Wednesday 23 December 2020

Signing Santa and Hopscotching Hope

Some seasonal satire came from the typewriter of entertainment columnist Erskine Johnson 60 Christmases ago.

Johnson (photo, right) “was known more for concentrating on humorous and anecdotal material in interviews,” as his obit in Variety put it. Perhaps that’s why he never had the fame/notoriety of show biz gossipers like Parsons and Winchell, despite wide circulation of his column and hosting shows on both radio and TV.

He had been a city editor of the Los Angeles Record when he went to work as an assistant to National Enterprise Association columnist Danny Thomas. He took over the column when Thomas left in the late ‘30s and retired about 30 years later. Johnson died in 1984.

Here are two of his holiday columns from December 1960. The first involves a familiar target of 1950s satirists, ad agencies, courtesy of Herb Sargent, the Steve Allen writer known years later for his work on Saturday Night Live. The second is an interview with Bob “Marilyn Maxwell’s Under the Mistletoe” Hope. Like any column about Hope, it’s full of old one-liners as Johnson ties it in to ol’ Ski Nose’s Christmas tour to cheer up the troops.

Jim Dandy Santa Claus Special Prepared by Sargent
HOLLYWOOD—(NEA)—Christmas comes but once a year, Herb Sargent was saying, "which means, to television programmers, that it is not a holiday, not a tradition, but a special event. TV loves special events."
Sargent is one of TV's best writers of specials—the last Bing Crosby outing, the next Pat Boone special—but the "special event" of Christmas, he was saying, is a problem "because the obvious star, Santa Claus, is usually unavailable due to a previous commitment that evening."
Were he available, however . . .
WELL, SARGENT THOUGHT, here's how it might be born. The time: April. (You can't start too early. Someone else might get the idea first.)
The place: Conference room. Seated around the conference table are a TV executive, a talent agent, a TV censor, a TV producer and an advertising agency man. Subject: Christmas special.
TV Exec: "Gentlemen this year we may be able to get Santa Claus. The real one."
Adman: "I don't know about Santa Claus. I have several clients for a Christmas special but they want something an audience can believe in. Like Arthur Godfrey."
Agent: "Listen, if you guys don't believe in my boy, what am I doing here?"
TV Exec: "Relax. We all believe in your boy. Now let's figure out who might buy him for: 90 minutes."
ADMAN: "YOU KNOW this limits me. Right away we have to knock out razor blades and electric shaver, unless he'll . . ."
Agent: "No, he WON'T."
Adman: "Okay. The sleigh eliminates the automobile people . . .”
Censor: "The sleigh reminds me. He can't whip those reindeer. You know the FCC and network feeling on violence."
Adman: "Does he smoke?"
Agent: "A pipe."
Adman: "There goes the cigarette account. And I suppose we're stuck with that coming-down-the-chimney routine."
Agent: "That's his act."
Producer: "Even if you do find him a sponsor, what kind of a show can we do? Everybody knows his routine. He won't work any other way. The red suit, the bag of presents, the reindeer, the Ho, ho, ho bit—that's a show?"
Censor: "I think those elves are in poor taste, anyway."
ADMAN: "FELLOWS. I don't know who'd buy him."
Agent: "What's going on? I thought we had a deal."
TV Exec: "Not without a show we don't."
Agent: " 'Person to Person' wants him. I thought I was doing you a favor by giving you first crack at him."
TV Exec: "We appreciate that, but as you can see we have problems. He's too familiar. There's no sponsor identification, no image."
Agent: "Oh, well. That's the business. Now how about a Jingle Bells ballet and the Vienna Boys' Choir . . .?"
Censor: "I don't know about Vienna .... the international situation."
Sargent was sure that's the way it would go.

Traveler Bob Plans Flight to Visit Armed Forces in the Caribbean

Newspaper Enterprise Association
Hollywood — One of Uncle Sam's big Air Force planes and that sleigh with its eight reindeer will be airborne about the same time again just before Christmas. Of course, riding that sleigh will be the familiar, pug-nosed, red-suited man. In the plane will be someone almost as familiar — ski-nosed Bob Hope.
In a way, Bob Hope and Santa Claus are in the same business. What Santa means to little children, Hope represents to our uniformed men and women stationed outside the United States.
The comedian celebrates his 20th anniversary as Roving Robert film star with the business card "Have Jokes—Will Travel," by making his ninth annual Christmas entertainment tour. This year his troupe will visit armed forces in the Caribbean.
He has been to the Caribbean before—in 1944—and he has been just about everywhere else during war and peace in 20 go-go years as the serviceman's best friend. He will be telling jet age jokes to lads whose fathers in the service in California in 1941 laughed it up with Hope nine months before Pearl Harbor.
The statistics of his Odysseys are staggering, a mass of dates and remote places around the world. His GI audiences of nearly 12 millions to date can well give “Thanks for the Memories,” Hope's theme music.
He has flown nearly two and a half million miles—10,000 hours aloft—from North Africa, Sicily and Italy in 1943. Alaska to Guadalcanal and Tarawa in 1944. Nice and Bremen and Nurnbere and Munich in 1945 to bloody Bayonet Bowl in Korea. He has given, nearly 2,500 individual shows.
His travels once cued one of his writers, Larry Klein, to tell him:
"You know, Bob, if you had your life to live all over again, you wouldn't have time to do it."
Between hot and cold theaters of war, he has been in and out of U. S. camps and hospitals like a man in a revolving door.
In 1943. Mr. Inexhaustible traveled 1,300 miles in 11 days to appear in 33 different places in England and went on three bombing raids in Algiers, Bizerte and Palermo.
"But I must admit I thought, ‘This is it. I've had it.’"
Yet he was still going strong when he beat the Marines by 20 minutes to the beach at Wonsan. I couldn't believe it until Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond and newsmen met us at the airport. It was a bloodless invasion but we didn't know we were there AHEAD of time.
He was in time to catch jungle rot malady in Biak in 1944. 'It still comes out between my toes on hot humid days."
Bob did not go it alone The GIs have fond memories of Frances Langford and Jerry Colonna, Marilyn Maxwell and Jayne Mansfield and others who traveled with him. World War 2 was just the beginning for Bob. He hopped on the airlift to Berlin on a plane loaded with coal in 1948 for Christmas. His 1957 Christmas trip to the Far East covered 16,201 miles and 77 air hours. En route to Hawaii by plane, he put out a show via radio to the crew of a Coast Guard ship 20,000 feet below.
Men and women in uniform have memories about Hope's chatter:
"Last night I slept in the barracks. You know what barracks are—a crap game with a roof. What a place to meet professional gamblers. I won't say they were loaded, but it’s the first time I ever saw dice leave skid marks.
“A discharge—that’s a little piece of paper that changes a lieutenant's name from 'Sir' to ‘Stinky.’”
Bob Hope's gags are tailored to the problems, gripes of the servicemen overseas—“in Alaska, where guys wished they were in Africa and in Africa, where they wished they were in Alaska. In the South Pacific, where they knew a guy was island happy when he started to look at the men's fashion pages.”
"The greatest years of my life," Bob Hope says today, at 57, as he goes on looking for camps and hospitals he may have missed. "Wouldn't it be a kick to do a show on the moon?"
That wouldn't surprise his wife, Dolores, about whom he has quipped: "She's very sweet about my absences although I notice that the towels in our bathroom are marked Hers and Welcome Traveler."
Thanks for the memories, Bob.

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