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More Not-So-Famous Christmas Firsts

We featured a few holiday firsts last year, and have since dug up a few more to further clutter your mind in between shopping trips.

First Rockefeller Center Tree

In New York City, the holiday season officially kicks off each year with the ceremonial lighting of a towering Norway spruce in Rockefeller Plaza. Decked out with some 30,000 lights, thousands of folks line up in the cold to watch the illumination live, while millions more worldwide witness it on TV and via the Internet. The very first Christmas tree erected in that spot was not as ornamental but was probably much more meaningful.

Back in 1929, the stock market crashed and America was launched into the Great Depression. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. owned a $91 million piece of property in Midtown Manhattan that he decided to develop, despite the economy and glut of vacant properties in New York. Ground was broken that year and construction began on a series of buildings that would include Radio City Music Hall and the RCA building. On December 24, 1931, with 64% of New York-area construction workers jobless, those who were employed on the Rockefeller project were so thankful to be working that they placed a twenty-foot balsam fir tree in the muddy building site. They decorated it with paper garlands and tin cans, and later that day lined up in front of it to receive their paychecks.

First Video Yule Log

The “Yule Log” was the brainchild of WPIX-New York station manager Fred Thrower. Hoping to give apartment-dwelling Gothamites the aura of an old-fashioned country Christmas, he hit on the idea of filming a cheerfully burning fireplace and broadcasting it. The original Yule log was filmed at Gracie Mansion, home of Governor John Lindsay at the time. The crew decided the fireplace looked better without the protective screen in front, so they removed it. Unfortunately, although they captured the desired film footage, they also caused fire damage to an imported rug. The 17-second film was looped and played for two hours every Christmas morning from 1966 until 1989, with a selection of traditional carols played in the background.

Despite impressive ratings — the log consistently won its timeslot in the overnight Nielsens — it was retired in 1989, and was only recently resurrected thanks to a flurry of protests and petitions from virtual fireplace fans. The original footage deteriorated after a time, and when a new film was required, Gracie Mansion officials, remembering their charred carpet, invited the crew to look elsewhere for a suitable fireplace.

First Beverage Company to Use Santa as a Shill

Coca-Cola execs know that their company was not the first to use Kris Kringle to hawk their wares, but they don’t go out of their way to correct that long-circulated rumor. That particular honor belonged to White Rock Beverages. In fact, the White Rock folks were so forward-thinking in their promotion that their 1915 ad showed St. Nick delivering the company’s mineral water via horseless, er, reindeerless carriage, still something of a newfangled invention at the time.

First Salvation Army Red Kettle

In 1891 a San Francisco-based Salvation Army captain named James McFee made a personal pledge to provide a Christmas dinner to 1,000 of the area’s most destitute residents. His only problem was funding the effort. McFee was a British immigrant and had served in the Royal Navy as a youth. He recalled coming into port in Liverpool and seeing a large iron kettle at Stage Landing marked “Simpson’s Pot.” The kettle had been strategically placed to collect spare change from seafaring men who, as a rule, had more money than the average citizen and were often feeling benevolent when first arriving in port after months at sea. The coins collected in Simpson’s Pot were used to provide very basic foodstuffs to Liverpool’s poorest citizens. Capt. McFee placed a similar kettle at the Oakland ferry landing, and commuters threw in the odd penny or two which, bit by bit, quickly added up to some serious scratch. McFee was not only able to fulfill his personal goal, he also launched an international tradition that still endures today “to ensure that no family goes without food, no child is without presents under the tree and that Christmas is a time of hope and healing.”

First Hallmark Keepsake Ornament

Store-bought Christmas tree ornaments first became popular in the U.S. when F.W. Woolworth started selling imported German ornaments in his chain of five-and-dime stores in 1880. Ten years later, Woolworth was selling $25 million worth of ornaments during the holiday season. Germany remained the major supplier of elaborate ornaments featuring spun-glass angels and blown-glass flower baskets until 1925. Japan and Czechoslovakia entered the fray that year, and thanks to the competition the decorations became more elaborate and the prices comparatively lower. The U.S. didn’t get actively involved in Christmas tree décor business until 1939, when Corning engineers found that with a few tweaks they could use a machine designed to make light bulbs to produce 2,000 ornaments per minute. Nevertheless, it took Hallmark 34 years to capitalize on the collectible aspect of Christmas tree ornaments. The company launched its first set of Keepsake Ornaments in 1973, with six glass ball and 12 yarn-figure decorations.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images

Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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