The Last Christmas Present Under the Tree

A friend came to our house about 9 pm Christmas Eve. She said on her way she passed a Christmas tree that someone had thrown out to the curb. On Christmas Eve. What did they do? Schedule 5 minutes for opening the gifts, 10 minutes to scarf down the cheese ball, and 1.5 minutes under the mistletoe then – Bye-bye! – out the door with Christmas!

I don’t understand it. I enjoy all the lights and decorations, the presents and preparations. I like to let the Holiday Season linger a bit, visit some more with family and friends, relax with some Christmas cookies and milk. When I was a little kid I would lay under the Christmas tree, after all the gifts were gone, and just stare up into the greenery and lights and savor the feelings of the Holidays, of being surrounded by the people I loved, by all the sounds of talking and laughter, of just being safe and warm and happy.

The world can be a harsh place and sometimes there is far too little of those kinds of good feelings. I think we need to cherish them when we are lucky enough to find them and share them when we can. I would never throw Christmas out on Christmas Eve.

In that spirit, I have one last present under the tree for fans of Old Time Radio and Television: four last Holiday episodes from Jack Benny and George Burns and his wife Gracie Allen.

The Jack Benny Show

Superb comedian Jack Benny had his own 30 minute radio show from 1932 to 1955. Even before the radio program ended, Jack had taken his show to television. He ruled TV comedy from 1950 to 1965.

Jack’s shows were tremendously popular for 30 years and he was “widely recognized as one of the leading American entertainers of the 20th century”. His radio show “was one of the most extensively preserved programs of its era”. Most of his radio episodes, as well as the television episodes, are now in the Public Domain.

Jack’s radio and television persona was of a penny-pinching miser. He was surrounded by a large cast of characters including his real-life wife Mary Livingstone, Eddie Anderson as his chauffeur and valet Rochester, Don Wilson, singer Dennis Day, and many others.

This episode, “An Old Fashioned Christmas”, is from 1936. Jack and the gang discuss Jack’s feud with Phil Harris. Jack refuses to make up with Phil and starts a trend among his friends by explaining that there are two Jacks:

“There are really two Jack Bennys. There’s the patient, amiable, fun loving fellow you see around the studio. And then there’s that other me: harsh, savage, primitive. A throwback to the Stone Age. I tell you, Don, one minute I’m as meek as a mouse and then, all of a sudden, I’m Vesuvius erupting!”

Of course, Jack is far from savage but he starts a trend and soon all his friends are describing their two halves. Mary’s other half is “wild, reckless, with a yen for caviar and cheap jewelry”. Dennis, notoriously naïve and slow-witted, claims a “smart, bright, and witty” other half. Jack and Don manage to turn Don’s other half into a crack about his weight and a Jell-O commercial.

Soon, Jack and the gang are reciting bad poetry from someone named “Ludwig Schmootz” to describe how they deal with trouble:

“When your soul is torn asunder, By some fellow’s thoughtless blunder, And you’re troubled deep down under, Bare it with a grin.”

Then the friends all exchange gifts. Jack’s gifts are laughably cheap including his gift of just one earring to Mary. He explains that there will “be other Christmas’s won’t there.” So Mary can look forward to getting the other earring next year. Will Jack Benny and Phil Harris make up and end their feud? Listen to the radio program and find out.

Jack’s programs had musical selections scattered throughout. The episode opens with the orchestra playing “I Feel a Song Coming On” followed by, later, “You Can Tell She Comes From Dixie”. Kenny Baker sings “Summer Nights”. A little later, the orchestra plays again, this time “Mutiny in the Brass Section”. There are also commercials for Jell-O worked right into the storyline. Jack and the rest of the cast just smoothly move from their current topic into rapturously describing Jell-O.

The audio is very clear except for one spot later in the show when there is a burst of static.

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show

Husband and wife comedy team George Burns and Gracie Allen made their first radio appearance in 1929. By 1932, they were regulars on the Guy Lombardo Show. When  Guy switched to another network in 1934, George and Gracie took over their spot. Soon, Gracie Allen, the funny partner to George’s straight man, was “probably the best known woman on radio”. In 1936, their show changed its name from The Adventures of Gracie to The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.

In 1941, after their normally high ratings began to falter, George and Gracie changed their format from that of two single people to a married couple. Their radio show ran until 1950. Like Jack Benny, George and Gracie also moved their radio show to television. Their TV show ran from 1950 to 1958.

This half hour radio episode, “Christmas Presents”, played on December 19, 1944. George complains to Gracie that every body is buttering him up and hinting about Christmas presents they would like to receive. Their Cook serves George orange juice and mentions that she picked the seeds out herself. The Postman describes George as “clear- eyed specimen of virile manhood: handsome George Burns”.

George and Gracie agree not to exchange gifts this year and to save money. George says to Gracie, “On your present alone, I’m saving 40 dollars.” Gracie replies, “Well, together we’re saving 42.50.”

Unfortunately for the best laid plans, Gracie spies a package which she thinks is a Christmas gift from George for her (it’s not, it’s a gift for their friend Bill) and decides to run out and buy George a present.

Once back home, Gracie hides George’s present (pajamas) and decides to open her gift and sneak a look, “Should I open it and see what he got for me? Well, sure. That’s only fair. I know what I got for him.” Gracie realizes the gift is actually for Bill and decides to return George’s pajamas.

Meanwhile, the Cook tells George that Gracie was hiding a Christmas present for him and he decides he must go out and get her a present. At the store, George picks out a black lace nightgown for Gracie and gets ribbed by the store clerk who thinks George is a lady’s man.

Gracie has returned home but the Cook tells her George is now out buying her a present. So Gracie runs back to the store to re-buy the pajamas. Most of the episode is George and Gracie running from home tom store and from store to home, buying and returning and re-buying and re-returning Christmas presents for each other. Gracie complains, “No wonder their store looks crowded. I meet myself coming and going!”

Will George and Gracie ever get their gift giving straightened out? Will George succumb to the lure of the “thrilling black lace” nightgown? Will the sales clerk go crazy from all the comings and goings? Listen to the radio episode and find out.

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, like Jack Benny’s radio program, has musical selections scattered throughout. The orchestra plays a “Goodnight Ladies” medley and tenor Jimmy Cash sings “I’m Making Believe”. Later in the program the orchestra and singers perform “Don’t Fence Me In”. The singers also perform “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”.

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (Television)

Next we have an episode of George and Gracie’s TV show, titled “Christmas with Mamie Kelly”, from December 20, 1951. Many of the cast and characters from the radio show make the transition to television with George and Gracie. The situation, with George and Gracie playing versions of themselves, also remained the same.

This episode starts out with neighbor Harry Morton asking Gracie to hide his Christmas present for his wife Blanche. Gracie asks Harry and Blanche to go with her to pick up Mamie and her three daughters at the train station. Harry is appalled and complains that the girls were terrible the last time they were here and he does not wanted to get relegated to carrying all the luggage. But, of course, he does.

This episode also shows George’s habit of “breaking the fourth wall” and standing to the side of the stage and talking directly to the audience. I absolutely loved this when I saw several episodes years ago and he does it several times in this episode.

Once the visitors arrive there is some confusion. Similar to the Christmas radio episode where George runs back and forth to the store, George spends some time running up and down the stairs in search of a certain suitcase.

Later, Blanch comes over with her present for her husband Harry. Blanch wants Gracie to hide it for her. When Harry shows up, Gracie claims the present is for George. Harry asks what it is and Gracie tells him to guess. Harry guesses that it could be “anything” and Gracie responds, “That’s what it is! Oh, George has wanted one for a long time!”

The three girls then discover Harry’s hidden present for Blanch and play with the red shoes and purse. Harry is upset and tells them they should not play with the items because they could be some one’s Christmas present. Blanch scoff, “Oh Harry, don’t be absurd! Who’d want an outfit like that?”

Soon, Harry von Zell arrives with a Santa suit for George to wear. Harry quickly turns his visit, and the girl with him, into a commercial for the show’s sponsor Carnation Evaporated Milk.

At bedtime, Gracie tries to tell the girls a story but gets quickly confused:

  • Gracie says, “Well, alright. I know a lot of stories that I used to know when I was a little girl. Now, which one do you want to hear?” The girl requests, “Dickens’ Christmas Carol.” Gracie is not sure, “Oh, yes. Isn’t that the one that starts, “Once upon a time,” and it ends with, “and they lived happily ever after”? George answers, “Yeah. I think that’s the one, yes.” Gracie responds, “Yeah… Now if I could just remember that part in between.”
  • Gracie starts her confused story, “Once upon a time, on a beautiful Christmas morning, Scrooge and Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim went for a walk in the woods while their breakfast was cooling. So, while they were gone, a dear little girl came and knocked on the door. And naturally, nobody answered so she went inside to see who it was, and….”

Will Gracie ever finish her story? Will George put on the Santa suit? Watch this episode of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show to find out.

The audio quality is fine but the visual is very blurry. There are also several places, towards the very end, when the words “Video Calibration” come on screen. Despite these troubles, the show is still watchable and very funny.

The Jack Benny Program

For our final Christmas episode, we return to Jack Benny and an episode from his television program, titled “Christmas Shopping”, that played on December 15, 1957. In this episode, Jack and his chauffeur and valet Rochester are at a store doing their Christmas shopping. It is not going well.

Jack has trouble deciding on gifts. His miserly nature really rebels at some of the high prices. He also runs into some annoying people, including a smart mouth floor walker (Frank Nelson), a saleswoman who gives some ill advise (Maxine Semon), a strange lingerie salesman (Charles Cantor), and, especially, a poor salesman who gets incredibly stressed out by Jack’s indecisions (Mel Blanc, who was also famous for being the voice of Bugs Bunny). Midway through the episode, singer Dennis Day shows up to sing a Christmas song, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” with the help of Santa and some children.

The funniest part of the episode is the way Jack’s indecision slowly wittles the wallet salesman (Mel Blanc) into an absolute wreck. At one point, the salesman is whimpering and crying and just being so completely pathetic that Jack has a hard time keeping a straight face. Mel Blanc is hilarious. Until the very when. My complaint is strictly a matter of different eras. The distraught clerk is finally driven to take a gun and shamble offstage. We hear a shot and everyone runs to see what happens. That was just a little uncomfortable for me. Too many people have been shot lately for it to be funny to me, especially as part of a Christmas show. But things were different then, and many ways much more innocent. It’s not hugely bad, it just did not sit well with me.

Do Jack and Rochester ever manage to finish their Christmas shopping? Watch this episode and find out. The audio and visual of this Christmas episode are both absolutely excellent, as clear as if it was brand new.

All four of these Christmas episodes are available FREE in the Public Domain at the Internet Archive.

Please click this link tom listen to / or download the radio episode, “An Old Fashioned Christmas”, from The Jack Benny Show.

Please click this link to listen to / or download the radio episode, “Christmas Presents”, from The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.

Please click this link to watch online / or download the TV episode, “Christmas with Mamie Kelly”, from The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (Television).

Please click this link to watch online / or download the TV episode, “Christmas Shopping”, from The Jack Benny Program (Television).

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