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A Few Facts about 4 More Classic Holiday TV Specials

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How many of these shows do you remember, or maybe still watch every year?

1. The Year without a Santa Claus

This 1974 Rankin-Bass favorite was based on a short story by the same name written by Phyllis McGinley that was published in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1956. The piece received such a positive reaction that it was released in book form the following year. In 1968, Capitol Records hired Boris Karloff (who’d had success with his voice work in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas two years earlier) to narrate the story on an album. The LP featured McGinley’s story on the A-side, and a collection of Christmas songs from Capitol’s library on the B-side.

Academy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner Shirley Booth provided the voice of Mrs. Claus in the special and served as the show’s narrator. Press releases at the time stated that Booth had agreed to the project because of her longtime admiration for McGinley’s work, but in truth Booth was smarting from the recent and abrupt cancellation of her new ABC sitcom, A Touch of Grace. Her return to network TV had been ballyhooed in the press, and its getting axed after just 13 episodes was a major blow. Booth was amused by the fact that even though she sings a duet with Mickey Rooney (Santa Claus) in the special, she had never met the actor in person. She’d recorded her portion of the song in New York, he did his in Chicago, and the producers melded the two parts together.

The stand-out “stars” of The Year Without a Santa Claus were, without question, the Heat Miser and Snow Miser, voiced by George S. Irving and Dick Shawn respectively. Despite a long career as a film actor and stand-up comedian, Shawn might well have been remembered most for his voice work as the frosty Snow Miser had it not been for his most unusual death. Shawn was performing a one-man show at U.C. San Diego in April 1987 and had just launched into a routine about politicians and their clichés and campaign promises. Shortly after uttering the line “If elected, I will not lie down on the job” he fell face down on the stage. It was almost a full five minutes before members of the stage crew realized that this was not part of his act; Shawn had suffered a fatal heart attack onstage.

2. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey

If you cried when Bambi was orphaned or when Old Yeller contracted rabies, then avoid Nestor at all costs. There is a scene where Nestor’s mama protects him during a blizzard that puts a complete damper on any feel-goodness that shows up later when the floppy-eared little guy helps a couple find their way to Bethlehem.

Anyway, Nestor started out as a holiday record by Gene Autry, who was hoping to duplicate the success he’d had with “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The record flopped, but Rankin-Bass turned it into one of their Animagic specials. Nestor is a bit of a departure for R-B not only because it features the Nativity scene, but also because the villain isn’t an obvious make-believe monster (like the Abominable Snowman) but scary Roman soldiers.

3. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

This charming special from Jim Henson and his Muppet crew first aired on HBO in 1977, shortly before the Muppets hit the real-big time in their first feature film. The story is somewhat based on O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, with the very poor Otter family (minus Pa, who has gone on to that big river in the sky) wanting to enter a local Christmas talent show. But Ma has to hock Pa’s tool chest in order to buy a dress for the competition, and Emmet has to cut a hole in Ma’s washtub to make an upright bass … Luckily, the up-tempo songs and delightful production design keep the story from drowning in pathos.

Emmet was one of the most ambitious productions Jim Henson’s company had undertaken to date. This was long before CGI was at every animator’s fingertips, so the crew actually constructed a 55-foot-long river that was 10 feet wide across the stage they’d built in a Toronto studio. Emmet’s rowboat was radio-controlled, and some of the Muppets were operated via a brand new contraption Henson’s engineers had devised called a “Waldo.” The Waldo is an electronic telemetric device that the Muppeteer wears like a mitten. Shaped like the character’s head, it allows the wearer to control the puppet’s mouth remotely via radio signals.

4. The Little Drummer Boy

Based on the Katherine Kennicott Davis song by the same name, Rankin-Bass obviously had to flesh out the story to fill up 30 minutes of airtime. So they gave Aaron (the Drummer Boy) a back story: orphaned when his parents were killed by thieves, he was forced to join a circus because his drumming made his animal friends dance. He eventually escapes with his friends—a camel, a sheep and a donkey—and joins up with the Three Wise Men’s caravan to Bethlehem. The sheep is injured along the way, and Aaron asks the newborn baby Jesus to heal him. When the Infant Savior grants his request, appreciative Aaron gives the only gift he has to offer, that of music.

Actress Greer Garson, who’d won an Academy Award for Mrs. Miniver in 1942, narrated this special. The Little Drummer Boy was sponsored by the American Gas Association when it debuted in 1968, so all the bumpers featured “Holiday Wishes from Your Local Gas Company!”

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Food
Let Alexa Help You Brine a Turkey This Thanksgiving
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There’s a reason most of us only cook turkey once a year: The bird is notoriously easy to overcook. You could rely on gravy and cranberry sauce to salvage your dried-out turkey this Thanksgiving, or you could follow cooking advice from the experts.

Brining a turkey is the best way to guarantee it retains its moisture after hours in the oven. The process is also time-consuming, so do yourself a favor this year and let Alexa be your sous chef.

“Morton Brine Time” is a new skill from the cloud-based home assistant. If you own an Amazon Echo you can download it for free by going online or by asking Alexa to enable it. Once it’s set up, start asking Alexa for brining tips and step-by-step recipes customized to the size of your turkey. Two recipes were developed by Richard Blais, the celebrity chef and restaurateur best known for his Top Chef win and Food Network appearances.

Whether you go for a wet brine (soaking your turkey in water, salt, sugar, and spices) or a dry one (just salt and spices), the process isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. And the knowledge that your bird will come out succulent and juicy will definitely take some stress out of the holiday.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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