On the threshold: Old-time radio listening, 24 December

Yuletide without Barrymore? Bah! Humbug! (Photo: CBS.)

For all who celebrate, and for anyone sorely in need of extra cheer this and any such season, today’s offerings are dedicated.

Columbia Workshop: The Plot to Overthrow Christmas (CBS, 24 December 1942)

Set in hell, delivered in verse (some of it, admittedly, is a little on the awkward side but the archness of the delivery and the quality of the bulk makes up for it), some of history’s most notorious villains to that point convene to plan Christmas’s demise—as soon as they can quell this little, ahem, family squabble. (Sit down, Haman—for I am Ivan the Terrible! Brother Ivan is a demagogue/with the brain like a fly and the manners of a hog.)

Also in on the plot: Lucrezia Borgia, Caligula, Medusa, and Nero, among others. I’ll tell you only that Caligula has visions of men hanging from Christmas trees and let you take it from there, Nero’s a little snippy (“Today I note with a bitter shrug/They’ve made Scheherezade a jitterbug”), and the ayes have it for Dame Borgia’s idea . . . or do they?

First performed on Norman Corwin, Words Without Music in 1938, this version does not include Will Geer’s original performance as the devil, and that edition is worth seeking out for Geer’s understated performance, but Martin Gabel (Neil in Easy Aces, among other roles) will not disappoint you. You may or may not necessarily miss House Jameson’s (The Aldrich Family) original performance as Santa, but you won’t be disappointed by future Perry Mason co-star Ray Collins in the role, either.

Corwin made his bones with the original production and reaffirmed them with the repeat. It’s as clever a way for you to launch a Christmas Eve’s old-time radio listening as you can find.

Nero: Eric Burroughs. Additional cast: Unidentified, but likely including Orson Welles. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Writer/director: Norman Corwin.

 

TWO JEWELS FROM TWO JEWELS . . .

The Bickersons: Christmas Eve (NBC, unknown)

The original air date is actually unknown. But this is one Christmas Eve setting that probably should have aired on Christmas Eve itself. And it only begins with this installment’s being the likely inspiration—derived likewise from “The Gift of the Magi”—for the classic Honeymooners [the Original 39] episode about Ralph having to hock his brand-new bowling ball to buy Alice the Christmas present for which he forgot (as usual) to sock a few sawbucks away, and to retrieve his jaw from the floor when he saw what she got him . . .

Here, however, it’s weary husband John (Don Ameche) snoring on the ladder while trimming the tree. It’s shrewish wife Blanche (Frances Langford) snorting him awake and into one of their usual arguments, from John’s daily bag (and gag) lunch to his reputedly forgotten Christmas card (he didn’t forget, by the way—but you’ll have to listen to learn where it turned up), the bill money spent on presents.

And, especially, it’s bourbon-loving John and highfalutin’ shrew Blanche ending by opening their presents just past midnight—and discovering just what each sold (hint: what the other could have used with their gifts) to buy each other their presents, provoking a surprising spell of sentiment from old-time radio’s grandparents to Married . . . with Children.

Which puts the lie, for a little while, anyway, to The Bickersons amounting to a one-joke pony who could be tolerated by a sustaining audience only slightly longer than the couple who specialised in domestic blitz could tolerate each other. Even if their creator swore he got the inspiration for both the characters and most of their incendiary squabbles from his own parents’ contentious marriage.

Perhaps it was that very contentiousness that enabled John and Blanche to deliver the finish with neither saccharine nor superficiality. If so, it’s no wonder Jackie Gleason (who wasn’t exactly apologetic over his raids through the radio archives for material of his own, anyway) might have wanted to graft a little of their kind of Christmas cheer.

Writer/director: Philip Rapp.

The Big Show: Christmas Eve Program (NBC, 1950)

This installment kicks off with a slight variation on the standard introduction that simply had to be a grabber from the outset.

TALLULAH BANKHEAD: To the men and women in service all over the world on this Christmas Eve, through the cooperation of the Associated Services of the Armed Forces, you are about to be entertained by some of the biggest names in show business. For the next hour and thirty minutes, this program will present in person such bright stars as . . .

As custom on this last-gasp, big-bucks variety offering, the stars introduced themselves: Jimmy Durante. Bert Lahr. Robert Merrill. Margaret O’Brien. Edith Piaf. Fran Warren. Ed Wynn. And, music director Meredith Willson. And, following that soaring theme music around and behind Ed Herlihy’s introduction, back comes Madame Tallulah.

BANKHEAD: A safe and Merry Christmas, darlings, to all our Armed Forces, wherever you may be. And to you here at home, I hope all your stockings are hung, and that you find in them all the things you wished for. I know what I’m going to find in mine—a run! I always do on this show!

But when I heard that one of our guests today would be Margaret O’Brien, I decided to make it my business to see that this child has a Merry Christmas away from her home. After all, it’s only been a few years since I was a child, heh heh heh. (Laughter.) Those darling writers—they’ll stop at nothing for a Christmas present. And that’s exactly what they’re getting.

But to make sure little Margaret has a wonderful Christmas, I invited three of the theater’s greatest clowns—Jimmy Durante, Bert Lahr, and Ed Wynn.

JIMMY DURANTE, BERT LAHR, and ED WYNN (in unison): Hello, Tallulah! (Applause.)

BANKHEAD: Hello Ed, Jimmy, Bert. Hello Bert, Ed, Jimmy. Hello Jimmy, Bert, Ed. Well, now that I’ve given you all equal billing, we can get down to our problem. We’ve got to arrange a wonderful Christmas party for this little girl. Anybody have an idea what to give her?

LAHR: I’ve got an idea, Tallulah.

BANKHEAD: Uh, huh.

LAHR: Something that’s very popular this time of the year.

BANKHEAD: Oh, really, darling? What is it, Bert?

LAHR: How about givin’ her a Christmas present?

BANKHEAD (lowers voice smugly): Uh, now, isn’t that brilliant?

From there the foursome swaps gags about Christmas bed jackets, horses, and John Dillinger, before Lahr reprises “If I Was The King of the Forest” from The Wizard of Oz (with a little help from O’Brien, of course); before Durante suggests a toy-spangled Christmas tree and finds a way to sing “Isn’t It A Shame That Christmas Comes But Once A Year”; before Wynn and company try to prove Santa Claus; and, before some stunning music from Warren (“Look to the Rainbow”), Metropolitan Opera star Merrill (“O Holy Night”) and the tragic French chanteuse Piaf. (A beautiful “Autumn Leaves.”)

There is also a gentle message from Army Gen. Jonathan Wainwright at Camp Breckinridge (Kentucky). The message could be deployed in 2012 without losing a beat or a drop of relevance. And I didn’t even stop to mention the soaring, caroling almost-finale. But I’m leaving you to hear it for yourself.

Music: Meredith Willson, the Big Show Orchestra and Chorus. Writers: Goodman Ace, George Foster, Mort Greene, Frank Wilson.

 

AND, FURTHER CHRISTMAS EVE CHANNEL SURFING . . .

Comedy

Fibber McGee & Molly: Gildy’s Radio Phonograph (NBC, 1940)—Gildersleeve’s (Harold Peary) new radio-phonograph combine is delivered—to the McGees’ (Jim and Marian Jordan), by mistake, but they get a bigger shock when they plug it in and play it. Doc: Arthur Q. Bryan. The Old-Timer: Bill Thompson. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra. Writer: Don Quinn.

The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny: Trimming a Tree (NBC, 1944)—Jack (Benny) and Mary (Livingstone) finish trimming Jack’s tree . . . and the first results come as quite a shock to the pregnant pausing, electricity-challenged miser. Additional cast: Eddie Anderson, Phil Harris, Larry Stevens. Announcer: Don Wilson.  Music: Phil Harris Orchestra, Larry Stevens. Writers: George Balzar, Milt Josefsberg, Sam Perrin, John Tackaberry.

The Old Gold Comedy Theater: Bachelor Mother (NBC, 1944)—Brenda Marshall and Louis Hayward step into the Ginger Rogers and David Niven roles, from the 1939 film about a department store clerk (Marshall) selling ducks until she’s canned the day before Christmas for obscure reasons—and getting a shock on her doorstep that leads to a few odd events and her re-hiring. Additional cast: Unknown. Director: Harold Lloyd. Adapted from the screenplay by Norman Krasna, based on a story by Felix Jackson.

The Mel Blanc Show: Mel Plays Santa Claus (NBC, 1946)—’Tis the threshold of the night before Christmas, and Mel (Blanc, who also plays Zookie) scurries to get Betty (Mary Jane Croft) a Christmas gift, while being surprised she’s invited him to the party thrown by her usually hostile father Colby (Joseph Kearns)—and even more surprised to find himself playing Santa for a friend’s little boy. Mrs. Bradley: Bea Benaderet. Additional cast: Hans Conreid, possibly Earle Ross. Announcer: Bud Hiestand. Music: Victor Miller, the Sports Men. Director: Joe Rines. Writer: Mac Benoff.

The Life of Riley: Christmas Bonuses from Mr. Stevenson (NBC, 1948)—Riley (William Bendix) realises funds are low for Christmas gifts until he remembers the plant’s coming Christmas bonuses—which may or may not prove a revoltin’ development, when he hears a rumour the bonuses may be cancelled. Peg: Paula Winslowe. Gillis/Digger: John Brown. Additional cast: Unidentified. Announcer: Ken Carpenter. Music: Lou Kosloff. Director: Don Bernard. Writers: Alan Lipscott, Reuben Shipp.

Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: One Fella’s Family—Merry Christmas, One and All (No coaching from the audience, please, 1959)—From Book Eye Ex, Chapter Eye Eye, Pages Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen, and the bottom of Page Seventeen. The usual deft improvisation. Writers: Bob Elliot, Ray Goulding.

 

Crime Drama

Broadway is My Beat: Nick Norman and Santa Claus (CBS, 1949)—Clover (Larry Thor) needs to help find a Santa Claus for a Police Athletic League chapter until Tartaglia (Charles Calvert) provides one—ex-con Nick Norman (Gil Stratton, Jr.), who played Santa in the slammer for over a decade after his imprisonment for safecracking, and is doing it on his first day of freedom, which makes Clover a little nervous when Norman has time to kill until his PAL appearance . . . and seems to disappear even with Tartaglia in tow. Additional cast: Howard McNear, Hal March, Bert Holland, Kep Menkin, Estelle Dodd, Peggy Webber. Announcer: Joe Walters. Music: Alexander Courage. Director: Elliott Lewis. Writers: Morton Fine, David Friedkin.

Richard Diamond, Private Detective: A Christmas Carol (NBC, 1949)—The jaunty detective (Dick Powell) casts his own usual suspects—most of whom are the police with whom he normally works and/or fences—into an analogic interpretation of the Dickens classic. We’re dead certain, all things considered regarding Mr. Diamond, that there was no intent to paint police as miserly or crotchety (ho ho ho), though we’re comparably certain this is one of the funniest imaginings of “A Christmas Carol” of them all. Levinson: Ed Begley. Helen: Virginia Gregg. Otis: Wilms Herbert. Announcer: Eddie King. Music: David Baskerville. Director: William P. Rousseau. Writer: Blake Edwards.

The Whistler: The Three Wise Guys (CBS, 1950)—Damon Runyon’s tale gets a whistling twist: At Good Time Charlie’s bar on Christmas Eve, the barkeep (Bill Forman) listens to a man named Al (John Brown) professing he’s gone straight at last, crediting a previous year’s Christmas Eve encounter in this very establishment for provoking him to give up his hustle. Additional cast: Marvin Miller, Jack Moyles. Announcer: Marvin Miller. The Whistler: Bill Forman. Music: Wilbur Hatch. (Whistling: Dorothy Roberts.) Director: George W. Allen. Writer: Kathleen Hite, adapting the Damon Runyon story.

 

Drama/Dramatic Anthology

Mayor of the Town: A Christmas Carol (CBS, 1942)—Series star Lionel Barrymore is so familiar even now for his portrayal of Scrooge in the Dickens classic that, naturally, this gentle wartime drama will find some way to get him to do it again. And they do it by way of turning over the town theater for the annual Dickens performance. Well, it isn’t exactly Christmas time without Barrymore, whether as Scrooge or in It’s a Wonderful Life in due course, is it? Additional cast: Unidentified, but possibly including Will Wright, Agnes Moorehead, Conrad Binyon. Announcer: Unidentified. Music: Possibly Gordon Jenkins. Director: Jack Van Nostrand. Writers: Unidentified; adapted from the story by Charles Dickens.

Romance: Richer By One Christmas (CBS, 1955)—Virginia Gregg stars as a woman recalling earlier family Christmases while trying now to adjust to her slightly disillusioned young son’s mixed holiday feelings and her sister’s inability to continue coping with the care of their increasingly weakening mother—but still remembering perfect Christmases despite the hardships of the Great Depression. Additional cast: Vic Perrin, Richard Beals, Beverly Hanley, Ann Morrison, Ralph Moody. Announcer: Dan Cubberly. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Sound: Bill James. Director: Antony Ellis. Writer: Sylvia Richards. 

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