About Christmas TV History

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention--Recap

I'm still a little dizzy from all the excitement and incredible conversations that took place over the weekend at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, just outside of Baltimore, MD.  This particular convention which gathers the fans of old-time radio programs, movies, and television shows offered me an exceptionally warm welcome and an introduction to quite a few like-minded TV fans.

League of Holiday Bloggers: RigbyMel and J.A. Morris of Holiday Film Reviews

I was thrilled that J.A. Morris and RigbyMel from Holiday Film Reviews came up to Baltimore to see me and sit in on my presentation.  I first met them when I was on book tour in 2010--but we have stayed connected by guest blogging for each other ever since.  This past summer, they shared a review on the Batman: The Brave and the Bold Christmas episode for my Christmas in July: Animation Celebration blogathon.  What a treat it was to see some familiar faces.

Myself with Jaleh Najafali who also blogs for the Hungry Nomad as a food blogger!

It was also thrilling to meet face-to-face with another blogger who contributed to the Christmas in July party this past summer.  Jaleh shared with us her passion for the memorable Disney short film Mickey's Christmas Carol.  It was such a treat to finally meet someone else I've worked with.

I couldn't pass up this photo opportunity!  If Peter Capaldi needs a replacement--I'M READY TO FILL-IN as the new Doctor!

A few other surprises brightened my weekend:  I met Mark who remembered me from the 40th Anniversary screening of The Homecoming movie/The Waltons Reunion event from 2011--where I was The Walton's reunion moderator.  I also connected with someone who heard me on one of my radio interviews on TV Confidential.  And, I got to meet Amy--a blogger from Embarrassing Treasures--who also participated in the Classic TV Bloggers Association blogathon earlier this year about Me-TV's summer programming.  Amy blogged about Leave It to Beaver--and I blogged about the 1966 Christmas episode of That Girl.  Remember that?  This weekend's experiences left me feeling more connected to the blogging community and TV viewers than ever before.  It felt good.

Look for Ed Asner in a new Christmas TV movie coming to Lifetime in 2013 entitled Papa Noel.

Even though I was busy meeting people and talking Christmas entertainment, I did manage to sneak away from my table briefly to get my photo taken with a few celebrities.  I wasn't the only fan there who fondly remembers the 1977 Christmas TV movie The Gathering--which stars Ed Asner.

Actress Margaret O'Brien

I also wanted to make sure I got a chance to meet Margaret O'Brien--the child actress who not only appeared in 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis but 1948's Tenth Avenue Angel--both movies which include significant Christmas scenes.  Turns out Margaret really admired the ceramic Santa Claus holiday figurine I had at my booth I was using to decorate with--so I gave it to her!

Oh Magoo, you've done it again!

But the highlight of my time at Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention was the tremendous response I received for my presentation Entertaining Spirits: The Many TV Adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  My seminar was scheduled for Friday at 11am--which must have been the ideal time because the large room was filled with interested listeners.  Not only were video cameras streaming my presentation live but there was a live feed for internet radio as well!  There were more participants than I had made copies for my handout--so I had extras printed and available at my table the rest of the weekend--I hope everyone who wanted one got one.  But the exciting part was how the conversations about TV adaptations of A Christmas Carol continued after the Q & A--and I'm still receiving emails and fb messages from people responding to my talk.  I'm so glad everyone connected with it.

If you follow the blog, you know I always try to make a special TV stop on all my journeys.  Here's me in front of Charm City Cakes in Baltimore--the location for the Food Network's Ace of Cakes.  Have I had an Ace of Cake's cake?  Why YES, I have! I was at LebowskiFest in 2008, the event during the 5th season episode "The Big Cakeowski" and it was delicious!

I want to thank all my readers who took the time to stop my table and introduce themselves.  What a nice thing to hear from people who read my blog!  I'm looking forward to hearing from all the new friends I made in Baltimore as well.  Please feel free to comment on any of the posts--that's what social networking is all about.  And, my biggest thanks goes to Martin and everyone else involved in Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention for creating such a wonderful event and community. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Tenth Avenue Angel (1948)

I'm really looking forward to being at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention on Sept. 19th-21st, 2013.   One of the celebrity guests I'm most excited about meeting is actress Margaret O'Brien who has appeared in several theatrical release movies with significant Christmas scenes.  Surely you know that O'Brien played the youngest sister Tootie in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis.   It is Tootie to whom older sister Ester, played by Judy Garland, sings the now iconic holiday song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in that film.

However O'Brien plays the lead role in 1948's Tenth Avenue Angel, an MGM movie directed by Roy Rowland which has an emotional climax that takes place on Christmas Eve.  It is this movie which I'd like to focus my attention on now.

Flavia keeps company with the blind newspaper vendor Mac.

O'Brien plays 8 year-old Flavia Mills, a confident outgoing girl who delights in knowing everyone--and everyone's business--in her Tenth Avenue, downtown New York, neighborhood.  But she learns a hard lesson when she first discovers that not everything her mother tells her is true.  When young Flavia is afraid of mice, she is told that mice are good luck because they turn into money.  After discovering that this isn't true, Flavia painfully realizes her favorite friend Steve didn’t travel around the world, as she was told, but was sent away to prison. 

Flavia isn't sure she can trust what her mother tells her about the world anymore.

Feeling betrayed and lied to by her family, Flavia isn't quite sure what to believe anymore.  On Christmas Eve, Flavia's mother falls down a flight of steps and pre-maturely gives birth to the child she was carrying.  The doctor explains that while the baby will be okay, her mother's health is jeopardized.  Earlier Flavia had been told that cows kneel every Christmas Eve when they feel God's presence close to them--as cows have always done since the birth of the baby Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem.  Choosing to believe with her heart rather than her head, Flavia sets off in the night, alone on Christmas Eve in search of a cow in lower Manhattan.   The little girl desperately wants to offer up a prayer on behalf of her mother when God comes nearest the animals on that cold December night.

Though he has lied to her in the past, this Christmas Eve at the stockyard, Steve becomes a believer in Flavia's search for truth.

This is another one of those old Hollywood movies that has you in tears, rooting for a miracle at Christmas time.  It's also a thoughtful movie that urges viewers to consider larger issues such as the difference between fairy tales and reality, innocence and cynicism, freedom and destiny, and knowledge gained from one's mind and from one's heart.  It's the perfect sort of movie to watch at Christmas time when we reconsider what is most important in our lives and we are looking to be reminded of our emotional truths.

If you look closely, you may recognize Flavia's friend Cynthia in one scene--it's a very young Elinor Donahue!

I've seen this movie airing on TCM at holiday time--is this one of your annual favorites to watch?  If you're interested, it is available for viewing on DVD from the Warner Archive.  What's your favorite Margaret O'Brien role?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Film Review: They Wore the Red Suit (2012)

I was recently granted access to watch the new documentary film They Wore the Red Suit: The Santa Documentary released within the past year.   The film is directed by Larry Peter and has spent the year on the film festival circuit.  This is where I heard about it.  The documentary focuses on the men who choose to work professionally as Santa Claus.

The film acknowledges the role of Jim Yellig, a professional Santa Claus who forever shaped and influenced all other professional Santas.

This film is a rare glimpse at those who make Santa Claus their vocation and the behind-the-scenes industry that supports them.  Phillip L. Wenz who works as a professional Santa and serves as this movie's consultant estimates that up to 10,000 men work as Santa Claus seasonally, several hundred men are able to make working as Santa Claus their primary career, and only a handful work as Santa year round.  However the challenges and rewards to working as Santa may not be obvious to the casual observer.

Students at Santa Claus school.

The film explores the history of noteworthy professional Santa Clauses and the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame.  Viewers are also introduced to several Santa schools and their importance in the industry, as well as Santa Conventions and their value in gathering professional Santas together to share their unique experiences, wardrobe requirements, and camaraderie. The film also details the history of several tourist destinations, for example Santa Claus, Indiana, where Christmas culture exists year round giving several professional Santas a chance to earn a full time living.

Why would someone choose to work professionally as Santa Claus?

Perhaps the most interesting scenes in the film concern the psychology of the men who choose to take on this particular vocation, asking questions such as what initially attracts them to this work? what continues to inspire them? and how do they handle answering children's "difficult questions?"--children asking Santa for impossible Christmas wishes.

Santa Claus, Indiana has been an important hub of Christmas culture for decades.

They Wore the Red Suit is currently on the festival circuit while its filmmakers are seeking to get it aired on PBS in the near future.  While it's not available for purchase yet, I'll let you know if I see it airing on television in the upcoming holiday season.  You can check out their website at They Wore the Red Suit and follow the film's progress and receives updates on their facebook page.

You may also remember another documentary movie that aired on OWN in 2011 entitled Becoming Santa.  Directed by Jeff Myers, Becoming Santa explores one man's transformation to become a professional Santa Claus for one holiday season.  This sub-culture is a world unlike any other and if you're drawn towards understanding the men who take on this role, I encourage you to seek these films out.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Hollywood Show--Chicago Recap

I had such a wonderful time last weekend in Chicago at the Hollywood Show.  It's always such a boost to speak with people just as excited about Christmas entertainment as I am.  I was even thrilled to meet a few people who had already read one of my books--and came to purchase another one!  I still feel a little flash-blind from all the photo taking.  Thanks to everyone who came to meet me.

Erin Murphy played Tabitha on TV's Bewitched.

The Hollywood Show doesn't isolate the big celebrities away from the other vendors present at the show.  So this means little ol' me was sitting next to child actress Erin Murphy--who played Tabitha on Bewitched--all weekend.  What a nice person she is!  Next to her was actress Jeannie Russell and actor Jay North--who played Margaret and Dennis respectively--from TV's Dennis the Menace.  It was so wonderful watching people seek the autographs of their favorite childhood TV stars all weekend long. 

Though he was very busy, I was able to speak with Jay North briefly and share with him how much I enjoy the Christmas episodes of Dennis the Menace and his singing "Silent Night" in each of them.  He was so kind and gracious to me.

 On the other side of Jay North was Mackenzie Phillips (from American Graffiti and TV's One Day at a Time) and Scott Schwartz who played Flick in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story.  I know, right?  It was awesome being surrounded by these stars--all of whom were friendly, outgoing and very busy greeting their fans all weekend.

Scott Schwartz was friendly and very approachable--he's a people person!

Across from Schwartz's booth was Kristy McNichol and Jimmy McNichol.  I got a little giddy when Jimmy McNichol smiled, winked, and shook my hand on one of the times I passed by him!  I have to admit I began looking for reasons to walk by him again and again all weekend long.

Ron Moody--who appeared in the very first and last Bing Crosby Christmas TV specials!

As you know from my previous blog post, I was looking forward to meeting actor Ron Moody.  He was a part of a mini-reunion for the cast of the musical Oliver! that attended the Hollywood Show that included Moody--who played Fagin, Mark Lester--who played Oliver Twist, and Shani Wallis--who played Nancy.  Coincidentally, Ron Moody was seated right across from my booth!  But it took two days for me to find an opening between his many fans for me to be able to speak with him.  He joked with me about how people pointed out on the set of the Bing Crosby Christmas specials how much he resembled Bing--and how Bing tried to teach him his signature singing style ("buh--buh--buh--buh").  What a special moment that was for me.

Tina Cole holding my DVD copy of the King Family Christmas Retrospective--have you seen it on PBS?

Another highlight for me was the mini-cast reunion of TV's My Three Sons with Tina Cole--who played Katie, Stanley Livingston--who played Chip, and Barry Livingston--who played Ernie Douglas.  I just read Barry Livingston's new book The Importance of Being Ernie: From My Three Sons to Mad Men, A Hollywood Survivor Tells All this past winter, so I was beside myself to share with him how much I enjoyed reading it.   However, Tina Cole was so generous with her time--she organized a meet & greet on Saturday night for her fans!  I slipped into this group and sat rapt for hours as Tina shared stories about My Three Sons and life on the road with the King Family.  I just posted about the 1967 King Family Christmas TV special.  Tina made us all laugh and cry with her amazing stories.  How wonderful it was to get to spend time with her.  This was certainly the best part of my weekend!

While in Chicago, I sought out the TV Land statue of Dr. Bob Hartley, played by Bob Newhart--honoring his TV show The Bob Newhart Show.  "Tell me Doctor, why do I love watching TV so much?"

Other celebrities at the show included Barbara Eden and Bill Daily from I Dream of Jeannie, and Tippi Hedron--who was busy signing Hitchcock's Birds memorabilia for her many fans.  They were seated in a long hallway to accommodate the long lines of fans gathered to meet them.  It was too difficult for me to leave my own booth to meet them--and I didn't want to interrupt their time with fans who waited in line--so I didn't get my photo taken with any of them.   There were so many celebrities--it's difficult to name them all!  But Greg Evigan--who was on TV's BJ and the Bear and My Two Dads, smiled at me and made my knees weak!  And, Johnny Crawford from the TV western The Rifleman dropped by my booth and we briefly discussed how The Rifleman never created a Christmas episode.  Next week, I'll get to see Johnny Crawford again--as we are both attending the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention just outside of Baltimore, on Sept. 19th-21st.  Will I see you there?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ron Moody, Bing Crosby, and Benji

If you've been following along lately, you already know that I'm looking forward to being at the Hollywood Show in Chicago, Friday Sept. 6th-Sunday, Sept. 8th, 2013.  There are many amazing celebrities in attendance at this show--several of whom have significantly contributed to Christmas entertainment.  One such special guest at the show will be British actor Ron Moody.  Moody will be joined in Chicago by Mark Lester, his co-star in the musical film Oliver!  In addition to this, I recognize Moody for his contributions to Christmas culture on TV.  Did you know that Ron Moody has the rare distinction of being a part of the very first as well as the last of the Bing Crosby Christmas TV specials?

Crosby sings "The Sheik of Araby" along with other buskers when a constable (Moody) approaches.

Bing Crosby's very first Christmas TV special, entitled The Bing Crosby Show, aired in 1961.  The premise of this variety special is that Bing Crosby is spending time in London at Christmas time researching his British ancestry.  Ron Moody plays a policeman who arrests Bing for performing in the street without a license.  The scene continues in court where Crosby must appear before a local judge.  Crosby appeals to the mercy of the court singing Fats Waller's "My Fate is in Your Hands."  Moody is just one of several entertainers that appear in this TV special which also includes English actors/singers Dave King, Marion Ryan, and Miriam Karlin, English comedian Terry-Thomas, and the Welsh-born Shirley Bassey. 

The policeman (Moody) easily identifies the guilty party in court!  Is Bing going to the Big House?

Ron Moody also appears in Bing Crosby's final Christmas TV special, 1977's Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas.  Though Crosby had taped the show in September, he would die before the show was broadcast in late November of 1977.  However most people remember this final Christmas TV special because of Bing's special guest, rocker David Bowie.

Naturally, Sir Percival's neighbor David Bowie drops by the home and the two guests find themselves singing "The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" together. 

Just like the 1961 Christmas TV special, Bing Crosby once again finds himself in England at Christmas time researching his ancestry.  This time Bing has brought along his wife Kathryn and his three children Harry, Mary Frances, and Nathaniel and the family is staying with a distant relative, Sir Percival at his country estate.  In addition to David Bowie, this TV special also features English model-turned-actress/singer Twiggy, Scottish comedian Stanley Baxter, and British actor Ron Moody.  Moody plays several roles in this TV special--including the ghost of Charles Dickens.

Twiggy, Charles Dickens (Moody) and Bing Crosby.

Near the middle of the TV variety special, Bing Crosby enters the library of the country estate to discover a "spirited friend" Charles Dickens sitting at the desk.  When Twiggy enters the room, the three of them are drawn into a musical montage that includes several of Dickens' most popular literary characters.

Twiggy and Ron Moody sing "Where Would You Be Without Me?" in three distinct sequences as Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge from Dickens' A Christmas Carol, as the Artful Dodger and Fagin from Dickens' Oliver Twist, and as Little Nell and Quilp from Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop.  Don't you just love the elaborate production numbers in Christmas TV specials?  You might recognize the song "Where Would You Be Without Me?" from the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd.

Ron Moody as Sir Percival.

Ron Moody also plays the role of Crosby's distant relative Sir Percival who only arrives at his country estate after the Crosby family and nearly two thirds of the way into the TV special.  Percival sings the song "Side By Side By Side" with Crosby and his wife Kathryn.

"Side By Side By Side" was originally written for a musical by Stephen Sondheim.

How many people remember that the song "Silver Bells" was originally introduced in the 1951 movie "The Lemon Drop Kid" starring....BOB HOPE!

Later in the TV special, Percival joins the estate's butler Mr. Hudson (Stanley Baxter) and Bing in singing the Christmas classic "Silver Bells."  Lucky for us, both the 1961 and the 1977 Bing Crosby Christmas specials were released on DVD in 2010, under the title Bing Crosby: The Television Specials: Volume 2--The Christmas Specials.

Kris Kringle (Moody) with Benji.

Dog lovers may also remember Ron Moody from another Christmas TV special, 1978's Benji's Very Own Christmas Story.  You may recall that Benji is asked to be Grand marshal in a Christmas parade in a small mountain village in Germany.  Benji's friends Cindy and Pat, who appeared in the 1974 movie Benji and the 1977 sequel For the Love of Benji with the clever canine, spend their time before the parade with a new friend, a man dressed like Kris Kringle.  You'll have to watch the charming TV special to find out of he's the real Kris Kringle or not!  This 1978 TV special is also available for viewing on DVD.

Moody's roles in Christmas entertainment may not be the award-winning roles that he achieved in his long and successful career.  But to many viewers, like myself, these Christmas TV specials continue to hold a special place in our lives.  And, I look forward to his appearance in Chicago at the Hollywood Show this weekend.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Christmas With the King Family (1967)

They just don’t make wholesome TV variety shows like Christmas with The King Family anymore!  Watching this 1967 TV special is like looking into a window onto the past when variety shows on TV were at their zenith and wholesome even corny sentimentalism was so popular, it was expected.  For those of us who still love this sort of thing, we're lucky that this entire 1967 TV special was released on DVD in 2009--a bonus feature on the Christmas with The King Family documentary that also aired on PBS.  The documentary is a collection of clips from several King Family Christmas TV programs with commentary by members of the King family.  Have you seen it?

DVD box cover

1967's Christmas with The King Family was the first Christmas TV special following The King Family Show variety TV series.  Though "America’s First Family of Song" began their variety series on TV in 1965, this 1967 special is their first hour-long Christmas special.  The cast includes the King Sisters, Alvino Rey, the King Cousins, the King Kiddies as well as all the other aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews that make up the extended musical family. This Christmas special was rebroadcast by the network for many years until the King Family made their next Christmas TV special in 1974.

The family opens the show singing "Happy Holidays" and "Caroling, Caroling" as they decorate a Christmas tree on an open stage setting with a staircase, a chandelier and a couch.  The music continues with the King Cousins, the King Kiddies and the King Sisters singing a medley of "Deck the Halls/Jingle Bells" in an arrangement that features each group of singers.

"The Holiday of Love." 

In gorgeous floor-length white dresses with black fur collars, the King Sisters harmonize on "The Holiday of Love."  This song is one of the signature King Sisters holiday songs recorded for the King Family Christmas albums.

Tina Cole singing to her toddler son Volney Howard.

Tina Cole sings "I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" to her baby son, while young Cam and Laurette, and King Sister Marilyn and husband Kent, continue the same song.

Rob on bass, Alvino with his "talking steel guitar" and daughter Liza Rey Butler on harp.

Alvino Rey plays the steel guitar with two King cousins accompanying him on harp and stringed bass.  My favorite performance is the King Cousins dressed in red pajamas singing and dancing to a hip bossa-nova arrangement of "Twas the Night Before Christmas/Santa Claus is Coming to Town."  This is followed by King Sister Alyce singing "I’ll Be Home for Christmas" at the piano, played by son Lex.  Lex continues on the piano, performing a relaxed arrangement of "Sleigh Ride."

"Twas the Night Before Christmas" performance

Bob Clarke with the King kids.

Bob Clarke recites a story about a Christmas donkey to the group of children intercut with animated images of Mary and Joseph on a donkey.

"Hear the Sledges With the Bells."

The whole family sings "Hear the Sledges With the Bells" and Marilyn sings "My Favorite Things." 

Marilyn sings "My Favorite Things" a song closely associated with the holidays--though it original comes from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music.  Sadly, the last of the King Sisters, Marilyn, passed away just last month (August 2013).

Performance for the song "The Little Drummer Boy."  What this photo doesn't reveal is the adorable puppy running through the set!

The King Kiddies perform a dramatization of the Nativity story against a recording of the King Sisters singing "The Little Drummer Boy."

"White Christmas."

The King Sisters sing the beloved holiday classic "White Christmas" dressed in luxurious white hooded coats trimmed with white fur.  This is followed by the female members of the King Cousins singing "The Christmas Song" eventually joined by their mothers.

"The Christmas Song."

"The Christmas Waltz."
Together the family sings "The Christmas Waltz" dressed in white gowns and tuxedos as they waltz to the music. The family sings "The First Noel/Auld Lang Syne/We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and they close the show singing "(When There’s) Love at Home."

Ric catches his mother by surprise walking up to her during her performance of "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

Her tearful reaction is a rare candid moment for TV viewers, many of whom also had members of their family serving away from home perhaps even in Vietnam at Christmas time.

Most people remember  this particular TV special because it includes the surprise moment when King Sister Alyce has an unexpected and tearful reunion with her son Ric, who is brought on stage in the middle of her tender performance of the song "I’ll Be Home for Christmas."  Ric who was away serving in the military at that time surprises his mother who had dedicated her performance to him just moments before.

"(When There's) Love At Home."

What I love about this classic TV special is its old-fashioned goodness and simplicity.  Even if I wasn't around to watch it in its original run on TV, I enjoy watching it now as a way to capture that feeling we all love to feel at Christmas--a longing for the good ol' days and warm times spent with the family.

The King Sisters started their careers during the Big Band era.

Even if you've never heard of The King Sisters, and their large extended family, you may be interested to know of the King family's further influence on pop culture.  Guitar virtuoso Alvino Rey--husband to King Sister Luise--was a pioneer with the pedal steel guitar.  I still hear people evoke his name when discussing exotica music, a style of music Rey embraced later in his career.   Two of Alvino's grandsons Will and Win Butler continue in the music industry--in a hugely successful band, Arcade Fire.  It's a small world, isn't it?

Young Cam Clarke with Laurette in "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm."
You may also recognize King Sister Alyce's husband, actor Bob Clarke--who has appeared in several classic science fiction movies.  Clarke was also a regular in the 1960s color episodes of Dragnet (my favorite!)  King Kiddie Cam Clarke has since grown up to become a very successful voice actor in animation and video games.

Tina Cole played Robbie's wife Katie in the TV series My Three Sons.

And, King Cousin Tina Cole also worked as an actress.  She's appearing at The Hollywood Show in Chicago on Sept. 6th-8th, 2013 in a mini-cast reunion for My Three Sons along with former cast members Barry Livingston and Stanley Livingston.  I hope to see everyone in Chicago--I'll be there signing books.  Be sure to drop by my booth and say 'hi.'