My Gifts To You

A few Decembers ago, I was being really very Scroogie and not at all in the mood for the holidays.  Ever since that time, I’ve practically made it my business to immerse myself in holiday cheer (and I don’t mean by diving into a punch bowl).

No, what I’ve discovered is that nostalgia is the secret sauce that puts me in the festive swing of things. So, starting the day after Thanksgiving, I play holiday music in the house as I put up Christmas decorations and wrap the presents. Then, every night I tune into one of my favorite holiday programs – the one’s I grew up with.

My love of holiday films was sort of ignited by accident. At the age of 16, I saw a made-for-TV movie titled “It Happened One Christmas” starring Orson Wells, Marlo Thomas, Cloris Leachmen, Doris Roberts, Christopher Guest, and Beans Morrocco…an all-star lineup.

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Marlo Thomas plays Mary Bailey Hatch, a woman contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. She’s standing on a bridge and just when she’s about to jump, her guardian angel, Clara Oddbody (played by Cloris Leachman) jumps in the water and Mary ends up saving her instead.

As I described this plot to my parents, my father said, “It’s a wonderful life.”

I smiled at him. “Yes, dad. It sure is. So anyway, this guardian angel shows Mary what the world would have been like if she was never born…”

“No,” my father interrupted, again. “It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s the name of the original movie.”

He then explained that I was watching a knock-off of a great American classic. When I finally saw the Jimmy Stewart/Donna Reed version, I never looked back. It’s A Wonderful Life was the gateway drug that got me addicted to classic films in general and Christmas movies in particular.

Then about four years ago, I discovered the joy of listening to vintage radio programming, which inspired me to start SNORK, the podcast.

This brings me to the two little presents I’d like to give you, since you’ve been so good this year.

First, if you’ve been enjoying my podcast, I’m giving you a slew of old-time radio shows, all with a holiday theme.  Click Christmas Old Time Radio to enjoy everything from Burns and Allen to The Gift Of The Magi!

My second gift is a list of the best Christmas movies and shows of all time (or at least as far as I’m concerned).  You can’t watch these and remain a humbug!

Holiday (1938)

This wonderful tale spans Christmas and New Year’s Eve, making it my favorite holiday twofer!  Cary Grant’s Johnny Case (a dashing, handsome, regular Joe) is engaged to the fabulously wealthy Julia Seton, played by Doris Nolan.  But is she really the right girl for him?  Perhaps he’d be better off with Julia’s down-to-earth sister Linda (played by none other than the great Katharine Hepburn). There are great party scenes, acrobatics, tantrums, and excessive drunkenness.  What more could you want from a holiday movie?

Christmas In Connecticut (1945)

Barbara Stanwyck’s Elizabeth Lane has made a name for herself writing a food column about her incredible culinary and hostessing skills.  There’s only one problem – she can’t boil water.  Watch one lie lead to another and another when her unsuspecting publisher decides to run a feature of her entertaining a war hero for the holidays.  Where will Elizabeth get a Connecticut farmhouse, a husband and a baby in time for Christmas?  The movie also stars Dennis Morgan and Sydney Greenstreet.

White Christmas (1954)White-Christmas-1954-15

It’s kind of a toss-up as to who performs the “Sisters” number better – Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen or Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in semi-drag.  With energized choreography and songs you know well enough to sing along to, this holiday classic will put you in a merry mood. It will also encourage you to go easy on the Christmas cookies as you marvel at Vera-Ellen’s teensy-weensy waistline.

Desk Set (1957)Here’s Katharine Hepburn again, this time matched with Spencer Tracey. She’s the head of a television network’s research department and is dating an ambitious man who underestimates and under appreciates her, while using her smarts to advance his own career. Tracy’s an efficiency expert who’s wants to outfit her department with a computer called EMERAC (which Hepburn and her office mates think will replace them).  In one of my favorite scenes of all romantic comedies combined, Tracy takes Hepburn out to lunch – on the roof of her office building – and gives her a personality/IQ test.  It’s priceless.

Elf (2003)

Who doesn’t love Buddy the elf, his childlike innocence and his legendary sweet tooth? Fun and funny, Elf is the only Christmas movie on my list that was produced in this century.  Why?  Because unlike the recent oversupply of sappy, sentimental, tear-jerking films, Director Jon Favreau goes for old-school charm and comedy.  So, if you’re tired of crying into your fruitcake because some kid needs a Christmas miracle to find his deadbeat dad who is a perfect kidney match for his dying baby sister or because Gramps has to sell the farm but then buys the farm when he falls into the wheat thrasher on Christmas eve…well, you get the point. I’m talking to you Hallmark Channel!

A Christmas Carol (1951) and Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)

 

I can’t choose between Alastair Sim’s Ebenezer Scrooge  and Jim Backus’s Mister McGoo’s Ebenezer Scrooge.  So I won’t!

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

When David Niven finds himself preoccupied with building a cathedral and losing perspective on faith, charity and his lovely wife and daughter, he prays for guidance.  Enter Cary Grant as the angel Dudley.  Loretta Young, as the title character, teams up with Dudley (not knowing he’s heaven-sent), to help her husband reconnect with his family and his congregation.

A Christmas Story (1983)Christmas wishes in 1940’s Indiana can be frah-GEE-lay for a kid who wants nothing more than a BB gun under the tree – but his mother’s worried he’ll shoot his eye out.  Narrated by its author, Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story follows Ralphie Parker as he schemes and daydreams over the elusive Red Ryder.  Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillion, as Ralphie’s parents, charm and delight.  I love everything about this movie – it is perfect!

Miracle On 34th Street (1947)

Natalie Wood’s natural, flawless performance makes you forget you’re watching a movie. Edmund Gwenn plays Kris Kringle – just a kindly old man or the real deal?  It’s a heartwarming story about generosity, faith, second chances and, of course, Macy’s.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s hard to imagine, but this beloved Christmas classic was not well-received when it was originally released in 1946.  Now, no holiday season is complete without it.  When Harry Bailey wishes he’d never been born, his guardian angel takes him on an eye-opening odyssey.  He learns that his life touched so many others for the better and that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.

This list is far from complete. It doesn’t include all the TV shows I’ve loved since childhood, like the original Grinch Who Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Year Without A Santa Claus, and so many others.  And if I’m going to see them all before the end of the year, I better get cracking!

In the meantime, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  See you 2016!

Madame Fortuna Knows All

Some people put more effort into decorating for Halloween than Radio City Music Hall puts into their Christmas Spectacular.  All over the suburbs, homes are festooned with strands of orange lights, giant spiders dangling from rooftops, goblins and witches lurking in the trees, mock cemeteries gracing front lawns…  I’ve even seen people take it to the limit by bringing the ghoulishness insides their homes – coffins and skeletons and dungeons.   Me?  I put a mini pumpkin and some gourds on the dining room table and call it a day.

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Even as a kid, Halloween’s main attraction for me was free candy and not much else.  If a grown-up asked me what I was planning to “be,” I’d shrug.  Those important decisions were left up to my personal seamstress (a/k/a my mother).

Mom’s always been very creative and made our costumes by hand.  Store-bought outfits were not an option.  The one exception occurred the year my three older siblings and I were too sick to go trick-or-treating.  Mom spared herself the job of sewing and gluing and toiling – while caring for four cases of chicken pox, or flu, or god-knows-what-all, and instead, bought costumes for us to wear over our pajamas.   Most moms would have skipped the whole thing entirely, but our mom would not deprive us.  Halloween was going to stink that year.  The least she could do was let us dress-up.  Now, that’s a good mom!

Worst Halloween Ever

Worst Halloween Ever

So there we were, four little kids sitting by the living room window, watching all the other kids who were lucky enough to be out.  My oldest brother, Dominic (age 11 at the time), had the important job of answering the door and handing out the candy.  We all expected it to be the dullest Halloween ever.  But then…

A teenage boy (who was not in costume) came up our front steps.  We didn’t know him.  He was all alone, and didn’t have a bag or a pillowcase or a plastic pumpkin with which to collect his loot.  We kids looked at each other.  Something seemed “off.”  He rang the bell.  Dominic picked up our big bowl of treats and, with some hesitation, opened the door.  Without saying a word, and for no apparent reason, the teenager swung his arm, as if to execute an underhanded softball pitch, and knocked the bowl up and out of my brother’s hands, creating a shower of fun-size delights that landed all over the porch and entryway.  Finally, we thought, some excitement!

Even at the tender age of four, I knew there was danger afoot, and was afraid for my brother.  I screamed for my father, who came into the living room just as the boy took off running.  I’d never seen Daddy move so fast.  He flew down the front steps, caught the kid a block away and brought him back by the collar of his shirt.  After making him return every last piece of candy to the bowl, my father told him to apologize to my brother.  Then he gave him a brief lecture on civilized behavior.  The boy could not explain why he had done it (my mother thinks he must have been drunk).  My father agreed not to call the kid’s parents if he promised to stay out of trouble.  The boy dutifully complied because this was the 60’s, when teenagers respected their elders and nobody felt the need to call the police or their lawyers or draw weapons.

I was in awe of my father that night.  He protected his home, avenged my brother, firmly (but kindly) taught a valuable lesson to a wayward child and saved our candy.  My hero!

Many Halloweens followed, and they weren’t particularly eventful.  I didn’t care what I wore (usually somebody’s hand-me-down from the prior year).  During high school, I tried to be a little more innovative.  Most girls went as cheerleaders, cats, bunnies, nurses…girlie things.  By college, they were still dressing this way, except now they went as slutty cheerleaders, sexy cats, Playboy bunnies and naughty nurses.  So much for the women’s movement.

Cher channelling Madame Fortuna

Cher channelling Madame Fortuna

It was in college that I came up with my perfect costume (and alter ego): Madame Fortuna.  Madame Fortuna was born out of sheer laziness – a flowing skirt, a scarf to tie around my head, layers of jewelry, and gobs of dramatic eye make-up were all that was necessary to transform me into this mysterious gypsy fortune teller.  Wandering through parties, the Madame read palms and made up comical, ridiculous predictions for anybody who wanted a “reading.”  My friends and I would go to Halloween events and use Madame Fortuna to make friends, meet cute guys and score free drinks.

When I moved to New York City after college, I realized I’d have to start putting more effort into my costumes – not because I wanted to, but because I had to. My other brother, Michael, threw legendary Halloween parties in his Manhattan apartment and killer costumes were de rigueur.  Guests were instructed to a) dress up, b) bring food or booze, and c) come with something to sleep on.

Michael would move all of the furniture out of his living and dining rooms, roll up the rugs, put strobe lights in the chandelier, black lights in the lamps, roast a turkey and a ham, and let the good times roll.

We’d dance all night, and when the last reveler couldn’t stand up anymore, we’d kick the dirty cups and cigarette butts out of the way, roll out our sleeping bags and pass out on the floor.  The next morning, everybody pitched in to clean up and then we’d go out to brunch. Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?

I couldn’t attend Michael’s epic parties in a half-ass costume or show up every single year as a gypsy.  It was necessary to think outside the box.  But whomever (or whatever) I came up with, I’d stay in character all night (to the delight of some and the confusion of others).  I once went as Katherine Hepburn’s character from On Golden Pond.  I stippled my face and hands with liver spots, put on a big sun hat and went around calling people “old poops” in a quivering, upper-crusty accent.  One guest, utterly perplexed by my costume (or not familiar with the great Kate – go figure), asked my brother if there was something “wrong” with me.  Um, hello…it’s a costume party, professor!

Are you stupid, you old poop?

Are you stupid, you old poop?

Another year, I went as daylight savings time with clocks taped to my shirt, springs in my hair and autumn leaves glued to my back and butt.  Spring ahead.  Fall back.  Get it?  Neither did anyone else.

When Michael moved to a smaller apartment, he gave up those fabulous parties and nobody offered to take them over.  I can’t blame them.  That kind of magic can’t ever be recreated, even on a night where witches and warlocks abound.

So, a lot of years went by when I didn’t dress up at all.  Then, about 10 years ago, one of my sister’s co-workers was organizing a carnival-style fundraiser at a park in New Jersey.  My sister asked me to do my Madame Fortuna bit for the event.   It was for a good cause, so I figured why not.

I decided to kick it up a notch, and bought some props – a crystal ball and a deck of Tarot cards.  My plan was to have some jokes and tricks prepared in advance, to entertain people donating their money to a phony fortune teller (as if there was any other kind).

So, on a sunny morning in early October, I brought Madame Fortuna out of retirement.

My first customer sat down, and I immediately noticed she was wearing a necklace that read Sandy.  This would be like taking candy from a baby, I thought.

Staring deeply into my crystal ball, and in an accent thicker than goulash, I said to her,  “I am standing on the edge of an ocean.”

She:     [No response]

Me:      I see a vast expanse of beach.  Does this mean anything to you?

She:     [Meekly shakes her head no]

Me:      The shoreline is very grainy.

She:     [Still no response.  I considered checking her pulse.]

Me:      There is a lot of sand.  It is very, sandy.  Yes!  Very, veeeeeery SANDY!  This means nothing to you?

She:     Well…we used to have a house by the Jersey shore. [It seemed I had overestimated Sandy, and her IQ.]

Me:      [Exasperated, I dropped the accent and said] Lady!  Is your name Sandy or what?

She:     Who me?  Oh, yeah…

Next!

A small group of middle school boys stepped up, each daring the other to get a reading with yours truly.  A redheaded boy said he wasn’t afraid.  He also called me “bogus.”

Madame Fortuna and I know a thing or two about redheaded boys.  As a matter of fact, we married one.  They are full of mischief (especially if they also have freckles).  So, I decided to make a not-so-wild guess that this “ginger” was a handful.

Me:      Look into my crystal ball and tell me what you see.

Red:    Nothing.

Me:      Of course you see nothing!  That is because you are not Madame Fortuna! I am.  [This elicited laughs from his friends. I pulled the crystal ball toward me and stared into it for a moment, then clacked my tongue and shook my head in disgust.]  School only started a month ago and already you are into much troubles!  Yes?  [Note: for added authenticity, broken English must always accompany a phony accent.]

Red:    [Flabbergasted] Holy $#@!

Red’s friends gasped and moved closer to my table.  One of them whispered, “How does she know that?”  How, indeed?  My instincts, and follicular profiling, proved to be correct.

Red:   [Suspicious]  Do you know my mom?

Me:      Silence!  [Remembering how my father tried a little mentoring with the sociopathic candy bandit, I saw an opportunity to give Red some unsolicited guidance] Listen to me, my little potty mouth friend, your teachers think you are a jitterbug who doesn’t like to pay attention.  But Madame Fortuna knows you are bored in school.  You must not let this defeat you!  [I wagged my finger at him for emphasis. My jangling bracelets added the perfect sound effect.]  Madame Fortune sees two futures for you.  The first one will happen if you do not heed my warning.  You are understanding me?  Madame Fortuna sees one word, written over and over again, in bright red letters! [Dramatically, I pushed the ball away and covered my eyes as if it were too painful to witness. I opened them and looked gravely at Red.] Juvie!  Do you know what is this word, juvie?

Red’s eyes widened, as did his posse’s.  He nodded his head.  Nobody was laughing anymore.  They were hanging on my every word.

Me:      The second future, if you behave at school, is full with all kinds of wonderfulnesses.  You will be…great leader!  Can you promise to be good boy, kid?

Red:    I will!  I promise, I will!

I liked working with Red a whole lot better than that dingbat Sandy.

Next up were two adorable ‘tween girls, who were obviously the best of friends.  They were holding on to each other, full of giggles and giddy trepidation.  I could hear them talking as they approached, and I noticed they were both very articulate.  I suspected they were a couple of smart cookies, so I took that angle.  One of them was wearing eyeglasses.  A clue, perhaps?

Me:      [Speaking to “Glasses”]  Would you like me to read your palm or your cards?

Glasses:           Can we do the crystal ball?

Me:      Why not?  Madame Fortuna aims to please.  Hmm…I see you in a room, alone.  You are very happy there…because…because…because you are surrounded by books!

Glasses and her friend, Giggles, both let out a scream.   It appeared I had nailed this one, too.

Giggles:           She’s always got her nose in a book!  That is unbelievable!  How did you know that?

Me:      Madame Fortuna knows aaaaalllll.

I had no idea I was so good at reading people, or that sterotypes could be so helpful… bookworms wore glasses…redheads are rascals…

My reputation as a gifted seer (a/k/a lucky guesser) soon spread, and the line to see Madame Fortuna began to grow.  For six hours without bathroom breaks (Madame Fortuna has bladder like camel, yes?), I read old men, young mothers, couples, kids…you name it.  Everybody wanted a piece of the Transylvanian Sensation.

I was surprised to see a repeat customer step up to my table.  It was Glasses with a man who unquestionably was her father. He had his arms crossed and wore a grumpy expression.  No doubt about it, he wanted nothing to do with me.

I figured the best way to loosen him up would be with a joke.  I asked him to look into the crystal ball and to tell me what he saw (I was setting him up for the same gag I had used on Red).  When I retold the joke, Grumpy Dad didn’t even crack a smile.  OK, I thought, onto the next quip.  Some of my prepared jokes ended with song lyrics for punch lines.  I would try the set-up that ended with, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.”

Me:      [Looking into the crystal ball] I see…hmm…I’m confused…I don’t know what this means…but I see…a porch swing.

Looking up, I saw Grumpy Dad’s face lose its color as his mouth dropped open.  His daughter, Glasses, grabbed his arm and softly whispered, “See, daddy.  I told you she was real!

Me:      What does this mean?  This swing?

Glasses:           This summer, we built a porch swing together as a daddy-daughter project!

How was I doing this?  I felt like Whoopi Goldberg in the movie Ghost.  She plays a con artist, posing as a medium, and bilks people out of money by pretending to commune with the “other side.”  When she finds out that she really can talk to the dead, it terrifies her.  At this point, I was starting to give myself the creeps.  Could I be that lucky of a guesser? It didn’t seem possible.

Me:     Your father loves you very much.  I don’t need crystal ball for to see that.

Glasses:  He’s the best!

Finally, a big fat smile out of Grumpy Dad.  He gave his little girl a hug and kissed the top of her head.  As they got up to leave, he leaned over to me, whispering, “Impressive.”

Me:   [Whispering back] Magic!

The fundraiser was a great success.  Attendees had a good time and a lot of money was raised.  A little girl shared a special moment with her dad.  A skeptical dad opened up to the possibility of magic.  A red-haired boy set his sights on something higher than juvenile detention.  And a woman named Sandy wandered around the parking lot trying to remember where she left her car.  How can I be sure?

Madame Fortuna knows all.