Holiday TV specials creep into the viewing schedule earlier and earlier each year. My Dad swears that he saw a back-to-back presentation of Yankee Doodle Dandy and A Charlie Brown Christmas last July 4th, but he may have been exaggerating. By cracky, when I was a youngin', Christmas specials never aired before Thanksgiving, and that always made the holiday season seem more special, more"¦.Christmas-y. Some of the stalwarts from my childhood, like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, are still aired today, so let's not dwell on those. But what about those shows that have since been banished to the Island of Misfit Christmas Specials?
1. The House Without a Christmas Tree
The year is 1946 and the setting is the tiny town of Clear River, Nebraska. Addie Mills (Lisa Lucas) is a very bright 10-year-old being raised by her grandmother and father, since her mom died shortly after giving birth to her. Addie's father, James (Jason Robards), is not particularly warm, but he enjoys playing logic games and puzzles with his precocious daughter. Come Christmas time each year, he becomes even more withdrawn and curmudgeonly and refuses (without explanation) to allow a Christmas tree in his home. When Addie wins her classroom's Christmas tree in a "choose a number from"¦" contest, instead of being proud of his daughter's analytical skills, he is furious—not only because he seemingly hates Christmas, but also because of the perceived "charity" aspect of the situation. Even the Grinchiest viewer misted up when tiny Addie dragged the tree to a local orphanage and left it on the front steps with a note from "Santa." The House without a Christmas Tree was filmed like a play on videotape and the overall "look" added to the poignancy of the production.
Let's quickly lighten the mood with a word from our sponsor. We never gave our Dad a Norelco three-headed electric shaver (he was strictly a Schick safety razor man), but this jovial commercial was always a family favorite:
2. Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol
One of many embarrassing reminders of what a large part television played in my early development is that day when my fourth grade teacher asked our class during a Christmas-related lesson who said "Bah, humbug!" My hand shot up and I proudly answered "Mr. Magoo!"
United Productions of America (UPA) had been producing Mr. Magoo shorts for several years and was looking to expand into feature-length productions. Christmas TV specials were rare at the time, so the studio pitched the idea of a myopic Magoo reenacting Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Timex came on board as a sponsor, and Broadway veterans Jule Styne and Bob Merrill were tapped to provide the score and lyrics. The result was a hit that was re-aired every holiday season for"¦a few years, until slicker, more elaborate animated specials entered the market, and it became un-PC to find humor in disabilities like Mr. Magoo's near-sightedness.
Time for another commercial break"¦this time featuring a three-year-old Corey Feldman in his very first role. By the way, a 50-cent McDonald's gift certificate may not seem like much now, but back in 1975 it could buy you a hamburger and a small pop (soda to some of you).
3. Amahl and the Night Visitors
No one knew it at the time, but the December 25, 1966, airing on NBC of Amahl and the Night Visitors was the last time Gian Carlo Menotti's made-for-TV opera would ever be broadcast on network television. And, thanks to my second grade music teacher, I was one of those in the viewing audience that night.
Just prior to Christmas break, she instructed us to watch Amahl and the Night Visitors because she would give us a test on it once school resumed. I was banished to the basement to watch it on our old blurry Zenith TV set because my Dad wasn't going to sit through some (profane adjective) opera. All these years later I can still remember specific scenes, like the Three Wise Men knocking at the door of Amahl's house, and he and his mother singing about it for half an hour before finally opening the darned door. Obviously I was too young to appreciate the historical perspective of the show—it was specially commissioned in 1950 by NBC to appeal to their then-target audience. When Amahl first aired in 1951, TV sets were an expensive luxury item, and those who had the disposable income to purchase one were most likely the type to have advanced degrees and who would appreciate "prestige" programming.
Time for another quick break—contrary to urban legend, Coca-Cola didn't invent the present-day image of Santa Claus. They did, however, invent some very catchy tunes.
4. Star Wars Holiday Special
The original Star Wars film was actually an unexpected hit, so in retrospect, it's no surprise that some enterprising TV network would win a bidding war to host a Christmas TV special. Of course, after the show laid a massive ratings goose egg, everyone from George Lucas to Carrie Fisher would first deny the show's existence, then later make elaborate excuses for its suckage.
The Star Wars Holiday Special aired only once in its entirety, on November 17, 1978. Among the many unfortunate choices made by the producers, the storyline focused on Chewbacca and his Wookie family, who could only communicate via weird whiny noises that sounded like an arctic wolf being shot from a helicopter. Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur and Diahann Carroll were the special guest stars. The actual stars of the film made what could best be described as a cameo appearance, during which Carrie Fisher sang a heartfelt "Happy Life Day" to the tune of the Star Wars theme song.
Before we depart, let's transport to a happier time, when you could purchase a Michael Jackson talking ViewMaster thingie for just under $30.
Happy holidays to all, and all please chime in with your Christmas TV memories!