Sunday, October 8, 2017

Perry Como's Early American Christmas (1978)

First broadcast Dec. 12, 1978

Visiting Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, the hometown of singer Perry Como, last month sparked a desire to re-watch an old Como Christmas TV special. Click here to see the details of my journey to Canonsburg again. Deciding on which Como holiday special was a challenge--he's been in so many. Perry's first TV appearance during Christmas time was in 1948. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, he hosted his own Perry Como Show and Kraft Music Hall which featured annual Christmas installments. By the late '60s, he hosted his own annual Christmas TV variety specials. In the 1970s and 80s, his popular Christmas specials were shot at distinctive destinations around the world and were themed to highlight the culture of each place. His final Christmas special, a concert shot in Ireland, first aired on PBS in 1994. That's almost fifty years of outstanding holiday TV entertainment.

I decided on the 1978 special Perry Como's Early American Christmas from Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia because it easily combines patriotism and the Christmas spirit--two American celebrations that aren't commonly joined together quite like this. While Como's annual holiday TV specials are certainly a thing of the past, this particular one honoring our American heritage seems to be a forgotten trend as well. Let's look at this one again.


Hot Diggity! Mr. C sings Christmas favorites in Colonial Williamsburg.

Como's guests for this Christmas show include actor John Wayne, actress/singer Diana Canova, violinist Eugene Fodor, and beauty pageant winner Kylene Barker. In 1978, Diana Canova was starring on the serialized sitcom Soap as Jessica Tate's daughter Corinne. Don't even get me started talking about my favorite characters and storylines--I'm a huge fan of Soap! Actor John Wayne's final Western was already behind him by 1978. Sadly, the film legend died of cancer six months after this Christmas special first aired. Also featured in this special are the College of William & Mary choir, and the fife and drum corps, dancers, craftsmen, and costumed people of Colonial Williamsburg.


"...2 powdered wigs..."

The opening song in the 1978 Christmas variety special is the "Twelve Days of Christmas" sung by Como with special lyrics reflecting the colonial experience of historic Williamsburg. As the lyrics countdown the twelve days of the holiday, we see the gifts given were ones made by the local makers, including candles, powdered wigs, violins, gingerbread men, golden rings, woven baskets, wooden barrels, printed Christmas stories, spools of linen, ladies' bonnets, horseshoes, wagon wheels--you get the idea! Viewers are immediately immersed in the distinctive culture of eighteenth-century Colonial Williamsburg.


The eighteenth-century costumes are delightful!


Next, the fife and drum corps marches across the grounds. Como walks alongside a young drummer and sings the popular Christmas carol "Little Drummer Boy." In one of the historic homes on the grounds, Diana Canova sings "My Cup Runneth Over." This is followed by Perry and Diana singing "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)," a song originally written for the Broadway musical Cabaret.


Canova explains that a pineapple is a colonial symbol of hospitality.

Mr. C discusses early American Christmas traditions. Here, Kylene Barker--Miss Virginia 1978, and Miss America 1979--explains the traditions behind the Christmas games played by colonists.


The next production number takes place at the Governor's Palace, with dancers and costumed colonials dressed in their finery for a holiday ball. Perry Como sings one of his signature holiday songs "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays."


The colonials ignore Perry's contemporary tuxedo.

Violinist Fodor performs alongside a harpsichord.


Violinist Eugene Fodor performs an impressive classical piece, followed by John Wayne reading a soldier's letter written to his mother back in Williamsburg. The letter was dated 1758, written while the soldier was away from home over Christmas, serving during the French and Indian War. The touching letter articulates the timeless sentiment about the pain of missing one's family at the holidays while faithfully serving one's country.


In this Christmas special, patriotism and the holiday spirit go hand in hand.

Perry and Canova during "Try to Remember."


Next, Diana Canova and Perry sing "Try to Remember," originally written for the musical The Fantasticks. They are accompanied by Fodor on violin. And, Como and Canova join the colonial dancers in the Virginia reel.


In the tavern, Como joyfully lifts his drink to sing "I Saw Three Ships."

The Duke joins in to sing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."


At the Williamsburg tavern, Canova performs "We're Cooking a Holiday Meal" in the kitchen with the cooks. Now wearing period garb, Wayne and Como join the background singers in a medley, singing "Boar's Head Carol," "Here We Come A-wassailing," "I Saw Three Ships," and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."


The choir walks by candlelight to church at Williamsburg.

Another annual TV tradition: Como's smooth-as-silk version of "Ave Maria."

A candlelight procession enters the Williamsburg house of worship for the show's finalé of sacred music, including "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Joy to the World." Perry Como's last song is also his finest, performing "Ave Maria."

Portions of this 1978 variety special can be seen on Christmas Around the World with Perry Como, an official DVD release with several clips from Como's '70s and '80s holiday specials.


A moment of joy and laughter.

Fans of John Wayne may know that he also appeared on Bob Hope's 1976 Christmas TV special. During the holidays, I prefer to watch John Wayne in 3 Godfathers, the 1948 Western directed by John Ford. See my discussion of that movie again here. If you're drawn to early American and patriotic Christmas specials, I recommend watching the 1982 TV special Andy Williams' Early New England Christmas, shot at the Shelburne Museum, in Shelburne, Vermont.

Do you have a favorite Perry Como Christmas TV special? Tell us about it in the comments below.


Perry Como statue in Canonsburg, PA. September 2017.


Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com

10 comments:

  1. I don't remember any particular Perry Como Christmas special, but he has a spectacular voice, whether he's singing a popular tune or an old Latin hymn. I have a great deal of respect for the man: he wanted everything he did to be high quality, "family" entertainment. I wish there were more like him.

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  2. I wonder why none of the companies put these holiday shows out on DVD? I would buy them all! I don't remember this one, but would love to see it in its entirety. Unfortunately, we don't even get GET TV anymore in our area. I was at least able to see some great holiday variety shows on that channel. Thanks for the trip down memory lane! This special sounds like it was SPECIAL.

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    1. Without researching it, I'd imagine this hasn't gotten a full release on DVD or Blu Ray because it contains songs from the musicals 'Cabaret' and 'The Fantasticks'. Getting rights to include those would likely be very expensive, and the owners of the special probably don't think they'd make enough money to justify paying for the right to include the songs.

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  3. I DVR'd this special last year from GetTV and must copy it off. They had several others, including the Paris one.

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  5. Nice review.
    I moved to Virginia in 1978, shortly before this special was produced. Since she was "reigning" Miss Virginia & Miss America at the time, Kylene Barker was all over local TV, doing PSAs and showing up at charity events. So for me, she will "always" be Miss Virginia.
    On a personal note,I was actually visiting Colonial Williamsburg while Perry Como was taping this special. My Aunt Rita was with us, she was a 61 year old die-hard fan of Como. For her sake, we tried to see if we could meet Como or at least watch some of the taping or rehearsals. Sadly, we were denied.

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  6. I saw this on GetTV last Christmas. I had never heard Diana Canova sing. She has such a beautiful voice.

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  7. I recently discovered this one, thanks to J.A. Morris -- it's an interesting throwback variety special and it's extra interesting to me since I attended college in Williamsburg (a couple of decades after this special aired).

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  8. I recently discovered this one, thanks to J.A. Morris -- it's an interesting throwback variety special and it's extra interesting to me since I attended college in Williamsburg (a couple of decades after this special aired).

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    1. Also, as a W&M choir alum, I dig the bit with the W&M choir performing with Como in Bruton Parish Church!

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