Each Christmas, I get in the holiday mood by playing old Christmas radio shows from my collection. Unlike television, radio lets its listeners formulate images of their favorite radio stars without displaying them on a small usually black and white screen. My four favorite programs from the 1930s and 40s are listed below. For you youngsters, they can be heard on the Internet.
Lum & Abner (1938): This 15-minute episode began with a brief intro: “Well, it’s Christmas time in Pine Ridge (Arkansas) and all businesses and other activities have been cast aside in preparation for celebrating the holiday. A heavy snow has fallen and it’s now way after dark.” Lum, Abner and Grandpappy Spears (voice of Lum) help a young couple named Mary, who is about to give birth, and her husband, Joseph. They are holed up in an abandoned barn adjacent to a burned down house on the east side of Pine Ridge. The three old codgers trudge through deep snow following the East Star to take them an ample supply of food from their Jot ‘Em Down Store, warm clothing, an oil heater and bed “kivvers” (covers). The narrative clearly parallels the events that took place in Bethlehem.
Fibber McGee & Molly (1945): This Johnson’s Wax-sponsored program has Fibber foolishly trying to spray paint a Christmas tree that he has purchased. The usual characters come by one-by-one to chide him: Dr. Gamble (local physician), Mrs. Carstairs (town socialite), Harlow Wilcox (series announcer who cleverly worked a commercial into each weekly program) and Teeny (the little girl next door who is really the voice of Molly). The highlight of every season was the special rendition at the end of each show of the classic “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” featuring the King’s Men and the Billy Mills Orchestra. It beautifully captures the unique sound of the 1940s.
Amos & Andy (1947): Andy takes a job as a department store Santa in order to raise money to buy his daughter, Arbadella, a special doll that she wants. The young people standing in line give Andy so much grief that he constantly summons the floorwalker for help. The show ends with Andy delivering gifts at Amos’ place. Andy puts his young daughter to bed and turns on the radio to help her go to sleep. When “The Lord’s Prayer” is sung over the station, she asks him to turn it to some Christmas music. Amos then gives his classic recitation explaining how the words to the song relate to the true meaning of Christmas.
The Jack Benny Program (1948): Arguably Jack had the funniest Christmas show to be broadcast over radio. He and his wife, Mary, are in a department store in Palm Springs shopping for gifts. The show’s regulars are also there: Dennis Day, Eddie Anderson (Rochester), Phil Harris, Don Wilson and Frank Nelson (famous for his drawn out exaggerated line, “Yeeessssss”). Mel Blanc (the versatile voice of Bugs Bunny and many other Warner Brothers characters) works in one of the departments. Jack repeatedly buys a gift from Mel, has it wrapped and then returns it before leaving the store to exchange it for something else. Each time, the attendant has to unwrap the item, put it back on the shelf and then wrap another one for Jack. Finally, the aggravated clerk has had enough of Jack’s antics and goes ballistic, creating one of the most hilarious scenes in radio history.
Other Christmas shows from that golden era include The Great Gildersleeve (1942), Burns & Allen (1940), The Bing Crosby Show (1947), Edgar Bergan & Charlie McCarthy (1939), The Fred Allen Show (1937), The Abbott & Costello Show (1945, Hallmark Playhouse (1949), Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch (1946), Our Miss Brooks (1950) and My Friend Irma (1950). Many of the shows became an oft-repeated holiday event to the delight of its faithful listeners.
If you have a favorite radio show from the past, drop me a line. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, folks. It is a pleasure producing this weekly column.