Old-Time Radio Playlist: Christmas, Part 1

Starting today, I’ll be posting holiday old-time radio episodes every Tuesday and Thursday through Christmas day. I have about 600 to pick from, so let me know if you have any requests!

“The Radio-Phonograph”

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, December 19, 1948
“Harriet, dear, there are two times when you’re not supposed to be sensible: Finding a husband and Christmas.”
About The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: Ozzie Nelson first found fame as a bandleader. He hired Harriet Hilliard as his girl singer, and the two soon married. They appeared on radio’s The Red Skelton Show for three years before Ozzie developed this family comedy for them. To say it was successful is an understatement—The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet aired on radio from 1944 to 1954 and on television from 1952 to 1966.
Story:  Having recently made the major purchase of a radio-phonograph, Ozzie and Harriet make the sensible decision to forego buying each other Christmas gifts. If you think they have no trouble sticking to that decision, you’ve clearly never watched or listened to a situation comedy.
Notable Performers: Tommy Bernard and Henry Blair play David and Ricky—the Nelson boys wouldn’t start playing themselves until April 1949. Radio stalwart Lurene Tuttle plays Harriet’s mother. Janet Waldo plays Emmy Lou, an annoying teenage character who reflects the late 1940s fascination with “bobby-soxers.”
Referencing Radio: The announcer mentions Just Plain Bill, a soap opera that ran from 1932 to 1955.
Musical Notes: Ozzie sings a bit of “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” a jazz standard that dates from 1917. (It’ll always be dear to me for inspiring the punch line of Ted Baxter’s knock-knock joke.)
My Verdict: Television’s Nelsons never did much for me, but the radio show has a warmth and charm that’s won me over. You probably won’t laugh out loud over this episode, but you might enjoy its pleasant holiday feel.

“The Crosby Family,” December 20, 1950

The Bing Crosby Chesterfield Show
“I still can’t understand why parents insist on stifling their kids’ mental development at this time of the year.”
About The Bing Crosby Chesterfield Show: Perhaps the most popular performer of his era, Bing Crosby appeared on radio regularly from the 1930s through the 1950s. Chesterfield cigarettes sponsored a 30-minute Crosby show that aired from 1949 to 1952.
Notable Performers: It’s strictly a family affair, here—Bing appears with wife Dixie Lee and sons Gary, Dennis, Philip, and Lindsay.
Musical Notes: Bing opens the show by singing “Adeste Fideles,” first in Latin and then in English. (During the English version, the studio audience joins in.) Bing and Gary sing a jazzy “Jingle Bells and a song called “That Christmas Feeling.” Lindsay and Bing croon “I’d Like to Hitch a Ride with Santa Claus.” Philip and Dennis sing “The Snowman.” Bing closes the show with “Silent Night.”
My Verdict: Great music, and the family banter is more amusing than I would have expected. This program exudes so much holiday warmth that you can almost forget every negative thing you’ve heard about Bing’s family life. Almost.

“Names on the Land,” December 24, 1945

Cavalcade of America
“We hope you liked America, wrapped up in tinsel bright. To each one, Merry Christmas, and to all, a fond goodnight.”    
About Cavalcade of America
: Sponsored by Dupont, Cavalcade of America aired on radio from 1935 to 1953. It highlighted important stories, from the celebrated to the unsung, in American history.
Story: A versifying train conductor leads listeners on an alphabetical journey across America, and his passengers explain the origins of odd place names, from Animus to Zoar.
Based Upon: The book Names on the Land by George Rippey Stewart, first published in 1945 and, happily, reissued in 2008.
Notable Performers: Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz himself, plays the train conductor.
My Verdict: This is like H.L. Mencken meets Dr. Seuss—and I mean that in a good way. Names have always fascinated me, both personal and place names, and I’ve read and re-read the chapters on names in Mencken’s The American Language. This show is right up my alley. The verse, as performed by Morgan, sparkles. Without any flag-waving, the whole thing evokes a good feeling about the American character.  As Matt Weiland wrote about Stewart’s book, it’s a “plea for the triumph of cardinal American virtues: buoyancy and tolerance, curiosity and confidence, love of the land and faith in the future.”

“Christmas Story,” December 23, 1952

“I just want to say that this is the best dog-gone Christmas I ever had.”
About Gunsmoke: Radio’s Gunsmoke aired from 1952 to 1961, a forerunner of the popular TV show that ran from 1955 to 1975. The radio version is known for its grittier portrayal of Dodge City and its inhabitants and for the inventiveness of its sound patterns.
Story: It’s Christmas Eve and Matt is returning to Dodge City, though he has little hope of making it home for Christmas: He’s 40 miles from Dodge and has lost his horse to a broken leg. A drifter who offers him a ride wants to hear about Christmas, so Matt describes the previous year’s holiday.
My Verdict: Gunsmoke is one of my top three favorite radio programs, along with Vic and Sade and The Jack Benny Show. The show’s portrayal of the old West is so dark, though, and its typical body count is so high, that I have to experience the show in small doses. That’s why the Christmas episode is such a relief—it shines like a Christmas tree in the middle of a darkened prairie.

“The English Butler,” December 23, 1945

The Jack Benny Program
“It seems impossible that there could be any more suffering than mankind has just endured, but it is possible and it will happen, if we lose sight of the lessons so bitterly learned. Let us remember that men everywhere are our neighbors and their life and freedom is as precious them as ours is to us.”
About The Jack Benny Program: I feel inadequate to explain The Jack Benny Program, and its importance in American radio. I’ve found that the International Jack Benny Fan Club is a good source for information.
Story: Jack’s Beverly Hills neighbors the Colmans are making a reluctant appearance at his house for dinner. To impress them, Jack hires an “English” butler with an impenetrable accent.
Google-Worthy References: Ronald Colman gets a big laugh when he says, “I’ll never forget when Benny invited us to his house three years ago and we didn’t show up. It made him so angry he wrote a letter to Britain asking for his bundle back.” Bundles for Britain, launched in 1940, was an American charitable program that provided knitted goods and used clothing to British citizens enduring Germany’s bombing. (I can’t resist sharing a passage from Life’s May 19, 1942, issue, which profiled Bundles for Britain founder Natalie Wales Latham: “Energetic and precocious, New England-born Mrs. Latham has been married and divorced twice. It was she who popularized the mother-and-daughter fashion fad which Life reported three summers ago. In 1939, on a vacation after her second divorce, she began thinking about Britain’s plight, noticed that no one seemed to know how to help, said to herself, ‘This is the damndest thing,’ and forthwith started Bundles for Britain.”
Notable Performers: Ronald and Benita Colman.
Musical Notes: Jack plays, and Ronald Colman mocks, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” Throughout the fall of 1945, competing versions of this Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn postwar hit were duking it out for chart pre-eminence. According to Wikipedia, a recording by Harry James with vocalist Kitty Kallen topped the Billboard charts the week this episode aired.
My Verdict: Jack harassing his Beverly Hills neighbors never fails to amuse me. The classy Colmans make the best foils of all for Jack’s pretensions. Their 20 appearances on the Benny show are delightful. This episode offers many pleasures, from “Manchester” to Ronald Colman’s moving Christmas toast. And on Christmas episodes, I don’t even feel the need to fast forward through the soloist’s performance; Larry Stevens’ Ave Maria is lovely.

It Takes a (Fisher Price Play Family) Village

The gift I’d wished the hardest for in 1974–the Fisher Price Play Family Village.

My parents captured many Christmas morning photographs when I was young, but this one from 1974 is a little unusual. Most of our Christmas photos are candids taken in the midst of our present-opening frenzy. In this one, I’m pausing to pose in front of a half-unwrapped gift. The smile on my face shows how happy I was to uncover that gift–the Fisher Price Play Family Village.

Fisher Price began producing the Village in 1973. At age 6, I longed for it as intensely as I would long for the Barbie Star Traveler a few years later. I’d loved Play Family toys since I was a toddler, and the Village was the ultimate play set, with a fire station, police station, dentist’s office, apartment, restaurant, theater, garage, and more.

I’ve been wanting to acquire a Village for years, but finding a complete one at a price I was willing to pay proved difficult. Finally, about a month ago, I was able to add this toy to my collection.

I wanted to share a few pictures of it, simply because its colorful lithography and smiling people make me happy. As much as I enjoy nostalgia, I try not to fall into the trap of pining for a simpler time. In 1974, our country was dealing with Watergate, continued involvement in Vietnam, and an oil embargo–things were anything but simple. But a toy like Play Family Village transports me to a time when my parents still stood between me and the outside world’s troubles, and daily life seemed almost as uncomplicated as a walk down Play Family Main Street.

Welcome to Embarrassing Treasures


Pure plastic-fueled delight

Memory’s a freakish bank/
where embarrassing treasures/
still draw interest–
Marge Piercy

As I approached our tree on Christmas morning, 1978, I knew I wouldn’t be getting the toy I wanted most.

The Barbie Star Traveler motor home, in all its orange-upholstered-and-rainbow-striped glory, was easily two feet long.


Under the tree, it would have been unmistakable.

Its absence was a disappointment but not a shock. My parents had spent the past few weeks telling me the motor home was out of the question. It was too big, too expensive, and too likely to end up broken, since I didn’t take good care of my toys.

I don’t remember what presents I did open that morning, but I’m sure I liked them—I always seemed to get more presents than I deserved and more than I imagined my parents (those masters of tamping down expectations) could provide.

After admiring our presents for a while, we would start getting ready for the two-hour trip to my grandparents’ house. Both sets of grandparents, actually, lived in the same small Southwestern Pennsylvanian town, and so did nearly all our extended family. Christmas morning at our house was cozy, but the day would have felt empty without somewhere else to go, a reason to dress up, a big Grandma-prepared dinner that started with the passing of Oplatek, and a chance to see aunts, uncles, and various cousins.

Sitting in the back seat of the car, listening to Christmas carols on the radio, I looked forward to finding out what waited for me under my maternal grandparents’ artificial tree. It had been sitting there, wrapped, for several weeks; I had seen it and shook it on our last visit. It was shaped like a clothing box, but larger and surprisingly heavy, and it made only a dull thump. It didn’t correspond to anything I’d circled in the JC Penney Christmas catalog.

Present time at my grandparents’ house was orderly, with each person opening his or her present as the others looked on. My little brother probably went first, and then it was my turn. I remember sitting in the chair beside the tree as I tore into the red wrapping paper. The box inside was plain, so I had to open it too. I reached in and pulled out my present.

A frying pan?

As I held it up by the handle to show everyone, I’m sure I looked confused. It flitted through my mind that both my grandparents had suddenly gone senile, so I attempted a smile to spare their feelings.

“Oh, how silly!” My grandmother said. “That’s your mother’s present. Yours must be in the closet.”

I was relieved, but still perplexed, until she brought out the box that really belonged to me. It was easily two feet long.

I look terrible in the picture of me opening the Star Traveler—but my awkward toothy smile radiates joy.

My grandparents have passed away, and so has my little brother. My parents eventually divorced. The town all my relatives called home has decayed, and virtually no relatives live there anymore. My original Star Traveler disappeared at some point, after years of heavy play, but I bought another one at a country auction a few years ago for $7. Watching my daughter’s Barbies inhabit it, I can still feel a little of that original thrill.

True nostalgia-junkies like me can even experience a thrill from artifacts that pre-date our own past; that’s why everything from old-time radio shows to outdated advice books for teenagers bring me pleasure.

That’s the feeling I want to capture in this blog, which is devoted to bygone amusements, experiences, objects, and ideas.

I hope that, in time, you will share your own embarrassing treasures here.

P.S. This awesome blog post shows the real-life model for the Star Traveler.