CHRISTMAS IN THE AIR
Radio listeners during much of Network Radio’s Golden Age could count on hearing a number of broadcasts every December as Christmas neared. We’ve posted a few of them for your holiday enjoyment.
The longest running of all was Lionel Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Barrymore’s adaptation was first heard on The CBS Christmas Party, an all-star holiday show lasting nearly three hours on December 25, 1934. A Christmas Carol became a half-hour stand alone CBS presentation on Christmas Day, 1935.
Tragedy stuck on Christmas Eve, 1936, when Barrymore’s wife, actress Irene Fenwick, died of pneumonia. Lionel’s brother John filled in at the last minute when the Dickens presentation became part of Campbell Soups’ Hollywood Hotel on CBS. Lionel resumed the role in 1937 on Hollywood Hotel only to lose it to Orson Welles on the soup company’s Campbell Playhouse of 1938. Barrymore retuned as Scrooge on the Campbell program in 1939 and 1940, then took the role to NBC and Sealtest Dairies’ Vallee Varieties in 1941. .
A Christmas Carol became a six year tradition on Barrymore’s Mayor of The Town series on CBS from 1942 through 1946, then on ABC in 1947. In 1949 the play became part of the two hour CBS Christmas Festival on December 25th in which Barrymore’s play drew top billing over Bing Crosby singing White Christmas and Gene Autry's Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.
Barrymore returned to Mutual - where his Mayor of The Town had been heard from January to July, 1949 - to present special presentations of A Christmas Carol in 1949 and 1950. He returned to CBS for his three final live performances of the Dickens’ play on Hallmark Playhouse of 1951 and 1952 and The Hallmark Hall of Fame on December 21, 1953.
Lionel Barrymore died on November 15, 1954, just a month short of another appearance as Scrooge. But a recording of his 18th and final broadcast of 1953 was broadcast by CBS on Christmas Eve. And recordings of Barrymore’s signature performance have been heard by million ever since. We offer two versions of Barrymore’s classic below - the extended Campbell Playhouse performance from December 24, 1939, and the more familiar half hour taken from an edited Mayor of The Town broadcast on December 24, 1942.
To compare Barrymore's interpretation of Scrooge with that of other famous actors, we've added the Ziv Productions' Favorite Story syndicated version of A Christmas Carol starring Ronald Colman which was first broadcast on December 24, 1946.
Unlike Lionel Barrymore’s Christmas Carol that made the rounds of all four networks, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll’s Christmas show as Amos & Andy was only heard on CBS and NBC. But it was presented in two time frames - as their 15 minute show from 1940 through 1942, and then expanded to their half-hour sitcom format beginning in 1943.
In both forms, the highlight of the program was Gosden, as Amos, explaining the meaning of The Lord’s Prayer to his young daughter Arbadella - a girl’s name of African origin meaning “star”. The daughter’s role is played by Barbara Jean Wong who was a teenager at the time.
The fifteen minute version, from December 24, 1941, has Correll, as Andy, simply visiting his partner’s apartment on Christmas Eve to drop off gifts. When Andy leaves, Amos goes to tuck Arbadella into bed. When she hears The Lord’s Prayer being played on the radio she asks her father to explain it to her. Amos’ response, written by Gosden & Correll, became an instant classic. The quarter hour program sponsored by Campbell Soups was announced by Bill Hay who closes the show in classic network diction - note the rolling “R’s” - with the sponsor’s wish for, “Peace on Earth”
The expanded half hour show, from December 23, 1951, has Andy determined to buy a doll that his godchild Arbadella wants for Christmas and takes a job as a department store Santa to earn it. That hilarious sequence sets up Andy’s visit to the Jones family’s apartment and the Lord’s Prayer exchange between Amos and Arbadella. The closing message on this half hour version has Freeman Gosden, in his natural voice, extending Christmas wishes.
Second only to A Christmas Carol for its number of holiday season repeat broadcasts was the half hour First Nighter drama titled Little Town of Bethlehem which was performed eleven times over during the show’s 18 season run on all four networks. The episode debuted on December 22, 1933, featuring Don Ameche and June Meredith. Posted below is the eighth performance of the show from December 22, 1945, with Barbara Luddy and Olan Soule.
Fibber McGee & Molly gave their annual Christmas gift to listeners beginning on December 22, 1942, when Marian Jordan as the little girl Teeny, The King’s Men quartet and Billy Mills’ orchestra introduced their six minute version of Clement C. Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas aka The Night Before Christmas. (1) The version from December 19, 1944, is posted. It concluded the episode featuring FM&M regulars Shirley Mitchell as their pretty boarder, Alice Darling, Arthur Q. Bryan as Fibber’s foil, Doctor George Gamble, Marlin Hurt as the the McGee’s cook, Beulah, and the ever present Harlow Wilcox popping in for his mid-show Johnson Wax commercial.
Five nights later, December 24, 1944, Jack Benny presented his Christmas Eve show with guest Andy Divine. This AFRS recording of the broadcast concludes with Benny offering a toast to servicemen and women on World War II battle fronts and a medley of familiar carols by vocalist Larry Stevens.
Always one to go against the traditional grain and set new broadcast standards, Jack Webb presented a tragic side of the holiday season with the Dragnet episode, A .22 Rifle For Christmas, which first carried its sobering message to listeners in 1949. Posted below is the third of four performances of the episode from December 20, 1951. Webb changed his approach on December 22, 1953 with The Big Little Jesus. The broadcast provides more evidence of Webb’s creative skills and was repeated by NBC over the next three Christmas seasons.
Although a relatively short-lived series on NBC, Screen Diirectors Playhouse paid tribute to the holiday season twice with The Miracle On 34th Street featuring Edmund Gwenn recreating his role as Kris Kringle from the 1947 Twentieth Century Fox modern Christmas classic. (2) The performance posted below from December 21, 1950, was the program’s second airing of the fjlm’s adaptation and expanded to a full hour from a 30 minute version broadcast a year earlier.
Christmas took on a country theme on December 21, 1947, when Gene Autry's Melody Ranch on CBS presented a holiday story led by the cowboy star's million seller, Here Comes Santa Claus.
Lux Radio Theater celebrated Christmas on December 25, 1950, with a holiday gift to its listeners in Judy Garland recreating her 1939 role as Dorothy in its adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, supported by great Hollywood radio actors Hans Conried, Herb Vigran, Eddie Max, Herb Butterfield, Betty Lou Gerson and others.
Even panel and quiz shows caught the Christmas spirit as evidenced by this episode of Mutual's Twenty Questions from December 22, 1951 with a special guest panelist. Another recently added show fudges our rule that Network Radio's Golden Age ended in 1953 - it's the December 23,1956 CBS Radio Workshop broadcast of All Is Bright, a charming story about the composition Silent Night.
Edgar Bergen and his Charlie McCarthy were coming off two seasons with Network Radio's most popular program on this pre-Christmas episode of the Chase & Sanborn Hour from December 17, 1939. Featuring Don Ameche, Dorothy Lamour, comedian Pat Patrick, vocalist Donald Dickson and Robert Armbruster's full orchestra and chorus, the program is an example of top-notch radio variety.
The perennial Christmas favorites from Lionel Barrymore, Amos & Andy, Fibber McGee & Molly, Dragnet and First Nighter lived on in repeat broadcasts after Network Radio’s Golden Age ended. Not so with Command Performance, a star-filled variety hour produced every week from March, 1942, until December, 1949, by Armed Forces Radio Service strictly for the entertainment of American military audiences throughout the world. Civilian listeners were generally unaware of Command Performance’s existence until December 24, 1942, when the four networks and most independent stations cleared 60 minutes at 11:00 p.m. to carry its Christmas program. (3)
Series creator Louis G. Cowan, who routinely corralled top film and radio stars to volunteer their time to appear on Command Performance, outdid himself on the program’s first Christmas performance headlined by Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, (who all had Top Five shows that season), plus Bing Crosby, Fred Allen, Kay Kyser, Ginny Simms, Dinah Shore, The Andrews Sisters, Ethel Waters and Spike Jones. Posted below, it was truly a one time, non-stop Christmas Eve extravaganza.
Then there was Elgin Watch Company’s series of Thanksgiving and Christmas afternoon variety shows that extended from 1942 to 1948. The first dozen shows were broadcast by CBS, the final two in 1948 by NBC and all were hosted by Don Ameche. The Elgin shows and their sky high talent fees were a magnet for major stars from radio, the movies and concert world.
The complete two hour Christmas program from December 25, 1944, is posted and it is truly something special. It features Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Burns & Allen, Ginny Simms, Carmen Miranda, Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, Barbara Jo Allen as Vera Vague, violin virtuoso Joseph Szigeti, Les Paul, The Charioteers and the Lux Radio Theater orchestra directed by Louis Silvers. Although it was Christmas, it was also the time of World War II and listeners were continually reminded that the war wasn’t over - even Elgin’s commercials were geared to its wartime activities.
The program opens with Benny and the comedy continues through the first hour with Burns & Allen. But the show’s stopper begins in the second half with Hope’s monolog at 1 hour, 22 minutes into the broadcast. He’s joined by Crosby at 1:29 and the ten minutes of barbed fun between the two starts at 1:32:15 when they virtually throw out the script supervised by veteran comedy writer Carroll Carroll. And, as might be expected with Bing Crosby on the bill, the two hours concludes with his White Christmas. It’s quite a show and a fitting climax to our Christmas package of Network Radio holiday favorites.
(1) The King’s Men quartet - tenors Jon Dodson and Bud Linn, baritone Rad Robinson and its leader/arranger/bass, Ken Darby, first appeared on Fibber McGee & Molly on February 6, 1940. They remained program regulars for the next 13 years. Darby’s arrangement of The Night Before Christmas with Marian Jordan and The Kings Men became so popular that it was released on disc by Capitol Records in 1945. (See Fibber McGee Minus Molly on this site.)
(2) The movie Miracle on 34th Street was directed by George Seaton, who, (as George Stenius), was briefly radio’s first Lone Ranger on WXYZ/Detroit in 1933 before he pursued a career in films. (See The Lone Ranger on this site.)
(3) This edition of Command Performance was also broadcast to civilian audiences by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the British Broadcasting Corporation. (See Command Performance on this site.)
Copyright © 2016, Jim Ramsburg, Estero FL Email: firstname.lastname@example.org