Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Command Performance Christmas




Command Performance radio broadcast c. 1944 with Jane Russell, Bob Hope and, in background, Major Meredith Willson conducting the AFRS band.



My father, who turned 86 a couple of weeks ago, left high school and enlisted in the Navy just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.   


He was 17.


While he and millions of other young men and women were off to war, entertainers did what they could to maintain their morale and bring them a slice of home.


Hollywood and Broadway literally went to war as well.


Volunteer USO entertainers visited military bases, hospitals, and in some cases, traveled perilously close to the front lines. Other entertainers made morale boosting movies, or entertained the troops via AFRS (Armed Forces Radio Service).


Some did all of those things, and more.


While Bob Hope is almost universally best remembered for his `camp shows’, the list of entertainers who volunteered to go overseas is staggering, and includes the famous and the not-so-famous.


And during those war years, 28 USO performers died as a result of their tour, either from plane accidents, illness, or disease.  Many others were injured.


Al Jolson quite famously contracted Malaria while on tour, which cost him a lung, and shortened his career. Broadway singer Jane Froman was severely injured in a plane accident. She  married the co-pilot who saved her life in that crash, and her story was later told in the 1952 film With a Song in My Heart.


Despite the risks, and the loss of income, thousands entertainers clamored for opportunities to volunteer. You’d even find big-name stars serving coffee and donuts at the Hollywood Canteen.


Each week, starting shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and continuing until 1949 (`Each week and every week . . . until it’s over . . . over there’) Command Performance brought the best of Hollywood and the world of entertainment to service personnel around the world.


Entertainers read letters from, and responded to, requests from the troops. 


Christmas shows beamed on the AFRS  to the men and women overseas during WWII are particularly poignant.  During the early days (1942-44) the Allies were reeling, and victory was far from assured.



Today, I bring you 8 very special extended Christmas shows from Command Performance which are available on the Internet Archive .


These shows run from 1 hour to 2 hours each.


CP1-421224ChristmasShow                 27.5 MB

CP1-431225ChristmasSpecial               41.9 MB

CP1-441224ChristmasShow                 59.6 MB

CP1-441225ChristmasShow                 27.6 MB

CP1-451225ChristmasProgram             56.3 MB

CP1-461225ChristmasSpecial_1946       26.6 MB

CP1-481225ChristmasSpecial_1            53.5 MB

CP1-481225ChristmasSpecial_2            55.7 MB


You can download all of these files in ZIP format (or if you prefer, in OGG or VBR MP3 format) at this link.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Christmas Quickie




There is an old Russian proverb that states:


The wondrous thing about a dancing bear is not that it dances well . . . but that it dances at all.


And sometimes, given the fledgling technology and the miniscule budgets available for that experimental medium called Television back in 1949, it helps if you adopt that slightly bemused attitude.


The `golden age’ of televised drama was still a few years away, recording technology was limited (film or kinescope), and as far as  special effects went . . .  heck, receiving TV images in your home was a pretty impressive special effect just by itself!


So I didn’t really expect much when I recently screened a short (25 minute) television version of The Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens produced in 1949.


I’m a hard sell when it comes to that hoary Christmas tale, anyway.  Since in my 57 years, I’m certain I’ve seen several hundred adaptations of the story.


Seems like every TV show did their own version of the story when I was growing up, everything from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol in 1962, to Rich Little’s HBO special in 1978.

For a good list of the dozens of adaptations of Dicken’s classic, you might find this wikipedia article of interest.


But today’s offering from 1949, narrated by Vincent Price, was better than I expected.  Particularly given the notoriously bad reviews I’ve read of this production over the years.


It is short enough not to wear out its welcome, even for young children (who often find the movie versions tedious). Vincent Price does well in his role as narrator, and 71 year-old  Broadway and movie actor Taylor Holmes acquits himself well enough as Ol’ Ebenezer.


If you blink, you’ll miss it, but this is also Jill St. John’s first television screen role (she was 9) as (Missie Cratchit), although she is billed as Jill Oppenheim.


Vincent Price, at this point in his career was considered a straight dramatic actor, and had not yet become identified with the horror genre. In fact, his biggest claim to fame in the late 1940s was playing The Saint on the radio (1947-1951).


The worst part about this show is the slightly blurry picture.  I don’t know if there are any better copies floating around, but the one on the Internet Archive has seen better days.


Still, you could do worse this holiday season.   Despite the poor special effects and production values, I found it charming.


Just as long as I remembered the story of the dancing bear.



The Christmas Carol (as told by Vincent Price) (1949)




Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ill Have A Blues Christmas






With two weeks still to go before Christmas day, many of you may already have OD’d on Burl Ives’ Holly Jolly Christmas, and like me, one more rendition of The Little Drummer Boy may be enough to send you over the edge.


Fear not.  You don’t have to adopt a Bah, Humbug! attitude and give up Christmas music altogether.


You may just be in need a break from the traditional and overplayed holiday fare, and to spend a few hours listening to seldom heard renditions of Christmas classics by Blues and Jazz artists.


Artists like Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Booker T. and the MGs, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Etta James, William Clarke, Hop Wilson and Canned Heat.


To that end, today a 4 hour musical set of Blues and Jazz Christmas music from Capital Public Radio, first broadcast as:

Mick Martin's Christmas Blues Party - 12/19/09 (December 19, 2009)

You can listen to this show on the Internet Archive, or better yet . . . download it to your computer as a Zip file, and listen using your media player, to avoid internet buffering problems.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Christmas TV – 1950s Style





Unlike today, during the 1950s variety shows were a staple of television.

A curmudgeon like myself might simply observe that 50 years ago, there was a lot more show biz talent to populate these shows than we have today.


The alumni of the fabled `studio system’ and of vaudeville almost all had more than one entertainment skill.  Actors could sing, singers could dance, comedians could act, etc.  


Perhaps not well . . .  but they could do it.


Today, actors walk through their parts.  Singers either scream or rhyme.  Comedians hurl random obscenities until someone in the audience laughs.

And apparently nobody dances. 


It’s tough to build a variety series around today’s questionable pool of talent.


But in 1955, viewers lucky enough to have TV set and access to all 3 networks (NBC, CBS, ABC) could watch more than 15 variety shows each week, including:

The Ed Sullivan Show 

The Original Amateur Hour

Colgate Variety Hour

Caesar's Hour

Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts

The Milton Berle Show

The Martha Raye Show

The Chevy Show

Tony Martin Show

Dinah Shore Show

Eddie Fisher Show

Arthur Godfrey and His Friends

Lawrence Welk

Perry Como



And while the formats differed, as did the style of music presented, they all had one thing in common.


Each year they almost all aired a Christmas show.


Sadly, most of these shows were never taped (kinescoped or film), and so they are lost forever.  A few have survived, however.


So today, I present three to warm you up for the Holidays.



First stop is Liberace, whose show aired not during prime time, but was syndicated to more than 100 local TV stations and aired at various times – sometimes twice a day in some markets.


One of TV’s first big stars, Wladziu Valentino `Lee' Liberace wasn’t a big hit with music critics, but audiences loved him.  You can read more about Liberace in my blog entry Mr. Showmanship.


The Liberace Show - 1954 Christmas episode (1954)



Next stop is the Perry Como Christmas show from 1952.


During the 1950s, many variety shows were only 15 minutes long, and aired sometimes 2, 3, or even 5 times a week.


This episode is just 15 minutes long, and features Perry, the Mitchell Ayres Orchestra, and the Fontane Sisters telling the story of the first Christmas.


You’ll also get a Chesterfield commercial, along with Como’s signature Ave Maria.


"The Perry Como Show" - 24/December/1952


Our last stop today is Your Hit Parade, a long running show (first on radio, then TV) which counted down – and performed - the top songs of the day.


My first MOMPD blog entry was on this iconic variety show, which you can read at 'Twas Rock & Roll That Killed Your Hit Parade.


You can join Dorothy Collins, Snooky Lanson, Russell Arms, and Gisele MacKenzie for this Christmas eve 1955 episode.


Your Hit Parade - Christmas Eve Show 1955 (1955)



For a lot more on Your Hit Parade and the Golden Age of Television, I would also direct you to my friend, and fellow blogger, Andrew Fielding’s site:

The Lucky Strike Papers


His book, chronically his mother’s career as an early TV performer on the Lucky Strike Your Hit Parade is a wonderful read, and I recommend it highly.


I wrote a full review of The Lucky Strike Papers in And Now, A Lucky Strike Extra . . .