This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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THE SOUNDS OF CHRISTMAS
by Maury Cagle, © 2003
(From Radio Recall, December 2003)
This Christmas Eve in homes in Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, and California, old time radio will once again play a key role as families of the Cagle clan gather to celebrate. Three generations will be involved, as television sets are turned off and the house lights dimmed. In the glow of the multi- colored lights on their tree, each family will share a tradition that goes back nearly 60 years. At that time, many radio stars produced record albums recreating some of their most popular program segments or music.
In 1945, my parents bought a two record, 78 rpm album of “The Juggler of Our Lady,” as told by John Nesbitt. He was a marvelous story teller, and his radio show, “The Passing Parade,” heard from 1937 to 1951, dealt with strange happenings. It was a favorite of my father’s. The story was of a poor, itinerant but gifted juggler named Barnaby in medieval France, who comes to live in a monastery and swears to give up juggling his 12 golden balls and 12 sharp knives. But he becomes despondent as Christmas nears and the educated monks are preparing fine gifts to present to the Christ child on Christmas morning. After the day’s celebrations, he is found presenting his old act in front of the altar. Before he can be dragged away, the statue of the Virgin Mary comes down from her pedestal and dries the beads of sweat on his brow. “God has accepted the only gift he had to give,” says the abbot.
Two years later, we added a three-record set by Fibber McGee and Molly. Each year at Christmas, they aired a different program, but it always featured their quartet, The King’s Men, singing “the Night Before Christmas” along with Molly as the little girl next door, Teeny. The quartet---Bud Linn, Jon Dodson, Rad Robinson and arranger Ken Darby— was, in my opinion, one of the best ever. Half the album was McGee spinning a touching tale to Teeny about how Christmas trees have needles, involving a near sighted tailor, a hairless bear, and Mother Nature: “And that’s why Christmas trees are covered with needles, Sis, all the year ‘round, to remind people that there might be other creatures that are cold and hungry, and why not spread the good things around?” The second half was the musical rendition by the King’s Men and the Billy Mills Orchestra.
A year later, in 1948, we added a three-record performance of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” featuring Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge, a role he played every year at Christmas on his radio program “Mayor of the Town,” from 1942 to 1949. Who could say “Humbug!” better than Lionel Barrymore?
These three albums formed the basis for the family’s Christmas Eve entertainment, as we gathered around the tree, circled by my electric train winding its way through the village we always built under the tree. We listened while we ate from the wonderful selection of goodies my mother had worked for days to make, the whole affair produced by my father, who would change the records as each ended its three minutes.
Through the years, no Christmas would be com- plete without hearing these songs and sketches. When I went in the Navy and was stationed in Hawaii, my folks were on assignment in Germany. My first Christmas away from the family, I was delighted to receive a reel-to-reel tape of the shows, which made me feel closer to them, half a world away. Christmas Eve of 1958, I was on the bridge of a destroyer in the middle of the Pacific. I remember playing the King’s Men song all the way through in my mind; I had every word memorized.
Traditions, like families, tend to grow. Over the years, several items have been added to the play list, just as the Cagle family now encompasses two brothers with five children, and six grandchildren
Two of the additions to the annual program come from my days in Germany with American Forces Network, Europe, and involve my old and talented friend, Marshall Pengra. For several years in the early 1960’s the network included in its holiday broadcasting Marshall reading a story that his father had read to his family each Christmas. It was “Why The Chimes Rang,” a story of self sacrifice in which, once again, God is most pleased with the simplest gift. It is an uplifting, yet telling, story.
The other piece is a 15-minute fictional interview with Santa Claus that was never aired on AFN. The Powers-That-Be considered it to be, at the least, “controversial,” and did not clear it for broadcast. It was a parody on a nightly interview program called “On the Scene,” which had been on AFN for years. Only in this case, Santa reveals himself to be interested in world domination: “You’ll see, Pengra---Santa Claus is coming to town! Ha-ha- ha-ha...”
Together, these shows encompass almost 60 years of broadcasting and family tradition. There’s something that’s very satisfying in knowing that not only those who listened to these shows when they were new, but now two other generations, will gather by their trees and for a few minutes, not only in their immediate family, but with their extended family across the country, share the unique magic of the theater of the mind that is radio. For us, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without hearing those creative voices from the past, linking us to those who started this important family tradition.
And now, as the King’s Men sing at the end of the Fibber McGee album---“Merry Christmas to all, and to all, goodnight.”