Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Winter solstice, 2005: Magoo and Me

A Christmas tale -- re-posted from December 25, 2004

Last night I was disappointed by the bare, snowless ground. As a Jewish kid, I didn’t grow up with Xmas and did not really establish much in the way of annual Xmas rituals, but I do like Christmas carols and snow on the ground on Christmas morning. So did my mom, ironically; although she adamantly forbid a Christmas tree in our house, she too liked snow on the ground on Christmas morning. Maybe it had to do with her love of Broadway musicals. As a semi-professional writer and director of musical theatre, she had a professional respect for Irving Berlin, the Jewish songwriter who gave us "White Christmas."

Our non-sectarian Christmas ritual was TV Christmas specials. In my childhood, there were no videos or DVDs that we could force our parents or baby-sitters to run three times without break. What we had – all we had – was the annual, ritualistic airing of The Wizard of Oz around Thanksgiving (Halloween?), and the Charlie Brown holiday specials, of course, starting withe the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s kind of fun to know It’s A Wonderful Life by heart, and it seems like they still show that. But my favorite was always Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. It was my favorite annual date: attention was paid to the TV schedule (not by me, I was too young to read), and the day was planned to be sure that my sister and I were plopped in front of the TV when the curtain went up on Mr. Magoo. And it was always better if we could bully our parents into watching it with us.

In my distant-childhood-recollection way, I have this sense that it was on every year for many years, and that I watched it several dozen times. The math doesn’t work though, since that would have me watching it annually until age thirty-eight. I probably only saw it an improbably small number of times, like 5 or 6. The TV networks dropped it a long time ago, which has always burned me, because I remember it as being so good, running my young emotional frame through a gauntlet of emotion: scared, haunted, laughing, and deeply moved.

I’m not one who believes that technology is an unalloyed good, but I may never have appreciated the miracle of DVD more than yesterday, when browsing the holiday section of my video store I found – only moments after sharing the reminiscence with my companion – a copy of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Guess what I did last night.

I have to say that, other than the color (we had a black-and-white TV in those days), it was much as I remembered it; where it differed, it was better than I remembered, or else forgivable. The animation is quaint – not state of the art even for 1962, since it was made for TV – but charming. And though, as a 50 minute cartoon, it is necessarily fast-paced, Magoo is a remarkably true and moving adaptation of the Dickens story. The cartoon uses a clever conceit of presenting the story as a Broadway musical production of A Christmas Carol. Magoo, who you may recall is a seriously myopic character whose comedic schtick comes from his visual confusion, bumbles his way to the theatre, and the curtain goes up on him starring as Ebeneezer Scrooge. The visual frame of the stage disappears as we get drawn into the story – just the way it does in a real theatre – and returns only at the end of each act, when presumably the TV version would cut to commercials. Although the pure wonder of my childhood perception is gone, Magoo really stands the test of time; it’s funny, still charming, and packs emotional punch. The ghost of Christmas future is as haunting as ever, and the moment at the end of act two, with Magoo/Scrooge on hands and knees in front of his own gravestone, singing “I am all alone in the world” made me weepy.

Mr. Magoo was the star of a long-running cartoon short in the early 60s, and his voice was always performed by Jim Backus, famous for his role as Thursten Howell, “the millionaire” on Gilligan’s Island. The Magoo role called for broad comedic acting, and yet, there’s something commendably post-modern and talented about playing a cartoon character who is himself an actor playing another role – not Backus as Scrooge, but Backus as Magoo playing Scrooge. There is some other notable voice work on Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Morey Amsterdam – yes, Buddy Sorrell from The Dick Van Dyke Show – is somehow snuck in there. I have to watch it again to figure out who he is, because there was no Jewish comedian in the tale. Paul Frees does several characters, like Harry Shearer nowadays on The Simpsons. Frees was a giant of voice-over work in that era, and you’ll probably recognize his voice as the host of Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion.”

I was also taken aback to find that the Ghost of Christmas present (the hale and hearty one) was played by Les Tremayne. You probably don’t know who Les Tremayne is, though in his day, he was a famous radio actor – acknowledged in 1940 as the third most recognizable voice in America, after President Franklin Roosevelt and Bing Crosby.

Why was I taken aback? You see, Les Tremayne and I have a bond. He died a year ago, the week before Christmas, and his obituary appeared exactly one year ago, on Christmas day 2003. On the same page of the newspaper was the obituary of my mother.

My mother died of cancer on the solstice, December 21, 2003. In recent days, I’d been thinking that I’d like to speak with her, and I’ve been wondering "why can’t death mean that you can no longer see the person, but you can still talk to her on the phone?" I think I could handle that.

Mr. Magoo, a Broadway musical, Christmas day obituary... I think you see where this is going. I was warned about this anniversary, and I said, "Bah, humbug!" If you’d read my blog on December 22 and 23, you might have detected the manic quality of someone experiencing mood swings of a bottled-up emotion. "Coffee? What's really going on?"

I didn’t observe the anniversary of my mother’s death on the solstice, or the next day, or the next. Then Les Tremayne appeared, this time in the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and took me to where I could cry.

When I woke up this morning, it was snowing.

This is lovely and bittersweet, Oscar. I'll never think of Mr. Magoo in quite the same way again.

Thinking of you on today's anniversary.
I spent the morning taking dad out shopping and then we had lunch at the deli. We didn't talk about mom at all.
I am always intrigued to learn about little things like that; what other religions do around Christmas. I am regrettably ignorant about many things, and find it interesting that the behemoth that is Christmas takes so many people. But then, I have no idea what St. Patrick's Day is about, but I still make sure I wear green.

My grandmother, the one who passed in October, her birthday is the day after Christmas. It makes going home tomorrow bittersweet.
It is so great that love stays absolutely alive within us.
A beautiful, beautiful memory of your loving mother, alive within you. Thanks.
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