Saturday, December 1, 2012
Television was an ideal medium for Christmas entertainment and the 1960’s and 70’s were the heyday of TV holiday specials. Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Frosty and the Grinch all made their TV debuts back then, and they clearly have no intention of leaving us any time soon.
Sadly the same can’t be said for the live variety specials that also used to air every year. No December was complete without a festive visit from Andy Williams, Perry Como and Bing Crosby; add in the occasional Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra show, and you had hours of the most wonderful seasonal entertainment readily available. Crooners all, they each had a style and sensibility that lent itself to wonderful spectacles of music, dance and the occasional weak attempt at comedy.
There was something about those specials that just radiated Christmas. Sure they could be hokey, with lots of twinkling lights, fake snow, happy family dinners and bizarre guest stars – I for one never believed for a second that David Bowie would drop by Bing Crosby’s house to sing a duet. And for sheer holiday hilarity nothing can top the year Dean Martin performed his opening number with opera great Beverly Sills, country star Mel Tillis, pop singer Andy Gibb and CHIPS actor Erik Estrada.
But these shows were enveloped in the warmth and charm of a perfect Christmas, the kind of holiday we all long for. An unrealistic expectation perhaps, but beloved songs, traditional carols and beautiful arrangements all combined to show us a Christmas we could aspire to.
How sad that by the 1980’s these annual shows had fallen into disfavor, with most networks echoing the sentiment that, “Variety is dead.” Ironic, given the fact that these shows achieved a level of viewership that any network executive would sell their soul to accomplish today.
Perhaps television networks no longer see the value in paying star entertainers to perform. Of course the concept of “star” has changed, with precious few of the celebrities appearing on today’s multitude of reality shows truly qualifying for that title.
Or maybe the mixture of abilities these performers shared, singing, dancing, telling jokes, all performed with a knowing wink that tells us we’re all in on the fun, just seems old fashioned.
Still, New York’s Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular sells out months in advance; Andy Williams’ own 2,000-seat Moon River Theater in Branson, Missouri continues to pack in audiences 7 shows a week for its Christmas show. Clearly it’s television, not the audience, which deserted seasonal variety shows.
For two years I was fortunate to be part of the holiday specials for my friend David Gale’s popular TV series, “Loving Spoonfuls.” As most TV shows are produced months in advance of airing, we shot these shows in the middle of the summer. The audience might have thought it was it was a cold, wintry day but in reality we were sweating in the 35 degree Celsius July heat.
In some small way these episodes made me feel connected to all the wonderful shows that I watched while growing up. I kept hoping that Bob Hope or Jack Benny would walk through the door and join the fun.
Although Christmas music has pretty much been banished from television, radio stations are still awash in holiday songs each December. Unfortunately many modern Christmas songs seem sadly devoid of much joy. Lyrics about dying parents, broken relationships and holiday traffic jams have taken the place of snowfalls, horse-drawn carriages and candlelight. It’s as if “the most wonderful time of the year” has morphed into the most depressing.
I used to think “The Little Drummer Boy” was a sad Christmas song until I heard “The Christmas Shoes,” a morbid ballad about a little boy’s dying mother. It seems we’re no longer dreaming of a White Christmas; we’re now in a contest to see which holiday sentiment can be the most tragic.
Thankfully we live in a time of easy access to virtually every recording and TV show ever produced via CD and DVD, with many just a click away online. Enjoying the songs and specials of Andy, Perry, Bing and so many others couldn’t be simpler, so they can forever remain a joyful part of a Merry Christmas.
Just as Dickens made us all believe in the redemptive magic of the Christmas spirit, those TV specials gave us the hope that in spite of crowded malls, overcooked turkey and soused relatives, maybe a perfect holiday really was within our grasp. They simply made Christmas merrier.