Christmas Past

The fascinating stories behind your favorite Christmas traditions

Backstory — Christmas Old Time Radio

image of an old time radio microphone

Getting tired of 24-hour Christmas movie marathons and stale cartoon specials? Take a trip back in time to the golden age of radio.

You may like to check out the Christmas Old Time Radio podcast or search around Archive.org to continue your listening.

Hear some Christmas old time radio for yourself

We love old time radio here at Christmas Past! You can check out recommended shows here.

Music in this episode

Episode transcript

Brian Earl 0:02
There’s a term we hear a lot of nowadays, Golden Age, people love to announce that we’re in a golden age of something, whether it’s television, neuroscience or even podcasts. It seems like we’re in a golden age of Golden Ages, and the term just might start to lose its meaning from being used too much or too loosely. But there is one Golden Age whose golden glow has never tarnished that period from the early 1920s to the early 50s. That was indisputably and will forever remain the golden age of radio. When television came along in the 1950s. It became the dominant medium for scripted programs. But before then, households all across America were immersed in a vast and varied world of audio and imagination. They could hear classic novels brought to life could hear sitcoms and sci fi and Western tales of adventure and suspense, and my personal favorite

Recording 1:02
man with a action packed expense account. America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator Dr. Sterling Johnny dollar,

Brian Earl 1:08
the hard boiled private eyes. The story goes that the very first radio program was broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1906. Some historians dispute that date but who am I to question a story that combines two of my favorite things? Speaking of which, the golden age of radio brought Christmas cheer to the masses, the same way television does today, with Christmas themed episodes of our favorite shows and Christmas variety specials. And thanks to the internet, a whole new generation can discover the holiday magic. I’m Brian Earl, this is Christmas Past. Let’s start with that quintessential Christmas classic A Christmas Carol.

Recording 1:55
Year after year Charles Dickens Christmas carol helps us to cherish the real Yuletide feeling of goodwill and joy and helping the other but

Steve Darnell 2:03
certainly one of the great Christmas radio traditions was Lionel Barrymore in A Christmas Carol

Brian Earl 2:10
Steve Darnell hosts a show called Those were the days on w DCB. In Chicago,

Recording 2:15
hearing Lionel Barrymore and Dickens Christmas Carol has become a traditional part of Christmas and millions of homes throughout the life.

Brian Earl 2:22
Don’t you just love how those old radio announcer spoke. Apparently, it was also a golden age of smooth baritones. Barrymore first performed Scrooge for radio in 1934. Others would follow him like Basil Rathbone and Orson Welles. But Barrymore was the most popular radio Scrooge.

Recording 2:45
Live I add my way. All right, Christmas. Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas.

Brian Earl 2:52
Somebody once said that radio is the most visual medium. Of course, that’s not actually true. But you can’t help but appreciate the way these old time shows us dialogue and music and sound effects to paint a vividly immersive mental picture.

Recording 3:07
Lux Radio theater, starring James George Donna Reed and Victor Mar. And it’s a wonderful life.

Brian Earl 3:15
It’s a Wonderful Life is another holiday essential. And if you’re like me, you’ve seen that movie more times. And you can remember, it’s probably playing on TV somewhere right now. But maybe you didn’t know that it was also adapted for radio, with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed reprising their roles. But the strange thing was

Steve Darnell 3:32
the one time that Lux radio theatre did It’s a Wonderful Life. They did it in March of 1947, which always kills me.

Brian Earl 3:39
Actually, maybe it’s not so strange that the radio show came out in March when you consider that the film itself was released in January. Technically, It premiered in December of 1946, which the studio did on purpose so that it could be considered for a 1946 Academy Award. But it was released to general audiences on January 7, and when that film was released, business was very poor. It was not a commercial success. The year it was released, it plays to number 26 in box office sales and ended up losing about a half million dollars for the studio. The Lux production may have been a kind of advertising for the film. And by the way, that’s Lyle Barrymore in the film is the evil Mr. Potter, but the Lux production is a charming 30 minute abridged version. And luckily we don’t have to worry about anybody colorizing it.

Recording 4:32
This is the story of George Bailey, citizen of Bedford Falls, New York, George bear.

Brian Earl 4:38
And of course who could forget that heartwarming sentimental classic where the devil forms a plot to go to the North Pole and murder Santa Claus. Wait…what?

Recording 4:48
Did you ever hear about plot to overthrow Christmas?

Brian Earl 4:50
That’s from a radio play that premiered in 1938. on CBS is Norman Corwin words without music, a play that none other than Orson Welles does. describes as

Recording 5:01
a delicious and utterly delirious Brigadoon of a thing.

Steve Darnell 5:04
The writer of the plot to overthrow Christmas was a dear man by the name of Norman Corwin. He was considered the poet laureate of radio the story when said that, around mid December, someone from CBS came in said, Hey, I see your show is going to air on Christmas Day this year. Do you have a description or a story title, we can send out with our publicity material and almost without thinking he said the plot to overthrow Christmas.

Brian Earl 5:31
So the story is that the devil is concerned that all the peace and goodwill from Christmas is getting in the way of his efforts to corrupt humanity

Recording 5:39
all these years, that is undiminished goodwill on earth every late December because of Christmas,

Brian Earl 5:46
so the devil calls a meeting of some of his most depraved souls to hear proposals for dealing with the problem. Caligula proposes poisoning Christmas foods and candy

Recording 5:56
let us give some presents to Candy sticks and things to chew fruits and nuts and little cakes, poisonous rattlesnake

Brian Earl 6:03
Nero suggests defiling Christmas music by making it jazz. And here’s Orson Welles as Nero in a 1944 production,

Recording 6:11
but Christmas can easily be corrupted if you take and Swain all the Christmas carols, I think it’d be evil.

Brian Earl 6:18
And then Simon legree suggests infiltrating Congress and banning Christmas,

Recording 6:23
they can all get together and pass a law ain’t gonna be no Christmas anymore.

Brian Earl 6:29
The winning proposal is Lucretia Borgias suggestion of murdering Santa Claus. The group holds a lottery to decide who the assassin will be. And Nero wins.

Recording 6:40
Lots have been gone. I’m glad to say the honor has fallen niro’s way.

Steve Darnell 6:48
I can’t think of many people who could conceive of doing that today. I don’t know that people’s minds are attuned to telling stories in verse, but what he ended up telling was this absolutely wonderful story.

Brian Earl 7:02
The rest of the story follows Nero’s trip to the North Pole and his showdown with Santa. And if you want to know how it turns out, you’re just going to have to listen for yourself.

When I was growing up, I always loved those Christmas themed episodes of my favorite TV shows and cartoons. The Flintstones Yogi Bear, even Pac Man, even he man? Yes, all of them, and many, many others got into the Christmas spirit at one point or another. It was not only great Christmas entertainment, but it was also fun to see all of my favorite characters taken out of their normal context for a bit. I imagine that’s how radio audiences felt in 1953 when one of the most popular police dramas of the day put down the guns and cuffs for the episode that aired on December 22.

Steve Darnell 7:53
Yes, this is one of the one of the absolute greats this dragnet story, the story is they get a call at Christmas Eve that the Jesus is missing from from the manger scene.

Recording 8:06
Burglary. Friday.

Yes, that’s right, you have the right department.

Steve Darnell 8:11
And, of course, the police investigate this, like it’s a theft, which is their job. And so they go to, you know, people who may have been in the church that day and ask if they seen anything, they go to pawn shops and ask if anybody brought in a statue of Jesus. And should we say spoiler alert now, Brian,

Brian Earl 8:34
but I won’t spoil it. I’ll just invite you to discover the magic on your own. And by the way, that episode was adapted for television in the 60s and featured a young Barry Williams before he went on to play Greg on the Brady Bunch. I could go on and on with all of this. And maybe I’ll do another episode about Christmas Golden Age radio in the future. But I hope I’ve given you a taste of the world of Christmas spirit just waiting for you to discover it, and maybe make it part of your celebrating the season. I’ll put links to all of these shows and other resources on my website, Christmas pass podcast.com. If you’ve been listening throughout the season, and also reading some of the things I post on social media, maybe you’ve noticed this one overarching theme, which is that Christmas is constantly evolving. People from just a couple hundred years ago would look at our modern Christmas celebration, and they’d barely recognize it. It’s like Professor Forbes said in our series on Santa Claus, Christmas is like a snowball. As it moves it not only grows but also picks up the things in its path. What may have begun as a solemn religious observance eventually became entangled with some of the winter solstice celebrations that already existed in Europe. Then it picked up various pieces of European folklore. And when it came to America, it fell under the influence of industrialism, and commercialism. So today Christmas is not only the most dominant of All holidays, but also the most inclusive. specifically because of that snowballing effect. Those who want Christmas to be a spiritually significant celebration can certainly make it that. But other people are inclined to celebrate Christmas in a more secular way. So it should come as no surprise that many of your friends and neighbors who identify as non religious or atheist feel right at home celebrating Christmas, like my wonderful new friend Anna in California.

Anna in California 10:26
As an atheist, a fifth generation atheist at that, I’m sure many people would be surprised to hear that Christmas is my favorite holiday. My family may not believe in God, we do believe in family traditions and values, spending time with our loved ones. So growing up, a typical Christmas one is followed. My mother sister and I would go pick out a tree and we decorate it while singing Christmas carols. But we use the same ornaments. Every year, we had a paper garland chain that my sister my mom made when my sister was a child, and they lived in England. In addition, each year, my mother would buy my sister and I a new ornament to add to the tree. She’d write our name on it and the year. And the idea was that as we got older and started our own families, we’d have a collection of ornaments for our own trees. We would bake after that, and we’re known for the treats we’d hand out at the holidays. And of course, we make sugar cookies, shaped like Santa trees and stars. And we just spend the day baking and singing. So I imagine that my atheist Christmas is similar to many Christian Christmases, just minus the Christmas mass. And I think everyone no matter their religious beliefs, can agree that a key part of the holidays is the opportunity to spend time with your loved ones. And Christmas provides an opportunity to be with my loved ones and appreciate the simple pleasantries of life. Now, usually

Brian Earl 11:53
at this point in the show, it’s when I tell you how you can share your own Christmas memory if you are so inclined. But guess what, guys, we’re almost done for the season. Don’t worry, I said almost. We have one more full length episode coming up, followed by two mini episodes that will come out on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The format for those two episodes will be a little different from what we’ve done so far. But I assure you they will be just as entertaining and contained just as much Christmas spirit. Maybe more so. So until then, let me tell you that Christmas Past is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly, Brian Earl. I’d like to say thank you to Steve Darnell and my friend Anna. And of course as always, thank you for listening. Come on by Christmas pass podcast.com and check out the show notes for this episode, because I’ll have links to the radio programs we discussed. And of course, I’m still sharing vintage Christmas stuff and Christmas trivia on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. So search for Christmas pass podcast in all three places. And you’ll find me and I hope to find you next time.

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