Thursday, December 26, 2002
Christmas in Televisionland
By ROGER M. GRACE
It was on Dec. 8, 1946, that a running gag on the Jack Benny radio show began.
On his annual trip to a department store to do his Christmas shopping, the cheapskate Benny buys announcer Don Wilson a pair of metal tipped shoe laces. The sales clerk, portrayed by Mel Blanc, wraps them. Later, Benny ponders whether plastic-tipped laces might be more modern. The clerk is mildly annoyed when Benny asks him to unwrap the first pair and to gift wrap a pair of plastic-tip laces. He’s downright irked when Benny returns yet again, having developed a concern the plastic tips might crack. By the sixth time, the clerk is going bonkers.
The following week, on Dec. 15, Benny learns from Wilson’s wife that her husband already has a pair of metal-tipped shoe laces, and he goes back to the store to exchange the gift yet again.
In Dec. 21, 1947, Blanc was again cast as the harried salesman, this time going nuts as he recounts the shoe lace fiasco from the year before. The gag continued on Dec. 19, 1948, with Benny buying a wallet for Don Wilson, equivocating as to his purchase, Blanc wrapping and unwrapping boxes, and becoming increasingly agitated. So it went through the years.
On radio, the final Christmas shopping episode was broadcast Dec. 5, 1954. The show starts with Blanc, as the salesman, having a nightmare: Benny returning to buy some merchandise. That year, Benny weighs, back and forth, the purchase for Wilson of some paints. Is it to be acrylics, oil, or watercolor?
Benny’s indecisive Christmas shopping continued on television in shows aired on Dec. 12, 1954, Dec. 15, 1957, Dec. 28, 1958, and Dec. 18, 1960.
In the 1960 edition, the salesman, portrayed by Blanc, becomes so exasperated that he goes in back and blows his brains out. Benny, nonplussed, remarks: “Gee, it’s a shame. Such a nice young fellow.” He then walks out, cheerily singing “Jingle Bells” in unison with Rochester. Not funny.
To end this running gag of 14 years’ duration by causing the salesman to commit suicide, with the person whose unreasonableness precipitated that act waltzing off in happy spirits, was a stroke of stupidity.
There are, however, cassettes, available for purchase, and downloadable files in MP3 format on the Internet, featuring those hilarious radio shows with the incomparable Benny and the talented Blanc in the Christmas shopping sketches.
One of the most heartwarming yuletide shows on radio was the perennial Amos ’n’ Andy Christmas show.
Yes, yes, by today’s standards, it would be politically incorrect, in the extreme, for two white men to go on radio imitating ill-educated blacks who employ such phrases as “I is.” But there was a time when Amos ’n’ Andy was the nation’s most popular program, was devoid of controversy, and was enjoyed by persons of all races.
Indeed, the Amos ’n’ Andy Christmas show was probably aired more times and heard by more listeners than any other written-for-radio program.
The Christmas show was delightful on radio, and was no less so on television. It was broadcast on CBS television on Dec. 19, 1954. The creators of the show, who were the voices of the characters on radio, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, introduce the show, which Gosden notes “has always been very near and dear to our hearts.”
As the scene opens, Andy (Spencer Williams Jr.) is taking his goddaughter, Arbadella (Amos’ daughter, played by Patti Marie Ellis), window shopping. She sees a black doll, and her eyes become transfixed on it. This dialogue ensues:
ANDY: “Yeah, that sure is a pretty doll, Arbadella.”
ARBADELLA: “Yes, that’s the one I wrote and asked Santa Claus to bring me—but Daddy said I wrote the letter too late. You see, I wrote it two days ago.”
ANDY: “Yeah, well that ain’t giving Santa Claus much time. You gotta write him before that.”
ARBADELLA: “Isn’t she pretty, though, Uncle Andy? Daddy says that next Christmas Santa Claus will bring it to me.”
ANDY: “Oh, sure. You see, that will give him more time.”
They start to leave, but Arbadella asks Andy to let her look at the doll once more. She mentions that it is a talking doll, and he confirms, “Yeah, they’re the best ones, all right.” The child remarks: “[W]hen Santa Claus brings her to me next year, I’m going to make a whole lot more pretty dresses, pink ones. I can hardly wait ’til next Christmas.”
The impecunious Andy is determined to buy that doll. He gets a job as a “Santa’s helper” in the department store, with one tot after another jumping on his knee—including one junior hood—each setting forth requests for presents. By the end of the day, Andy is exhausted. The store manager hands him his recompense: the talking doll.
That night, Christmas Eve, he gives the package containing the doll to Amos and his wife, Ruby, asking them to tell Arbadella it came from Santa Claus.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company
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