claus ads proved popular from the beginning, and in the Sixties and Seventies were nearly ubiquitous. They aired during everything from NFL games to prime time programming. As Norelco razors would change over the years, the commercials would be updated from time to time. The Norelco Santa Claus commercials would be pulled in 1986 as Norelco decided to spend their advertising money on other campaigns. Viewers missed the Norelco commercials, however, so that in 1997 a new version of the Norelco Santa Claus commercial was introduced, this time done in computer animation rather than stop-motion. After a time the Norelco Santa Claus commercials would disappear again, only to be revived again in 2011.

The success of the Norelco Santa Claus commercials perhaps came down to two factors. The first is that when the commercials debuted in 1961, stop-motion animation was rarely seen on television and particularly not in commercials made for adults. The Norelco Santa commercials were then unlike anything else on the air at the time. The second is the sheer novelty of Santa Claus riding an oversized electric razor attachment across snowy hills. Whoever had the initial idea that the top of an electric razor resembles a sleigh had a stroke of genius.

Below is a collection of Norelco Santa commercials over the years.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Godspeed Stuart Margolin

Stuart Margolin, who played Angel on the classic television series The Rockford Files and appeared in such movies as Kelly's Heroes (1980) and Death Wish (1974), died on December 12 2022 at the age of 82.

Stuart Margolin was born on January 31 1940 in Davenport, Iowa. He spent much of his childhood in Dallas, Texas. Growing up he was kicked out of various local Dallas public schools, and ultimately attended a boarding school in Nashville and a private school in Dallas.

Stuart Margolin moved to New York City to live with his older brother Arnold Margolin when the latter was appearing on Broadway as a replacement in The Diary of Anne Frank. Afterwards he attended a summer theatre camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. There he met Barney Brown, an acting instructor who mentored Robert Duval, Gene Hackman, and Dustin Hoffman. He graduated from Scottsdale High School in Arizona in 1958. He moved to California to continue his studies under Barney Brown at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Stuart Margolin made his television debut in 1961 on The Gertrude Berg Show in the recurring role of Lester Wexley. The following year he appeared in a recurring role on the show Ensign O'Toole. In the Sixties he guest starred on the shows The Lieutenant, Burke's Law, Channing, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, The Fugitive, Ben Casey, 12 O' Clock High, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Branded, Blue Light, Hey Landlord, Pistols 'n' Petticoats, Occasional Wife, The Second Hundred Years, He & She, The Virginian, The Monkees, Bewitched, The F.B.I., Judd for the Defense, That Girl, It Takes a Thief, Land of the Giants, and My World and Welcome to It. He made his film debut in Women of the Prehistoric Planet in 1966. During the Sixties he also appeared in the movies Don't Just Stand Thee (1968), Kelly's Heroes (1970), and The Gamblers (1970). He wrote the TV movie The Ballad of Andy Cocker.

In the Seventies Stuart Margolin played Deputy Sheriff Mitch Mitchell, the sidekick of the title character on the television Western Nichols. It was the first time he worked with James Garner. He played the recurring role of Angel Martin on James Garner's next television series, The Rockford Files. He guest starred on the television shows Getting Together; The Partridge Family; Love, American Style; The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Cannon; Gunsmoke; M*A*S*H; Rhoda; Lanigan's Rabbi; and The Associates. He appeared in the movies Limbo (1972), The Stone Killer (1973), Death Wish (1974), The Gambler (1974), The Big Bus (1976), Futureworld (1976), Heroes (1977), and Days of Heaven (1978).

It was in the Seventies that Stuart Margolin broke into directing with Love, American Style. He directed episodes of The Texas Wheelers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis, Sara, Wonder Woman, The Rockford Files, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, The Love Boat, and The Fitzpatricks, as well as TV movies. He write screenplay for the movie A Man, a Woman and a Bank (1979).

In the Eighties Stuart Margolin played the recurring role of  Philo Sandeen on the TV series Bret Maverick. He also had regular roles on the shows Mr. Smith and Mom P.I. He guest starred on the shows The Fall Guy; Magnum, P.I.; CBS Children's Mystery Theatre; Hill Street Blues; Danger Bay; Crazy Like a Fox; The Tracey Ullman Show; and A Family For Joe. He appeared in the mini-series Vendetta: Secrets of a Mafia Bride. He appeared in the movies S.O.B. (1981), Class (1983), Running Hot (1984), A Fine Mess (1986), Iron Eagle II (1988), Bye Bye Blues (1989), and Deep Sleep (1990). He directed episodes of Bret Maverick; Hart to Hart; Magnum, P.I.; CBS Children's Mystery Theatre; Crazy Like a Fox; Danger Bay; Tough Cookies; Neon Rider; and B. L. Stryker. He directed episodes of the mini-series Vendetta: Secrets of a Mafia Bride. He wrote episodes of Neon Rider and Vendetta: Secrets of a Mafia Bride.

In the Nineties Mr. Margolin reprised his role as Angel in several Rockford Files television movies. He guest starred on the shows Matlock, The Ray Bradbury Theatre, Monkey House, Johnny Bago, E.N.G., Dead Man's Gun, Promised Land, Jake and the Kid, Touched by an Angel, 18 Wheels of Justice, and Beggars and Choosers. He appeared in the movies Guilt by Suspicion (1991), Impolite (1992), The Lady of the Land (1997), and The Hi-Line (1998). He directed episodes of the shows Fly by Night, The Ray Bradbury Theatre, Quantum Leap, North of 60, Lonesome Dove: The Series, Promised Land, and Beggars and Choosers. He wrote an episode of North of 60 and the story for the film Grizzly Falls (1999).

In the Naughts Stuart Margolin had a regular role on the TV show Tom Stone.  He guest starred on the shows Da Vinci's Inquest, Strange Frequency, These Arms of Mine, Intelligence, Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, and The Bridge. He appeared in the film The Hoax (2006). He directed episodes of the shows These Arms of Mine, Tom Stone, Wild Card, The Handler, Da Vinci's Inquest, Da Vinci's City Hall, Intelligence and The Bridge.

In the Teens Stuart Margolin guest starred on the TV shows Call Me Fitz, Republic of Doyle, NCIS, and The X-Files. He appeared in the movies Arbitrage (2012), The Discoverers (2013), The Second Time Around (2016), SGT. Will Gardner (2019), and What the Night Can Do (2020).

Chances are very good that Stuart Margolin will always be best remembered as Angel Martin on The Rockford Files. Jim Rockford's former cell mate, Angel was a bit shifty and was often trying to run some con game or another. At the same time, Angel was loyal to Jim, who was at time exasperated by his antics. Of course, Mr. Margolin played many more roles than Angel over the years. In the X-Files episode "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat," he played a NASA scientist who learned how to manipulate memory. In The Stone Killer he played a contractor who sets up hits for the mob and in A Fine Mess he played a bumbling criminal out to get the two lead characters after they overhear him and his partner doping a horse. Over the years he played a wide array of roles from the captain of an alien spaceship in the Monkees episode "The Monkees Watch their Feet" to a mill foreman in Days of Heaven. Of course, Mr. Margolin also directed several hours worth of television. He was an immensely talented and versatile man.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022


Regular readers have probably noticed that I have not posted a blog post since Tuesday, December 6. The simple fact is that I have had the flu for the past week. This is a highly unusual situation for me, as I almost never catch the flu. In fact, I honestly can't remember the last time I had influenza. Anyway, I am still not feeling well, although I feel much better than last week when I spent most of my time sleeping. I intend to get back to regular posts tomorrow.