Friday, December 19, 2014

Is There Really a Santa Claus, Part 12

As Christmas draws ever closer, here are some notes on two more of the tracks from my latest holiday mix:

Track 33
Casey Kasem’s Christmas Favorites, by Casey Kasem (2004)

"Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars."
– Casey Kasem

When I heard this past Father’s Day that longtime radio personality Casey Kasem had died, my first reaction was a sense of relief on his behalf. Kasem had been suffering from Lewy body dementia, a progressive neurological disease that’s incredibly painful for the sufferer and taxing on his caregivers. To make matters worse, a pitched battle had apparently arisen between Kasem’s second wife and the children of his first marriage over who should be empowered to make decisions on his behalf. Under such dreadful circumstances, I thought, death would have to be seen as a blessing. Still, I felt the news as a personal blow. Having spent countless hours with Kasem nearly every weekend while growing up, it felt as though I'd lost an old friend. 

Kasem wore many hats during his long career, including actor, investor, philanthropist and political activist. He was an especially successful voice actor, recording hundreds of commercials and voicing the role of Shaggy on the cartoon “Scooby Doo.” But he was best known as the creator and host of “American Top 40” (AT40), the syndicated weekly radio show in which Kasem counted-down the 40 most popular records in the country each week based on Billboard magazine’s latest Hot 100 chart. I was an avid fan of the show throughout my high school and college years, and I'd listen for three hours most weekends while Casey introduced and played the 40 biggest hits of the week. It was always great fun to see how my favorites were doing and to hear Kasem’s observations about the various records and the artists who made them.

I distinctly remember the first time I heard AT40. It was July 1974, and I was spending the first half of the summer at Camp O-At-Ka on Sebego Lake in Maine. I’d just begun to get into rock music in a big way, and throughout the spring I’d been religiously following the local WBZ-FM Top 40 countdown in Boston, which, of course, we couldn’t hear in Maine. Then one Saturday during afternoon rest, one of my bunkmates picked up Kasem’s countdown on his transistor radio. I was thrilled beyond measure, especially when it became clear that this countdown reflected the top songs nationwide, not just for Boston. (Over time, I came to see that Boston’s taste in music is more to my liking than the nation as a whole, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish.) The #1 song that week happened to be my favorite song at the time – "Rock Your Baby," by George McRae, so, for the moment, all was right with the world. For the next several years, I don’t think I missed more than a handful of AT40’s weekly broadcasts, and I kept meticulous notes of the songs that moved up and down the charts. For awhile, I even kept tallies of my own ten favorite songs each week. As a DJ on my college radio station in Baltimore, a friend and I created a weekly show we called “Hotline,” which looking back, was in every way an homage to Kasem. I’m glad to have discovered AT40 on that sunny July afternoon in Maine, and I’m grateful for the long hours spent with him growing up.  

Here's a very funny appearance by Kasem on The Late Show with David Letterman:

Track 32
Susie, the Snow Girl, by Mickey Rooney (1955)

When Mickey Rooney died this past April at the age of 93, the curtain came down on one of the most extraordinary careers in show business history. It was certainly one of the longest. Rooney started acting in motion pictures in 1926 at the age of six, and for the next 85 years he was never out of the spotlight for long. Between the ages of 15 and 25 he made 43 pictures, working with greats like Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland and earning a place as one of the most popular and respected actors of the day. Unfortunately, the start of World War II interrupted Rooney’s acting career just when he was at his peak, but while he never quite regained the stature and popularity he enjoyed in his teens and early 20s, he had a long and varied career and remained vital and active right up until the end.

Like so many of the celebrities of his day, and ours, Rooney was known as much for his personal life as his professional endeavors. He was married eight times, struggled with alcohol and other drug problems, and, despite earning millions, was in financial trouble more than once. Yet, like Lazarus, his career never seemed to stay dead for long. In 1979, for example, he made his Broadway debut in Sugar Babies, which became a big hit. He and co-star Ann Miller would up playing together for over 1200 shows. In 2006, Rooney was cast in the film A Night at the Museum, which not only turned out to be a smash hit but also spawned two sequels in which Rooney played.

In his later years, Rooney acted in and provided voices for a series of Christmas movies and animated films, playing Santa Claus at least five times. These include:

  • Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (voice, 1970)
  • The Year Without a Santa Claus (voice, 1974)
  • Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (voice, 1979)
  • It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (1984)
  • Home for Christmas (1990)
  • Silent Night, Deadly Nigh 5: The Toy Maker (1992)
  • The Happy Elf (2005)
  • A Christmas Too Many (2005)
  • A Miser Brothers Christmas (voice, 2008)

Susie the Snow Girl” is a silly little song that Rooney both wrote and sang. It was never a big hit – in fact it’s sometimes described as a “rare” or “forgotten” entry in Rooney’s catalog. At the time of its release, Billboard magazine, in its December 3, 1955 issue, described it as “[a] personable rendition by the perpetual pixie of a slight winter novelty cleffed by Rooney himself.” Still, it’s kind of cute. And so was he.

That's all for today. I'll be watching Darlene Love tonight on Letterman, and I'll be back tomorrow with another great clip from the SNL archives.

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