About Christmas TV History

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Stingiest Man in Town (1956)

DVD cover

This past year I've delivered a presentation about the many TV adaptations of Charles Dickens' classic literary tale A Christmas Carol to several audiences.  One of the TV productions I mention that sparks the most discussion is 1956's The Stingiest Man in Town--a lavish, feature-length musical production that was originally broadcast in color.

The Stingiest Man in Town was originally broadcast as an installment of The Alcoa Hour.

In addition to an amazing cast, this elaborate production features special video effects, several group dance sequences, and falling snow effects--all coordinated during a live production!  The wonderful music for the three act production--written by Fred Spielman with book and lyrics by Janice Torre--was also recorded and sold as an album.  In its day, The Stingiest Man in Town was received with high praise from TV viewers and critics alike.  Until very recently, it existed only in viewers memories--until a kinescope was discovered and it was released on DVD just a few years ago.

The only kinescope (filmed copy of the live production) that exists gives us a black-and-white version of the original color broadcast. 

One of the details of this particular production that stands out in people's minds is the unforgettable portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge by actor Basil Rathbone.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Basil Rathbone--the man who many viewers so closely identify with the movie role of Sherlock Holmes (he appeared in fourteen films as Holmes!)--will impress you as a singing Scrooge.
Basil Rathbone as Scrooge sneers at his nephew Fred's good holiday cheer.

You may also recognize Vic Damone in the cast playing Young Ebenezer.  In this scene from Fezziwig's party, Young Ebenezer sings "Golden Dreams" opposite Belle, played by opera singer Patrice Munsel.

Collaborators Spielman and Torre were well known for their musical writing in Hollywood over the Broadway stage.   (They were also responsible for the song "Merry Christmas" sung by Judy Garland in the 1949 movie In the Good Old Summertime--a re-make of the 1940 holiday movie The Shop Around the Corner).  You'll fall in love with the music from The Stingiest Man in Town--each of the songs easily stand on their own.  In true musical fashion, most of the story unfolds through the musical performances with only brief segments that include spoken dialogue.

The four carolers (which includes the narrator)--who also play the four beggars--are the singing group The Four Lads.

In Act I, the songs include “A Christmas Carol” sung by the narrator, “An Old-Fashioned Christmas” sung by nephew Fred, “Humbug” sung by Scrooge and Fred, “The Stingiest Man in Town” sung by Mrs. Dilber, the Four Beggars, and Hawkins, “A Christmas Carol (Reprise)” by the narrator, “I Wear a Chain” sung by Jacob Marley and Scrooge, the instrumental “Country Dance” which is taken from “An Old-Fashioned Christmas,” and the Golden Dreams Sequence consisting of the songs “Golden Dreams” and “It Might Have Been” sung by Young Ebenezer and Belle.

The opening includes a large group sequence with plenty of dancing, as we hear "An Old-Fashioned Christmas"--a song we'll hear again and again.

Forgive my screen shot from a kinescope:  superimposed ghostly figures frighten Scrooge during his visit from Jacob Marley during the song "I Wear A Chain."  Special effects created during a live production are just some of the fine details that went into making this one of TV's finest holiday moments.
My favorite scene: during the Golden Dreams sequence, we see a beautiful metaphor realized as Young Scrooge amasses his fortune in gold bricks that eventually grow too tall for him to reach his fiancé Belle. 

In Act II, the songs include “A Christmas Carol (Reprise)” sung by the narrator, “The Christmas Spirit” sung by the Spirit of Christmas Present and Scrooge, “Yes, There Is A Santa Claus” sung by eldest daughter Martha Cratchit to Tiny Tim, “One Little Boy” sung by the Spirit of Christmas Present, “An Old-Fashioned Christmas (Reprise)” sung by Fred and Betty, and “The Birthday Party of the King” sung by nephew Fred.

During Scrooge's visit to the Cratchit home with the Ghost of Christmas Present, he overhears daughter Martha (Betty Madigan) sing a song of hope to her young brother Tiny Tim, "Yes, There Is A Santa Claus."

Later, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to his nephew Fred's home where we hear him sing a more sacred song "The Birthday Party of the King" while standing next to a miniature Nativity set (right).  Fred is played by singer Johnny Desmond.

In Act III, the songs include “A Christmas Carol (Reprise)” sung by the narrator, the instrumental “Concerto Inferno (Devil’s Ballet)" during which the wretched souls dance in the cemetery, “Mankind Should Be My Business” sung by Scrooge, “The Christmas Spirit (Reprise)” sung by Scrooge, Mrs. Dilber, and Hawkins, “One Little Boy (Reprise)” sung by Cratchit and Scrooge, “Yes, There Is A Santa Claus (Reprise)” sung by the Cratchit family, and the finalé “An Old-Fashioned Christmas (Reprise)” sung by the ensemble.

Another elaborate production number is the "Concerto Inferno (Devil's Ballet)" with a group of wretched souls writhing throughout the cemetery and around Scrooge's tombstone.

Scrooge pleads with the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come for a chance to change the future in the song "Mankind Should Be My Business."  Yes, Rathbone sings in this TV special.

An animated version of this 1956 TV musical was produced by Rankin/Bass in 1978.  The voice cast of Rankin/Bass' The Stingiest Man in Town includes Tom Bosley as the narrator B.A.H. Humbug, Walter Matthau as Scrooge, Theodore Bikel as Marley’s Ghost, Robert Morse as the young Scrooge, Dennis Day as the nephew Fred, Paul Frees as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and, Charles Matthau--Walter's real-life son--as the boy on Christmas morning.  The animated adaptation also draws upon the music written by Spielman and Torre.  Have you seen the Rankin/Bass version too?

Do you enjoy musical versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol?

A music collector's dream:  the soundtrack album.


  1. I didn't realize this was available; I'll have to track it down. Basil Rathbone was, of course, wonderfully heroic as Holmes, and he was also one of Old Hollywood's greatest villains--the perfect combination for handling both sides of Scrooge.

  2. i loved reading this blog joanna.....and hearing about "new" old programs i have missed over the years. i am a big fan of almost all versions of "A CHRISTMAS CAROL" and a big fan of basil rathbone, the quintessential sherlock holmes.

  3. Each year, there are several "new" old Christmas programs unearthed from some vault somewhere and released on DVD. I live for the the days--usually in September each year when the pr machines start promoting what's coming out. I love old TV.

    Don't forget: your local library and inter-library loans are also an awesome resource to watch DVDs.

  4. And, thanks for commenting Hugh and Maryam!!

  5. I never forgot the CBS television production which I saw as a child in 1956 and I listened to the studio recording until it was worn out. As we entered the video age, some decades ago now, I vainly searched on two coasts for the original kinescope and finally accepted the verdict of the head of the Paley Center Museum of Television and Broadcasting in L.A. that (except for a few minutes of Act II) it was lost forever. But, as they sometimes do, a miracle occured and one day a copy of the original kinescope surfaced from the basement of a recently deceased Alcoa executive. Alcoa had been the original sponsor. Just shortly before this discovery I had chanced upon the complete piano-vocal score on the dusty shelves of a vintage music store in NYC. In some ways this was an even greater find as I had not known that the score of the show, an ephemeral TV special, had ever been published. I still think it is the best musical adaptation of "A Christmas Carol," with near operatic fulfillment, and I hope to produce a live production somewhere in the future.

    1. Thanks Neil. It truly is special, isn't it? Let us know if you are able to stage a production!

  6. I was in multiple stage productions of this in Lawton, OK. It was a Christmas tradition. The last production I was in, I was Ghost of Christmas Past. This musical holds a very special place in my heart.

  7. Do you actually have a copy of the physical album? Could anyone post a picture of the backside of the album, or post a list of the songs on the album? I was watching the animated version recently, and my mother remembered the chorus of “Christmas Spirit”, which plays when the spirit of Christmas introduces himself to Scrooge in Scrooge’s parlor by decorating it with a Christmas tree and toys and ornaments. The toys do a little song and dance... My question is whether that little song “Christmas Spirit” is a part of the original musical or was it created for the animated special?

  8. Is there any way I can purchase a copy of the kinescope that was found? It's a Longshot but I really had to ask.

  9. I have listened to this album since 1956 when I was a child of three. As an adult TV producer I tried to get the rights to star Richard Chamberlain as Scrooge but the estates of all involved made it overwhelmingly difficult. It remains one of the best musical scores ever written.

  10. I was given the album when I was 12 after watching this on tv. I played it iver and over for literally years. Know every word to every song. Would SO love to see it done again. The music is marvelous!