Monday, December 16, 2013

C'est Noel, Part 9 (Tracks 24-25)

Here's some background on two more tracks from this year's holiday mix, titled C'est Noel. Only ten more tracks to go after this post is done, eight of which are tributes to great entertainers we lost in 2013. Only eight more days until Christmas. How are your preparations coming?

Track 25
A World to Grow Up In, by William B. Williams (1961)

(L to R): Williams with Eydie Gormé and Peggy Lee
This next track is a rather frightening period piece from 1961 by William B. Williams, legendary WNEW radio announcer and longtime host of  “The Make Believe Ballroom.” Williams first joined WNEW's on-air team in 1944, working several different shifts until he was fired in 1947 for either putting his shoeless feet up on the studio console (management’s story) or taking aggressive positions in his role as union shop steward (Williams' explanation). He was rehired by the station in 1953 following a change in management, and remained at WNEW for the next 33 years. In 1954, he took over the station’s popular “Make Believe Ballroom” show, which had already been on the air for 20 years by that time and featured popular standards and big band hits. As host, he developed his own unique style for the program, offering anecdotes and observations about the various performers he played and inviting the artists themselves to appear on the air from time to time. Williams, who came to be known to listeners as “Willie B.,” was an enthusiastic booster of pre-rock radio and an especially big promoter of stars like Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. In fact, it was Williams who coined the tag “Chairman of the Board” for Sinatra, who was so pleased with the moniker that he recorded the following promo* for Williams’ show:

A World to Grow Up In” is reminiscent of the letter that sparked the famous “Yes Virgina, There Is a Santa Claus” editorial in the New York Sun. This track is supposedly based on a young boy’s letter to Santa Claus in which he expresses his fear of thermonuclear war and writes that he’d gladly forego this year’s allotment of toys in exchange for “a world to grow up in.” The way he figures it, if Santa could only instill a little Christmas spirit in the world’s leaders, there would never be another war. You may think this record reflects a pretty naïve way of thinking, but recall for a moment what happened just ten months later, in October 1962. Following the discovery of Soviet nuclear weapons on the island of Cuba, hardliners in both Washington and Moscow urged immediate military action that could have easily led to nuclear war. Thankfully, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev were able to negotiate a way out of the crisis, at great risk to their reputations in their own countries. Do you suppose they each had a visit from Santa the previous Christmas, and received the dose of Christmas spirit the  young author had prescribed?
*The image that appears in the promotional video (above) of Williams holding his nose was taken from a 1950s print ad that appeared under the headline "We asked William B. Williams of WNEW Radio what he thought of rock 'n' roll." I can't agree with Willie B. on that point, but I share his optimism about the power of the holiday spirit.

Track 24
What Would You Put on My Christmas List, by Pee-wee Herman (1988)
Ask a few average adults what they know about Pee-wee Herman and they’ll probably mention a single indiscretion that took place many years ago in Florida. I don’t know exactly what went down that day, but I do know it shouldn't unduly besmirch this fellow's contributions to popular American culture. What should be remembered is that Pee-wee developed and starred in a terrific children’s show called Pee-wee’s Playhouse and that the “Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special” episode that aired during the show’s third season is a bona fide holiday classic. Guest stars included Grace Jones, k.d. Lang, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopie Goldberg, Magic Johnson, Dinah Shore, Cher, Little Richard and Zsa Zsa Gabor – and that's for this single one-hour episode, mind you. Track 24 of my latest holiday mix features a short clip from this holiday episode in which Pee-wee starts to prepare his Christmas wish list for Santa. You’ll have to listen to the clip for details, but let’s just say it’s a pretty comprehensive list – so lengthy, in fact, that Santa later visits the Playhouse to explain that if he fulfilled Pee-wee’s wishes, many other good children would have to go without. (Therein lies the lesson, you see.)

The Christmas Special was the third and final episode of the program’s third season, which was dramatically shortened by a television writers’ strike. I almost used a second clip from the Christmas episode on this year’s mix, in which two additional guests, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, show everyone how to make Christmas cards. Unfortunately, I had to cut that clip at the last minute due to lack of space. Here’s a video clip of what wound up getting cut:

And here, thanks to the magic of YouTube, is the full episode of the “Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special,” from 1988:

More Christmas fun will be coming up soon, and we'll resume our review of the tracks from my latest holiday mix on Wednesday (or thereabouts).

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