About Christmas TV History

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Amos 'n' Andy Show Christmas (1952)

I'd like to end the month of February with an unforgettable Christmas story--and one of the earliest Christmas episodes from a scripted TV comedy series. If you've heard of The Amos 'n' Andy Show, then you've also probably heard about its controversy.  The TV comedy was based on the extremely popular radio program of the same name.  Though the TV series featured an African-American cast, its humor was derived from racial stereotypes that many viewers found very offensive.  The TV series only lasted two years but it has cast a long shadow in the history of the depiction of African-Americans on television.  For a more complete history of this controversial series, please check out Donald Bogle's seminal book Primetime Blues--a must-have reference about the history of television.

One of the reasons Amos 'n' Andy was so controversial is that it had defenders who pointed out the series' positive aspects.  This was a TV series in the early 1950s that featured a mostly all-black cast of characters that lived and worked in an all-African-American community.  Though some characters were shiftless, lazy, and conniving, the series also included positive characters such as Amos Jones who was hard working and dedicated to his family.  The outstanding Christmas show is an exceptional episode and one of the more positive episodes in the series.

The 1952 episode "The Christmas Show" can also be found listed as “Andy Plays Santa Claus.” This episode has a very simple storyline: Andy Brown take a job as a department store Santa Claus in order to earn enough money to buy a special doll for his goddaughter, Amos’s young daughter Arbadella.

This episode's story moves at a much slower pace than contemporary TV audiences may be accustomed.  We see Andy, working as Santa Claus, talking with several children about their Christmas wishes--and doing his best to avoid troublesome conflicts.

However, the highlight of the episode arrives during the story's second half when Amos instructs his daughter on the spiritual meaning of “The Lord’s Prayer.”  This lengthy spiritual segment had been taken straight from the Christmas radio program of The Amos 'n' Andy Show aired during the previous decade.  During the earliest days of television, many successful radio programs that transitioned to the new medium repeated elements from their popular Christmas radio shows in their TV Christmas episodes. Not only was this a way of giving audiences what they wanted--repeating their favorite Christmas stories with their favorite radio characters--but it also helped to "sell" television to audiences curious to see what their favorite radio characters looked like in the new medium of television.

Not only did the TV series for The Amos 'n' Andy Show "borrow" elements from their previous Christmas radio programs for their Christmas TV show but so did Father Knows Best, Our Miss Brooks, and Burns and Allen, among others.  Dragnet even created one Christmas program that it released on both radio and TV in the same year!  Many of these old time radio programs have become easily accessible on the internet--go have a listen, if you're curious.

This Christmas scene with Amos expounding the spiritual message in "The Lord's Prayer" to Arbadella was one repeated many times in previous years on the popular Amos 'n' Andy radio program.

In this popular scene, Amos sits with young Arbadella on her bed as they listen to a choir sing "The Lord's Prayer" on the radio, late on Christmas Eve.  Amos explains, line-by-line, the meaning of the biblical passage as young Arbadella listens.

While spiritual or biblical messages in TV programming are not exactly common--they aren't impossible to find either.  Here is an example of not only spiritual content but significant screen time devoted to a fairly in-depth statement.  This episode's historical value in terms of Christmas, spiritual content, and its representation of African-Americans on TV should not be overlooked or forgotten.

Above is a video clip containing the scene of "the Lord's Prayer" from the 1952 Christmas episode.  How important is it to you that Christmas TV entertainment contain a spiritual or religious message?

George and Louise Jefferson confronted by the hilarious wino (Childress) in the 1977 Christmas episode of The Jeffersons.

TV junkies, like myself, may get a kick out of knowing that actor Alvin Childress--who played Amos Jones--made a guest appearance in another outstanding Christmas episode.  He plays the unforgettable wino in the hallway outside of George's childhood residence in the 1977 holiday episode of The Jeffersons entitled "984 W. 124th Street, Apt. 5C."  I wrote about that classic episode--which is also one of my personal favorites--last year during Black History Month.  Click HERE to return to that post.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Amen Christmas (1987)

Continuing my tribute to Black History Month, I'd like to share a favorite Christmas TV episode--one from the hit 1980s series Amen.  In yesterday's post about the 1963 movie Lilies of the Field and the 1979 TV movie sequel Christmas Lilies of the Field, I mentioned the gospel song "Amen," heard in both of these movies, arranged by songwriter/composer and actor, Jester Hairston.  Hairston also appeared in the sitcom Amen as the character Rolly Forbes.  If you've watched the series, you may remember the outspoken character Rolly--he had all the best punchlines!

Though the series Amen created several outstanding musical Christmas episodes, the 1987 holiday episode "The Twelve Songs of Christmas" is one of my favorites from the series.  Below is an excerpt about this Christmas episode taken from my latest book, Merry Musical Christmas Volume 1.

My latest book, the first in a series about Christmas music, was released in December 2012.

This sitcom starring Sherman Hemsley as Deacon Frye focuses on the lives of the family and staff at the First Community Church, a predominately African-American gospel church in Philadelphia.

"In 1987’s “The Twelve Songs of Christmas,” the First Community Church choir is invited to participate in the city wide annual Christmas music competition.  But no one can agree about which song to perform.

Everyone in the choir has their own idea about which song would be the best carol to perform in the song competition.

Everyone thinks their own suggestion is the only possible selection for the choir to sing and the friends become divided.  The church elder Rolly even goes so far as to write his own rap song that he performs for the others to prove he knows the most about Christmas music.  It’s not until the night of the performance and the moment they are forced to take the stage that the group finally agrees upon what to do.

Actor Jester Hairston (left) was 86 years old when this TV episode was filmed!
Following choirmaster Lorenzo’s cues, the choir begins singing “Joy to the World.”  Then the choir is directed to sing a chorus from each of the members own favorite Christmas carols including “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Rolly gets to solo on “Mary’s Boy Child,” followed by “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and Deacon Frye gets to take the lead on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” leading into “Go Tell It on the Mountain” with a solo by board member Amelia.

Actor Clifton Davis who plays Reverend Gregory is also an accomplished songwriter.  He wrote the song “Never Can Say Goodbye,” first recorded in 1971 by the Jackson 5 which went on to be one of their biggest hits.

This medley of Christmas standards is followed by an introduction by the Reverend inviting all the city’s choirs to re-take the stage and join together to sing “Silent Night.” Five choirs worth of singers lift their voices, led by a solo by the Reverend celebrating the Christ child’s birth.

All five choirs in the competition come together on stage and sing "Silent Night."

The First Community Church ends up winning the songfest competition but TV viewers are the real winners, getting to hear this inspiring choir music year after year in TV reruns.  The episode ends with all five choirs visiting Deacon Frye’s home and everyone singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Hairston singing the lead on "Mary's Boy Child" during the choir competition.  How awesome is this?

What you may not know is that the elderly actor Jester Hairston, who plays the regular character Rolly Forbes, is the original composer of the classic Christmas carol “Mary’s Boy Child,” the song he gets to sing the lead on in this 1987 episode.  Hairston wrote the song in 1956, and it was first recorded by Harry Belafonte and later Mahalia Jackson.  It has even been recorded more recently by the Aussie group The Wiggles for their children’s Christmas album Santa’s Rockin’".

Check out this historical TV Christmas musical moment on youtube.  Sorry, I couldn't embed the video but here's the link to Part 1 of the 1987 episode:

Here's an audio clip of Harry Belafonte's recording:

Monday, February 25, 2013

Christmas Lilies of the Field (1979)

I enjoy Black History Month, a celebration of contributions to American history and culture made by African-Americans.  There are many outstanding Christmas episodes, specials, and TV movies with exceptional African-American cast members--as well as meaningful and touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences.  In this week before February ends, I'd like to remind you of a few of my Christmas favorites. 

First broadcast in 1979, this TV movie was also released on VHS in the 1980s.

Christmas Lilies of the Field is a made-for-TV sequel to the much-beloved 1963 theatrical release Lilies of the Field.  The 1963 original film was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Picture.  However, the film's star, Sidney Poitier, won for his role as Homer Smith, making him the first ever African-American Oscar winner for Best Actor.

Homer Smith--or Schmidt, as the nuns call him--returns to find that Mother Maria has been waiting for him to construct additional buildings for her.

In the Christmas TV movie sequel, Billy Dee Williams takes over the role of Homer Smith. The story begins with Smith returning to the chapel in the Arizona desert that he built for the German-speaking nuns in the first film.  The nuns now care for a group of eight orphans and a pregnant teenager.  Mother Maria is able to convince Homer to help them build what the nuns call a kindergarten--a school--and a dormitory for the children.

Social Worker, Janet Owens (Fay Hauser), thinks the children are better off in foster homes and orphanages though the nuns argue the children want to remain together in their loving care.

However, there are more challenges.  Mother Maria’s financial benefactor, a wealthy society woman named Mrs. Everett is morally against the nuns caring for a pregnant teenager. And a social worker is convinced the children need to be separated and placed in foster homes and orphanages. 

Much like the original film, Homer pulls together members of the local community to help in the nuns' building plans.  Here, members of a local Pima tribe and Hispanic community members generously offer their labor to help.

Homer finds himself not only taking on the troubles of the nuns but having to recruit the labor and fund the construction job as well.  On top of it all, he’s been given the deadline of Christmas to complete it. 

The children's Nativity pageant includes the singing performance of the spiritual "Children, Go Where I Send Thee."

This story has a happy ending, as you may well guess.  The finale includes a cheerful scene with the children dressed for their Christmas Nativity pageant singing “Children Go Where I Send Thee."  Not only does the pregnant teen Felicia deliver her healthy baby on Christmas Eve but Homer is able to surprise Mother Maria with bells for her chapel.

Homer teaches the gospel song "Amen" to the children while they ride in his RV to pick up supplies.

Interestingly, this TV movie sequel is directed by Ralph Nelson, the same man who directed the original theatrical release.  The sequel also has two additional scenes which include the 1963 film's musical theme, the song "Amen."  This gospel song is one of the highlights of the original film and so it's wonderful to see it repeated here as well.  "Amen" was arranged for the 1963 film by songwriter/composer and actor Jester Hairston.  Though you may not recognize his name, TV viewers may recognize Hairston for his role as the elderly Rolly Forbes in the hit 1980s sitcom Amen which also starred Sherman Hemsley.

Billy Dee Williams brings his own dignity to the role of Homer Smith.

The 1963 film Lilies of the Field still airs regularly on TV--I just watched it last week, probably on Turner Classic Movies during their countdown to the Oscars.  However the 1979 TV movie Christmas Lilies of the Field is far more rare.  If you still have a working VCR, you may be able to dig up a copy.  Wish you still had a VCR, don't ya?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Frank Sinatra Show Christmas (1957)

Christmas is the time of year when most of us allow ourselves to become nostalgic, yearning for  happy moments from our childhoods--and even our collective pasts.  We feel a sense of nostalgia for our own past, but also for the past that we didn't experience. The 19th century is long gone, but it is emotionally satisfying and comforting to see Victorian costumes and recreations of the stone-cobbled streets of London during the month of December each year.  Christmas TV entertainment is one of the ways we indulge ourselves in cultural holiday memories.

One of the joys of watching the Christmas installment Happy Holidays from Bing and Frank, from the short-lived variety series The Frank Sinatra Show is that it's nostalgic. Frank welcomes crooner Bing Crosby as his musical guest in this special color episode.  You didn't have to see this episode when it originally aired on television in 1957 to feel the nostalgia of it.  There are layers and layers of cultural Christmas memories in this episode.  Let's see how many you connect with.
Sinatra actually shares a writing credit for the song "Mistletoe and Holly," a song introduced on his 1957 album A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra.

Frank opens the show singing the song "Mistletoe and Holly" while casually trimming a Christmas tree on a very hip, fashionable bachelor apartment stage set.  His good friend Bing Crosby drops by the apartment, bearing an armful of gifts, and the men greet each other while singing a chorus of Irving Berlin's song "Happy Holiday."

What gifts do Frank and Bing exchange?  Copies of their latest Christmas LPs, of course.

Frank and Bing exchange punchlines and then duet with a jazz arrangement of "Jingle Bells."

Over a cup of red punch, the friends sing a swingin' arrangement of "Jingle Bells."

Hearing a group of carolers singing "Deck the Halls" outside the front door, Bing and Frank step outside to join them in song.  Next thing they know, Frank and Bing find themselves in period costume as they join the group strolling through Merrie Old England in a Victorian London setting.

Bing and Frank's voices occupy the lead with the carolers' voices serving as background.

Crane shot of the Merrie Old England set.

 Frank and Bing join the carolers in singing the traditional carols "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," and "O Come All Ye Faithful."  As the carolers roam the streets, the residents and shop keepers hand out drinks, fruits, coins, and baked sweets to them.

The Christmas party and singing continues for the two friends back at Frank's apartment.  Here, Bing solos on "Away in a Manger" while seated on the couch in front of the elaborate Christmas tree.

Frank and Bing return to the apartment (back in their modern clothing) where Frank seats himself at the piano and sings “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear."  Next, Crosby solos on "Away in a Manger" and the two men duet on the reverent tune "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

Frank enjoying the uptempo jazz arrangement of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."

This is followed by two more lively songs; Bing sings "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and Frank counters with a swingin’ version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."  Seated in front of the fireplace, Frank and Bing together sing "The Christmas Song."

LOVE the floor lamp (left background) and open fireplace (foreground).

The final performance is "White Christmas" sung by Bing Crosby as he looks out a window.  Ol’ Blue Eyes even joins Crosby on his signature tune.  When the song ends, the men sit down to eat Christmas dinner as the credits begin to roll.

Near the end of the song, Frank joins Crosby in the final tune "White Christmas."

Frank Sinatra himself directed this episode, and each of the song performances (except the ones during the Merrie England segment) are a long take.  This means there's no edits or cuts during a song.  They don't make TV like this anymore!  In the opening number "Mistletoe and Holly," while decorating the Christmas tree, Frank drops one of the ornaments but he keeps whistling while he bends over to pick it up off the floor!  The song and the decorating continues despite the gaff.  The music conductor for the series and this episode was Nelson Riddle.  Riddle and his orchestra (off screen) provide background instrumentation for all of Bing and Frank's performances, except during the caroling segment where there was no accompaniment.

The song continues as Frank bends over to pick up what he's dropped.  The performances in this TV episode are recorded in one take.

It just doesn’t get any better than this.  This magical TV moment is so swingin’ Old School cool, it keeps your eggnog chilled.  It's impossible to imagine a modern day equivalent of this magical Christmas moment; these are two of the biggest musical celebrities of the 20th century.  And here they come together for a half-hour to entertain with old and new Christmas tunes, a brief moment captured on film that we can watch over and over again, year after year.

Frank and Bing duet on "O Little Town of Bethlehem" with Frank seated at the piano.

Pay special attention to the story presented here.  In the opening, Frank is singing to himself while he decorates a Christmas tree in his apartment.  It is as if the television cameras are spying on a private moment when two old friends come together to celebrate Christmas together.  This takes place, we are encouraged to believe, in Frank's own home--a place so quintessentially 1950s, it looks like a wonderful, vintage museum.  Christmas TV variety shows quite often take place on a set made to look as if it is the star's own home.  Think Judy Garland's 1963 Christmas show as well as many others.  Hosting a Christmas show from a domestic setting is an interesting (and effective) way of creating a warm, inviting yet personal feeling.   It's like we're seeing Frank at home with his best friend Bing--a warm and fuzzy fictional account of how Frank spends his holidays.


I also love all the drinking!  Not only do the two men share a glass of punch during "Jingle Bells," but they also inbibe while caroling door-to-door on the streets of London.

Returning to the layers of nostalgia in this episode.  How many references to Christmas culture can you identify?  Frank and Bing exchange copies of their own real-life Christmas albums--do you own a copy of each?  The old friends greet each other singing the song "Happy Holiday," a song first introduced in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn starring Bing Crosby.  Frank and Bing step back in time to  carol in Merrie Old England, a way of participating in Christmas as popularized by Charles Dickens.  The two friends together sing "White Christmas," not only Crosby's best-selling signature tune but one he introduced in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn.  The popularity of the song also inspired the creation of the movie 1954's White Christmas--which also starred Bing Crosby.  Have you seen both movies Holiday Inn and White Christmas? TV viewers watching in 1957 would have picked up on all of these nostalgic references.

Crosby and Sinatra step outside the apartment to greet the carolers as they sing "Deck the Halls."

As viewers in the 21st century, this TV episode evokes further nostalgia for our more recent past. It's a look at the 1950s, not only seen in the decor of Frank's amazing apartment but also heard in the jazz arrangements of the Christmas songs performed.  Let us not forget the presence of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby themselves--two of the biggest performers of the 20th century, in the middle of their long reign over popular culture.  We continue to hear their Christmas songs played on the radio each December.  And, how many other Christmas TV variety shows have you seen set in what looks like the home of the star?  This 1957 Christmas TV episode is available for viewing on DVD under the title Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank.  Let me know what you think of it.

This piece about the Christmas episode of The Frank Sinatra Show is a part of a series about TV variety shows organized by the Classic TV Blog Association.  Please check out the other posts in the blogathon at the following link: http://classic-tv-blog-assoc.blogspot.com/

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

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Jack Frost (1979)

This morning in Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow so according to legend, Spring is on the way.  But to be honest, when I think of Groundhog Day--the first thing that comes to mind is the clever and fun 1993 Bill Murray movie.

There's actually quite a bit of cross-over material between Christmas entertainment and groundhogs.  Who would have guessed, right?  However, this is the fourth year in a row that I've blogged on Groundhog Day.  In 2010, I blogged about three made-for-TV Christmas movies that adapted the same story structure as the 1993 movie Groundhog Day: 1996's Christmas Every Day, 2004's 12 Days of Christmas Eve, and 2006's Christmas Do OverClick HERE to see the 2010 post again.  In 2011, I wrote about the Christmas episode of The Jamie Foxx Show which adapts the same story structure of the movie Groundhog DayClick HERE to see the 2011 post again.  And, last year, in 2012, I wrote about another TV movie 12 Dates of Christmas that also adapts the story structure of the popular Bill Murray movie.  Click HERE to see the 2012 post again.

The groundhog Pardon-Me-Pete is the narrator of the story in Jack Frost.

This year in honor of Groundhog Day, I'd like to share an animated TV classic that is narrated by a singing and dancing groundhog.  Do you remember the 1979 stop-motion animated TV special Jack Frost, produced and directed by Rankin/Bass?

Pardon-Me-Pete, voiced by comedian Buddy Hackett, sings the standard "Me And My Shadow."

The story begins on Groundhog Day, February 2nd after Pardon-Me-Pete sees his shadow in front of the news cameras and the weather forecasters declare that winter will continue for six more weeks.  After returning to his bed to continue his winter nap, Pardon-Me-Pete begins to explain how his shadow is actually Jack Frost's shadow.  Few humans have ever seen the invisible Jack Frost--although most have seen his effects and felt him nipping at their noses.  Except for one winter, many years ago, when Jack Frost was human.  And the rest of this TV special's narrative is the groundhog's story about Jack Frost becoming human for one winter in a failed attempt to win the love of a special girl named Elisa.

The beautiful Elisa meets Jack when he comes to January Junction to live as a human. Frost is voiced by actor Robert Morse.

Jack Frost overhears the beautiful Elisa admiring his work of turning autumn into winter, remarking that she loves Jack Frost.  Mistaking this admiration for true love, Jack asks his boss, Father Winter to make him human so he can meet Elisa and convince her to marry him.

The character Jack Frost is invisible to humans.  The visual technique here to render Frost translucent is one of the highlights of this TV special.

With his wish granted, Jack is sent to January Junction, where Elisa and her family live.  Jack is allowed to be human for one winter but in order to stay human he must acquire four things: a house, a horse, a bag of gold, and a wife.

This TV special's villain is Kubla Kraus, the King of the Kossacks, voiced by Paul Frees. 

In January Junction, Jack takes up the trade of being a tailor but a local tyrant, Kubla Kraus owns every house, the only horse, all the gold--and Kubla Kraus even desires Elisa to be his wife!  Jack realizes the only way to meet his conditions required to become permanently human, he will have to overthrow Kubla Kraus!  This of course, is easier said than done.  Further complications ensue when a handsome knight, Sir Ravinal, arrives in the village and Elisa falls in love with him.  Jack has none of his special abilities to create the beauty of winter when he lives as a human--and thus his attempts to become an attractive suitor for Elisa's love are doomed.

As a human, Jack doesn't have any special skills but the experienced Sir Ravinal is adept at rescuing Elisa.

At Christmas time, when Kubla Kraus kidnaps Elisa to make her his bride, Sir Ravinal is able to rescue her.  But only Jack Frost knows how to stop Kubla Kraus when he threatens to return to January Junction and destroy the whole village out of revenge!  Giving up his humanity, Jack Frost creates a blizzard that lasts five weeks, making the tyrant's army of knights snowbound until the first week of February.  Though Frost has given up his chance to be human, his love for Elisa was unrequited and he prides himself in his efforts to save the village and its people that he's come to respect and admire.

How can Jack compete with a knight in golden armor?

This doomed love story is fairly complex and made even more so by the extravagant mythical explanation of how winter weather comes about.  There is a lengthy introduction of additional characters for this story including Father Winter, Snip the Snowflake maker, snow gypsies, Holly the snow gypsy responsible for collecting white Christmas snow, the Sleet Sisters, and the Hail Fellow.  I'm not sure this complicated myth about winter is any simplification over the scientific explanation.  While it is more charming to personify the elements, I think it slows the storytelling down a bit.

Father Winter is in charge--it is he who grants his assistant Jack Frost's wish to become human.

Snip the Snowflake maker individually cuts with scissors each and every snowflake during winter--that's why each one is different!  This guy should have his own Christmas TV special!

Little Holly is just one of many snow gypsies.  Her character, like Snip's, could easily be expanded for additional stories.

Father Winter sends Holly and Snip in human form to watch over Jack in January Junction.

For contemporary viewers, what may be the most interesting aspects of this 1979 animated special are the various steampunk characters.  You've forgotten about this haven't you?

Kubla Kraus owns a steampunk iron horse named Clang Stumper.

Kubla Kraus also has a clock-works robotic butler...

...and an army of steampunk knights at his command.

The tyrant even has an iron ventriloquist's dummy--that looks a lot like himself.

Though Pardon-Me-Pete explains how Groundhog Day came about, Jack Frost has some cross-over with Christmas.  While he's human, Jack spends Christmas with Elisa and her family exchanging dream gifts.  Sadly, they are too poor to exchange actual gifts.

On Christmas, Elisa and her family exchange dream gifts--an empty box--while singing "Just What I Always Wanted."

Since Jack Frost was created by Rankin/Bass who have made so many other fantastic, cherish Christmas specials--and the story focuses on winter, it continues to have a close association with Christmas time.  Jack Frost can still be seen on television each year, usually during ABC Family Channel's 25 Days of Christmas marathon of holiday programming.  Happy Groundhog Day!