In the good old days (which weren't) you could look forward to a crowded slate of network Christmas variety specials starring the biggest stars left over from the radio days - people like Edgar Bergen, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope. Well into the seventies, you also had yearly programs with singing stars (like Andy Williams and Perry Como) that were TV favorites but no longer had their own shows.
Though they made valiant attempts, the biggest stars associated with Christmas from the fifties and sixties (Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra) never had a long-running weekly TV show of their own.
Here are some examples of how these stars took the opportunity to celebrate the Holidays (to the fullest) on their short-lived variety series.
Bing Crosby Christmas specials were an annual event - beginning on radio in 1936 and continuing on television until the singer's death in 1977.
Bing's very first TV holiday special, The Timex Show (ABC - Dec. 20, 1957), contained some excellent vocal performances of classic Christmas carols, with brassy arrangements that fit the nifty-Fifties' style of swing.
The now passed class act of the rat pack (Frank Sinatra) gathered with the cruel dad Christmas crooner himself (Bing Crosby) to celebrate the holiday in a breezy variety half-hour that was shot cocktail style - casual and open, like an in-home lounge act. In this swaggering clip, the hip duo stopped singing and swinging long enough to exchange gifts - and have a couple of drinks, of course.
Judy Garland didn't pretend to drink on her CBS series (1963-64), it was painfully obvious that she was occasionally drunk when she showed up for tapings.
This may or may not have been true of The Judy Garland Show's Christmas episode, guest-starring daughters Lorna Luft, Liza Minnelli, son Joey Luft, Mel Torme, and Jack Jones, but producers were minutes away from calling off the show because no one knew where the star was.
Behind the scenes production turmoil and mediocre ratings made Garland's Television City studio a tense place, or so it seems from what's been written - but the MGM vet still delivered more bang than any three stars could, even if she was a little edgy on the series' Christmas episode.
That's part of what makes this special a must see - Garland and her guests delivered electrifying performances.
Mel Torme's guest spot was a point of contention on the day the Christmas show was filmed. Torme had signed a contract with Garland's production company guaranteeing him a certain number of guest appearances during the season. Judy wasn't committing to those dates quickly enough and "The Velvet Fog" was very upset about it. Her introduction to Mel Torme on the program was noticeably awkward for that reason.
To further complicate matters, the night before the Christmas show taping, Garland (aka little "Dorothy" from 'The Wizard of Oz') had been on a major bender and couldn't be found when shooting was set to begin.
At least according to Mel Torme in his book "The Other Side of the Rainbow with Judy Garland on the Dawn Patrol" - a book said to be notoriously inaccurate, but I used it as a source anyway because (after all) he was there that day.
"As Judy went through her paces that afternoon, I could only look at her and marvel," Torme wrote in 1969. "How she had managed to return home, change clothes, do whatever she had to do to drag herself out of the sleepless abyss she must have been in and show up at Television City all within the course of an hour and a half was completely beyond me. Yet here she was, alert, alive, energetic, looking frighteningly normal. I thought of Johnny Bradford's description of her, 'The Concrete Canary,' and once again I realized how it fit her."
Whatever their backstage problems, together Judy and Mel sing (beautifully) Torme's classic composition The Christmas Song. It's almost like watching a blood sport as these two sit down to sing this majestic tune.
First, Judy mistakenly calls Mel Torme 'Mort,' then flubs a line in the song. When Torme good-naturedly pointed it out, Judy purposely exchanged the word "reindeer" with "rainbow" - alluding to her signature tune. Great Stuff.
This was the ultimate sixties Christmas special - the art direction was superb and you've got Mort Lindsey conducting his first rate, brassy orchestra. The tension on the set seemed to bring out the best in everyone as they maneuvered around the spacious multilevel living room set - singing and dancing like their lives depended on it.
After her superb television series failed to get renewed after one season, Garland was often in such bad vocal shape that she would go on talk shows (tipsy) and trash her fellow MGM stars. Jack Paar was only too eager to have her on during this period.
Who can blame him? By Christmas time 1964, his series wasn't doing so great in the ratings. He knew Garland's outrageous comments would probably make the papers the next day. At this point in her career, Judy Garland was getting more headlines for her outrageous public behavior than for her on-stage triumphs.
As the years went on, Judy would show up for variety show guest spots more and more intoxicated - on booze and pills.
Some audience members tuned in to watch Garland's appearances just to see if she would make it through the show without cracking up. But she never failed to deliver a riveting performance.
In 1966, Garland showed up for a Merv Griffin Show taping just a bit too relaxed. She was falling all over poor Merv on his Christmas-themed show. You could almost believe the sirens heard in the background really were coming to take her away, but she was still able to wrench emotion from a voice severely weathered by adversity.
Judy Garland died June 21, 1969 after an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.
By 1994, squatters and junkies took over the building (in the 'heart' of Hollywood) where 'The Merv Griffin Show' was videotaped. The dressing rooms that hosted virtually every major star in show business during the sixties and seventies became a flop house for teenage prostitutes, hopeless hustlers and severe drug addicts.
Merry Christmas, my how times have changed!
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