Monday, December 15, 2008

Baltimore Christmas Memory: Sing It Outdoors!

It never ceases to amaze me how much can be found on "teh internets" these days! The flotsam and jetsam of a misspent youth in front of the TV or hiding in a movie theater can be easily retrieved with only a Google search. One day, the ipod in my brain shuffled up a song that I heard every holiday season when I was a kid. The song was called "Sing It Outdoors!" and it was played during the commercials for John Donnelly & Sons Advertising. It went like this.

I believe they were mainly into billboard advertising, so the title of the song had a duel meaning. It seems like they are singing about carolers, but the implication is that you can sing the praises of your company or product outdoors through billboard advertising. Get it? I was rather proud of myself that I figured that out when I was six or so.

I don't recall Donnelly & Sons running TV ads any other time of the year but Christmas, and for an advertising firm, the ads were surprisingly chintzy. The Christmas ad consisted of the aforementioned song while we were treated to abstract representational drawings of choirs, bells, and other Christmasy images. Just before the final line was sung, a syrupy announcer voice came on and would tell us how Donnelly Advertising wanted to wish us a Merry Christmas. No Happy Holidays back then. They were putting the Christ in Christmas, baby! It was fun not to be PC.

During the week between Christmas and New Year's, Donnelly & Sons ran a slightly different TV ad. As I recall, it would start off with a similar song and some more poorly rendered images of streamers and champagne bottles popping, and then the announcer would jump in with, "Rrrring out the old, rrring in the new, with all our best wishes! We at Donnelly Advertising wish you..." When he would say, "rrrring out the old," a graphic with the current year would appear, and when the announcer said, "rrrring in the new," a graphic with the next year would appear. For example, it might show "1972," and then jump to "1973." I remember one year - I think it was 1973 or 1974 - and they mistakenly put up one of the old commercials because it showed "1965" and "1966." I got a chill because I suddenly thought I had been transported back in time.

Those commercials disappeared around the mid-70s and became yet more fond holiday memories to put on the brain pile. God knows why the song popped back into my head on a warm spring day more than 30 years after I had last heard it, but my mind tends to work like that. Just for fun, I did a Google search using the song title and found this blog site. Apparently, the song on the commercial was part of a complimentary record album that Donnelly & Sons gave away to clients at Christmas time. One side had music for Christmas, the other side featured dance tunes for your New Year's Eve party. The blog author, Ernie, provides a link where you can download the Christmas songs along with some photos of the album, which I've used here, with his kind permission.

One of the coolest aspects of this album is the fact that the record itself was made out of green vinyl. Take a look:

Be sure to check out for more great, obscure Christmas music. He's currently running a 27 Days of Christmas series with a new Christmas album featured each day.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The 1/6th Scale Sushi Bar - 2008

Awhile back, I related the story of how I built a 1/6th scale sushi bar as a Christmas present to my wife. For the uninitiated, 1/6th scale refers to the size of action figures who are usually between 11 1/2- and 12-inches tall. We're talking old G.I. Joes and Barbies. Anyway, every year I add miniature Christmas decorations to the bar and, while I'm at it, I usually change the customers at the bar. In years past, we've had Christopher Lee, Dr. Evil (from Captain Action fame, not Austin Powers fame), Man of Action G.I. Joe, African-American G.I. Joe, Barbie, Pierce Brosnan, Diane Farr, Captain Jack Sparrow, and, of course, Santa Claus. Here is the new line-up for Christmas 2008:

Santa Claus has popped in again for a sushi snack before finishing his rounds. At the front of the bar, the current Doctor Who, David Tennant, is talking an Asian woman into becoming his next companion, and on the side, Indiana Jones is kicking back with a cold brewski after taking on the Lair of Witchiepoo or something.

The sushi bar sits on our living room coffee table year round, but it seems particularly festive during the holidays. It's also a great conversation piece when the plumber or the exterminator drop by.

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.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Outer Space Men

Here's something that I came across on YouTube awhile back:

I have vague memories of these toys when I was four or five. Most of the characters were too weird for my taste, but I do recall having a Commander Comet action figure. Here is how he is described by their Web site: "From Olympus, largest of the great cloud cities of Venus, the mighty cloud ship Cumulus sets forth. Like a fiery comet it blazes through the blackness of outer space toward Earth. Its captain, Commander Comet, is a direct descendant of the mighty Zeus, leader of the historic first Venusian expedition to Earth, which landed near the Grecian Isles 3,000 years ago. Commander Comet's present mission is one of routine Earth surveillance, and once within the atmosphere of Earth, his ship will join the great fleet of Venusian craft that float like clouds above our planet night and day, watching undetected over our world."

I didn't quite understand all that when I was a kid, but I remember getting him because he looked like a super hero. I figured he was something like Thor; a mythological figure who traveled to Earth to help people in trouble. He was still a little strange looking, though, and I don't think I played with him for very long.

The creator of the toy line, Mel Birnkrant, says that the line was designed to compliment the then popular Major Matt Mason series. The thinking was that these Outer Space Men would give Matt Mason some buddies to pal around with in space other than his human astronaut friends. I guess they weren't aware that Mattel had already made some alien characters of their own for the Matt Mason line. Although the connection is obvious to me now, I never put it together as a kid. I never thought to play with both Matt Mason and Commander Comet at the same time. Perhaps other kids didn't either, because Colorform's space men never experienced the popularity that Matt Mason had. It didn't matter anyway, since interest in space exploration and space-related toys fizzled pretty quickly after NASA put a man on the moon. Here are some videos Mr. Birnkrant put together to explain the history of The Outer Space Men:

Apparently, Mr. Birnkrant is trying to revive the series as a collectible for all us Baby Boomers and slightly post-Baby Boomers who have fond memories of the toy. Currently, a new graphic novel has been released based on the characters. It never ceases to amaze me how these old toys keep resurfacing in new forms.