About Christmas TV History

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Remembering Jeff Conaway

Actor Jeff Conaway who played Bobby Wheeler on the TV series 'Taxi'

It is certainly sad news that actor Jeff Conaway died on Friday (May 27th). Instead of detailing his struggles with substance abuse, I'd prefer to honor his memory and legacy by acknowledging his work as an actor. Among his many roles, audiences may remember his appearance in the still popular, musical film Grease as Kenickie. Another of his most memorable roles was as taxi driver / wanna-be actor, Bobby Wheeler, on the TV sitcom Taxi. I was fortunate enough to experience seeing Conaway perform in a staged production of A Christmas Carol in 2004 in Youngstown, Ohio at the Powers Auditorium. Conaway played the role of Jacob Marley.

cover of the program

Also appearing in this staged production: Malik Yoba, Jackee Harry and Barry Williams. After the November performance, I remember seeing Conaway on Tony Danza's talk show and they discussed this production which played several days in New York City as well. (Remember Tony Danza starred with Conaway on the TV series Taxi).

inside page from program

If you click on the links below, you can watch whole episodes of Taxi. This TV series is also on DVD and available at Netflix.

My favorite Taxi episode featuring Jeff Conaway: 'High School Reunion' from the first season. In this episode he gives an unforgettable performance imitating Louie DePalma (who was played by Danny DeVito).

There are two Taxi Christmas episodes, although neither main storyline focuses on the Bobby Wheeler character.

A 1978 Christmas episode of Taxi: 'A Full House for Christmas.' This episode streams from IMDb.

The fifth and final season also features the Christmas episode, 'Get Me Through the Holidays' starring Louise Lasser as Alex's miserable ex-wife, Phyllis. This is Part 1.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What I Did on Summer Vacation: A Christmas Story House

Sunday, May 22nd with the sun shining and temps hitting the low 80s, I made the glorious journey to Cleveland, Ohio to visit A Christmas Story House and Museum. You may remember that this film's story about Ralphie Parker and his quest for a Red Ryder BB gun at Christmas takes place in Hammond, Indiana. However, many scenes of the 1983 film were actually shot in Cleveland, Ohio. The house used for shooting in the film has since been turned into a hip destination spot and includes a museum and a gift shop across the street.

A still taken from the original film of the front of the Parker family home

My photo of what A Christmas Story home looks like today--minus one tree

A still from the 1983 movie--Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) running in front of his home

I was living in Northeast Ohio in the early 1980s when this film was originally shot. I actually remember seeing the call for extras to come to downtown Cleveland for the filming of the scenes for the Christmas parade and the shots in front of Higbees and the Christmas window displays. But as a young teenager, I blew off this opportunity--never expecting to become someone who would see A Christmas Story a million times and end up making a career writing about it and other Christmas entertainments!? Oh well. In a weird side story, I DID stand in line for four hours to audition to be an extra in what became the 2000 Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger film The Patriot. Despite my obvious dedication, they didn't pick me to appear in the film :(

Inside A Christmas Story House--next to a Major Award!

Click HERE to see my early post about the movie A Christmas Story.

Inside A Christmas Story Home, you will find reproductions of period 1930s-1940s furnishings and decorations. They encourage people to wander the home and photography is permitted. The above photo of myself was taken inside the House next to the Leg Lamp that stands in the front window. Across the street at A Christmas Story Museum, you will find actual costumes and items used in the filming of the original movie as well as photographs shot during the making of the film. Don't miss either venue--and the price of your ticket covers both buildings. However, photos are not permitted inside the museum.

I recommend coming down to see the house, museum and gift shop in Cleveland, Ohio. Tours are conducted year round and begin every half-hour during their open hours. Check the website for prices and hours. On the random May afternoon that I attended, there were people from Texas, Wisconsin and cities throughout Ohio in attendance. This is definitely one of those pleasant places where it feels like Christmas all year long. Be sure to let me know if you make the trek--I'd love to hear about your adventure.

A still from the 1983 movie of the back yard where Ralphie met Black Bart--and nearly shot his eye out!
Then...and now:

The backyard as it looks today--the shed still stands :)

Last July, I made the journey to several locations of the exterior shots for the 1977 Christmas TV movie The Gathering. I took photos from these locations and they were posted on the blog Made for TV Mayhem--a site dedicated to made-for-TV movies and other entertainments. Though the story in the much-beloved movie, The Gathering, takes place in snowy New England, both the house and some of the outdoor locations were shot here in Northeast Ohio (Hudson, Ohio and Chagrin Falls, Ohio). Click here to see that post again. And, while you're at Made for TV Mayhem, you should check out the rest of Amanda's site and follow that amazing blog :)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Donny Hathaway

I remember first hearing Donny Hathaway's soulful song 'This Christmas' when I spent the holidays in 1998 working retail at Old Navy. It was among the many holiday songs that played in a loop on the audio system of the store starting just after Halloween and continuing through Christmas. By the middle of November, I had that entire collection of songs memorized--but Hathaway's song stood out. Enough so that I actually looked forward to when it would play over and over and I would sing along when it cycled through. 'This Christmas' was new to me in 1998 but the song seems to have risen in popularity each December in the years since. Originally co-written by Hathaway and Nadine McKinnor, Hathaway released the single in 1970, and it has become a Christmas classic that has been covered by many other artists.

Donny Hathaway's original R&B classic 'This Christmas.'

What I only recently realized is that Donny Hathaway is also the voice behind the incredible theme song for the hit TV show Maude. (The music for 'And Then There's Maude' was written by song writing superstars Marilyn & Alan Bergman and Dave Grusin). Over the last couple of weeks I've been watching Maude on Antenna TV and just happened to see Hathaway's name in the closing credits. I immediately recognized his name from 'This Christmas' and was thrilled to learn that it is the same artist! How cool is that?

Theme song from the 1970s hit TV show 'Maude.'

Hathaway's 'This Christmas' has in recent years become a popular song to cover for many other artists. Sadly, Hathaway passed away in 1979 but this song continues his musical legacy.

Chris Brown singing his version of 'This Christmas' in the 2007 theatrical release movie of the same title.

The official site for the movie, This Christmas is still available and has some nice features. Check it out here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Harry Nilsson

I was so busy last year promoting The Christmas TV Companion and getting the encyclopedia, Tis the Season TV, to print that I had to put off watching most new movies that I wanted to see. One movie that I finally have had a chance to catch is John Scheinfeld's 2010 documentary "Who Is Harry Nilsson? (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)."

As it is explained in the movie's beginning, Harry Nilsson is just one of those people whose name you either recognize immediately or someone you've never heard of before. If you've never heard of Harry Nilsson, you should know that Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Robin Williams, Yoko Ono, Micky Dolenz, the Smothers Brothers, Randy Newman, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks--among others--actually appear in the doc to talk about their friend, singer/songwriter Nilsson. If that doesn't intrigue you, forget it. The brilliant and stubborn, musical genius' influence touched not just record buyers but others working in the Industry with a legacy that's still widely felt.

As a pop culture junkie, Nilsson's music continues to come up again and again in my life and my work. Those who attended my birthday celebration just last weekend know that I had the movie Midnight Cowboy screening on my television throughout the evening. Nilsson sang the movie's theme song, "Everybody's Talkin'," for which he won a Grammy. And, in my work, I've written about the Emmy award-winning animated Christmas TV special, Ziggy's Gift, with music and lyrics written by Harry Nilsson.

This 1982 animated special is based on the familiar comics character created by Tom Wilson. Though I haven't seen it on TV in years (have you? what network?), I do know that this half-hour classic is easily available for watching on DVD.

Here's part 1 from Youtube.

If you watch just the first few minutes of this Christmas classic, you'll hear the beginnings of that original Nilsson-style music that runs throughout the TV special. Though Harry Nilsson died in 1994, thankfully his music is still with us. People often ask me why I'm attracted to watching and writing about Christmas on TV and this is the sort of thing that springs to my mind. Though Christmas entertainments sometimes have the reputation for being trite, simplistic and crass, there are actually an abundance of high-quality productions--such as Ziggy's Gift--made by incredible people--Harry Nilsson--that have the power to touch our lives. Mine is not a bad job, indeed.

Nilsson performing the song Everybody's Talkin'

Though he didn't write it, this is perhaps the song he is most famous for singing.