In this 1938 Christmas Variety Show, host John Barrymore shared a few hilariously funny Christmas remarks with actress Una Merkel, then introduced Kenny Baker, who reminded everyone of us to? Don’t Wait Until the Night Before Christmas to be Good? Following that, the stars of the show performed a drama based on ?The Song of Christmas? you won’t want to miss:
Every year before I even think about going up to the attic to get the Christmas decoration boxes, I make it a point to dust off my collection of OTR Christmas Programs. There will be plenty of time to sit in front of the TV or computer to watch all of my family’s favorite Christmas movies and TV specials, but there is just something about the Christmas programs on the Radio that set the holiday mood.
Today, Christmas seems to start just before Halloween, when the stores begin putting up red and green end bases. The shopping fury of the day after Thanksgiving is almost a bigger deal than the morning after Santa arrives. Back then, Christmas seemed to last longer, building in intensity for the whole month of December, beginning at your school desk as you waited for Christmas vacation to start, and then being extra good to make up for the rest of the year when you may have been on the naughty list, until the climax when all those colored packages appear under the tree.
One of the great things about OTR Christmas is that you can enjoy the shows while you are doing other Christmas things. You can listen to your favorite characters and their holiday tribulations and still have your eyes and hands free to make fudge, string the lights, bake cookies, trim the tree, or drive to the in-laws.
Maybe it was because the Jordan’s had kids of their own during a good portion of their run, but Fibber McGee and Molly took a different path for the holidays than we see on TV sitcoms. On TV, the writers come up with a single Christmas themed episode to air the week before the Big Day and that is about it.
Holiday preparations in Wistful Vista usually started two or three weeks before Dec 25. Every year there were Christmas cards to get sent, presents to buy and a the perfect tree had to be found. The week before Christmas in 1945, Fibber decides that Molly should have a white Christmas tree, and his solution is to spray paint the tree he bought. Of course, everyone else in town can tell him what a bad idea that is, but Fibber has to find out for himself.
The highlight of the Christmas day program (or the last broadcast before Christmas) is Teeny (voiced by Marian Jordan, who also played Molly) giving a rendition of Twas the Night Before Christmas with the Kingsmen.
During all his years on radio, whether he was creating Jello Holiday Desserts or wrapping carton of Lucky Strikes to place under the tree, Jack Benny knew what was important at Christmas: parties and shopping! Jack always had plenty of help from his gang at his Christmas parties, even when he had Rochester splurge for a whole box of crackers, but his real troubles came at the department store. It takes a delicate balance to find the perfect present and not spend too much money on it.
Some radio shows did take time to spread a more spiritual message. Andy takes a job as a department store Santa on Amos ‘n’ Andy so that he can buy his daughter Ardabella a special doll, but the highlight is when he explains the Lord’s Prayer to the child as only Andy could tell it. The Lord’s Prayer bit became a tradition on the show for years.
Of course, there were plenty of Christmas traditions in OTR, from Bing Crosby’s annual rendition of “Adeste Fideles” to Lionel Barrymore playing Scrooge from the Christmas Carol. Perhaps tradition is the most important part of the Christmas season, because it reminds us that the world is still a good place to live.
“TUM de Dumdum, Tum de Dum Dum DUMMM!” Christmas is found on the mean streets of Los Angeles. One of the saddest possible Christmas stories is Dragnet‘s “Twenty Two Rifle for Christmas.” The story about an unsupervised boy whose friend is killed with his Christmas present, then hides the body is enough to do more for a holiday depression than credit card bills. “Twenty Two Rifle” became a Dragnet tradition and was broadcast for three years until the writers decided it wasn’t uplifting enough for the joyous season.
The old mission church, the oldest in Los Angeles, is attended mostly by the poor Mexican families in the area. Several years ago the parishioners took a collection and purchased a nativity scene that had been displayed in the church every year. The Baby Jesus from the display is missing on December 24th. Father Rojas explains to Sgt. Friday and his partner Frank Smith that the baby Jesus is the only one that many of the people had ever known. With less than twenty four hours before the first Christmas mass, Friday doesn’t hold much hope they will find the thief, but he does his best. Other cases are unfolding, but this is important to Friday. They interview the altar boys, and check out the local religious supply stores with little success. They do find a suspect, but his alibi that he is preparing for a Christmas program for down-and-outers checks out. Finally the detectives are forced to tell the Father that they cannot find the statue in time for the Christmas mass, but they will continue through the following week.
As they are speaking to the padre, the doors to the church open, and a young boy pulling a shiny red wagon comes in. Riding in the wagon is the baby Jesus. Young Paquito Mendoza haltingly explains to the Father in Spanish that for years he has prayed for a red wagon for Christmas. This year in his prayers he has promised that if he gets his wagon, he will take Baby Jesus for the first ride. As the statue is lovingly replaced Father Rojas explains that the local firemen refurbish toys for poor children, and that is where Paquito’s wagon has come from. The Padre says that Paquito’s family is very poor. There is not a dry eye around the radio when Sgt. Friday asks “Are they Father?”
Both of these Christmas Radio Shows would be adapted for the small screen when Dragnet came to TV, with “The Big Little Jesus” done in two different versions; first in 1953, then remade using the same script in 1967 as “The Christmas Story.”
On Christmas Eve 1946 becomes special; it is one of the few times the show is broadcast on Christmas Eve. Teeny, the young girl that Marian plays in addition to Molly has convinced Fibberto fix some broken toys for less fortunate children. Of course toys that are broken become toys that are destroyed when Fibber tries to fix them! To be sure the kids have a good Christmas Fibber spends all of the McGee’s Christmas money on new toys. Teeny, with the help of the King’s Men finishes the show with a lovely rendition of Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas. Enjoy the following Christmas Radio Show:
In Christmas Radio Show episode from 1941, Fibber is determined not to spend money on a Christmas tree, so on Dec 16 he goes into the woods to cut his own. Of course it turns out that he avoids spending a couple dollars on a tree by losing his watch and hatchet in the snow, plus having to fix the tire on the family car! At this time America has been fighting WWII for less than two weeks, and the changes the war brings is on everyone’s mind.
The Great Gildersleeve was one of the first households in broadcasting to feature a nontraditional family- two children being raised by an uncle with no father of mother. This doesn’t make Christmas any less special.
Christmas Day, 1946 would fall on a Wednesday, the night The Great Gildersleeve was broadcast. And it is going to be a wonderful traditional family Christmas, Except that Gildy has convinced himself that the Bullard’s across the street are having marital problems. Worse, Leroy’s friend Craig Bullard will be forced to spend the holiday alone. Of course Gildersleeve would never spread rumors unless he was absolutely sure, would he?
The 1948 season is special with the addition of the “Mystery Baby” plot arc. Christmas that year is going to be extra special with a baby in the house. The Christmas season begins with a mystery as Christmas presents and other treasures begin to disappear from the house. There is fright and confusion, even the Summerfield police department becomes involved. Everyone including Leroy (Walter Tetley) and Bea Benaderet has forgotten that there is a curious baby in the house…
Two week later the family is happily making preparations for the baby’s first Christmas Eve. That is when Judge Hooker presents the baby’s missing father. There won’t be a dry eye around the radio as we hear Gildersleeve say good bye to the Baby that has brought so much joy to his world.
Christmas memories are full of chestnuts and open fires, snowy scenes and jingle bells. But Christmas Radio Shows turns up in some unexpected places.
The Old West seems a strange place to find Christmas , but of course it is there. In The Six Shooter, the angular and long legged drifter, Britt Ponsett, spends a chilly winter morning telling a run-away orphan boy the story of “Old Eben,” a miserly land baron whose eyes are opened to the wonders of the season by a visit from a Christmas Ghost. Even if it isn’t George Bailey, the sound of Jimmy Stewart’s voice at Christmas is somehow just right. This retelling of A Christmas Carol is unexpected, being set on the frontier, but hearts are warmed just the same when Old Eben tells his ranch hand Bob Cratchet to tear down his drafty cabin and to build a proper ranch house for his family. The transcribed story was written by Frank Burt, “in collaboration with… Charles Dickens.”
During the first season of The Great Gildersleeve the 15th episode would occur on Dec 7, 1941, the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. That year would also have the excitement of Gildy’s first Christmas in a new home. The years in Wistful Vista won’t be forgotten. As Gildersleeve is preparing to send Fibber a cheap present that he found in the discount bin, a large and mysterious package arrives from Wistful Vista marked “Do Not Open Until Christmas, signed Fibber McGee.” Now embarrassed by the small gift he was going to send, Gildy hurries to find a better gift for Fibber. Soon Judge Hooker hears about the new present and thinks it is for him. A series of “Gift Inflation” occurs with hilarity until Fibber‘s package is opened to reveal the old lawn mower Fibber had borrowed from Gildy months ago.
In 1945 Gildersleeve is determined that there will be a “Traditional Family Christmas” at home, but the kids have other ideas. Eventually Gildy has his sweet family Christmas, but not until there is a great deal of confusion and “Gift Inflation.” And we can’t forget adventures involving Mrs. Ransom and the mistletoe! Walter Tetley also appears as the lovable Leroy.
Today we continue our trip down Christmas Radio Shows Nostaliga Lane with our favorite old time radio comedy, Fibber McGee and Molly: On Dec 24, 1940 there is confusion in the McGee household when they receive a package addressed to Gildy, an expensive radio/phonograph combo. Of course Fibber breaks the expensive gadget, and the McGee’s desperately try to replace it before Gildy finds out, only to discover that it is Gildersleeve’s present to them.
Any radio sitcom that lasts more than one season is likely going to do a Christmas Radio Shows. I think it may be an FCC rule. It is fun to think about, especially for pre-recorded TV Sitcoms that are probably shot the previous summer.
The Grand daddy of all radio sitcoms, Fibber McGee and Molly had many wonderful Christmas Radio Shows over their 24 year run. Many shows seem to be OK with just one nod to the holidays every season, but Fibber McGee and Molly had many years where they had a Christmas themed radio show most weeks in December. Whether this is because stars Jim and Marian Jordan were an actual couple raising kids who would have wanted more Christmas cheer, or if writer Don Quinn was just a big kid at heart is purely up for guess. Maybe Harlow Wilcox and the Johnson Wax company had a Santa Complex.
On Dec 10, 1940, Fibber McGee and Molly try to mail their Christmas packages, not only do they have to deal with long lines at the post office, but Fibber is talked into mailing Gildersleeve’s packages as well. Then they find out Fibber has stood them in the wrong line at the post office!