About Christmas TV History

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


I don't just watch classic television shows and movies-- I also watch quite a few new TV series.  Currently, I'm caught up in the third season of Justified which began a few weeks ago on FX.  This crime drama was originally adapted from best-selling author Elmore Leonard's story Fire in the Hole.  The TV series has since expanded beyond the story's original characters and storylines.  One of the things I like most about Justified is that the bad guys (the criminals) in the series are given just as much character development and humanity as the good guys (federal marshals).  It's also interesting to see a show's setting located somewhere other than Los Angeles or New York--Justified takes place in Kentucky.

Would you mess with quick-draw Marshal Raylan Givens?
Have you seen the first season episode "Long in the Tooth?"  While it is not a Christmas-themed story, it does contain a familiar Christmas TV reference.  In this 2010 episode, US Marshal Raylan Givens is after a fugitive, former drug kingpin Roland "Rollie" Pike who has been underground working as a dentist for years.

Different hat and a different series: Olyphant as Sheriff Bullock on HBO's  Deadwood.
It is explained as part of the backstory that Raylan has been chasing Rollie for years.  Roland fled from Raylan’s custody by insisting on watching the end of a Christmas TV special and instead using that time to escape.  Years later, Roland explains that he’s been working as a dentist because he was inspired by Hermey the elf from Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Rollie Pike is played by actor Alan Ruck
You may recognize the actor who plays Roland Pike as Alan Ruck.  Ruck has played other unforgettable chracters such as Stuart from the '90s sitcom Spin City and Cameron in the 1986 teen movie classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Could this character inspire you to be a dentist?
Justified airs on FX on Tuesday nights.  Anybody else addicted to Justified?  I'm also currently watching Downton Abbey on PBS, House of Lies and Shameless on Showtime and The Good Wife on CBS.  What new shows are you watching?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Betty White: The Golden Palace Christmas (1992)

Betty White at her 90th birthday celebration, NBC's TV special
Happy Birthday Betty White!  January 17th, Betty White celebrated her 90th birthday and I've been inspired to write several blog posts as a tribute to her wonderful legacy on television.  I've already written about Date With the AngelsThe Mary Tyler Moore ShowLife With Elizabeth, Prep & Landing Stocking Stuffer: Operation: Secret Santa, the 1986 Golden Girls and the 1989 Golden Girls Christmas episodes.

The Golden Girls spin-off
How many of you remember watching The Golden Girls spin-off sitcom, The Golden Palace?  In the final episodes of The Golden Girls, Dorothy marries Blanche's uncle Lucas, played by Leslie Nielsen.  The story continues in The Golden Palace, the name of the hotel that Blanche, Rose and Sophia invest in with their retirement savings. With the restaurant's chef Chuy Castillos, played by Cheech Marin, and the hotel's manager, Roland Wilson, played by Don Cheadle, the girls struggle to keep the hotel in business.  Sadly, the spin-off only lasted one season.

Rose orders Roland (Don Cheadle) to recite the names of the reindeer to prove his worthiness to play Santa Claus for a children's party
The Golden Palace's brief run included a Christmas episode: 1992's "It's Beginning to Look a Lot (Less) Like Christmas."  Sophia accepts a large reservation for the holiday from a therapy group looking to escape from Christmas.  That means the hotel must avoid hanging any decorations and ban any festivities.  The friends agree to set aside their holiday for the sake of the business however, Chuy revels in this bit of humbug.  Overnight, he is visited by three ghosts that convince him that he is missing out on the happiness of the holiday.  Of course, these three ghosts take on the appearance of his three elderly female co-workers Blanche, Rose and Sophia. 

Chuy (Cheech Marin) with the Ghost of Christmas Past (Betty White)
Meanwhile, Roland has volunteered to be Santa Claus for a children’s charity party and Rose gives him strict lessons on how to be a better Santa.  Betty White is hilarious as Rose, demanding that Roland rehearse and perfect his characterization of Santa--you have to see Rose in her ridiculous elf costume as Nicodemus, Santa's head elf.

Rose Nyland in her elf costume
This episode from the rare sitcom can be found on Youtube.  While it's not my favorite Christmas episode, it is noteworthy as yet another interpretation of  A Christmas Carol.  I'm not sure Charles Dickens ever could have imagined a Castillos walking Christmas cake as a part of his classic tale!  I think it's also interesting to see the Academy Award-nominated Don Cheadle in this sitcom.  I'm currently watching him in his new TV series House of Lies which airs on Showtime.  Tell me what you think of The Golden Palace Christmas episode.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Betty White: Golden Girls Christmas (1989)

Happy Birthday Betty White!  Last week Betty White celebrated her 90th birthday and I've been inspired to write several blog posts as a tribute to her wonderful legacy on television.  I've already written about Date With the AngelsThe Mary Tyler Moore ShowLife With Elizabeth, Prep & Landing Stocking Stuffer: Operation: Secret Santa and the first Golden Girls Christmas episode from 1986.

The second Golden Girls Christmas episode arrives in the fifth season and is titled "Have Yourself A Very Little Christmas."  The girls spend their holiday at the church helping to prepare and serve meals to the needy.

However, they are surprised at the number of women and children among the homeless.  Another surprise:  Dorothy’s ex-husband Stanley Zbornak is one of the men in line for food!  Stan confides in Dorothy that his novelty toy business suffered some bad breaks this past year and his current wife has thrown him out of the house, accusing him of infidelity.  But Dorothy won't allow Stan to feel too sorry for himself, reminding him that he has the ability and resources to help himself out of his current crisis.  Dorothy points out that the other people and families at the church this day are not so lucky.

Dorothy reminds Stan that he has friends and family to help him during his time of trouble

This story has a powerful social message: many people are just a paycheck or two from severe financial troubles or becoming homeless.  The Golden Girls created many of these stories with social issues--remember the episodes where Dorothy confronts illiteracy, Rose suffers from age discrimination when looking for a job, and Blanche is sexually harrassed by her professor?  One of the points I appreciate the most from this story line is that the girls are thoughtful enough to wonder how these needy people will get help with food after the Christmas holiday.  This is a great reminder to all of us that charity and giving should be a year round activity.

Stan Zbornak is played by Herb Edelman

One of Rose's great jokes in this episode.

This 1989 Christmas episode can viewed on the fifth season DVD release on disc 2.  The show is currently airing weekdays on the Hallmark Channel and WE.  Are you a big fan of The Golden Girls?  Which of the two Christmas-themed episodes is your favorite?  Up next: The Golden Palace Christmas episode.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Betty White: The Golden Girls Christmas (1986)

Happy Birthday Betty White!  Last week Betty White celebrated her 90th birthday and I've been inspired to write several blog posts as a tribute to her wonderful legacy on television.  I've already written about Date With the AngelsThe Mary Tyler Moore ShowLife With Elizabeth and Prep & Landing Stocking Stuffer: Operation: Secret Santa

Now what you've been waiting for--Betty White also starred in two Golden Girls Christmas episodes, the first being 1986's "Twas the Nightmare Before Christmas."

The roommates successfully dodge Rose's story about the St. Olaf stage play of 'The Christmas Carol' with an all-chicken cast.

Hilariously, Blanche has a passion for men dressed in Santa Claus suits.  Concerned with the commercialism of Christmas and overspending on each others' gifts, the four roommates decide to swap homemade presents this year.  Blanche makes a photo calendar--The Men of Blanche's Boudoir.

Dorothy reacts to Mr. September in her new calendar from Blanche.
Everything seems to be going right this holiday, until...

A man in a Santa Claus suit holds the women hostage at Rose’s workplace, a counseling center.  The stranger has no intention of hurting them, he's just desperately trying to avoid spending Christmas alone.  Rose, Blanche, Sophia and Dorothy fear that this delay means that they have each missed their flights to go home to be with their loved ones for the holidays.  At the airport, they learn their flights have been canceled due to stormy weather.

As usual, they discuss their troubles over cheesecake and coffee.
Feeling like their holiday has been ruined, the women end up at a roadside diner sharing their sorrows over cheesecake and coffee.  Rose, Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia remind themselves that they are family and they belong together at Christmas time.  They begin to feel better after they volunteer to cover the shift for the man running the restaurant, allowing him to go home to be with his family for a little while on Christmas Eve.

"Let's go surfin' now, everybody's learnin' how..."

It miraculously begins to snow in Miami.  The episode ends with a joke when the ditzy Rose is inspired to select a Christmas song on the diner’s jukebox and ends up playing Surfin’ Safari.

This Christmas episode can be found on the second season DVD set's second disc.  The Golden Girls is currently airing daily on the Hallmark Channel and WE.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Betty White: Prep & Landing (2010)

Betty White from a Saturday Night Live bumper in 2010
Happy Birthday Betty White!  This week Betty White celebrates her 90th birthday and I've been inspired to write several blog posts as a tribute to her wonderful legacy on television.  I've already written about Date With the AngelsThe Mary Tyler Moore Show and Life With Elizabeth.

White also participated in 2010's TV special Disney's Prep & Landing Stocking Stuffer: Operation: Secret Santa giving voice to the animated character of Mrs. Claus.  This follow-up to the first  Prep & Landing TV special is a short film running less than seven minutes.

Magee, Wayne and Lanny
Elves Lanny and Wayne are at it again.  This year they are asked by Magee to use their Mission: Impossible-style special ops skills to help Mrs. Claus.

Mrs. Claus's face is never fully visible as she instructs the special ops elves with their mission
Mrs. Claus wants them to retrieve a wooden box from Santa’s underground private workshop.  A funny gag is that Mrs. Claus, like many of her age, is awkward using the latest technology in order to work with the elves.  Of course, her instructions require Wayne and Lanny to perform their task without Santa’s knowledge. 

Lanny and Wayne sizing up the situation
Their mission becomes more complicated when Lanny and Wayne find Santa napping at his desk when they break in.  What magical secrets could this little wooden box hold?

Mrs. Claus receives conformation of the success of the elves mission
This short film aired on ABC in December 2010 as a teaser to hold viewer’s attention until the second half-hour Prep & Landing TV special could be released in 2011.

The voice cast: Sarah Chalke as Magee; Dave Foley as Wayne; Derek Richardson as Lanny; W. Morgan Sheppard as Santa; and, Betty White as Mrs. Claus.

Did you see this animated short?  Have you seen the 2009 or the 2011 Prep & Landing half-hour specials?  This 2010 short film was recently released as a bonus feature on the DVD release of the first Prep & Landing.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Betty White: Life With Elizabeth (1954)

Betty White: the comeback queen of comedy
Happy Birthday Betty White!  This week Betty White celebrates her 90th birthday and I've been inspired to write several blog posts as a tribute to her wonderful legacy on television.  I've already written about her late 1950s sitcom Date With the Angels and a special Christmas episode featuring her character Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Life With Elizabeth ran from 1953-55.
Here is another Christmas episode featuring Betty White in an early TV series.  Life With Elizabeth is a domestic sitcom with gentle humor in which each half hour episode is comprised of three vignettes.  This 1954 holiday story "Christmas Presents" is the second segment in the episode.  In this story, Elizabeth and her husband Alvin promise each other they won’t peak into each other’s hiding places to see their wrapped gifts.  But neither one can curb their curiosity.  Do you ever sneak a peek at your Christmas presents?

This rare vintage television series can be difficult to find but I found an uploaded video of this Christmas segment on Youtube:

I love Elizabeth and Alvin's gestures surrounding their pact to not peek!  Alvin is played by comedic actor Del Moore--do you recognize him?  Among his many roles, I recognize him as the college dean in Jerry Lewis' movie The Nutty Professor.  I wish there was a good clip of it on Youtube.  Dr. Warfield (Moore) is tricked by Buddy Love into acting out a dramatic scene from Hamlet on top of a table.  It's a classic.

Watching these old television shows is one of my great passions in being a researcher/writer about Christmas TV.  I get a real thrill out of discovering and watching TV shows I've never seen before.  Have you heard of Life With Elizabeth?  What's the oldest TV show you still enjoy watching?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Betty White: The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1974)

Happy Birthday Betty White!  This week Betty White celebrates her 90th birthday and I've been inspired to write several blog posts as a tribute to her wonderful legacy on television. Yesterday I wrote about her late 1950s sitcom Date With the AngelsClick here to see that again.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77)  Starting left: Sue Ann, Mary, Georgette, Ted, Lou and Murray.
Another program where Betty White shines is the fifth season episode "Not A Christmas Show" from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Betty plays Sue Ann Nivens, the Minneapolis TV station's cooking show host.  If you've seen the show, you know that Sue Ann is a hilarious mix of traditionalism and aggressiveness.  Though this episode takes place in early November, this is one of those episodes that has become very closely associated with Christmas.

After several days of fighting amongst themselves, the staff at WJM become snowed in at the office.  Sue Ann has taped her Christmas cooking show in advance of the holiday, preparing delicacies from all over the world.  “Yuletide yummies for worldwide tummies.”  She invites her newsroom friends to come to the studio to enjoy the food she cooked for the show but everyone declines the offer only to later accept the invitation after they are unable to leave the station.  But the hurt feelings and anger prevent the co-workers from enjoying each other’s company as well as the delicious meal.

The cooking show set is still elaborately decorated for the taping of Sue Ann's Christmas show.
Sue Ann tries to force the Christmas spirit on them by making them wear funny international hats and  sing Christmas carols. 

"...four calling birds..."
Don’t miss this funny opportunity to see Mary wearing the ridiculous World War I Kaiser Wilhelm helmet and Lou looking silly while wearing a sombrero.  Ar Sue Ann's request, they sing the popular holiday song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” but it's the angriest, most miserable rendition you've ever heard.  It's hilarious.  The bad mood and hurt feelings finally cease after Georgette sings a very tender rendition of “Silent Night.”

Georgette's beautiful but fragile singing voice reminds the staff to reflect on the spirit of the season.
This episode can be found on the second disc on the fifth season DVD set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Check your local library or on-line rental queu for access.  The series is also currently airing weeknights at 8pm (ET) on Me-TV.

Sue Ann catches Lou under the mistletoe!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Betty White: Date With the Angels (1957)

Betty White at her 90th birthday celebration broadcast on NBC, Monday, Jan. 16th
Happy Birthday Betty White!  Today is Betty's 90th birthday and I've been inspired to write several blog posts as a tribute to her wonderful legacy on television.

This black-and-white sitcom only lasted one season, 1957-58.
Betty White starred in a short-lived domestic sitcom Date With the Angels as Vickie, the wife of insurance salesman, Gus Angel.

Bill Williams and Betty White play newlyweds Gus and Vickie Angel
The 1957 yuletide episode "Santa's Helper" is also known by the title "The Christmas Show."  Vickie's elderly neighbor, Mr. Finley, feels useless at home, spending each day alone.  Vickie decides to help by getting him a job at Martindale's Department Store working as their Santa Claus.  Mr. Finley's generosity as Santa brightens many children's Christmas spirits.  Unfortunately, he accomplishes this by giving away the store's toys for free.  Making matters worse, the well-intentioned Vickie is criticized by Mr. Finley's son for getting his father a job when he believes his father should be staying at home.  Of course, this is a Christmas episode, so you can rest assured there will be a happy ending. 

The funniest moment arrives at the start of the episode.  The elderly character Mr. Finley, played by the perpetually aged Burt Mustin, sings the popular Christmas carol “The First Noel” with only one lyric: the single word ‘noel.’  I love this moment so much, I frequently find myself at holiday time singing "The First Noel" exactly as Mr. Finley does!

Actress Nancy Kulp as Dolly, the department store employee who hires Mr. Finley.
I also love this episode because it not only includes veteran TV actor Burt Mustin but character actors Nancy Kulp and Richard Deacon as well.  Culp is better known for her comedic role as Miss Jane Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies and Deacon, among many outstanding roles, is well remembered as Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Richard Deacon plays Mr. Finley's son on Date With the Angels
I just love these old black-and-white sitcoms from television's past.  This Christmas episode can be found on discount DVD sets as well as online.  You can also watch it here:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol (2011)

Did you see that the recent DVD release of last summer's theatrical movie The Smurfs included a bonus disc?  Sony Pictures included a half-hour piece of animation on the bonus disc entitled The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol.

"Smurf the halls with boughs of holly..."
In this version of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, Grouchy Smurf is the curmudgeon that hates Christmas. Papa Smurf concocts a magical brew that gives Grouchy a life-changing dream of being visited by three special Smurfs. 

Grouchy meets the Smurf of Christmases Past
Acting as the Smurf of Christmases Past, Smurfette shows Grouchy that his anger stems from not receiving the gift he's always wanted: a hang glider.  Brainy visits Grouchy as the Smurf of Christmas Present to show him that his bad attitude at Christmas every year negatively affects the other Smurfs. And, Hefty, acting as the Smurf of Christmas Future shows Grouchy a dark future when all the Smurfs are captured by Gargamel while they are in the woods looking for a Christmas tree to inspire Grouchy with the Christmas spirit.  In the end, Grouchy learns to appreciate the one gift he is given each year--a new hat especially handcrafted for him by Papa Smurf. 

Brainy as the Smurf of Christmas Present--created to look like the traditional animation of the Saturday morning cartoon series
Original fans of the 1980s Smurfs TV series will appreciate this new story because it incorporates the flat animated look of that original Saturday morning cartoon show.  Though the story begins and ends using the modern CG technology with the three dimensional visual appeal of the 2011 movie, Grouchy’s dream with the three Smurfs of Christmas is all done in the different style more like the appearance of traditional cel animation. 

Grouchy receives a Christmas gift from Papa Smurf--using the CG three dimensional look of the movie
Don’t expect a faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens’ original story.  This Smurf version of A Christmas Carol takes great license with the original text yet manages to create a feel-good story aimed at entertaining even the youngest of viewers.

I am antcipating that we will eventually see this animation on television, following the trend set by Dreamworks with Shrek the Halls (2007), Merry Madagascar (2009) and Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special (2010) as well as Blue Sky Studios' Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas (2011).

Did you watch Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas on TV in 2011?
Did you or a family member receive The Smurfs DVD release as a Christmas gift?  Have you seen The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol yet?  What do you think of the animated Christmas entertainments made from the successful film franchises such as Shrek the Halls and Merry Madagascar?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The House Without A Christmas Tree (1972)

In the last several months, I've spoken and written a great deal about the Christmas TV movie The Homecoming and the TV series The Waltons and its Christmas episodes.  When I was growing up, there were two TV movies that we looked forward to seeing again and again: The Homecoming of course, and The House Without A Christmas Tree.   Last year may have been the anniversary of the debut of The Homecoming (click here to see what I wrote about that) however this year marks the 40th anniversary of The House Without A Christmas Tree.

This poignant and dramatic made-for-TV movie is based on an autobiographical story written by Gail Rock.  It takes place in the small town of Clear River, Nebraska in 1946.  Ten year-old Addie Mills doesn’t understand why she can’t have a Christmas tree.  Her whole life, she’s never had one.  She fears her unemotional father doesn’t love her.

Addie and her grandmother discuss why her father is so emotionally distant
Though Addie pesters him about it, her father explains to Grandma that Christmas trees are a painful reminder of his wife who died when Addie was a baby.

Addie doesn't understand why she can't have a Christmas tree like everyone else.
At school, Addie has the opportunity to bring home the classroom Christmas tree since she doesn’t already have one.  After bringing it home and decorating it as a surprise, Mr. Mills becomes upset when he sees it.

James yells at his daughter Addie for defying him and bringing home a Christmas tree
James makes the excuse that he doesn’t want people to think they are too poor to have a tree.  Later that night, Addie drags the precious tree over to the home of a classmate she knows is less well-off and whose family is without a tree for the holiday.  Addie leaves the tree on their doorstep with a note marked "from Santa Claus."

The Cott family become the recipients of the 5th grade classroom tree
The next day, Mr. Mills recognizes the tree in the neighbor’s home and knows what Addie has done.  Finally recognizing that Addie isn't responsible for his bitterness with Christmas,  James brings home a Christmas tree.  But Addie is uncertain how to react.  When her father goes to the attic and retrieves a handmade star to place on the top of the tree, she finally gives in to her father's goodwill gesture.  Addie learns that the star ornament is one her mother had made for Addie’s first Christmas tree before she died.  Warning: don't even bother to resist it--this movie is definitely a tearjerker!

Addie's star handmade by her mother

The cast includes: Jason Robards as James Mills; Mildred Natwick as Grandma Mills; and Lisa Lucas as Addie.  The House Without A Christmas Tree is directed by Paul Bogart.

Addie (Lisa Lucas) and her best friend Carla Mae (Alexa Kenin) in school.
Some viewers may recognize actress Alexa Kenin in the role of Addie's best friend Carla Mae.  Kenin also appeared in numerous Afterschool Specials, the sitcoms Facts of Life and Gimme A Break!, as well as the teen movies Little Darlings and Pretty in Pink before her untimely death in 1985.

Molly Shannon's Mary Katherine Gallagher Christmas sketch also includes guest stars: (left) Rosie O'Donnell and (right) Whitney Houston
I'm not the only one who remembers this classic TV movie.  It has cast a long enough shadow to become part of a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live.  In the 1996 Christmas episode, cast member Molly Shannon as her reoccurring character, Mary Katherine Gallagher, the klutzy Catholic school girl,  steals the spotlight in the school's pageant rehearsal and quotes one of Addie’s monologues from this 1972 film.

Am I the only one to see a similarity in appearance between Lisa Lucas and Liz Lemon (Tina Fey)?

The House Without A Christmas Tree went on to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama - Adaptation by Eleanor Perry.  It was so popular and critically acclaimed that three more TV movies based on the characters by Gail Rock were created: 1973’s The Thanksgiving Treasure, 1975’s The Easter Promise and 1976’s Addie and the King of Hearts.

The House Without A Christmas Tree is available for viewing on DVD as well as Youtube.  It is one of my favorites on my Youtube channel: TistheSeasonTV.

Watching The Homecoming and The House Without A Christmas Tree were annual events in my house when I was growing up in the 1970s.  What Christmas program do you remember looking forward to watching every year when you were a child?


Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the TV programs mentioned on this website can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. She is currently updating and expanding the encyclopedia for a 2021 release. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com

*Support this website and its research by purchasing the books at 1701 press.com