THE GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST
Celebrating Radio’s Christmas Traditions
Cultural observers often see tradition as the basis of Christmas celebrations, and nowhere is this more evident than with American radio beginning as early as broadcasting itself and continuing through what is called the golden age of radio. Indeed, perhaps it is true to say that many of our Christmas traditions, such as listening to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and even an annual viewing of the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas, are obliged to American broadcasting.
A true radio Christmas tradition begins with yet another Christmas tradition, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, itself a novel with its own fascinating origins and history (as seen in this brief visual essay by Professor Michael Slater at the Charles Dickens Library https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/videos/dickens-a-christmas-carol, and in Craig Wichman’s Standing in the Spirit of Your Elbow: A History of Dickens’ Christmas Carol as Radio/Audio Drama). Reportedly, the first radio broadcast of A Christmas Carol was actually a reading by one Charles Mills from WEAF in New York on December 22, 1922. Two years later, on December 24, 1924, on WMAQ in Chicago Dickens’ story was given a full dramatic presentation by an unknown drama troupe.
Ten years later, however, A Christmas Carol becomes a true radio tradition when CBS offered a special holiday variety show dubbed The CBS Christmas Party. The all-star, three-hour extravaganza hosted by Alexander Woolcott featured a 30-minute dramatization of A Christmas Carol featuring Lionel Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge. The extravaganza itself is all but forgotten, but Lionel Barrymore’s interpretation of Scrooge became a 17-year tradition on American radio. It has been said by radio critics that Christmas without Barrymore was not Christmas. Barrymore’s distinctive interpretation of the miserly misanthrope has seldom been equaled, and his poignant conversion from that callous malcontent to caring altruist so captivated radio audiences that, well, Christmas without Barrymore as Scrooge wasn’t Christmas at all.
For 17-years Barrymore made good on his own promise to interpret Scrooge for audiences; however, he missed on two occasions for sincere reasons. First, on Christmas Eve 1936 Barrymore was scheduled to appear as Scrooge on Campbell Soup’s Hollywood Hotel program when his wife, Irene Fenwick, succumbed to pneumonia. Lionel’s brother, the great profile himself, John Barrymore, took the role in Lionel’s absence. Unfortunately, extant recordings of the program are lost, but some contemporary observers noted that John’s interpretation was so close to that of his brother’s that one believed Lionel was present.
Two years later, Lionel was absent the Christmas airwaves out of deference to his friend Reginald Owen, who was interpreting Scrooge in movie theatres across the country. Since Barrymore was a contract player at MGM he was “asked” by the almighty Louis B. Mayer (no stranger to Scrooge, it has been said) to remain in the Christmas shadows so as not to compete with the film, which was released in December 1938. Considering Barrymore’s prominence in the role his absence in the film begged the question, why not cast Lionel Barrymore in the film? Answers vary from the reasonable to the absurd, but most scholars agree that the film was made at a time when Barrymore’s afflictions (severe arthritis, fractured-hip-that-refused-to-mend, addiction to painkillers) had pretty much confined him to a wheelchair.
The following year, however, Barrymore was the special guest of Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air in a special production of A Christmas Carol for The Campbell [Soup] Playhouse. Welles introduced Barrymore as, “. . . the best-loved actor of our time in the world’s best-loved Christmas story.” Some close to Welles have stated that Welles had softened the introduction considerably for broadcast since the introduction was primarily aimed at Louis B.
To make certain that future generations would hear America’s “best-loved actor” in his best-loved role, Barrymore cut a record album of A Christmas Carol in 1947 for MGM Records. Naturally, the album became a best-selling Christmas album rivaled only by children’s records and Bing Crosby’s Christmas works. And, indeed, the album proved to introduce future generations to Barrymore’s performance. Lionel died in November 1954 while preparing for what would have been his 18th performance as Ebenezer Scrooge. But not to be undone, ABC Radio secured broadcast rights to the MGM record and proceeded to broadcast the recording every Christmas, beginning in 1954 and ending in 1965. Today, thanks to the digital revolution Lionel Barrymore’s performance—remastered and enhanced through digitization—is yet available to all who seek America’s best-loved actor in his best-loved role.
A second 17-year tradition on radio involved a singer and a song—one song. Little did crooner Bing Crosby know that singing a beloved hymn, “Adeste Fideles,” known popularly as “O Come All Ye Faithful,” on the Kraft Music Hall in 1937 would trigger a mandate that the song be sung every Christmas on the air. No one knows exactly why Bing’s rendition of the long-established Christmas song caught America’s fancy. Some have claimed that it was the novelty of Bing singing the Latin lyrics whereas others have claimed that it was simply Bing’s crooning alone that gave the song an endearing if majestic quality. Perhaps a combination of both, but whatever the reason an American Christmas tradition was born, and to a majority of the population Christmas was incomplete without hearing Bing Crosby singing “Adeste Fideles” in Latin. For the record, Bing met his obligation for nine years on Kraft Music Hall through 1945; three years on Philco Radio Time; and 1949 through 1953 on The Bing Crosby Show.
Another aural tradition is one that is still heard today primarily because the show was one of the first to be recorded for syndication—hence existing beyond its singular broadcast date (you can catch it locally on KOOL -FM-KODZ-FM 99.1). The Cinnamon Bear was conceived by Lindsay MacHarrie, production manager at Transco, a program syndication company in Hollywood. According to most sources, MacHarrie approached Glanville Heisch, a writer and director at KFI in Hollywood, with the idea of 15-minute Christmas serial for children that would run between Thanksgiving and Christmas and be sold to department stores on an individual basis. Heisch later said that he got the idea from his own boyhood teddy bear he’d named the Cinnamon Bear. Between Glan Heisch and his wife, Elizabeth, they came up with the whole concept of two playmates, Judy and Jimmy, who discover that the Silver Star to the Christmas Tree is missing. The two search for the star in the attic only to find Paddy O’Cinnamon, Santa’s right-hand man, who tells them that the star has been stolen by the wicked Crazy Quilt Dragon. So, with Paddy O’Cinnamon, Judy and Jimmy embark on a quest to Maybeland to return the star and along the way encounter myriad wondrous fantasy figures including Willie the Stork, King Blotto, and Captain Taffy and the Candy Pirates.
The show was recorded at the famed Radio Recorders, innovators in recording radio shows on disc for syndication throughout the country. Indeed, Radio Recorders quality shows since the program remains as fresh acoustically today as it was in 1937 if not better through modern digitization. Moreover, the show possessed high production values and contained a veritable who’s who of radio voice artists including narration by Bud Hiestand and featuring child performers Barbara Jean Wong and Walter Tetley in the leads as Judy and Jimmy. Also featured were Cy Kendall (one of radio’s Charlie Chan performers), Joseph Kearns (the man-in-black from Suspense and Ed, the vault guard, in Jack Benny), Frank Nelson (“Yessssss,” the floor walker, in Jack Benny), Verna Felton (Dennis Day’s mother in Jack Benny), Elliott Lewis (writer-actor-director Suspense) and Howard McNear (Doc in Gunsmoke).
The Cinnamon Bear had a long and profitable association with the Lipman Wolfe department store in Portland. In fact, it is said that Lipman’s association with Transco not only set the pattern for retail tie-ins with broadcast programming but secured a mascot all its own. Indeed, Paddy O’Cinnamon, “Santa’s right-hand man,” could be found in lieu of Santa at Lipman Wolfe stores throughout the northwest. So complete was this involvement that in 1979 when Marshall Field purchased Lipman Wolf and rechristened the stores Frederick & Nelson, Paddy O’Cinnamon remained with Frederick & Nelson until the company ceased operation in 1986.
It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and nowhere is this more conspicuous than the year following the success of The Cinnamon Bear. Indeed, that year Paddy O’Cinnamon had competition from Guz, the teddy bear, in Christmas on the Moon (also known as Jonathan Thomas and his Christmas on the Moon). Little is known about the production side of the series; a trade announcement in 1942 indicated that it was distributed by C. P. MacGregor Electrical Transcriptions of Hollywood but little else. But what is clear is that the series met a need. The accomplished relationship between The Cinnamon Bear and major department stores was fixed exclusively, and that left minor retailers wanting. To the rescue came Jonathan Thomas and his teddy bear, Guz, and a relationship was struck between a Christmas serial and those minor retailers. Like its predecessor, Christmas on the Moon was serialized between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 1938, and it followed the adventures of Jonathan Thomas and Guz. To get an indication of just what the series was like, here’s the blurb:
It's bedtime, and six-year-old Jonathan Thomas and his teddy bear Guz are ready for a story before going to sleep. But before the story can begin, a moonbeam shines through Jonathan's window and, much to his surprise, two little elves slide down it into his bedroom. Before Jonathan can stop him, Guz takes off after the elves and scampers up the moonbeam chasing them. Jonathan follows and soon finds himself involved in an exciting adventure to save Santa Claus, who has been kidnapped and held prisoner in the Land of Squeebobble. Accompanied by the Man in the Moon and a horse named Gorgonzola, and traveling to strange and exotic places like the Merry-Go-Round River, the Rainbow Bridge, the Wall of Doors, and Looking Glass Land, Jonathan meets and befriends a wildly imaginative group of characters in an adventure straight out of Lewis Carroll by way of many of the best-loved fairy and folk tales of all time. Can Jonathan rescue Santa Claus in time to save Christmas . . . or will he be defeated by the evil witch of Rumplestitch?
As successful as both The Cinnamon Bear and Christmas on the Moon were, it would be another10 years before the gambit was again attempted with a children’s show called Jump-Jump of Holiday House—where every day is a holiday. Jump-Jump was a mischievous elf “no feet three-inches tall.” The series was created by the Harry S. Goodman company, a transcription syndicator in New York, and written by the husband-wife team of Harry Hickox and Mary McConnell, who also supplied the voices for the majority of the characters. The program was recorded at KFI in Hollywood, where the gimmick that apparently sold the series was effected. In order to give Jump-Jump his elfish persona, the actor who played Jump-Jump recorded his part at 33 ⅓ rpm for playback at 78 rpm. The effect was clever and rather unique at the time but has since become an easily recognizable amusement (e.g., Ross Bagdasarian’s Chipmunks).
The history of this series is clouded by assumptions, misunderstandings, and outright false claims as to exactly when this series aired. Some claim that Jump-Jump of Holiday House was an early 1940s program, but a perusal of radio listings in newspapers and magazines can find no evidence for this claim. What is known is that, reportedly, at the urging of the fledgling Mattel Toy Company, who sold Jump-Jump dolls in boxes that resembled Holiday House, the Goodman organization hired Hickox and McConnell to write a Christmas-themed serial titled Jump-Jump and the Ice Queen for broadcast between Thanksgiving and Christmas 1948. The effort was two-fold. First, to sell Jump-Jump merchandise during the profitable Christmas season. In this sense, Jump-Jump and the Ice Queen could be considered a progenitor of that bane of children’s watch-dog groups: the merchandizing of children’s entertainment.
Secondly, Jump-Jump and the Ice Queen was broadcast perhaps to re-introduce listeners to Jump-Jump with the promise of fostering a whole new regularly-scheduled children’s series, as some claim, or merely as a hook to get audiences to tune in for the series itself. What is clear and evidenced by radio logs is that Jump-Jump of Holiday House was, indeed, on the air following the broadcast of Jump-Jump and the Ice Queen.
Regular series programming also had its traditions. For example, those two old rustic pals, Lum & Abner, each year since 1933 recounted a story of one memorable Christmas Eve in Pine Ridge, Arkansas. It seems that ol’ Doc Miller got a phone call from a feller named Joe, who had traveled from Paradise Valley to the county seat to pay his taxes and got stranded in the snow. With no room at the inn, Joe and his wife, who’s expectin’ at any moment, took refuge in a barn. Ol’ Doc Miller’s on his way to give aid along with three strangers, who heard about the stranded couple and decided to bring them some gifts and aid. If not for that bright star shining in the east ol’ Doc and the strangers would have got themselves lost in the snow fer sure. Everyone learns that Joe’s a carpenter, and they all decide that his future is assured in Pine Ridge ‘cause everyone needs some repairin’. The baby is born, and what do you know? Out of nowhere came a choir singin’ “Silent Night.”
Similar narratives of expectant couples finding refuge in the least of dwellings are found in various additional shows, including many westerns such as The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke and The Six-Shooter. But bridging the seriousness of the season with the good cheer that such seriousness brings was the annual Christmas program of the nation’s top radio show, Amos ‘n’ Andy. In this episode Andy takes a job as a department store Santa to raise money for a gift for Amos’ daughter, Arabella. The laughs are plenty, as the reviewers wrote, as Andy encounters every type of tot from the spoiled rich kid who wants everything to the little snot who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. But the laughs give way to deep poignancy when Amos recites and exposits the Lord’s Prayer to Arabella on Christmas Eve.
With laughter and good cheer, radio’s comics offered their best during Christmas. Here, Jack Benny ranks high; for unknowingly his trip to a department store to buy gifts for his friends in 1946 would lead to a 10-year annual event that still delights. As with most Benny narratives, the idea itself, in this instance, Christmas shopping, is mundane for everyone but Jack. During his visit to various sections of the department store he runs into Mr. Kitzel, Dennis Day’s mother and the racetrack tout, who all give him their unique ways of offering Merry Christmas. He even finds time to hear in various ways in 10 years songs by the Sportsmen Quartet and Dennis Day. But Jack’s dilemma is finding the right gift for his announcer, Don Wilson, and Jack’s real exasperation occurs when Jack meets the insulting floorwalker, played superbly by Benny regular Frank Nelson, who gives Jack grief merely by his presence. But the focus of the narrative is always Jack’s inability to choose that gift for Don. For instance, in one episode Jack settles on shoelaces for Don but he can’t quite decide if Don would prefer shoelaces with metal tips or plastic tips. So back and forth Jack goes, exchanging plastic tips for metal tips and vice versa, each time causing the clerk growing consternation until the clerk finally cracks. The clerk was played to perfection by Benny regular Mel Blanc.
When Bob Hope teamed with the USO in 1941 to entertain troops he started a tradition that lasted nearly 50 years. Each year, Hope left home to bring America’s troops some good Christmas cheer, often under fire as during World War II and Korea. One cynic once asked Hope why he did it, and Hope was honest enough to say that he was being selfish. He did it for the laughs, he said, because he learned early in his career that audiences love topical and regional jokes. What better place to find those laughs, he continued, than by telling jokes to a captive audience about their responsibilities at a place that is so far from home nobody could find it on a map. He set the cynic in his place, but later told those sincerely interested in his reasons for touring that in his answer to the cynic he was partially true. He admitted that he had done it for the laughs, but added, “I hate war with all my guts but I admire the guys with guts enough to fight them [wars] when they have to be fought.”
It almost seems like an entirely different world when reflecting back on those golden days of radio and Christmas. But one thing does bridge the then and the now; the Christmas message is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. May there be peace on earth and goodwill toward all.
By Patrick Lucanio