Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Bell Telephone Company Presents: The Spirit of Christmas

In A Child's Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas wrote, "One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six"

As I get older, I'm beginning to have the same feelings about my own Christmas memories. Twenty years ago, I would amaze family and friends with my blow-by-blow accounts of everything that happened on this Christmas or that Christmas. My mom would sarcastically ask, "What was the weather like that year?" and I could tell her. Now, however, there have been too many holidays and the traditions are so faithfully followed each year that they start to blur together. One such tradition I could always look forward to (at least in elementary school) was the annual showing of the old 1950s television special The Spirit of Christmas.

This holiday special, first aired in 1953 and sponsored by Ma Bell, was produced by puppeteer Mabel Beaton. Ms. Beaton started out performing marionette shows for her community in a make-shift theater during the 1930s and 40s. By the late 40s, her small group of fellow puppeteers, mostly neighborhood friends, dwindled away and she decided to elevate her puppeteering career by creating filmed marionette programs. She got lucky with her first try out of the gate when she presented her half-hour Christmas special, The Spirit of Christmas, to The Bell Telephone Company. The president enthusiastically green-lit the show as their 1953 Christmas special, and it became their holiday show for the next several years during the 50s.

The special is split into two segments, the first being a presentation of Clement C. Moore's poem, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. The second segment portrays the story of the birth of Christ. Ms. Beaton maintained that her forte was with serious material, but the Santa Claus story at the beginning of the show was her concession to the commercial appeal of secular Christmas stories. Watching the special recently with an adult set of eyes, I can understand her point. The marionettes used in the Santa Claus segment appear more crudely designed and, in the case of the children puppets, downright creepy looking as compared to the marionettes in the nativity story. Also, there seems to be more loving care put into the staging of the biblical scenes. 'Twas the Night Before Christmas relies on some physical schtick that feels clumsy and forced by comparison, but I know I enjoyed it as a child.

Before you get the wrong idea about my true age, I never saw the show when it originally aired on television. My first exposure to it was in elementary school in the late 60s/early 70s. Every year, on the last day before Christmas vacation, the teacher would drag out that clunky 16 mm projector and put on the threadbare film print of The Spirit of Christmas. Usually, the teacher would show it just before the end of the day. I would always get a little flutter of excitement in my stomach when that happened because I knew we would have no more school work until the beginning of next year!

There was something magical about watching this marionette show. I had the same feeling when I watched those old Gerry Anderson shows like Thunderbirds or Captain Scarlet. Most of the drawn animation available to kids in those days was of the Saturday morning variety and consistently pretty bad. Seeing three dimensional puppets manipulated in properly scaled dioramas was a real treat because you could sense the level of artistry involved. The Rankin-Bass stop-motion films had a similar quality and, like The Spirit of Christmas, I only got to see them once a year. This was way before the home video/on-demand world of today. You got one shot at all the Christmas shows and if you missed any one of them for some reason, you had to wait for next year. And one year to a kid may as well be a decade. That's why an impromptu shopping trip with your mom on the night The Year Without a Santa Claus aired was cause for true childhood trauma.

I can't remember exactly when they stopped showing The Spirit of Christmas at school. Maybe around the time I was 9 or 10. As I said, it's a blur. But I never forgot that program, and I thought for sure I'd never see it again. Just some vague, foggy memory shelved in the attic of my mind. Of course, with the magic of DVDs and the Internet, few things from the past are lost anymore. Last year, I discovered that The Spirit of Christmas was on DVD, complete with another Mabel Beaton film, Santa's Space Ship, and a one hour interview with Ms. Beaton videotaped in 1984. It's a wonderful package, even though the print of the film used on the DVD doesn't look much better than the print we had at Bear Creek Elementary. At least a DVD player doesn't skip and make that weird audio sound like someone wiggling his forefinger between his lips (anyone under 25 probably won't get that reference).

I'm so thrilled to have this Christmas memory back. When I watched the DVD recently, I could feel that little tingle in my tummy I used to have knowing that soon I would be out of school for 10 whole days and Santa was coming with lots of plastic goodies and my grandmother would be serving her delicious stuffing and noodle casserole and my Aunt Mildred would have that cool Chex Mix stuff and my Uncle Henry would mistakenly call Santa Claus "Kiss Kingle" and the world would be lit with multi-colored lights and glowing Santas and reindeer and all would be warmth and happiness and fun....until January 2nd.


Julz said...

I grew up with this special. I was born in 1950, and we knew Christmas was coming when this show came on.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this show and have it on VHS...I think
about it every year when I put up the tree with my
family and school lets out for christmas vacation.

Anonymous said...

I love this show. My mom watched it when she was young & shared it with us when we were little. It is one of my fondest memories of christmas as a child & even now i look forward to seeing it at christmas time.

Joe's wife said...

My husband told me about this series and how much he loved them. I was born in 1960 and didn't remember them. I just found them on the Internet tonight. And I saw him go back to the time when he was a little boy

Bob Skiba said...

I loved watching this magical presentation every Christmas as a child. The first airing, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, was on December 22, 1951, not 1953. In 1990, WHYY program executive Mike Quattrone was sent a tape of the show. It was broadcast on December 8th of that year.