Ron Simon

Curator, Television and Radio

December 4, 2008

Happy Holidays from the Sixties

by Ron Simon

The Paley Center has just completed its poll of favorite holiday specials, and the three perennials from the sixties finished in the top four. (I will get to the winner at the end of this blog.) For 11 months a year, we debate and often mock the legacy of the sixties. But beginning in December, we reverently watch these three shows that, I would argue, reflect the aspirations and ideals of the Great Society, President Lyndon Johnson's plan to transform American life. Yes, back then, there was a belief that we could become not good, but Tony the Tiger Grrreat. Today we are only hoping for a society at best, and we are struggling, economically and socially, at that. But, a sixties optimism is returning to the White House, and perhaps these programs can serve as a prelude to President Obama.

The three programs have become our secular equivalent of the Three Wise Men bearing annual gifts of the sixties spirit (no I am not talking about gold, incense, and reefer).  I am talking about those specials that have become annual favorites for several generations: Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (original air date 12/9/64); A Charlie Brown Christmas (12/9/65); and Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (12/18/66). The shows came consecutive years after President Johnson's May 1964 address about achieving greater equality and fairness in all aspects of American culture; each resonates not only with holiday joy, but also those dreams of national unity.

Actually when the specials first aired, they all broke new formal ground and little was written about the content, especially since they were deemed as children's programming. Rudolph debuted a new film technique, animagic, which enlivened three-dimensional objects via stop-motion photography. Writers marveled at this unique production: a crew of hundred people taking a year to produce an animated special, using 22 sets and costing over $500,000. Charlie Brown introduced a jazz soundtrack into the children's arena and actually used child actors, who could not read the scripts. The Grinch was rendered from 25,000 individual drawings, bringing the Mean One to color, previously seen only in bookish black and white with red eyes. But there was something deeper there as well, reflecting the sixties zeitgeist.

In retrospect, all three were the holiday cards, Great Society style. Each envisioned the individual part of a greater whole. More important than personal satisfaction was the well-being of the community. The holiday was celebrated both at the personal and communal levels. In Rudolph, Christmas commenced when the misfits—the Red Nosed One, Hermey the Elf, and those unwanted  toys—could be integrated into that animagic society. The entire community of school kids dealt with Charlie Brown's depression, and they learned together the true meaning of the holidays. And in Whoville, the holidays were joyously celebrated as a community, with or without possessions, winning over even the meanest solitary Grinch. Victorian Christmas idealized the health and home. In sixties American animation, it took a village.

Now so many of the holiday specials are about decking your own halls, a privatized experience of the holiday season, like the rest of the year. As we look forward to a new national purpose, perhaps these specials, put in their historical context, can inspire us as a community. If you don't believe me, watch the final scenes of A Charlie Brown Christmas:

The winner in our vote was The Star Wars Holiday Special, which has not been repeated since it was first broadcast in November 1978 (and for many good reasons). It is a traditional holiday special in name only. The plot centers on Chewbacca's desire to return to his home planet Kashyyyk to celebrate the Wookiee's most sacred holiday, Life Day. Whether rituals and songs from another galaxy constitute a holiday special for us mere mortals can be debated, nonetheless George Lucas fans got out the vote. But research shows that Life Day is commemorated every three years, so 2008 would be the 10th celebration since we first learned about it, a tin anniversary of some sort. Starting Wednesday, December 10, The Paley Center will be screening the sixties specials and the Star Wars whatever-it-is (see our Daily Schedule for times). Enjoy the holidays in its many guises!

  • Thanks for your comments, Hiho. Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol is an essential holiday special. It showed everyone that animation could tell a classic holiday story. Without Magoo in 1962, you probably would not have Charlie Brown or the Grinch. It also underlined the importance of music, with a nice score by Jules Styne. I am not sure why Magoo is not in the holiday rotation. Some people think that Magoo is the best Scrooge ever.


    Ron, December 08, 2008 at 4:49 pm

  • I think you're absolutely right about the 60's shows. It's amazing how TV mirrors what was/is going on. It's difficult to tell when you're in it (like now, but you tell me). But what I really want to ask is WHERE IS MR MAGOO's CHRISTMAS CAROL IN ALL OF THIS!? That was the best special. Great songs. Funny. Warm and fuzzy. Forget Star Wars.


    hiho, December 04, 2008 at 7:07 pm

About

Ron Simon

Curator, Television and Radio

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Ron Simon has been a curator at The Paley Center for Media since the early 1980s. He is also an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, New York University, and Hunter College, where he teaches courses on the history of media. Simon has written for many publications, including The Encyclopedia of Television and Thinking Outside of the Box, as well as serving as host and creative consultant of the CD-ROM Total Television. A member of the editorial board of Television Quarterly, and a judge on the George Foster Peabody committee, Simon has lectured at museums and educational institutions throughout the world. Among the numerous exhibitions he has curated are The Television of Dennis Potter; Witness to History; Jack Benny: The Television and Radio Work; and Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. He also discovered such lost programs as the live Honeymooners and the only video performance of the Rat Pack.

Interests:

Anybody and everything that can be transformed into a pixel.

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Ron Simon
rsimon@paleycenter.org

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