Finding those mostly monochromatic gems from the nifty fifties and early-1960s on DVD isn't that easy, many of those long ago specials were broadcast just once and so much of our TV history has been lost due to neglect.
The Spirit of Christmas
You might be surprised to learn that one of the best-selling DVDs this time of the year is 'The Spirit of Christmas', which contains the Bell System's (remember the Phone Company?) 'A Visit from St. Nicholas' (or 'T'was the Night Before Christmas') performed by the Mabel and Les Beaton Marionettes.
This fifteen minute color film was screened in movie theaters, on local kiddie TV shows, in classrooms and in churches all during the fifties and sixties. This quirky 1950 release has been largely unseen since due to the comparatively crude, herky jerky puppetry, hopeless old fashioned but that's the appeal.
A Shari Lewis Christmas
One of the most remarkable DVD releases of 2008 was a revelation - 'A Shari Lewis Christmas' with four episodes of Shari and Lambchop's 1950's local New York City programs. This is an absolute delight from start to finish, pure black and white magic, like watching a Broadway production shot on the fly. Shot on a miniscule, 1960's daytime TV budget, the production is dependent wholly on Shari's ability to make her fanciful characterizations spring to life, sometimes singing and dancing as three different personas simultaneously. As a result the original musical numbers sizzle with holiday cheer, this is a rare opportunity to discover some truly remarkable Christmas magic that you've never seen.
Amahl & The Night Visitors
Another lost gem enjoying a new life on DVD is the highly acclaimed 1955 NBC production of 'Amahl & The Night Visitors', television's first original opera and the medium's first holiday tradition with new versions produced every year between 1951 and 1963 (with reruns through 1966). This emotionally powerful depiction of the birth of Christ ended not because of low ratings, audience numbers were on the rise, but a disagreement between the composer Gian Carlo Menotti and the NBC network.
Half-hour Christmas Specials from the 50's and 60's
Holiday themed episodes of weekly series are more readily available: The Beverly Hillbillies, The Jack Benny Program, The Adventures of Long John Silver, Annie Oakley, The Ruggles, The Andy Griffith Show, Abbott & Costello, Winchell & Mahoney, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Father Knows Best, The Honeymooners, Howdy Doody, and The Donna Reed Show and more can be found on various compilations. These sugary half-hour treats really bring back that robust 1950s, early-1960s Yuletide flavor.
Don't Forget Lassie
Looking to have a retro Christmas experience with the young ones or maybe do some major regressing? 'Lassie's Christmas Stories' contains three episodes of 'Timmie & Lassie' from 1958-1961 and 'Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: Christmas with the Nelsons' serves up five heartwarming storylines that revel in the spirit of Christmases past.
Amos 'n' Andy
My favorite holiday episode of a 1950's sitcom has to be from 'Amos 'n' Andy' which can only be found on bootleg editions of the entire series, it's been under lock and key since being banned from broadcast in 1966.
It's a touching and tender tale that did what most Christmas specials didn't and don't - play up the religious aspect of the season. The scene where Amos explains to his daughter the meaning behind The Lord's Prayer left an indelible mark on my memory. On top of that this was the first black Santa seen on television - and likely the last until George Jefferson dressed as Kris Kringle on 'All in the Family' a couple of decades later. Talk about your holiday traditions, this 'Amos 'n' Andy' script was very close to the radio version that was performed each year from 1940 until 1954, most of those airings can be found easily online and are well worth checking out.
Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams and Perry Como
Musical variety stars like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams and Perry Como were naturals for delivering Christmastime cheer, returning season after season with new festive family oriented extravaganzas. I'm not crazy about 'Best Of' collections. I'm a purist, I enjoy watching the entire programs yet there are surprisingly few full-length musical variety specials available for purchase.
Frank Sintra, Bing Crosby, and Judy Garland Christmas Specials
For true Yule fuel the pairing of Frank & Bing from Sinatra's short-lived 1957 weekly series is the quintessential holiday retro jam, an hour with two legendary performers at their peak, relaxed and singing the songs we associated with Christmas in the days before before Grandma got run over.
Judy Garland's sensational 1963 Christmas show has been digitally restored to its original luster and it's one of the most compelling you'll ever see. Watch in amazement as Judy flubs the lyrics to Mel Torme's 'Christmas Song' and then breaks your heart with a rendition of 'Over the Rainbow'. I talked about that show on Bravo's The Christmas Special Christmas Special and Great Things About the Holidays.
Bob Hope Christmas Specials
There are two Bob Hope Christmas DVDs, one with his militaristic and somewhat controversial Vietnam broadcasts from 1964-1972 (mostly) complete, along with 'Hope for the Holidays,' a star-studded feast with four decades of monologues and skits all carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey.
Though he hosted an untold number Christmas concerts on television, filmed and broadcast all over the world from 1948 until 1994, not a single one of Perry Como's specials exist on DVD, officially anyway.
Andy Williams, who's annual Christmas specials were a tradition in my home growing up, is woefully under represented, just one out-of-print two-hour compilation disc covering the late-'60s and early-'70s. That's a shame, Andy's yearly outings were filled with bouncy tunes and colorful guest stars with the finest production values TV had to offer. Andy was so associated with the Holidays he still performs Christmas concerts all over the world and in Branson, MO.
Christmas Special Compilations
Speaking of compilations, fans of country corn will find a one-hour sampling of Tennessee Ernie Ford's holiday hoedowns from 1956 to 1960 and a single full-length special now out of print. The King Family is represented on a two-hour retrospective of their 17 sixties and seventies' Christmas specials and there's a 46 minute collection of music and comedy from The Ed Sullivan Show.
If you're eager to view any other full-length pre-1965 musical variety specials you can find The Lawrence Welk Christmas shows from 1958, 1959 and 1966, and Red Skelton's 1955 celebration. And that's about it.
That is until November of 2010 when the Bing Crosby Christmas specials arrive on DVD including Der Bingle's first Holiday special from 1961, the first color show from 1962, a 1971 hour, and his last with David Bowie released shortly after his death in 1978. As a bonus you get the aforementioned 1957 color Christmas episode of the Frank Sinatra Show along with outakes. More than any other crooner Bing was and is the voice of Christmas for several generations, his easy going manner and mellow baritone voice wrapped neatly around the familiar classic tunes we all loved. Some things are timeless.
Yule Log Videos
And if that doesn't holly your jolly there's always The Yule Log, a virtual fireplace with Christmas carols playing over it. Now that's old school.
For a complete list of all the classic Christmas specials on DVD go to: tvparty.com/dvdxmas.html
Lost Christmas Specials of Old on DVD
by Billy Ingram
(Billy Ingram is the author of TVparty! Television’s Untold Tales and the creator of the classic TV web site TVparty.com.)