Friday, August 30, 2013

Book Review: A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic by Caseen Gaines



Even though it's Labor Day weekend, I'm already in the Christmas spirit.  That's because I've received an advanced copy of a new book by pop culture enthusiast Caseen Gaines entitled A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic.  The book which is scheduled to be released on October 1st, 2013, is the hottest item on everyone's Christmas list.  It is being released to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the movie's debut.  That's what I call perfect timing! 

Gaines' book is everything it should be--and it covers everything it should cover.  Within its ten chapters, you'll read about the behind the scenes activities of what it took for the film's director Bob Clark to bring this production to theater screens.  Gaines recounts the film's screenplay, casting, shooting the film, its initial release and critics' reactions, and the movie's eventual climb to cult status.  There are also in depth discussions of Brian Jones' efforts to develop what has become Christmas movie fans' ultimate vacation destination: The Christmas Story House and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio--the house used for the exterior shots in the movie.  You'll also read about the Schwartzes, a couple who are such die-hard A Christmas Story fans that they made an indie film about their efforts to track down the original Canadian shooting locations and the original costumes worn in the film by the principle cast.  Gaines' book also details the explosion of merchandise retailed after the 20th anniversary of the film, as well as the multiple follow-up movies and staged productions inspired by the success of the 1983 film.

The photos in the book include movie publicity stills as well as some from the personal collection of Ian Petrella who played the little brother Randy.   Petrella's photos are a wonderful addition as they consist of candid, behind-the-scenes images of the cast and crew captured during the 1983 film's shoot.

This is me standing inside the Christmas Story House in Cleveland, Ohio--"It's a MAJOR award!"  Click HERE to revisit my post about my trip to A Christmas Story House & Museum in 2010.


Most of you may be pleased to learn that this new book includes a level of detail for even the most ardent A Christmas Story movie fans.  Even if you've seen the movie dozens of times--even hundreds of times--you'll learn something new.  Loyal fans of radio personality, raconteur, and short story writer Jean Shepherd will be satisfied to discover how much Gaines' book attributes to Shepherd's work, his influence on the success of the film, and Shep's ongoing legacy.  I recommend this book to anyone who knows the joy of watching A Christmas Story.  This is the Red Ryder BB Gun of books you'll want on your Christmas list this year.

In addition to all the wonderful details about this classic Christmas movie, I was pleased to see wider discussions, asking the questions--has this holiday cultural force jumped the shark? will viewers and fans ever lose their enthusiasm and will the film diminish in popularity?  I also appreciate Gaines reiterating the question--what makes A Christmas Story the cultural touchstone that it is?  From my perspective, I share Gaines' assertion that the movie continues to endure because it is rooted in the ritual of families coming together every year watching the movie marathon 24 Hours of A Christmas Story on cable TV or on DVD.  This ritual for many has become tradition--the essence of Christmas itself.  Can we imagine a Christmas in our futures without watching A Christmas Story on television?  Not in my lifetime!

Gaines' previous book.

Christmas TV junkies should also look for Caseen Gaines' previous book 2011's Inside Pee-Wee's Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon.  The book devotes an entire chapter to the 1988 prime time TV special Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special

You can pre-order A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic at Amazon.com
You can also follow Gaines' book on facebook: A Christmas Story book


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Starsky & Hutch Christmas (1976)




As I mentioned, I'm looking forward to being at The Hollywood Show in Chicago on Sept. 6th-8th, 2013.  One of the exciting guests in attendance will be actress Kristy McNichol.  So I'm motivated to re-visit one of her past roles in a Christmas episode.  Do you remember the second season episode "Little Lost Girl" of the police/action series Starsky & Hutch?

You know it's Christmas because there are holiday decorations hanging from the car's rear-view mirror.

The story opens with Hutch bitterly explaining that he has no intention of buying his partner Starksy a Christmas present this year.  Hutch claims he's trying to avoid the phony "euphoric sentimentalism" he sees everywhere around him this season.  Meanwhile, Starsky cannot stop himself from whistling and singing Christmas carols throughout the episode.  The Zebra 3 receives a call--there's an armed robbery in progress nearby!

America's Most Wanted: Molly Edwards, a hungry girl with little parental supervision.

It turns out a local grocer has made the false report in order for the police to come and capture an underage shoplifter that has repeatedly ripped him off.  This twelve year-old delinquent is tomboy Molly Edwards who just wants to be left alone.  Starksy and Hutch get her away from the angry grocer and take her home.  But what they find there alarms them--she lives in a dingy apartment that's filled with empty liquor bottles.  They decide to wait with her until a parent arrives.

No happy Christmas for this little lost girl.

After several hours, they receive a phone call--Molly's father has been killed.  Looking into his background, Starsky and Hutch discover that Molly's father had just been released from prison two months ago.  He had served time after getting caught for a jewelry store robbery in which several stolen diamonds had not been recovered.  His two accomplices had never been found either.  It looks like Molly will have to return to her foster home as soon as the family can be contacted.  In the meantime, she'll stay with Hutch at his apartment.

Hutch listens as Molly cries herself to sleep.

Trying to help, Hutch finds himself offering to take Molly Christmas shopping and Starsky brings a Christmas tree to Hutch's apartment.  When Molly is returned to her foster family, her father's accomplices scheme to recover the stolen diamonds by kidnapping and forcing Molly to reveal what she knows. Now Starsky and Hutch must track down the two armed robbers who are the number one suspects in Molly's father's murder--but Molly as well!

YYESS!!  This Christmas story includes everyone's favorite informant, Huggy Bear!


These two bad guys are menacing however one of them looks like an evil Johnny Mathis!? 

Though Molly escapes from the bad guys clutches, she eventually uses herself as bait to lure them to her once again so they can be more easily caught!  This is not the plan Starsky and Hutch had in mind--but it works and the baddies are eventually caught.



Hutch has demonstrated quite of bit of "euphoric sentimentalism" over this little girl this holiday season--and Starsky won't let him forget it!  And on Christmas morning, Starsky, Hutch, Molly, and Hutch's friendly neighbor boy named Kiko all open gifts together.  As a ridiculous punchline, Starsky gives Hutch an ant farm as a gift and Hutch gives his partner a certificate that states that a tree has been planted in a nearby park in Starsky's name. 


If you're a fan of Kristy McNichol like I am, you may want to join me in Chicago at The Hollywood Show.  Get your tickets now!  You may also notice among the 36 celebrities attending the show, her brother Jimmy McNichol will also be there.  I can't wait!



Kristy also appeared in both of The Carpenters' musical Christmas TV specials in 1977 and '78.  Why aren't these on DVD yet?


Friday, August 23, 2013

Dennis the Menace (1959)



I've been getting prepared for my upcoming appearance at The Hollywood Show in Chicago, September 6th-8th, 2013.  I'm getting excited about all the celebrity guests at the event--many of whom have appeared in outstanding Christmas entertainment.  One of the guests who will be in Chicago is actor Jay North.  Among his many roles, North played Dennis Mitchell on the sitcom Dennis the Menace, a TV series based on the comic strip by Hank Ketcham.  Do you remember the first Christmas episode of Dennis the Menace, 1959's "The Christmas Story?"

Henry Mitchell is having a hard time finding a place to hide the Christmas gifts--out of Dennis' reach.


In this episode, Henry and Alice Mitchell struggle to keep the family's Christmas gifts hidden from young Dennis as he searches through every nook and cranny of their home.  When Henry thinks he knows the perfect place to hide the gifts--in a locked trunk in the attic--Henry finds Dennis and his friend Tommy already there trying to pry open the trunk!



Henry gets the idea for next-door neighbor Mr. Wilson to hold the Mitchells' gifts for them until Christmas day.  Mr. Wilson agrees to this and he hides them in the closet.  Unaware that the gifts have left the home, Dennis still searches high and low for the Christmas presents.

Dennis sets a buzzing alarm clock to go off so he can hear where the gifts are hidden!

Then Dennis gets the clever idea of asking his mother to place the alarm clock gift he plans to give his father with all the other hidden gifts.  What Alice doesn't know is that Dennis has set the snooze alarm on the clock and it will buzz every few minutes until it is shut off! 

Dennis knows what time he set the alarm clock to go off at--but he can't hear it from where it's hidden.

Poor Mr. Wilson keeps answering the buzzer at the front door--but no one is there.

Though Dennis never hears the alarm clock in the Mitchell home, Mr. Wilson mistakes the buzzing noise for his front door bell.  On Christmas Eve, the Mitchells invite the Wilsons to their home to trim the Christmas tree.  Though Dennis has been practicing his bugle all week long in order to play "Silent Night," his parents suggest that everyone sing the beloved carol instead.  Upon hearing Dennis' sweet voice, the adults one-by-one drop out from singing.  The devilish little boy looks positively angelic as he sings “Silent Night” in front of the Christmas tree.

Dennis' sweet, innocent voice brings tears to the eyes of his parents and the Wilsons.

If you're familiar with this series, you may already know that Dennis sings "Silent Night" in each of the three Christmas episodes.  This charming musical moment is just one of the many TV sitcom musical highlights that I discuss in my most recent book Merry Musical Christmas: Volume 1: The Best Christmas Music in Sitcoms and Dramas that was released last holiday season.

Did you ever relentlessly search for your hidden Christmas gifts when you were a child?

I'm looking forward to The Hollywood Show in Chicago on Sept. 6th-8th.  In addition to actor Jay North being there, the actress who played Dennis' friend Margaret, Jeannie Russell, from the Dennis the Menace series will also be there.  I hope to see you there too!