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.
To continue the fest, this is a Christmas recording that blends two worlds -- totally unknown, yet hugely-well-known and wonderful. How can that be, you ask??! I'll explain.
The main song here is from the musical, Here's Love, by Meredith Willson, who of course wrote The Music Man. It's based on the classic film, Miracle on 34th Street. The show wasn't terribly successful, though didn't flop and had a respectable run of 334 performances -- just under a year -- in 1964. The score is inconsistent, but half of it is quite wonderful. (I've actually tried, half-heartedly, I must admit, to get a TV production of it made for several years. I think it would be a terrific Christmas special. Hey, who knows, maybe one year NBC will do it live...)
The song is called "Pine Cones and Holly Berries," sung by Laurence Naismith who plays Kris Kringle. It's very charming and a lovely Christmas holiday song, though is pretty much unknown.
Now, as you may recall, Meredith Willson likes counterpoint. He used it a great deal, to much good effect in The Music Man, most notably with "Lida Rose" sung counter to "Will I Ever Tell You?", but also famously with "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a Little," sung in counterpoint with an already-existing song, "Goodnight, Ladies."
Well, he used the technique again in Here's Love. He created "Pine Cones and Holly Berries" to be sung counter to an already-existing, very famous Christmas song -- one which (I am sure most people will be shocked to learn) he himself wrote. When I say it's very famous and completely well-known -- trust me on this. It's very famous. And yes, it's actually written by, of all people, Meredith Willson. I won't tell you want it is, but let you have the fun of discovering it when it comes in halfway through. (Though if you've read this pages during past Holiday Music Fests, you likely know it by now...)
The counterpoint, very famous song is performed here by Janis Paige and -- are you ready? -- Fred Gwynne! Though he hated being typecast in his famous TV role, since it almost ruined his career (I worked with him on the movie, Pet Sematary, and we briefly talked about it), I feel compelled to identify him in this context for the sheer incongruity of it, as yes, 'Herman Munster,' whose TV series came along soon thereafter. He comes in the song here most-clearly at the 1:14 mark, singing (and really well) "Christmas, Christmas. Christmas Day. Bells ring, and hearts sing, every day..."
So, here then is a lovely, sweet Christmas song you don't know, sung in counterpoint to an extremely famous one you absolutely do, both by Meredith Willson.
As a bonus, we'll throw in a couple of other good -- and lesser-known -- Christmas songs from the show. This first (with video from a community production) is during the courtroom scene and W.H. Macy is called to the stand and has to say under oath whether he believes that there is actually a Santa Claus.
And we'll conclude things with an absolutely lovely song that the lawyer (the fellow who ends up defending Kris at the end, played by Craig Stevens) sings to the daughter of his neighbor, the cynic who hired Kris but sees it all as just business (played by the aforementioned Janis Paige). The young daughter has picked up much of her mother's cynicism, but their neighbor Fred slowly starts to bring some holiday cheer into the girl's life.
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...
As I mentioned earlier, our Holiday Music Fest also includes a few little-seen TV specials from the past. This one tonight wasn't a standalone special per se, but instead was the Christmas special episode for the weekly Julie Andrews Hour, and they went all out to make it stand out. This is from December 20, 1972, and the cast includes Jimmy Stewart, Joel Grey, Mama Cass Elliot, Carl Reiner, Steve Lawrence, Sergio Franchi, Dan Dailey, Alice Ghostley and Rich Little.
(Side note: For those who don't know his name, Dan Dailey had a successful movie career in the 1940s and 1950s, including many musicals, and even got an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for When My Baby Smiles at Me. I saw him on stage at the Blackstone Theater in Chicago as 'Oscar' in a 1966 production of The Odd Couple, which also starred Richard Benjamin as 'Felix,' who so often played nervous, neurotic characters and was memorably picture-perfect for the role. And years later I got to tell him that when I met him and his wife Paula Prentis at a Northwestern alumni party which was held before the football team played in the Rose Bowl in 1995. And yes, he was stunned. And pleased.)
(But I digress.)
The special is very well done. Carl Reiner even has a solo song, and does a nice job on "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Jimmy Stewart is the main guest, and travels around with Julie Andrews – and just when you think that that's pretty much all he'll get to do, later in the show he actually gets a solo number with "Away in the Manger" -- then sings a bit on two duets, including one with Julie Andrews, which in the singing world is the definition of courageous.
What's also fun is that Alice Ghostley sings one of the little-known Christmas songs I've posted here the past few years from the TV musical The Stingiest Man in Town. For that matter, they also perform yet another little-known song I post here every year -- “A Christmas Carol” from the movie Scrooge. And are a couple of fun short sketches between Jimmy Stewart and Rich Little. The special also includes the original commercials which adds some whimsy.
(Note: for some reason, this may open at the 1:48 mark, but I think I've finally gotten it to begin at the start. If not, though, you can just click on the scroll bar at the bottom of the video to get it all the way back to the beginning.)
From the archives. The contestant is Ivan Plis from Washington, D.C. Like the contestant, I didn’t have a clue what the hidden song was, though I could sort of hear it. Nor could I get it on the second go-round even knowing the composer. I did finally get it fairly quickly on the third pass but that’s only when composer Bruce Adolph pulled the song out more, so it doesn’t count for points, though for relief. It’s pretty hard. As for the composer style, it’s one that I always think could overlap with several who I find somewhat similar and I’m not knowledgeable enough to pick out the differences.
I can’t believe for all the years of The Holiday Music Fest posting wonderful, little-known holiday material that I didn't included this. Fortunately, that oversight was finally corrected last year. Growing up, I used to like the comic strip Pogo by Walt Kelly, and every holiday season I would always especially love his inclusion of the characters’ version of “Deck Us All with Boston Charlie” in the strip -- a song that actually got recorded, and the classical music station WFMT would play at Christmastime on their Midnight Special show. But when my pal Mark Evanier posted this video in 2022, it reminded me of it, and after slapping my head and thinking, “How in the world could I have forgotten this??!” I’m so glad to include it here where it rightly belongs, as a wonderful, little-known and adorably lunatic holiday song.
Mark is one of the world’s great experts on Pogo – quite literally, he’s helped edit and put out eight seriously-impressive volumes of the collected Pogo strips. As for the song itself, he noted that “Every year around Christmas in his strip, his lovely characters would debate the correct lyrics to their favorite carol.” This particular video does a wonderful job setting the apparently-correct lyrics (according to one of the characters) set to panels from the strip.
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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