Bing Crosby was known for a lot of things, but nothing more famously than as the voice of “White Christmas.” His association with the song, and the season, began with the film Holiday Inn (1942). It continued with annual Christmas specials, first on radio, and then on television.
With the recent flurry of Bing Crosby release activity, it was only a matter of time before some of his vintage TV Christmas specials appeared. The Television Specials Volume Two – The Christmas Specials have just been issued on DVD for the first time. They are a rare treat for his legions of fans.
Rather than utilising the “variety show” format that was so often used by others in their holiday programs, Bing wisely sticks almost exclusively to the music. There are practically no skits, musical or otherwise, to get in the way – which is one reason everything works so well all these years later.
Bing’s first Christmas special originally aired on December 11, 1961. It was in black and white, and was filmed in London. Setting it in England adds a nice touch, as it allows Crosby the conceit of tracing his family tree. The big guest star is Shirley Bassey, and her medley of “Lucky Day” and “I’m Shooting High” is impressive. Although Miss Bassey is considered a national treasure in her homeland, it is a shame she never caught on in a big way in the United States. She was at a peak in 1961, a beautiful and dynamic singer and dancer.
My only disappointment was that they did not find time for her to duet with Bing himself. Other guests include the dancing Happy Wanderers, Marian Ryan, and Mariam Karlin, plus a cameo from expatriate Bob Hope. As he did on all of his Christmas specials, Bing closed the show with “White Christmas.”
The next special first aired on Christmas Eve, 1962 and is in color. There is such a New Frontier feel to this one it is a little hard to watch at times. Mary Martin and Andre Previn are the guest stars, and Martin sings a wide variety of duets with Bing, as well as some solo spots. Previn gets in a nice jazz number with “But Not For Me,” credited to The Andre Previn Trio. Just prior to Bing’s “White Christmas,” the United Nations children’s choir sings “Let There Be Peace On Earth.” It really is a beautiful moment, all the more poignant when you realize that this was the last Christmas before the assassination of JFK.
The first disc of this two-DVD collection has a great bonus feature in the inclusion of an episode of The Frank Sinatra Show from 1957. It was Frank’s Christmas special, on which Bing Crosby was the sole guest. Watching these two pros together is great, even if the humor is a bit forced. Giving each other their latest Christmas albums as gifts is kind of funny, but the music is what we are here for. Seeing Frank and Bing sing “White Christmas” together is an obvious highlight, and there are many others in this half-hour (color) program.
The second DVD has two more impressive specials, both from the seventies. The first is from 1971, December 14th to be exact. For this one, Bing’s guests are Robert Goulet, and the amazing opera singer Mary Costa. Goulet gets more airtime, but Costa steals the show with her dynamic performance of “Carol Of The Bells” and the “Bells Medley,” a lengthy duet with Bing. By now the whole Crosby clan has become involved in the holiday specials, and the closing segments feature them. Except for the traditional solo version of “White Christmas,” that is.
The fourth is titled Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde England and was filmed just five weeks before his death in 1977. Wife Kathryn Crosby introduces it, and addresses any allegations that the airing of the show posthumously was distasteful. The preface was never really necessary, but thanks to the uncut nature of each program, it appears here.
Whoever had the idea to pair David Bowie with the grandfatherly Bing Crosby must have seemed insane at the time. This pairing should not have worked for any number of reasons. Bowie was deep in the middle of his Berlin Trilogy, and promoting the Heroes album. And Bing, is – well, Bing Crosby.
Yet their duet on “Little Drummer Boy” / ”Peace On Earth” is magical. There is such a respect between the two artists – it just transcends the whole manufactured situation. This pairing lives up to its reputation as one of the great moments in television history.
More typical guest stars are Twiggy, Ron Moody, and The Trinity Boys Choir, who all acquit themselves quite well. As wonderful as the Bowie/Crosby duet is, when an early video for “Heroes” plays it is totally incongruous. It is one of the Thin White Duke’s greatest songs, but to see it in this context is bizarre. I wonder how many blue-hairs got into the guitar of Robert Fripp after hearing this song, or picked up Lodger later on?
The bonus material on this second DVD include a commercial from the fifties for Toys For Tots, and a half-hour tourism show Bing did titled “Bing’s Britain.”
All of these specials have a timeless element to them, which is Bing Crosby himself. He was an incredible vocal talent, and his ease on camera is a joy to watch. The duet with David Bowie is likely the biggest selling point of this set, and it is worth the price alone. But it is by no means the only the reason to own these DVDs.
There is a wealth of wonderful music on these DVDs, from some of the greatest vocalists of the twentieth century.