Thursday, December 19, 2002
Christmas Shows: TV Borrows From Radio
By ROGER M. GRACE
Television Christmas shows were different in the early 1950s.
A major difference was that it was common for the announcer or the stars to extend yuletide greetings from the sponsor, and advise that there would be no commercials that day. Nowadays, of course, a show does not have a single sponsor—and the forfeiting of a pitch at the most commercial time of the year would be contemplated by none.
There were live shows, then, and last-minute changes. I remember when a live, one-hour version of “A Christmas Carol” was broadcast, as scheduled; then, contrary to what the TV logs listed— surprise!—a half-hour version of the show that had just aired was presented.
On radio, a Christmas episode, once scripted, was apt to be performed anew, year after year, with variations. Television, however, quickly turned to film. A TV Christmas show, preserved on celluloid, was likely to be re-aired during some future yuletide season, but there were not fresh renderings of a series’ traditional program.
“Dragnet” had an annual Christmas show on radio which first aired Dec. 22, 1949, and was repeated in the three years immediately following and in 1955 and 1956. Titled “.22 Rifle for Christmas,” it was the tale of a boy’s death while playing with a young friend who had a rifle. The father of the slain boy, Stevie, marches to the house of the neighbors whose boy accidentally shot his son. He tells the boy that he wants him to have the Christmas gifts that had been intended for Stevie.
The show was transported to television on Dec. 18, 1952. It was, overall, depressing, and is probably a little remembered episode.
Much remembered, on the other hand, is the heartwarming program, written by Richard L. Breen, dubbed “Big Little Jesus,” which was first aired Dec. 22, 1953 on radio, and two days later on television. Both versions starred Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday and Ben Alexander as Officer Frank Smith. That 1953 TV show appeared on NBC in its black-and-white days, and was re-made as “The Christmas Story” when “Dragnet” was reprised as a series in color. The later episode—with Harry Morgan as Officer Bill Gannon, Friday’s new partner—was aired Dec. 21, 1967.
On each of the three versions, Father Rojas contacts the LAPD to report the theft of a long-displayed likeness of the baby Jesus from a nativity scene that about to go on display at his church—stressing that parishioners would not understand if a different representation were to be used.
In the 1967 version, Friday explains, in a voice-over, that the nativity scene has a commercial value of $70, that the “parishioners had taken up a collection for it 31 years ago,” and that it went on display every year on Dec. 22. Friday says of the display:
“It was beautiful, except that one of the wise men had a chipped face, and a donkey was old and cracked—and the infant Jesus was missing.”
A classic line comes after the priest acknowledges that the church is unlocked at night. Friday asks, incredulously, “You leave the church open all night so that any thief can get in?” and Rojas responds: “Especially thieves.”
Each version features Friday and his partner scurrying around, chasing down clues, but, in the end, coming to tell the priest they had failed to recover the statue. As they address Father Rojas, a small boy enters the church, coming up the aisle pulling a wagon. In it is the purloined statue.
Father Rojas speaks to the youth in Spanish, then tells the officers that the boy had prayed for a red wagon. “He promised that if he got the red wagon,” the priest relates, “that the child Jesus would have the first ride in it.”
Jack Benny’s first Christmas show on radio was aired Thursday, Dec. 22, 1932, on CBS (over 27 stations). It featured Benny doing his Christmas shopping, a theme utilized by the writers often in ensuing years on radio, and then on television. Benny would run into cast members, also shopping—just as he would run into them each year on the Easter show, when folks strolled along Wilshire Boulevard.
Shopping in a department store was the theme of Benny’s show on Dec. 15, 1935, by then heard on the NBC Blue network (over 62 stations). The theme was used again Dec. 12, 1937 by which time Benny had graduated to the NBC Red network (on 76 stations). That setting was utilized in a show nearly every December for the balance of the series’ run on NBC, and each year after its return to CBS, from 1949-54.
In 1946, a standing gag was concocted, used on future Christmas shopping shows. The theme was imported to television, but the last minute of the final installment was anything but funny.
More about that, as well as the memorable Amos ’n’ Andy Christmas shows on radio and television, next week.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company
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