Despite my wife’s adamant aversion to Karen and Richard, for me it just doesn’t seem like Christmas without the mellifluous strains of The Carpenters warbling out some beloved carol (Donna’s a Quaker, but “smash them in their stupid smiling faces” seems to be her default comment whenever they come on the radio). So why not ditch the stress and strain of today’s world and cool out with not one but two mellow masters of easy listening: The Carpenters and Perry Como?
By Paul Mavis
On December 17th, 1974, CBS premiered The Perry Como Christmas Show. Sponsored by GTE (at one point in the special, there’s an anonymous bridging song that prominently mentions “long distance phone calls to relatives”), the genial, preternaturally-relaxed “Mr. C.” welcomes special guests The Carpenters, gold medalist skater Peggy Fleming, and not-even-in-the-same-league-as-Frank Gorshin celebrity impersonator, Rich Little. Built very loosely around the narrative framework of Perry going holiday shopping, Perry and his guests sing a few tunes and tell a few jokes (with Peggy skating a few times), before Perry talks about the first Christmas.
You can come up with all kinds of reasons why we don’t see variety specials on network TV anymore (is there network TV anymore?), including a decided lack of multi-talented celebrities willing to do such appearances, to advertisers and networks not willing to fund even smaller-budgeted one-offs like these, to modern audiences’ apparent willingness to accept the humorously monikered “non-scripted” fare featuring nobodies off the street (have the networks time-traveled back to the 1950s? It’s nothing but game shows and amateur-hour song-and-dance competitions out there). Whatever the various causes, variety packages like The Perry Como Christmas Show must seem like strange, mysterious artifacts beamed from another time and universe to the uninitiated today, fuzzily transmitted video streams accidentally caught by our vast, uninterested satellite guardians, which are then shunted off to collection sites like YouTube.
Now, before nostalgia for that lost TV world overtakes me, let’s be honest: I pretty much can guarantee that I didn’t circle The Perry Como Christmas Show in our TV Guide way back in ’74, and then badger my parents to watch it that night. Coming from CBS (the so-called “Tiffany Network” which still programmed primarily to adults at this time), and considering those guest stars (no…I didn’t have a Carpenters’ poster on my bedroom wall), if The Perry Como Christmas Show did pop up on our 24-inch Curtis Mathes that night, it was because the old man put it on. TV specials like this one were considered required “family viewing” back then…whether the kids wanted to watch or not.
Looking back on this situation as an adult, however, I can certainly see why the old man might have wanted something like The Perry Como Christmas Show on his set. This was, after all, back when a TV entertainment was designed to do just that: entertain. Not lecture. Not scold. Not harangue. Just simply entertain an audience its creators didn’t actively hate, while providing an opportunity for some targeted advertising.
Sure, in 1974, CBS was leading the ratings with one of the most influential TV series of all time, the continually controversial All in the Family. And that show did all of the above-mentioned things for tens of millions of delighted and outraged viewers each week.
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However, genuine “nice guy” Perry Como, who made a phenomenally successful recording and television career out of rigorously not rocking the boat, was never going to berate his audience about anything. He was going to present an hour of songs and a few laughs, in a calm, gentle, easy-going style that the audience instinctively knew was not a put-on, and he would successfully do this for decades.
Considering the times back then (the economy wasn’t nearly so bad in 1974, but it did have a vicious, partisan media labeling a competent President Ford as thoroughly incompetent. See, so…just reverse that last part for today), why wouldn’t my old man want just an hour of peace and quiet with comfortable ‘ol Perry? Today’s nattering nabobs of negativism, who label themselves “pop culture writers” or “film and TV critics” (blech), sneer at such bland escapism, of course. “No truth in it!” they whine. “Too white!” they screech, as they quickly log onto their social media platforms to spew forth their soul-poisoning bile.
But of course what these…these creatures miss as they swim about in their own sea of self-hate and nihilism (please see the OFCS), is the fact that people like my parents knew full-well shows like The Perry Como Christmas Show were escapism. They weren’t stupid. And maybe, for just an hour or so, they felt a little bit better about themselves, or their situation, or the world, because someone they had enjoyed over the years, like an old friend—nice guy Perry Como—took the time to sing them a few songs in a sincere, direct manner, with no other agenda.
Perhaps, maybe, my parents and others tuning in even felt uplifted at times (consult a dictionary if you don’t know that word—it’s never used anymore). If not, then at the very least…maybe they were able to simply forget their troubles for a few blissful minutes (no mean feat, that). Where is that kind of entertainment in today’s pop culture, where the price of admission to most “socially responsible” content is a continuous wallow in past crimes, a lecture on forever-perpetuating imagined slights, and a demand that the ticket holder despise him or herself?
As for The Perry Como Christmas Show itself, it’s fairly indicative of similar entries from this time period, with the same trait prevailing for most: the musical numbers work far better than the comedy bits. In the opening, Perry wanders through a stylized Marshall Field’s, executing some okay sight gags, but his subsequent monologue is only amusing because he’s not very good at it (Como was the first to say he couldn’t tell a joke…but that doesn’t mean the self-deprecating Como wasn’t naturally funny).
Speaking of not naturally funny, Rich Little arrives for the first of several interactions with Perry, this time doing Raymond Burr (his padded belly gets a laugh, at least). A set piece with children in a toy shop, to the strains of Como’s ghostly Toyland is next (of course there are puppy mill puppies there!), followed by Peggy Fleming’s intro, with Little doing a bad Howard Cosell (Como, who had an excellent sense of humor about himself, doesn’t smile at Little’s, “First a soubrette on skates and now a singer on the skids,”).
5-time U.S. champion, 3-time world champion, and Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming’s first skating number is top-notch, as she gracefully moves through a particularly evocative set (it reminded me of the Doctor Zhivago “ice house” set, only larger), all frosty blue and white, with a roaring fire as a nice counterpoint as Perry is heard singing It’s That Time of Year. Lovely.
Little is back, doing an adequate Johnny Carson (who can’t do Carson?) before attempting an atrocious Jean “Edith Bunker” Stapleton (CBS, plugging away), one which Como seems to react to with stunned incomprehension. Como’s writers, Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth, do come up with a great exchange, though: Edith exclaims, “Oh my goodness…are you still alive?” to which a hilariously nonplussed Como concedes, “I admit it’s hard to tell sometimes, but I am.” (Como was kidding Como way before SCTV).
Peggy has another graceful skating bit, this time with animated penguins (kids probably liked that…although she looks mortified going in for that double kiss), before Perry has the impossible task of not plugging his latest hit Christmas single, Christmas Dream. The reason he can’t really “sell” it? It was then being featured in the big-screen movie, The Odessa File, with Jon Voight, a suspense thriller about Nazis and the Holocaust (not exactly a link GTE was looking for with their Christmas special).
Finally The Carpenters get a number, singing Ring Christmas Bells, which they pull off flawlessly. Of course the producers couldn’t just let the music keep unrolling; Little has to interrupt with a Jack Benny bit as Santa. Hysterically, the little kid extra gets a huge laugh from Como when she ad libs, with perfect Borscht Belt timing and delivery, “Buy some toys?!?”, effortlessly topping Little.
Karen Carpenter then sings a remarkably soulful Santa Claus is Coming to Town (what an artist—that voice is just…supernaturally beautiful), before she performs a duet medley with Perry, with each singing the other’s big hits. She’s clearly into this segment, but at one point the camera catches Perry looking off-camera like he’s trying to calculate when tee-off time is. I would have liked a lot more of this, and a lot less comedy.
Como then narrates the story of the first Christmas, a story he says we like to hear again and again “because of what it says, and because it’s true,” (you have to admire his faith and certainty—what superstar would lay out his Christian beliefs so plainly, without fear, today?). This segment is quite well done from a technical standpoint, with imaginatively stylized sets, beautiful lighting (lighting director John Freschi won an Emmy for his work here), and the effect of several carols sung by Como, such as O Little Town of Bethlehem, The First Noel, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, and We Three Kings, laid over the soundtrack (if you’re not familiar with these songs, it’s because some lawyer 30 years ago said you weren’t allowed to sing them in school). Thankfully, Rich Little does not show up as George Burns, playing the innkeeper (my wife did, however, suggest that Joseph may plausibly have been the actual father of Jesus, because the actor playing him was quote/unquote “hot, like Kris Kristofferson.” Thank you for that cogent hermeneutical observation, Donna).
Finally, Perry, alone on a stage lit up with psychedelic tie-dye light patterns, sings Oh, Holy Night, with sincerity and emotion (and flawless technical ease), before signing off with an unembellished, “From all of us, to all of you: a very Merry Christmas. Good night.” No plug for an upcoming show or appearance in Vegas. No last dig at half the country’s population being “deplorable” or “threats to democracy.” Just a simple Christmas wish for his viewers. No one will blame you for tearing up at this lovely moment; no one will question you lamenting this lost world, long gone.