Today's little known holiday song -- this time, for Hanukkah -- comes from what I believe was the first season of the animated series South Park. It was their initial Christmas special, centered around the adventures of Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo, which brought the show even more attention. I have a couple of tangential stories connected to the song, "It's Hard to Be a Jew on Christmas."
As I think I've mentioned, back in my dark days of P.R. I was the unit publicist on the movie BASEketball, which was directed by David Zucker (of the Airplaine! and The Naked Gun series, which was why he brought me along) and starred Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who did -- and still do -- South Park. During the movie's production, which overlapped with them being in production on South Park (so, in essence, they were doing two jobs at the same time), Matt and Trey mentioned that the only reason they signed to do the movie is because they were sure the TV series would be canceled after 10 episodes, and they'd have plenty of time to make the movie. Ha. So much for the best laid plans. It was during the movie's production that the TV series started peaking -- for instance they made the cover of both Time and Newsweek during the film. They said that if they had any idea that the TV show would still be going on, they never would have agreed to be in the movie. It was a crushing schedule -- including having an editing trailer for them on the set every day, and going back to their production offices after the day's filming -- but they handled it seriously impressively.
Anyway, going back several months, we had a read-through of the movie script one night, and given that it was the "South Park guys," families and kids were invited. And as it happened, the read-through took place the night after their Christmas special aired.
In the milling around phase of the evening, I went over to Trey and Matt to introduce myself, and I also wanted to tell them how much I particularly had loved this specific song. Given the fame of South Park at that time, they were not surprisingly surrounded by a bunch of young boys gushing about the show. But in particular, they were gushing about another song in the TV special. So, I stood off to the side and waited for their fans to finish.
The other song in the show was sung by the character 'Cartman," and lasts about 30 seconds, with the words basically being, "Kyle's mom is a big fat b*tch, she's a b*tch, b*tch, b*tch, she's a big fat b*tch," over and over for half a minute. The little boys just loooooved that. And one after another, they enthused to Matt and Trey about it, and kept singing the song back at them.
After the kids all departed, I finally walked over. I said hi, we chatted a bit, and then I said how terrific I thought the song, "It's Hard to Be a Jew on Christmas" was. That the lyrics were so funny, yet touching, and the music was wistful, and it was just really nicely crafted. And what was hilarious and memorable was how their faces suddenly filled with a smile of relief. They completely understood why the little boys all loved the "Kye's mom is a b*tch" song -- but this other was an actual song. And one they took great pride in. So, they were SO relieved to have someone praise it, rather than the one getting all the attention.
A few months later, during production I also had a question for them that had been nagging me. About a minute into the song, the character Kyle singing it mentions some Hebrew phrase which I couldn't make out, words it seemed from some Hebrew Hanukkah song he has to sing instead of getting to sing "Silent Night." I asked what it was, since I didn't recognize the song, and if they did research to find it or what. Trey broke out with a big laugh, "Oh, that," he said, "we just made the words up. We didn't know any Hebrew, so we just wrote some gibberish that sounded right."
(Note: When I originally posted this for a few years, it's only been the audio track of the song from the special since the sweet video wasn't available. But I kept checking and finally -- it's at last there, and I found it. So...huzzah. Or rather, chuzzah.
I've written in the past about my love (and that of the inveterate Chris Dunn) for the series, Frank's Place. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear available to stream, and only a couple of episodes can be found on YouTube (at just mediocre quality). But happily, one of those two is a Hannukah episode! And we have it today as part of our Fest.
The quality is a fuzzy, but watchable. You may have to turn the volume all the way up, as well. I wish the video was better, but this is it, and since it’s hard to track down much of anything from Frank’s Place, I'll take what we can get. Especially during the holiday.
By the way, the video may jump start, and the opening credits being at the :40-second mark. The episode itself begins after commercials at 3:00. (This should start at 0:00, but I was having a little trouble. If for any reason it doesn't, just scroll back.)
For today's Fest of little-known seasonal material, from music to comedy and anything in between, we keep the season at Hanukkah with a wonderful piece that Stephen Colbert did. A few years back, Colbert noted that while there would be 146 new Christmas movies that season -- with half of them on Hallmark and Lifetime channels -- there were (quoting Cosmopolitan magazine) "basically zero Hanukkah movies." I think there were eight -- and I've noticed that when those air, the stories usually tended to have some overlap with Christmas.
So, his show decided to do something about that and correct that oversight. And they came up with trailers for some of their own Hanukkah movies.
As we've reached the first night of Hanukkah, that means it's time for my annual tradition of my New Tale of Hanukkah, along with the tale behind it.
A New Tale for Hanukkah: The Legend Begins
Several years back, a mixed group of writer friends was discussing religion, when it veered off track a bit. "A bit" as in, someone whimsically bemoaned that Christmas got all the good colors, while Hanukkah was pretty much stuck with blue and white.
I'm guessing that this wasn't the kind of debates Spinoza or Moses Maimonides ever got into. Though you never know.
Another person decided to raise the holiday spirits, suggesting that since there was an actual, physical limit of primary colors in the world, and therefore nothing could be done about that at this point, perhaps instead a new fable could be created. A few days later, this second fellow and his wife came up with the Twin Dalmatians of Hanukkah, Pinkus and Mordechai. The pups scour the earth to bring hats of joy, filled with treats, to the children on the first night of Hanukkah. Pinkus, the cheerful one, would load them up with tasty goodies, while practical Mordechai with a bell on his collar would leave practical gifts, like slide-rules.
The benefits of this new legend were clear to see. For one, it meant that that you could add a whole new color scheme to the Hanukkah celebration palate for displays across the land and trimmings in stores everywhere - black and white, the Dalmatian decorations! And also, Pinkus and Mordechai "pug helpers" would prance throughout shopping centers to the joy and happy laughter of those with childhood in their hearts. And of course, when you're competing with Rudolph, Frosty, the Little Drummer Boy, Scrooge, Magi, Santa, and so many more, it never hurts to have as many fables as possible to pass down through the generations.
He and his wife wrote a few verses to show what he meant, and I thought an unfinished poem was no way to celebrate the season of holidays, and therefore completed it.
Like all good stories of the season, this one ends with a miracle. My friend went on to create a network TV series a few years later, and then another one for a different network. So, it's good to know that poetry and warm spirit in his heart (along with a touch of lunacy in their heads) had such a positive impact on their lives. He also now has a reputation to protect and by request shall remain nameless.
Since 'tis the season, then 'tis appropriate to finally bring the story out of its dusty pages where it has annually passed from glowing face to glowing face of the few lucky children to hear it told, and when a few years back on the Huffington Post I presented the new fable to the world.
Okay, maybe there haven't been all that many glowing faces, and maybe it's passed Hanukkah this year (man, it came so early this year!!), but it's the holiday season and time of miracles, so anything's possible.
'Twas the night before Hanukkah,
And all through the shul,
Not a creature was stirring,
The meshpocheh was full
With latkes and brisket
And kugel and more.
Through the heads of the kinder
Spun dreidles galore.
But I in my yalmulka,
And she in her wig,
Settled down in our beds
With warm milk (but no pig).
When up on the roof
I heard such a bark
That I yelled "Oy, gevalt"
(To the goyim that's "Hark").
And I knew with a jingle,
Then a second great "woof,"
That jolly ol' Pinkus
Was up on our roof.
Though t'wasn't just Pinkus,
But Mordechai too,
The Hanukkah Puppies--
Those Dalmatian Jews.
So I sprang to my feet
And quick threw on a shmotta.
And I saw our kids' hats
Were now filled with a lotta:
Toys and candy from Pinkus
And from Mordechai, socks.
And for me and the Mrs.
Some bagels and lox.
The dogs silently worked,
As if studying Torah
(Though Pinkus got playful).
Mordechai lit the menorah.
Then straight up the chimney
Pinkus leapt from the floor.
Mordechai politely went out
the front door.
It's hard to explain
The joyous nakhes I felt
As I saw the Dalmatians
Go to hand out more gelt.
And I heard Pinkus bark,
"Kids can have all they want if."
"Happy Hanukkah," said Mordechai.
"And to all a Good Yontif."
Happy Ollie Days!!
I posted this in 2021 for the first time, and loved the video so much that I thought it deserves repeating on this anniversary day and being made a bonus posting this year. I've posted a lot of Kukla, Fran & Ollie videos (and will post some more this holiday season), but this is unique for them, and offers an absolutely fascinating (and very funny) look into the early days of television.
A big thanks to fellow Kukla, Fran & Ollie afficionado Nell Minow for passing along this wonderful and offbeat, very early episode from the show than ran 74 years ago today, December 5, 1949.
Kukla, Fran & Ollie went on the air nationally earlier that year – it premiered locally a few months before that -- and TV was in such an very early stage that every time a new station joined the network the show saluted them. But so many new stations had begun joining that the show hadn’t been able to salute them all. So, they decided to do a full pageant in their honor. It wasn’t just to salute the stations, though, but also fill them in about who all the Kuklapolitan characters are and how this television thing works, including the operation of cameras and the commercial possibilities (sponsored as it is by RCA Victor). The whole thing is funny, charming, odd and a fascinating look at the early days of TV. Especially as each of the characters sings a different song about television. (Also, though intended for viewers at the time, it’s also a great way for people today to learn who each of the Kuklapolitans are.)
For all the character introductions, I was sorry that they didn’t have my fave, Cecil Bill on. Though that’s sort of fitting, because he only appeared occasionally, which was much of his charm. Also, a little Cecil Bill goes a long way. That’s because Cecil Bill was sort of nuts and spoke in a “ta toi toi toi” language that only Fran Allison and the Kuklapolitans can understand. However, you do hear Cecil Bill at the 10:20 mark, and they reference him later (at 22:00), acknowledging the challenge some people might have with him.
The songs are a joy. Nell notes particularly loving Beulah Witch’s where she gives the phone number for stations to call if they have a problem with the signal. It all builds to a joyous finale led by Ollie that includes a very funny self-referential joke about puppet shows and Fran being as goofy as I’ve seen her on the show.
What also bears repeating from earlier posts about Kukla, Fran & Ollie is that the show is almost-fully ad-libbed. Burr Tillstrom, its creator (doing all the puppetry and voices), would go through a general run-down with Fran Allison of what was planned and the musical numbers (which of course had to be written…), but that was largely it. (How ad-libbed was it? And one point in a sequence with Beulah Witch, if you listen closely you’ll hear Tillstrom crack himself up before quickly catching himself. And Fran plays right along without skipping a beat – including moments later when Beulah screws up saying “Indianapolis” and Fran again just plays along without skipping a beat) And the show was 30 minutes long – and daily. And also, this wasn’t a daytime show just for the kiddies, but ran at night. (The time and schedule fluctuated over the many years they were on.)
I should note that Ms. Minow’s appreciation of Kukla, Frank & Ollie comes from a well-grounded foundation. The show was done in Chicago, and as I mentioned the other day, her father Newton Minow (later the FCC Chairman under JFK) was Burr Tillstrom’s attorney. Further, when she and her dad were visiting the show’s set one day, a newspaper reporter happened to be there doing a story on it. Seeing a little girl around, the reporter asked Nell what she wanted to be when she grew up. To which she answered, “A Kuklapolitan.” That made it into the article. And the happy news is that it’s my contention that Nell achieved her goal.
We have a longer version of the Fest today. Bear with me a bit and let me explain. I've posted this all before and I find it a fun story of sorts to repeat.
When the movie musical Scrooge was released in 1970, I remember reading an article about the film's composer-lyricist-screenwriter (and executive producer) Leslie Bricusse (who earlier had teamed with Anthony Newley to write the stage musicals Stop the World - I Want to Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint - the Smell of the Crowd, and the next year would write the score to the movie musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). In the piece, Bricusse said that they'd done research and discovered that among all the Christmas carols written, there had never been one actually titled, "A Christmas Carol." So, he wrote one, which begins the film over the wonderful opening credits by the great artist, Ronald Searle (who also did the credits for, among other films, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.)
I mention all this, though, for a specific reason. Bear with me.
Here's that song first, however, and those wonderful opening credits.
As I said, I mentioned all of that above for another reason entirely.
It's that as good a film as Scrooge is, Bricusse's research staff was lousy. Because 14 years before, in 1956, there was a live TV musical version of A Christmas Carol that was called The Stingiest Man in Town and starred the legendary film actor, best known as playing Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone as Scrooge. And the very first song in the show was called -- yes, you guessed it -- "A Christmas Carol."
The music for the show was written by Fred Spielman, with lyrics by Janice Torre. It's not remotely distinguished or memorable, but has quite a few very nice things in it. And there, right at the top, first thing, is a song, "A Christmas Carol." A live musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol on American television doesn't seem like a terribly challenging thing to track down for a research staff working on a movie musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
So, continuing our holiday theme of unknown Christmas songs from musicals, here is the earlier song, "A Christmas Carol," sung by The Four Lads. It's short, less than a minute, but whatever its length the name of the song is "A Christmas Carol." That the researchers couldn't find. But we think you fine folks deserve better... Which is why this also isn't the end of the post here. Because there's another one coming. And it's a joy. But here's that other song first --
Note: Though the person posting this put up a screen shot that say's "A Christmas Carol," it is from The Stingiest Man in Town.
And yes, there's more...
In 1959, which is only 11 years before the movie musical Scrooge was made (and three years after the TV musical above), the wonderful Tom Lehrer released his classic comedy album, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer -- which included a song titled...yes, you guessed it -- "A Christmas Carol."
And again, Tom Lehrer was not remotely an unknown entertainer and songwriter. It fact, as popular as An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer was when it was released, he was probably around the height of his popularity in 1970 when the film Scrooge hit the theaters. His huge hit album, That Was the Year That Was had been released in 1965, only five years before Scrooge. So, how on earth those researchers missed these two songs -- and for all I know there are more, and even high-profile ones -- I have no idea.
Happily, we have this song to enjoy, as well...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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