Did I tell you about the time
I met Mr. Ed?
For those of you who:
A. are blessed with being Ridiculously Young (i.e. under 30),
B. missed Nick at Nite in the early '90's, I should point out
that Mr. Ed was a talking horse, the subject of a (very) early
'60's sitcom that actually started out in syndication, was quickly
picked up by one of the Big Boys (CBS, I think), and ran for
years. Its human star was one of the cats who co-starred in
George Pal's immortal 1960 film "The Time Machine"
(the one with the fake Scottish accent).
I'm guessing it was 1962, though
it may have been '61. It was September, and I'd gone with my
family (including at least my grandfather, [Dad's side] and who
knows how many others) to the L.A. County Fair. It was my first
time - I was five or six., and fascinated to actually ride a
monorail outside Disneyland! Amazing, a time of wide eyed innocent
wonder . . .
And at some point we're moseying
down some horse stalls, and lo and behold - Mr. Ed.
I was, dear friends, young
enough to believe the horse actually recited his own lines.
I spent long minutes trying to get him to talk, only to be told
that "A man has to make him talk".
At which point I indignantly
responded, "Well, where is he? Where is the
man who'll make him talk?" - assuming of course that a trainer
would show up and get the horse to start talking.
I believe I was gently though
firmly led away at that point.
What does this have to do with
the Holiday Season so soon returned to us? What, indeed, does
this have to do with anything?
I guess as much as anything
I told that story to tell you some others. Mainly, I wanted
to exactly Date myself. The uncanny thing about childhood is
that one grows so quickly - in the space of a few scant years
one moves from absolute all-believing innocence to a sort of
jaded early wisdom - for me, that would be approximately 1960
to 1967. Before then, I have but a few blurred memories - and
though I entered '67 very much the boy I'd been for the past
couple of years, by that Christmas I was playing guitar, and
devoting at least ninety percent of my waking musings to the
twin glories of Music and the Fairer Sex - a condition that has
happily remained relatively unchanged to this day.
Ah, there - I've finally mentioned
Christmas. Is it not Christmas, more even than New Year's Day,
that reminds us of the passing of time, and the changing of the
years? The Yuletide celebrations seem tailor made for guaranteed
memories, and as we look back, marking the passing of certain
Christmases, we can most easily conjure up some clear cut memory
from each one, and marvel at how everything has changed - and
look around us in wonder that so many co-celebrants from years
past are with us still. It is a time to look back with fond
regret that Time has taken so many from us, and yet a time as
well to celebrate new births, new friends, brand new traditions
born of necessity, and ancient ones kept alive through the will
of heart and memory.
As previous Christmas columns
will have alerted you, it is certainly the time when this author,
at least, tends to get ridiculously nostalgic - which he does
with no apologies, since after all what better time than these
Saturnalian Misrule days to be Ridiculous?
I was remarking on the terrible
magic of Childhood - how so very very few years work such changes
on one. (One can almost see one's parents, somewhat wistfully
sad at how quickly one is growing, yet secretly delighted that
they're now a year closer to getting said young ruffian out of
The tale that began this column
was told mainly to demonstrate that as late as September 1962
I was innocent enough to believe that the horse Mr. Ed actually
talked. That Christmas brought us "Mr. Magoo's Christmas
Carol" (which we delved rather heavily into in '97), the
Christmas Special that remains my favorite of them all to this
A scant two years later, "Rudolph
the Red-Nosed Reindeer" made its debut, and by then I was
already sophisticated enough to be interested in watching mainly
to catch the much vaunted stop motion animation it was to employ.
Similarly, when the "Charlie
Brown Christmas" hit a year later, in '65, my main interest
was in seeing how they would animate the Peanuts characters,
and whether or not the voices would ring true. (I'd missed the
brief Peanuts animations used to open Tennessee Ernie Ford's
show in the spring of '61.)
It goes then without saying
that, when the next Christmas gave us "How the Grinch Stole
Christmas", my interests were again in how one animates
Dr. Seuss - although I must admit Boris Karloff's involvement
was an added plum.
Imagine, though, that wonderful
era - all those now Classic specials appearing in that short
space of time, one right after the other! For all my supposed
Purely Technical interest in most of them, I was of course won
over, moved to tears, and all the rest of that sentimental jibberish
- I am in fact still moved to tears when they reemerge like clockwork
at this Time of Year, though what percentage of precipitation
is due to memories of that era itself, I cannot say.
"Rudolph", from 1964,
was the first one I welcomed with less than complete instant
acceptance. The song had, after all, been around since my birth,
and years longer even. This was an attempt to deliberately create
a new Instant Classic, and I was, even at that early age, skeptical,
though of course subsequently won over, as I've said.
And yet it had been two short
years since I believed that certain horses could talk!
When and how did this innocent
naivety crumble? Again, I cannot say.
I do know that sometime in
early '63 the area of Disneyland now occupied by "Great
Moments With Mr. Lincoln" was occupied by what looked like
a fairly non-descript sound stage - essentially an ordinary box
of a building, nothing to look at, and yet . . .
The Mickey Mouse Club had been
off the air for a few years, mainly due to Walt's disaffection
with the ABC mindset (ironic now, isn't it?), but was airing
daily in syndication. And this little building was the place
where one could actually register and become an official Mickey
Mouse Club member! I did, of course, and wish I'd kept the certificate
- but what lay beyond that register desk was the real treasure.
They'd evidently needed to
fill space temporarily, and had taken many of the large, over
sized toy props from the "Babes in Toyland" film and
housed them there. It was quite beautiful, to be able to wander
through and actually touch these objects that had a year before
been larger than life on silver screens everywhere! At that
moment (Spring '63, I believe) I became surer than ever that
Disney actually filmed all their movies right there in Disneyland.
Heck, they had enough different backdrops between the various
Lands, and of course the "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"
exhibit, featuring the actual Squid and a good part of the submarine
from the actual film (including the wonderful organ, now enshrined
in the Haunted Mansion) was added proof.
So, a belief equally innocent
and soon enough to be shattered, though more "practical"
a notion than the talking horse belief of a year before. Clearly,
one begins in absolute fancy, then perhaps de-evolves into skepticism
by degrees. No matter, there is enough real magic in the world
we inhabit to dwarf all fancies of youth.
Of course, the greatest Real
Magic is frequently to be found in that same all too short span
(We shall return to "Babes
in Toyland" in a moment, via my by now patented ciruitous
My family moved from Canoga
Park to Palos Verdes in late 1960. I was four.
While I have many distinct
memories from Canoga Park, I cannot effectively recall a single
one of the Christmases. Indeed, the first Christmas I can honestly
remember is Christmas, 1960.
Ah, 1960. I was the oldest,
and thus the only child old enough to accompany my parents as
they went house hunting that year. On one such occasion we began
the day - a very gloomy, cloud-ridden day - with a stop at the
Barnum & Bailey Circus. Possibly my first circus, I remember
an overload of sensory activity, and I remember it pleasantly,
but no specifics come to mind. Later that day we drove I know
not where, for I spent a good deal of the time asleep in the
car. I recall waking up, and it was raining as if it had always
rained and always would, and on the radio they were informing
us that the very spot where we'd been to see the circus that
morning was currently under four feet of water!
Now, I was decidedly under
four feet in height at the time, and I confess the concept
disturbed me. I had visions of adults wading through a newborn
sea, clutching the tiny hands of perishing children.
My parents quickly assured
me that the authorities would have made sure that no one drowned.
I was assuaged to some degree, but was haunted by wonderful,
terrible visions of a place I'd actually been to suddenly engulfed
in water higher than me . . .
Now, the particular street
we moved to was one of those infuriating ones that starts, then
stops again, effectively keeping our location secret from the
world at large, and initially even from ourselves. I still remember
riding to our new home for the first time, and not being able
to find the street. In retrospect it could not have taken us
very long, but my memories assure me that we spent long hours
in the Dead of that 1960 November Night, driving around and around
along the same streets, scarcely a light to be seen to guide
us. A strange, mysterious, and altogether appropriate way to
greet Palos Verdes.
For P.V. was magic, then.
The one library was housed in an old mansion that had been donated
to the city, and was a joy to walk through. Then there was -
wait, I digress too far, the magic of those first few years of
the '60's could fill a book, and perhaps will one day.
At any rate, we were barely
settled in when Christmas came, and for some reason the one gift
that stands out in memory was a very simple one. It was a fake
store, made of cardboard, with little cardboard drawers one could
open and close. It was given to all the kids, which might explain
its remaining in my memory. I can recall all of us looking at
each other and thinking, "I have to share? With
them?" Ah, youth. We set it up downstairs in the
garage, which was in itself a place of great mystery. The house
was built into a hillside, and hence the back walls were not
straight as walls ought to be, but stucco and concrete poured
over the existing curvature of the earth. It seemed primitive
and exciting, as it was.
The following Summer we discovered
that a local Elementary School showed movies every Monday, just
for kids. It was magical, to walk down tree lined streets, shepherded
by the older kids, and enter the magical world of Film, which
was still quite a novelty for me.
Imagine then my excitement
that Fall when I realized that I would actually be attending
Kindergarten at that very school! And yes, those who recall
our 1997 column will also recall that this was the setting of
the magical hail storm. Oh, what a Christmas! It was there
and then that we were taught to make those little paper rings,
one for each day leading up to Christmas - it was at that time
I first remember getting an Advent Calendar, those things where
each door has a date, and you open the doors one by one till
at last -
Well, till at last it's Christmas!
And the ritual of having a
Nativity scene, and bringing the little statues of the shepherds
closer and closer as December unwound, with the Wise Men a bit
behind them . . .
It was that Christmas, in 1961,
that I first realized the magic of Counting Down the Days.
Mostly, however, I was counting
the days until Disney's "Babes in Toyland" would be
released! Now, as we all know, the Disney merchandising department
goes for the kill whenever they can. Thus, I can attest, has
it ever been. The campaign for the December 1961 release of
"Babes in Toyland" had been going on at least since
June of that year. I know this to be true, having been there,
and especially having been "Babes in Toyland" crazy
Specifically, I remember being
taken by my grandmother (Dad's mom) to visit her mother - Grandma
Walsh. This would have probably been May or June of '61. As
on all such visits Grandma Walsh would bring out a basket full
of strange little toys, presumably to occupy me while they conversed.
I for one was far more fascinated by the very idea that my Grandma
could have had a mother of her own! I would feign playing and
attempt to eavesdrop during these visits, though sadly I recall
But on this occasion "Babes
in Toyland" was in the air, and I waxed enthusiastically
over its presumed virtues to Grandma Walsh, who calmly informed
me that she had taken my very grandmother to see the original
stage production when Grandma was my age!
What? Impossible! This Toyland
thing was not brand new, not created solely by Disney?
And Grandma was my age
Quite a jolt for a young mind,
let me tell you.
In retrospect, I now know of
course that "Babes" had its Broadway debut in late
1903, and it is therefore completely likely that, a few years
later, my born-in-1906 grandmother was taken as a wee thing to
the local presentation of the Road version. (Things moved a
tad slower then.)
Remarkable. And those are
some of the last words Great-Grandma spoke to me - a month later
she was gone. She died while drinking a toast in a Santa Monica
We should all go in such a
It was the first time I'd known
anyone to lose a Parent, and I recall being very uncertain as
to protocol, do we bother Grandma, do we leave her alone? Of
course we were so very young, and by Christmas it seemed as if
Grandma Walsh's passing had been decades ago.
And Christmas brought its magic
hail storm, the first one I'd ever seen, and the next brought
Magoo's "Christmas Carol" and Showboat, and by the
next I was playing Tiny Tim, and then the triple whammy for the
next three years of Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and the Grinch, and
by then I was asking for Beatle records for Christmas and . .
. and . . .
Ah, well, it was gone. The
great mysteries of life that can only be seen through the unjaded
eyes of innocence, all gone.
And yet, as I look back, I
see it all, and realize that that most venerated Ghost of Christmas
Past must indeed visit us all each December, and . . .
No, as I look back, I see myself
still there, playing, wondering, watching . . .
No, my friends, we ourselves
are Ghosts of Christmas Past, a cherished part of us still reenacting
the rites of old, we can see ourselves if we close our eyes -
impossibly young, taking for granted that which we will hold
most dear in years to come.
And so I say to one and all:
Chrismas time is coming
And no folk should be sad.
Oh, wait a minute! I forgot
one little thing - I was going to do a Top Ten Christmas thing,
wasn't I? (Well, I was, whether I mentioned it or not.)
I began musing over possible
candidates for a list of Top Ten Christmas Stories, when a strange
Five came to mind immediately,
without research, thumbing through old books, or anything.
Five came to mind, and were
somewhat of a surprise in some cases, and I quickly realized
that these five just had to be the most deserving. Here
then is my own little list of the Five Best Christmas Stories.
No Truman Capote or Dylan Thomas, though both are quite deserving
- it's a little eclectic, and runs from a piece that barely fills
two pages to a piece that is more properly considered a short
novel. Here they are.
Top Five Christmas Stories
A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens, December 1843
We begin with the one more
properly considered a short novel. Dickens was a great lover
of the Ghost Story, and some years after the publication of this
little tale, which made his reputation, he was was editing various
magazines on a regular basis, and was careful to ensure the inclusion
of a couple of ghostly tales in every Christmas edition. It
may thus be said that the late Victorian custom of ghost stories
for Christmas Eve was tremendously furthered, if not fathered,
by Charles Dickens
This one, of course, is the
Christmas tale of all tales. It is to this day impossible to
imagine the season without taking in some manifestation of the
story. Scrooge is, after all, all of us, every time we curse
the crowds, the traffic, every time indeed we fail to realize
that love for one's fellow man is arguably our most important
task in our fleeting lives, every time we descend to such baseness
we would be well served by a Spirit or two of our own. It is
extraordinary that the tale plays as well today as it did 156
A Hint for Next Christmas - A. A. Milne, 1921
This one is extremely short,
barely two pages. Nonetheless it is delightful, and quite funny.
(And yes, this is the very same author of the Pooh books!)
Crisp New Bills for Mr.
Teagle - Frank Sullivan,
December 21, 1935
Another humor bit - this one
originally from the New Yorker. It's a comic piece, with an
original Twist to this season of Tipping and calculating. I
once thought it would have made an uncommonly good Twilight Zone
episode, and was thus happily surprised to learn that it had
shown up in a recent issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.
An Iowa Christmas - Paul Engle, 1960
Oh, did I mention that when
Great Grandma took Grandma to "Babes in Toyland", it
was probably in Iowa? At any rate, this is a quiet little piece
- nothing more than a memory of a simpler, home made time. As
you know, there are thousands of such pieces, particularly when
Christmas is involved. I first read this over thirty years ago,
and have never been able to get it out of my mind. In short,
as extraordinary an evocation of American Christmases of Old
as you'll ever find.
Stubby Pringle's Christmas
- Jack Schaefer,
Schaefer wrote "Shane",
among other things, so as you might expect this tale has a Western
setting. "Christmas Carol" is, of course, well known
to you, the next two selections are humorous pieces, designed
to put the heyday of the season into perspective, and the immediately
preceding "Iowa Christmas" is not fiction at all, but
a simple memory, much as I've just subjected you to in this column.
I end, I think, very appropriately,
with this little Christmas tale about a lone cowboy, the promise
of a Barn Dance, and a lonely cabin out in the middle of nowhere.
No carolers for miles, no Victorians, no holly or any of that,
and yet if I were ever forced to pick one short story that embodied
the essence of Christmas, I should choose this one.
All these tales have found
their way into more than one Christmas collection. All these
tales will do you good.
And so take good cheer, enjoy
one another, and I'll see you in 2000!