Tag Archives: How New York Saved Christmas

Festively bonkers: Welcome to the Dyker Heights Christmas light show

Holiday traditions in Manhattan are of course known the world over, from the glowing light displays of Park Avenue to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. But they lack a certain human touch, spun from wealthy corporations and honored tradition.

Which is what makes Dyker Height’s annual lighting spectacular (festival? competition? freak show?) so fascinating. It’s Brooklyn’s biggest holiday event, run entirely by the community.

In the past two decades, the extravaganza has energized a normally quiet neighborhood few in New York know much about. For most of its history, Dyker Heights was virtually uninhabited, either by humans or two-story illuminated snowmen.

Below is a history of the  Dyker Heights neighborhood, interspersed with pictures I took of this year’s Christmas lights celebration:

Dyker Heights is named for an uninteruppted, sloping meadow which rolled down to the waters edge (today interuppted by the rushing traffic of Shore Parkway). Nobody’s certain where Dyker Meadow got its name, only that it originated from the days of Dutch occupation, either from a Van Dyke family which settled here, or, more generally, from actual dykes the family built to drain the meadow.

Tumuluous history springs up on either side of Dyker meadow and its small forests, as the British who land at nearby Denyce Wharf begin their invasion of Brooklyn in 1776, taking up battle with the Continental Army to the north and east. As part of the township of New Utrecht, the meadow was unsuitable for farming, but its forests were plenty suitable for firewood and materials for building homes.

For awhile, there was only a single dwelling here, atop a hill known as the Lookout, built by civil engineer René Edward De Russy.

Below: Not the home of René Edward De Russy

Development finally came to the area shortly before Brooklyn consolidated with New York. During the 1890s, the nearby area of Bath Beach was quickly becoming a resort getaway similar to Coney Island. Called Bensonhurst-by-the-Sea, the resort adhered to strict moral entertainments (i.e. no booze) and thus was destined to fail.

Luckily, by then, an elevated West End train line (the Brooklyn, Bath and Coney Island line) was attracting speculators eager to draw New Yorkers with residences built on old farmlands. By the late 19th century, the New York Times excitedly noted the saavy practices of land developers in this region of South Brooklyn.

The father of Dyker Heights is developer Walter L. Johnson, who in the 1890s scooped up the land, brought roads and utilities to this fairly remote part of Brooklyn, and quickly created a small community. He even named the area, the ‘Heights’ assumably tacked on to embue it was a cache similar to Brooklyn Heights. Johnson’s gamble paid off; in 1899, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “nowhere else in the consolidated city is there anything to compare it with. From here can be seen a marine panorama hard to beat.”

 

From the beginning, Dyker Heights was designed for home ownership — no tenements and few apartment complexes — and it’s a tradition which mostly lives on today. From an 1899 article: “Dyker Heights is carefully restricted, the restrictions running till 1915 and no building can be erected here on a plot of less than 60 by 100. Each building must cost at least $4.000 and stand well back from the street line.”

Below: A sampling of the dozens of electric manger scenes awaiting you in Dyker Heights.

 

Today Dyker Heights is a predominantly middle- to upper-middle class Italian neighborhood, anchored by the Dyker Heights golf course and sandwiched between Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, with old Fort Hamilton to the southwest and what remains of the old Bath Beach resort area just southeast of here.

What Mr. Johnson could not have predicted — heck, what Thomas Edison, inventor of electric light bulb, could not have foreseen — is the annual holiday expression that occurs on the lawns of many Dyker Heights residences through December.

The neighborhood is already known for its unique, ornamented homes, front lawns festooned with fountains, animal statuary, ornate shrubbery, perfectly manicured grass and home waterfalls.

For the holidays, the busy lawns are then burdened with an abundance of lighted sculptures, animatronic dioramas, and every manner of festive lawn display imaginable. Dozens of trees of all varieties — from willows to even palm trees — are garbed in multi-colored lights.

Befitting an organic neighborhood celebration, the origins of this annual tradition are a bit hazy. Families began hosting displays as far back as the post-war years of the 1940s. An article from the New York Times  suggests that the neighborhood’s Italian leanings may have something to do with it.

The show is concentrated between 81st and 84th Street and between 10th and 13th Avenues, but in recent years, it easily spills over to other blocks and even into the borders of adjoining neighborhoods.

This is a curious tradition, as the best way to enjoy the show — on foot — is obviously the most uncomfortable, especially on brisk December evenings.  There are fine tour companies which present bus tours of the Christmas light show, and if you’re averse to chilly temperatures, they’re the best way to go. (Free Tours By Foot and A Slice of Brooklyn are two reliable tour operators which offer holiday bus tours well into the new year.)

But I prefer seeing the electric light madness on foot, soaking in the Christmas music that seems to emanate from every home. Just grab a giant coffee or cocoa and go! Most of the homes will be festively lit until at least New Year’s Eve.

Better yet, before or after your stroll, head up to this amazing place on 13th Avenue and 83rd Street and fill your pockets with cannoli.

 

By the way, much of the history of Dyker Heights was unearthed several years ago in a thesis paper by then student Christian Zaino.

A model example of a budding New York historian, his research was so exhaustive that one of Dyker Heights’ more glamorous homes — the Saitta House — entered the National Register of Historic Places on the strength of his research. In fact, this is probably one of the few instances that you can use Wikipedia for a resource, as Zaino wrote the page. (In 2014, he also made an hour long documentary film about the history of Dyker Heights. You can watch it here.)

 

 

Portions of this article were taken from another Bowery Boys article Blinded By The Lights of Dyker Heights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making Green: The history of New York’s Christmas tree market

For many, the Christmas holiday in New York City finally comes to life when the sidewalks sprout evergreens. The sight and smell of curbside Christmas tree sellers ushers in the season in the most pleasing way. (Pleasing for the passerby; on a rather cold day, I can’t imagine it too pleasing for the seller.)

As history has it, the presence of streetside Christmas trees in the city actually predates Christmas as a national holiday (1870).

In the mid-19th century, hardly any modern Christmas traditions existed. One that did was the Christmas tree, a pre-Christian ritual incorporated into holiday festivities in German-speaking European countries (Those traditional settlers, the Puritans, didn’t much care for Christmas at all.)

Although the tradition did exist in the United States thanks to the Dutch, it was German immigrants who popularized it. As a huge surge in German immigration began in the 1840s, it’s not surprising that New York’s first Christmas tree market — in fact, the first mass-market sale of Christmas trees in the United States — came along shortly after, in 1851.

Unloading Christmas trees, photo from 1901-1915

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

It doesn’t appear that ‘jolly woodsmanMark Carr, living in the lush Catskill Mountains, even celebrated Christmas, but he certainly heard tales of families driving outside of town and chopping down evergreen trees to drag into the city. The go-out-and-get-it-yourself approach probably only benefited the wealthy or anybody with a horse and wagon and the time and energy to travel into the forest and find one. Carr, finding the spirit of the holidays (capitalism) deep within him, thought he’d bring the forest to the city folks.

So a couple weeks before Christmas in 1851 — things didn’t start so early back then — Carr and his sons chopped down a couple dozen fir and spruce trees, shoved them into two ox sleds, carted them over to Manhattan on a ferry and set up shop in the Washington Market paying one dollar for the privilege of taking up a sidewalk at Washington Market with his rather ungainly merchandise.

Holiday revelers were thrilled to be spared the journey out of town, and Carr’s entire stock of evergreens sold out within the day. No surprise this financial opportunity was mimicked by other farmers the next year, and within a few years, the open-air Christmas tree market was born.

Below: A Christmas tree seller on Catherine Street, 1941, photo by Beecher Ogden

MNY215421
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Carr, of course, became the Vanderbilt of the Christmas tree, raking in the dough year after year, selling trees for decades. Carr’s sons were still selling trees in the city as late as 1898, in a city quite transformed, or as the old House Beautiful magazine put it, “Mark Carr’s little sidewalk stand now rents for several hundred times what he paid for it.”

His innovation may be responsible for a whole host of domestic decoration, delivered fresh to the customer. “It is safe to say that 200,000 Christmas trees will be on the market here this year,” said the New York Times in 1880, “besides many tons of Christmas greens.”

Below: Christmas tree sales at Barclay Street, near the site of today’s World Trade Center

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By the 1870s boatloads of evergreen trees from Maine were pulling into New York. The task of moving a forest into crowded Manhattan required additional greased palms.

From an 1878 New York Tribune article: “A preliminary trip to the city is … necessary to engage a position on the street or dock, and the rent for this varies from $10 to $75. Then comes the night-watchman and tips (it is whispered) to harbor-masters and police sergeants, so that a dealer who invests $1,000 often realizes little for his labor which extends through three solid months.”

For decades, well into the 20th century, it was easiest to get the trees near the waterfront.  “West Street is now the Christmas tree market in the city,” said the Times in 1908. “Not only is the city’s entire demand supplied practically from this one market, but thousands of Christmas trees are shipped by the West Street dealers to all the surrounding towns and cities in New York State, New Jersey and even to points much further away.”

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West Street was still the central location of prime Christmas tree sales by the 1930s, but sellers were increasingly bringing their wares onto city streets. Tree markets were a regular seasonal site by the 1950s, with the deterioration of the New York waterfront.

What has drastically changed is the time of year that trees have become available.  “Prospective buyers … feigned surprise at seeing Christmas trees this time of year,” claimed an article published on December 19, 1951. “Most householders, it is well known to Christmas tree retailers, put off buying a tree in the hope that frantic merchants will have to unload at a low price just before Christmas when the market is glutted.”

Within a New York lodging house, 1910-1915

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

 

Note: This is an expanded version of an article which originally ran on this blog in 2009.

 

 

Santa Insanity: How a self-proclaimed Messiah and cult leader became a popular Santa Claus model

Early one spring day in 1922, while dutifully posing at the Art Students League on West 57th Street, Santa Claus had a fatal heart attack in front of a classroom of students.

Below — He knows when you’ve been bad or good:  A Christmas issue of Judge Magazine from 1919 by Guy Lowy, who studied at the Art Students League and very likely used Mnason for his model. (Courtesy Jon Williamson)

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“The man who was Santa Claus is dead,” said the New York Tribune.  “He was a man of many names, but at the Art Students League, where he posed for beginners,  and in the studios of the best known artists, where he was sent for when a ‘Santa Claus type’ was needed, he was known as Mnason, the first ‘n’ being silent.”

They called him Mnason, although his full name was even more spectacular — Mnason T. Huntsman. (Or Huntsman T. Mnason or even Paul Mnason.  His aliases were legion.)  The burly artists model lent his body to the ages;  thanks to the scores of influential artists who hired him for Christmas projects, today’s modern Santa Claus probably looks more like Mnason than perhaps any other actual human being in history.*

The poet Arthur Chapman declared:  “It’s no exaggeration to say that Mnason posed for most of the Santa Claus pictures that have been made in recent years.  And he figured in a good many for which he did not actually pose — as such pictures have been copied from originals for which Mnason was the model.

“Probably there isn’t a man today whose picture has been cut out more times and is treasured in more scrapbooks.”

At right: An illustration by renown magazine illustrator Orson Lowell, a confirmed image using Mnason as a model.

Mnason, the definitive Santa Claus of the 1910s and early 1920s, was a true “man of mystery” for many who painted and drew him.  A few knew the details of his past; perhaps it held the secret to his magnetic allure, to the deep, ancient gleam in his eye.

For Mnason was a former religious cult leader and proselytizer who had served time in jail for child abduction and religious blasphemy, and once he was actually tarred and feathered by an angry mob.  He was a charismatic to some, a psychotic to many others.

Below: Painter Kenyon Cox and his students at the Art Students League in 1887, a couple decades before the arrival of Mnason (Courtesy aaa.si.edu)

Mnason was born in Pennsylvania sometime in the 1850s, orphaned at eight years old.  His early religious philosophers were strict but conventional.  In the 1880s, he worked for New York’s Sunday Closing League, visiting New York shops and saloons to ensure they were not selling anything too amoral on church day.  In 1883, he testified that one shop owner illegally sold cigarettes to young boys, but not before the judge excoriated Mnason for lying on the stand.

At some point between that moment and 1888, Mnason was “inspired and bidden by God” to become a preacher.  His message was not well received;  at one point, the “wild and absurd behavior” of this “obstreperous” man of God got him thrown into jail for disorderly conduct.

By then, he had started a religious commune called the Lord’s Farm in Pascack Valley in New Jersey, where he began to attract (or lure) a young, impressionable flock.  He called himself “The Holy One” or “The Modern Christ” and granted bizarre nicknames to his most loyal followers.  Collectively, they were called the Angel Dancers, or the Church of the Living God.

In 1888, Mnason was arrested “on the charge of blasphemy,” and of enticing two young women who claimed they “were obliged to do anything he required.” He was reportedly tarred and feathered by irate residents.  (It is at this point that you might notice the odd coincidence of the name Mnason and ‘Manson’, as in Charles.)

Mnason T. Huntsman, from an image used in the New York Tribune

Even still, the Angel Dancers managed to attract on oddball list of adherents, including a local farmer’s wife and her two children.  Eventually, according to a 1893 New York Times article, “the band was increased by two long-haired men, who called themselves ‘Silas’ and ‘John the Baptist’.

This fanatical cult would reportedly practice ‘angel dancing’, “scantily robed and waving a huge blanket with which to drive away the devil.”  Also notable to the press of the day:  Mnason and his flock were all vegetarians.  “Nothing save what grows in or on the ground may be eaten.” [source]

The entire lot were arrested in April 1893 for attempting to swindle the aforementioned farmer, although it’s obvious that some religious intolerance was embedded within the charge as well.  The affidavit read: “The conspirators deny, ridicule and curse all regular religion and religious customs, recognize no Sabbath, and set up a false god of their own, declaring the said Mnason to be the only and living God.”

A few years later, the Angel Dancers had taken over the farmhouse and had grown to a membership of nine males and nineteen females, with two children.  After the reported death of a child in 1897, the Times intoned, “No physician was called to be of any service.  Mnason is ‘the Christ’.  The dancers are vegetarians.”  Another ugly abduction case reared its head in 1900, when two “little girls” were taken from the compound and then kept in jail for months in order to testify against Mnason.  The cult leader seemed to survive these charges, too

The Lord’s Farm became so notorious that by 1909, the state found a good excuse to evict Mnason and his followers.  The charismatic moved to New York City and briefly opened a church for black parishioners.  It is then that former ‘Modern Christ’ then disappears, for a time, from public view.  But the Times in 1909 noted the following:  “Mnason is a man of many aliases.”

215 West 57th Street. Fine Arts Building [Art Students League].

The Art Students League, circa 1910, courtesy MCNYFinally, he popped up again, in 1916, at the Art Students League, and not unnoticed.  The New York Sun mocked his new profession (headline pictured below):  “[R]ecently he had turned himself into Santa Claus or King Lear or any other whiskered person that the embryo John Sargents of the Art Students League … wish him to be….”  It’s no surprise he would find his way into an art collective — he was a vegetarian, after all — and his timing was rather perfect, given his particular look and body size.

The character of Santa Claus had gone through a major style makeover in the late 19th century.  His annual routine already immortalized in the popular verse A Visit From St. Nicholas — penned by the godfather of the Chelsea neighborhood Clement Clarke Moore — magazine and postcard illustrators began morphing the popular Christmas figure from a thickly robed saint to a child-friendly, candy-colored superhero.

This change came about through the hands of American artists and illustrators, led by Harper’s Weekly artist Thomas Nast in New York.   Some of the modern look and mythos is credited to Nast, his influential pen elaborating on Santa’s girth (eventually to rest on near-corpulency) and placing his residence in the North Pole.

By the early 20th century, Santa’s physical characteristics were locked in place, but his spirit and personality were still very much uncertain. Should Santa be energetic or world weary?  Wise or playful? Approachable like a parent, or unfathomable like a god?

Many of New York’s great illustrators of the period were associated with the prestigious Art Students League, and it was here that Mnason contributed his own sparkle to the characters, as artists recommended the man for his poise, mystery and sparkle.

“They found in him the ideal type, on account of his snowy beard, his bearing, the jolly twinkle in his eye, his fine color and his intelligence.”

At left: J.C Leyendecker‘s 1919 cover for the Saturday Evening Post.  You can easily tell Leyendecker’s influence on later Evening Post artist Norman Rockwell.  Given the artist’s connection to the ASL, Mnason very likely posed for this painting.

It’s clear that many of these legendary artists were aware of some version of their Santa’s past.   “Mnason would hint to his artists friends regarding certain experiences in his life in which his pronounced and individualistic religious views played a part.” [source]

One year, he was even hired as a department store Santa where he notably espoused his religious views  to the children who had come to present their Christmas wishes.

His days of Lord’s Farm were behind him, but Mnason kept writing religious verse while living suitably on his artist-model wages.  For years, he was passed among New York’s most renown illustrators, who claimed him the iconic visage of the holiday’s most jolly proponent.

“Nothing could dampen his cheerfulness, but behind his smile there was an element of mystery which the embodiment of Santa Claus maintained to the last.”

When he died in 1922, Mnason had been drawn and painted as Santa Claus dozens of times.  Eventually, Santa Claus would go through his final evolution in the 1930s, thanks to artist Haddon Sondblum, hired by Coca-Cola for their colorful advertising campaigns.

Sondblum’s iconic depiction is directly influenced by Moore’s famous poem, and but equally so by the dozens of artists and magazine illustrators before him, most of which who had used Mnason as their inspiration.

*A retired salesman named Lou Prentice was used by Haddon to create early versions of his Coca-Cola Santa and so might lay claim to being the most important physical inspiration.  But Mnason was used by more artists and within several pivotal publications of the day.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, 190 years ago, that an iconic poem was written in Chelsea

On Christmas Eve, one hundred and ninety years ago today, wealthy landowner and august Columbia professor Clement Clarke Moore completed a seasonal poem to read to his children. He penned the whimsical little tale — a throwaway, really, in comparison to his great and respected writings in Greek and biblical literature — from a desk at his comfortable, snow-covered mansion which the family called Chelsea.

The home sat atop an old hill (at around today’s modern addresses of 422-424 West 23rd Street) overlooking Moore’s estate which stretched south from here. His estate, of course, gives modern Chelsea its name. At right, the Chelsea estate on a cold winter’s night.

Moore was allegedly inspired that afternoon during an outing to Washington Market to purchase a Christmas turkey. The market (pictured below in 1829) would have another holiday claim to fame: it was the site of America’s first outdoor Christmas tree market.

The poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and often referred to as “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas,” would eventually help define Santa Claus mythology. It’s perhaps the most important source in shaping the physical appearance and ritual behavior of the North Pole gift-giver and would provide inspiration to New York illustrators like Thomas Nast and, in the 20th century, the Coca-Cola advertising of Haddon Sunblom.  Moore is even credited with naming the eight reindeer.

But the poem was only originally intended for Moore’s children. I’m not certain how many were around to hear it in 1822, but Moore and his wife Catherine Elizabeth Taylor would eventually have nine of them. One daughter, Mary Ogden, would later produce the first of dozens of illustrated versions of the poem.

At left: An illustration of Moore and his family from an edition published in 1896 (source)

The poem was published anonymously the following year, and Moore would only take credit — at his children’s insistence — in 1844.

Given Moore’s original hesitation, some scholars have suggested that another New Yorker, Henry Livingston Jr., may have penned it.  Until that is definitely proven, you are allowed to always think of the neighborhood of Chelsea — just two blocks west of the Chelsea Hotel — every time you hear it.

So jump in your ‘kerchief, open your shutters and throw up your sashes, and give this little holiday poem a ripe rendition this year. You can find the full text here. But to quote the final section:

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

For more information on Moore and the Chelsea neighborhood, check out our podcast on the Chelsea Hotel.

Pictures courtesy NYPL

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, 190 years ago, that an iconic poem was written in Chelsea

On Christmas Eve, one hundred and ninety years ago today, wealthy landowner and august Columbia professor Clement Clarke Moore completed a seasonal poem to read to his children. He penned the whimsical little tale — a throwaway, really, in comparison to his great and respected writings in Greek and biblical literature — from a desk at his comfortable, snow-covered mansion which the family called Chelsea.

The home sat atop an old hill (at around today’s modern addresses of 422-424 West 23rd Street) overlooking Moore’s estate which stretched south from here. His estate, of course, gives modern Chelsea its name. At right, the Chelsea estate on a cold winter’s night.

Moore was allegedly inspired that afternoon during an outing to Washington Market to purchase a Christmas turkey. The market (pictured below in 1829) would have another holiday claim to fame: it was the site of America’s first outdoor Christmas tree market.

The poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and often referred to as “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas,” would eventually help define Santa Claus mythology. It’s perhaps the most important source in shaping the physical appearance and ritual behavior of the North Pole gift-giver and would provide inspiration to New York illustrators like Thomas Nast and, in the 20th century, the Coca-Cola advertising of Haddon Sunblom.  Moore is even credited with naming the eight reindeer.

But the poem was only originally intended for Moore’s children. I’m not certain how many were around to hear it in 1822, but Moore and his wife Catherine Elizabeth Taylor would eventually have nine of them. One daughter, Mary Ogden, would later produce the first of dozens of illustrated versions of the poem.

At left: An illustration of Moore and his family from an edition published in 1896 (source)

The poem was published anonymously the following year, and Moore would only take credit — at his children’s insistence — in 1844.

Given Moore’s original hesitation, some scholars have suggested that another New Yorker, Henry Livingston Jr., may have penned it.  Until that is definitely proven, you are allowed to always think of the neighborhood of Chelsea — just two blocks west of the Chelsea Hotel — every time you hear it.

So jump in your ‘kerchief, open your shutters and throw up your sashes, and give this little holiday poem a ripe rendition this year. You can find the full text here. But to quote the final section:

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

For more information on Moore and the Chelsea neighborhood, check out our podcast on the Chelsea Hotel.

Pictures courtesy NYPL

Good grief! Madison Avenue’s connection to ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

The first time: A TV Guide advertisement from 1965 announcing the upcoming Charlie Brown special, “presented … by the people in your town who bottle Coca-Cola.” [source]

A Charlie Brown Christmas, the holiday special to end all holiday specials, needed a little encouragement from the Madison Avenue advertising world in 1965 to spring into existence.  In fact, Peanuts’ creator Charles Schulz wasn’t exactly clamoring for any kind of television version of his classic characters.

The Minnesota cartoonist’s first fateful encounter in New York came in June 1950, when he met with editors at United Feature Syndicate, located in the Daily News Building on 42nd Street, to form the strip which eventually became Peanuts.  The syndicate initially restricted the size of Schultz’s cartoon panels to flexibly adhere to the various column sizes of their partner newspapers. This forced simplicity into Schultz eventual designs for his characters — the bulbous head of Charlie Brown, the dash of black ears on an all-white beagle.

The syndicate unveiled Schulz’s creation a few months later, on October 2, 1950. Within a decade, it would be one of America’s most famous comic strips.

Flash-forward to another spring in New York, April 1965, and to the bustling offices of advertising agency McCann Erickson, at 485 Lexington Avenue.  They were Madison Avenue’s most successful agency and held among their clients the defining product of post-war America — Coca-Cola.

McCann Erickson would be responsible for some of Coke’s most recognizable advertising campaigns during a decade when the beverage would reach international popularity.  In 1971, agency efforts would underscore Coke’s world domination with ‘I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke’.  At left: A McCann-Erickson Coke ad from 1965, courtesy the blog Beautiful Life

Coke was looking for a television show to sponsor for the holiday season of 1965, one that could be developed from scratch, with a Coca-Cola audience in mind — namely, families with children.

(If you’re a ‘Mad Men‘ fan, you may also be familiar with McCann Erickson as the agency from Season 3 who bought out Sterling Cooper, forcing Don Draper and the gang to quit and form a new, fledgling agency. The events of Season 4 — with Ken Cosgrove still in McCann’s employ — play out during 1965, the same year as A Charlie Brown Christmas.)

One of McCann Erickson’s lead executives John Allen had an idea in mind.  He had seen a documentary on Schulz, called A Boy Named Charlie Brown, and that film contained some crudely animated versions of Charlie Brown and Lucy by animator Bill Melendez.  Allen called up Melendez and asked if Schulz had ever been interested in developing a full-length television special.

He had not, actually.  In fact he had turned down many previous offers to produce animated specials. Schulz said at the time, “There are some greater things in the world than TV animated cartoons.”  Yet, perhaps contradictory to this, Schulz seemed open to licensing and merchandising opportunities.  In 1960, Charlie Brown and Lucy made their first animated appearance on television hawking cars for Ford:

But you couldn’t turn down an offer by the world’s biggest sugary beverage, could you?  Melendez agreed, brought the offer to Schulz at his northern California home, and from his studio there, he and a team of animators frantically put together a program in time for the holidays.

Schulz wanted lots of snow and ice skating and talk of “the true meaning of Christmas,” inspiring the special’s lengthy Biblical monologue by Linus.  They auditioned Hollywood children and kids from Schulz’s neighborhood for the voiceovers and called up San Francisco-based musician Vince Guaraldi, who had recently cracked the Billboard charts with the song ‘Cast Your Fate To The Wind‘, to score the special.

Below: Snoopy careens around the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink in the 1969 film A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

The half-hour feature was finished just a few days before broadcast. TV Guide and newspapers were already advertising the airing when Melendez sped to CBS’s brand new corporate offices at 51 West 52nd Street; the Eero Saarinen-designed building was nicknamed Black Rock for its monolithic design. (Pictured below, pic courtesy Skyscraper.org.)

Melendez screened the special for executives who were greatly underwhelmed with the final product.  “It seems a little flat … a little slow,” said one executive, assuring Melendez that CBS would not be ordering any future Peanuts specials.  According to producer Lee Mendelson, “If the show hadn’t already been scheduled to air in six days, it might never have been broadcast.”

Fortunately, a Time Magazine reviewer was allowed to screen A Charlie Brown Christmas and wrote a rave review that ran a couple days before showtime. From the review: “For one thing, the program is unpretentious; for another, it is unprolonged (30 minutes).”

But television audiences would have the final say and, upon broadcast on Thursday, December 9, it became the week’s second biggest show behind Bonanza.  Popular acclaim was soon joined by critical plaudits; a few months later, Schulz, Melendez and Mendelson arrived back in New York to receive an Emmy Award for Best Animated Special.

The original version of A Charlie Brown Christmas included a short shot of Linus being flung by Snoopy into a Coca-Cola sign. It was later edited to say Danger, which was then edited out entirely, because, well, it’s a bit disturbing. (See below.)  No remnant exists today within A Charlie Brown Christmas of its Coca-Cola advertising reason for being.

Four years later, Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Linus would head to New York themselves, in the 1969 feature length film A Boy Named Charlie Brown (title similar to the 1962 documentary) in which Charlie would nervously compete in the Scripps Spelling Bee competition.

Schulz’s Manhattan is as abstract as any of his landscapes, but he does depict both the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Center.  It’s here that Snoopy reprises his ice skating routine to the music of Guaraldi.

There’s also several scenes of a cracked-out Linus stumbling through the city at night, looking for his blanket, which he has unwisely loaned to Charlie. An excerpt of the film:

A Boy Named Charlie Brown made its premiere at Radio City Music Hall on December 11, 1969. You can check out the original film program here.

Good grief! New York’s Madison Avenue connection to CBS’s original broadcast of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

The first time: A TV Guide advertisement from 1965 announcing the upcoming Charlie Brown special, “presented … by the people in your town who bottle Coca-Cola.” [source]

A Charlie Brown Christmas, the holiday special to end all holiday specials, needed a little encouragement from the Madison Avenue advertising world in 1965 to spring into existence.  In fact, Peanuts’ creator Charles Schulz wasn’t exactly clamoring for any kind of television version of his classic characters.

The Minnesota cartoonist’s first fateful encounter in New York came in June 1950, when he met with editors at United Feature Syndicate, located in the Daily News Building on 42nd Street, to form the strip which eventually became Peanuts.  The syndicate initially restricted the size of Schultz’s cartoon panels to flexibly adhere to the various column sizes of their partner newspapers. This forced simplicity into Schultz eventual designs for his characters — the bulbous head of Charlie Brown, the dash of black ears on an all-white beagle.

The syndicate unveiled Schulz’s creation a few months later, on October 2, 1950. Within a decade, it would be one of America’s most famous comic strips.

Flash-forward to another spring in New York, April 1965, and to the bustling offices of advertising agency McCann Erickson, at 485 Lexington Avenue.  They were Madison Avenue’s most successful agency and held among their clients the defining product of post-war America — Coca-Cola.

McCann Erickson would be responsible for some of Coke’s most recognizable advertising campaigns during a decade when the beverage would reach international popularity.  In 1971, agency efforts would underscore Coke’s world domination with ‘I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke’.  At left: A McCann-Erickson Coke ad from 1965, courtesy the blog Beautiful Life

Coke was looking for a television show to sponsor for the holiday season of 1965, one that could be developed from scratch, with a Coca-Cola audience in mind — namely, families with children.

(If you’re a ‘Mad Men‘ fan, you may also be familiar with McCann Erickson as the agency from Season 3 who bought out Sterling Cooper, forcing Don Draper and the gang to quit and form a new, fledgling agency. The events of Season 4 — with Ken Cosgrove still in McCann’s employ — play out during 1965, the same year as A Charlie Brown Christmas.)

One of McCann Erickson’s lead executives John Allen had an idea in mind.  He had seen a documentary on Schulz, called A Boy Named Charlie Brown, and that film contained some crudely animated versions of Charlie Brown and Lucy by animator Bill Melendez.  Allen called up Melendez and asked if Schulz had ever been interested in developing a full-length television special.

He had not, actually.  In fact he had turned down many previous offers to produce animated specials. Schulz said at the time, “There are some greater things in the world than TV animated cartoons.”  Yet, perhaps contradictory to this, Schulz seemed open to licensing and merchandising opportunities.  In 1960, Charlie Brown and Lucy made their first animated appearance on television hawking cars for Ford:

But you couldn’t turn down an offer by the world’s biggest sugary beverage, could you?  Melendez agreed, brought the offer to Schulz at his northern California home, and from his studio there, he and a team of animators frantically put together a program in time for the holidays.

Schulz wanted lots of snow and ice skating and talk of “the true meaning of Christmas,” inspiring the special’s lengthy Biblical monologue by Linus.  They auditioned Hollywood children and kids from Schulz’s neighborhood for the voiceovers and called up San Francisco-based musician Vince Guaraldi, who had recently cracked the Billboard charts with the song ‘Cast Your Fate To The Wind‘, to score the special.

Below: Snoopy careens around the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink in the 1969 film A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

The half-hour feature was finished just a few days before broadcast. TV Guide and newspapers were already advertising the airing when Melendez sped to CBS’s brand new corporate offices at 51 West 52nd Street; the Eero Saarinen-designed building was nicknamed Black Rock for its monolithic design. (Pictured below, pic courtesy Skyscraper.org.)

Melendez screened the special for executives who were greatly underwhelmed with the final product.  “It seems a little flat … a little slow,” said one executive, assuring Melendez that CBS would not be ordering any future Peanuts specials.  According to producer Lee Mendelson, “If the show hadn’t already been scheduled to air in six days, it might never have been broadcast.”

Fortunately, a Time Magazine reviewer was allowed to screen A Charlie Brown Christmas and wrote a rave review that ran a couple days before showtime. From the review: “For one thing, the program is unpretentious; for another, it is unprolonged (30 minutes).”

But television audiences would have the final say and, upon broadcast on Thursday, December 9, it became the week’s second biggest show behind Bonanza.  Popular acclaim was soon joined by critical plaudits; a few months later, Schulz, Melendez and Mendelson arrived back in New York to receive an Emmy Award for Best Animated Special.

The original version of A Charlie Brown Christmas included a short shot of Linus being flung by Snoopy into a Coca-Cola sign. It was later edited to say Danger, which was then edited out entirely, because, well, it’s a bit disturbing. (See below.)  No remnant exists today within A Charlie Brown Christmas of its Coca-Cola advertising reason for being.

Four years later, Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Linus would head to New York themselves, in the 1969 feature length film A Boy Named Charlie Brown (title similar to the 1962 documentary) in which Charlie would nervously compete in the Scripps Spelling Bee competition.

Schulz’s Manhattan is as abstract as any of his landscapes, but he does depict both the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Center.  It’s here that Snoopy reprises his ice skating routine to the music of Guaraldi.

There’s also several scenes of a cracked-out Linus stumbling through the city at night, looking for his blanket, which he has unwisely loaned to Charlie. An excerpt of the film:

A Boy Named Charlie Brown made its premiere at Radio City Music Hall on December 11, 1969. You can check out the original film program here.

Pre-Scrooged: The Ghost of New York Christmas specials


A Bill Murray holiday classic is closely linked to a forgotten 1955 teleplay

Tracing itself back to one of America’s first television broadcast station, New York’s local WCBS-TV can claim a host of significant achievements, including the first regular broadcasts in color and the first baseball game in color (with the Brooklyn Dodgers, naturally).

Their early news documentary series ‘Eye on New York’, hosted and produced by future CBS president Bill Leonard, took a break from serious reporting on the evening of Christmas 1955 to broadcast a live version of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’.  I don’t believe a version of this classic exists to view today, but holiday television lovers benefit from one odd quirk of this fleeting program.

At right: Bill Leonard with CBS News correspondent Walter Cronkite.

This version of ‘Carol’ starred the extraordinary Bronx-born character actor Jonathan Harris (best known as the flamboyant Dr. Smith from ‘Lost In Space’) as Ebenezer Scrooge and Tony Award nominee Biff McGuire as Bob Cratchit.

But far from constructing a dour Victorian London set upon their midtown Manhattan soundstage, Leonard (who wrote the teleplay) decided to change the setting of the story, to modern day New York City. According to author Fred Guida, “this clever conversion preserved the spirit of the original but in the milieu of lower Park Avenue and big industry.”

Harris’ Scrooge was transformed into the bitter old CEO of Metropolitan Plastics, with Cratchit his elevator man. Scrooge was visited by the various ghosts via “a TV receiver as an up-to-date medium for his unearthly visions,” according to Variety.

Leonard’s ‘Carol’ was the very first version of the tale set in New York, and with a modern twist. While this original program has been lost, its cheeky trope has been used in a great many modern shows (especially those of the 1970s and 80s) in ‘very special Christmas episodes’, to bring holiday realizations to jaded characters from Alex P. Keaton of ‘Family Ties’ to even the title character of ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’.

But the greatest beneficiary of Leonard’s holiday twist is the 1988 Bill Murray classicScrooged, where a grumpy New York television producer — filming his own version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ — finds epiphany after an evening with three illuminating spirits, including a cab driver played by former New York Dolls singer David Johansen.

And since we’re on the subject, here’s some more New York holiday themed cheer from Johansen, under the name of his alter ego, Buster Poindexter. Happy holidays from the Bowery Boys!

‘Christmas or Chanukah?’: NYC discovers the Jewish holiday

Early news reporting on the celebration of Hanukkah (or Chanukah, as it was popularly referred then) in New York usually took a arms-length approach, as most of their readership knew little about the celebration 100 years ago. More than one old Tribune or World carried a variant of the headline ‘Jews Celebrate Chanukah’ , as though there might have been some doubt. A 1905 headline informs: ‘Chanukah, Commemorating Syrian Defeat, Lasts Eight Days.’

It wasn’t just non-Jews that were misinformed about this seemingly mysterious holiday. A December 1894 edition of the New York Sun asks ‘Christmas or Chanukah?’ as a prominent rabbi from Temple Emanu-El (pictured at right, in its Fifth Avenue incarnation) “rebukes the tendency of Jews to confuse the festivals.” In fact, many Jewish leaders at this time were concerned that many traditions were being abandoned, the better to acclimate in a city that was decidedly more Christian-seeming.
The wife of American Jewish scholar Richard Gotthell* worried in 1900 that “this festival occurs so nearly coincident with the Christian festival of Christmas that there is danger that the observance of one may be lost in a gradual assimilation with the other.”

But with the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews to New York in the 1900s, soon thousands celebrated the holiday — and newspapers could hardly be so cavalier.

One event they took particular note of was the Chanukah celebration by the Federation of American Zionists, at the Herald Square Theater on January 1, 1911. One anecdote sprang out at me: “Dr. S. Levin spoke in Hebrew for an hour, on ‘Jewish Life and Art.’ He took exception to a certain Jewish speaker who recently declared that the Jews had produced nothing in art. Dr. Levin asserted that he was greievously wrong.”
Across town at that very moment, a young Russian Jew named Irving Berlin was hammering out tunes in Tin Pan Alley and would debut, just a couple months later, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, while other songwriters of Jewish heritage, such as Jerome Kern, were right then hard at work reinventing the American songbook. So, yes, Dr. Levin, grievously wrong.
And of course, these Jewish songwriters would go on to even help reinvent Christmas itself via a flurry of popular holiday tunes, like Berlin’s own ‘White Christmas.
*Gotthell was also the founder of America’s first Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, formed in New York in 1898.

Happy Holidays from The Bowery Boys!

The Bowery Boys wish you all a spectacular holiday season! To celebrate, just hit the play button above and warm yourself in front of a great New York tradition.

Many New Yorkers have fond memories of the WPIX Yule Log, which first ran in the evening of December 24, 1966, the first and most famous video yule log in the United States. After a brief interruption in the 1990s, it was returned for the holidays in 2001, when the city definitely needed the extra cheer.

Believe it or not, the original burning fire was filmed at Gracie Mansion, with the blessing of Mayor John Lindsay. (See, he really was the cool mayor!) During filming, the cameramen had to move a fire grating to achieve maximum glow and warmth for viewers. Unfortunately, this freed some flying sparks which proceeded to burn a nearby antique rug.

The fire above is a replica that WPIX filmed after the original footage became drab with age. (The replacement fire was also filmed in California in 1970; the official website explains.) PIX11 plans to once again show off their friendly fire this year, with simulcast on Turner Broadcasting stations throughout the country.

We’ll be back with new postings to the blog on December 31.