One or another way, Christmas Eve broadcasts over classic (1927-62) network radio will survive to be heard by generations who weren’t alive when radio was the world’s primary conductor of home entertainment. These can be considered some of the finest gifts the era bequeathed, even unto generations jaded enough by video and cinematic excess and ubiquity that you fear their inability to appreciate what one radio show’s customary introduction called “the theater of the mind.”
The offerings range from the sublime to the ridiculous and back to the absurd and the playful, perhaps none embracing elements of all four at once quite the way tonight’s Columbia Workshop entry does. First performed on Norman Corwin, Words Without Music in 1938, “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas” has an arch delivery and a cumulative quality that makes the awkwardness of several passages—it’s delivered in verse and you can sense a few stumbles now and then—more than bearable.
It’s set in hell, where some of history’s most notorious villains (pending the resolution of World War II and the death of its primary protagonists, of course) convene to plan Christmas’s demise, so long as they can settle a little, ahem, family squabble. “They,” in this case, include Haman, Ivan the Terrible, Lucrezia Borgia, Caligula, Medusa, and Nero, a formidable family of foul balls in their own right, but it is to wonder what Corwin might have done had he been able to add Hitler, Stalin, and Tojo to the cast.
If you had the pleasure of hearing the original you may miss Will Geer as the devil, but Martin Gabel (who played among others newspaper reporter Neil Williams on the impeccable serial comedy Easy Aces) won’t disappoint. And, while you may or may not miss House Jameson’s (The Aldrich Family) original Santa Claus, you won’t feel discomfited by future Perry Mason costar Ray Collins in the role.
For now, I’ll say only that Caligula has visions of men hanging from Christmas trees, Nero’s (Eric Burroughs) a little snippy (Today I note with a bitter shrug/They’ve made Scheherezade a jitterbug, he laments—no wonder Rome didn’t stand a chance), and the ayes have it for Dame Borgia’s idea . . . or, do they?
Corwin, for his part, really made his bones with the original Words Without Music production but reaffirmed them with this engaging retooling. It’s as clever a way for you to launch a Christmas Eve of radio listening as you might find.
Additional cast: Unidentified, but likely including Orson Welles. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Writer/director: Norman Corwin.
CHRISTMAS EVE JEWELS—CONTINUED:
Mayor of the Town: A Christmas Carol (drama; CBS, 1942)—Time was when it wasn’t Christmas without Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge in one way or another. To many who’ve passed it on to their children and grandchildren it still isn’t. But don’t be grumpy just because this one’s set amidst his periodically charming period piece series, as the town decides to produce a version of the Dickens vintage. Marilly: Agnes Moorehead. Additional cast: Unidentified, but possibly including Will Wright, Conrad Binyan. Announcer: Unidentified. Music: Possibly Gordon Jenkins. Director: Jack Van Nostrand. Writers: Unidentified.
The Great Gildersleeve: Christmas Eve Program (comedy; NBC, 1944)—A possible lawsuit resulting from a failed matchmaking bid for Hooker (Earle Ross) leaves Gildersleeve (Harold Peary) in a yuletide funk, until news from Hooker prompts him to play eleventh-hour Santa . . . and read “T’was the Night Before Christmas.” Gently charming. Leroy: Walter Tetley. Marjorie: Louise Erickson. Birdie: Lillian Randolph. Leila: Shirley Mitchell. Floyd: Arthur Q. Bryan. Peavey: Richard LeGrand. Eve: Bea Benaderet. Announcer: Ken Carpenter. Music: Claude Sweetin. Writers: John Whedon, Sam Moore.
The Bickersons: Christmas Eve (NBC, unknown)—Weary husband John (Don Ameche) and shrewish wife Blanche (Frances Langford) get into one of their usual exercises in nocturnal domestic blitz until they open their presents just past midnight . . . and discover just what each sold to buy each other the gifts. Hint: something each could have used with their gifts. Yep: The Honeymooners eventually lift this one almost whole for the classic Original 39 Christmas episode. Yep, again: both derive from “The Gift of the Magi.” Writer/director: Philip Rapp.
Broadway is My Beat: Nick Norman and Santa Claus (crime drama; CBS, 1949)—Det. Clover (Larry Thor) needs to help find a Santa Claus for a Police Athletic League chapter until Sgt. Tartaglia (Charles Calvert) provides one—an ex-con (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—making Clover nervous when he has time to kill before the gig. 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: Another Christmas Carol (crime drama; NBC, 1949)—The jaunty gumshoe (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. (Yes—that Blake Edwards.)
The Big Show: Christmas Eve Program (NBC, 1950)—Jimmy Durante, Bert Lahr, Ed Wynn, and host Tallulah Bankhead swap gags about Christmas bed jackets, horses, and John Dillinger, while pondering a gift for guest Margaret O’Brien. Also: O’Brien helps Lahr reprise “If I Was King of the Forest” (from The Wizard of Oz); 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”; Wynn and company try to prove Santa Claus; and, some stunning music from Fran Warren (“Look to the Rainbow”), Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill (“O Holy Night”) and the tragic French chanteuse Edith Piaf. (A beautiful “Autumn Leaves.”) Announcer: Ed Herlihy. Music: Meredith Willson, the Big Show Orchestra and Chorus. Writers: Goodman Ace, George Foster, Mort Greene, Frank Wilson.
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Annual Christmas Show (comedy; NBC, 1950)—Alice (Faye) needles Phil (Harris) about his Christmas storytelling; the girls (Jeanine Roos, Anne Whitfield) want to stay up to see Santa, and Daddy gives in (as usual) . . . with no clue who he’s going to con into playing the jolly one. So it recycles a few choice bits from previous Christmas shows? Who cares when it’s this much fun. Santa: Andy Devine. Remley: Elliott Lewis. Willie: Robert North. Announcer: Bill Forman. Music: Walter Scharf/Phil Harris Orchestra. Director: Paul Phillips. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.
Further Christmas Eve Channel Surfing:
Fibber McGee & Molly: Gildy’s Radio Phonograph (comedy; NBC, 1940)
The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny: Trimming a Tree (comedy; NBC, 1944)
The Old Gold Comedy Theater: Bachelor Mother (dramatic anthology; NBC, 1944)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fixing Broken Toys for Needy Children (comedy; NBC, 1946)
The Mel Blanc Show: Mel Plays Santa Claus (comedy; NBC, 1946)
The Life of Riley: Christmas Bonuses from Mr. Stevenson (comedy; NBC, 1948)
The Whistler: The Three Wise Guys (crime drama; CBS, 1950)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Laura, the Lopsided Pine Tree (comedy; NBC, 1953)
Romance: Richer By One Christmas (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1955)
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: One Fella’s Family—Merry Christmas, One and All (improvisational comedy; no coaching from the audience, please, 1959)