Saturday, December 25, 2010

L.A. brought Christmas to America

Ahhhh!  I see that you doubt me, but listen up!  Call it a Christmas gift from Tinsel Town.

Look, I was born in the 4th century, and for as long as I have known it, Christmas has been too long, too bloated, too everything. Even our selflessness is tested. My friend Linda tells of how she once got a new car for Christmas.

Worst. Gift. Ever.

"Who the *!&$#%&)&# left their car parked in front of our *!&$#%&)&# house on Christmas Day?" the hungover Brit sneered to her husband when she spotted the car at the curb.


That afternoon, at a neighbors' open house, the gift car caused total chaos when all the other couples in attendance turned on each other for the relatively lame gifts they'd received.

"We'd better go," Linda quietly told her husband.

I love that story, for it shows how human we all are — emotional pretzels and, occasionally, a bunch of twits.

And here we are, you and me, licking our wounds and laughing at ourselves once again on Dec. 25, in the town that gave America Christmas.

"Los Angeles gave us Christmas?" you scoff.

Let me explain.

You're a monster, Mr. Grinch.

Your heart's an empty hole.

Your brain is full of spiders,

You've got garlic in your soul.

Mr. Grinch ...

Over the past century, no part of the country has defined the American Christmas the way Southern California has, the place that gave the world the Grinch, roasted chestnuts and Bedford Falls.

It gave Rudolph his own show, made a phenom of old Frosty, gave Charlie Brown a reminder of what Christmas is all about in a screed that holds up, like Twain, as if it were written yesterday.

"I never get what I really want," Lucy says. "I always get a lot of stupid toys or a bicycle or clothes or something like that."

"What is it you want?" asks Charlie Brown.

"Real estate."

Yep, through TV, song and movies — actually, a gumbo of all three — Hollywood created the modern American Christmas. It kept us on course, shined a klieg light on our wobbly values, warmed us with its words.

Frank Capra penned "It's a Wonderful Life" here one day in a little cabana near Palm Springs. Mel Torme and Bob Wells famously wrote "The Christmas Song" in about 40 minutes on a blistering day in Beverly Hills.

"White Christmas," based on the famous song that was set here, was filmed at Fox and Paramount. By the way, when Irving Berlin finished writing the song, he reportedly told his secretary: "I just wrote the best song I've ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written."


It was at NBC Burbank — Studio A, in fact — that Andy Williams taped those memorable holiday shows that looked as if they'd been shot through a bottle of cognac.

Scenes from the foggy "Miracle on 34th Street" were shot in Studio 3 on the Fox lot on Pico Boulevard.

"Meet Me in St. Louis," in which Judy Garland purrs/sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," was filmed at an old rail depot on 2nd Street downtown, of all places.

Of course, L.A.'s contribution to the holidays goes beyond videotape and celluloid. It was from here that Paul Ecke, an ambitious farmer-entrepreneur, introduced the poinsettia to America. And, of course, an African studies professor conjured up Kwanza here too.

But it is the songs, movies and TV shows that L.A. delivered to the world that crafted the American Christmas of the 20th and 21st centuries — a body of work that rivals Dickens. A body of work that defines the American soul.

If only our politicians had a similar feel for the nation's needs.

"Mr. Potter … this rabble you're talking about … they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?" (Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life")

Where are you reading this? In a tract house in Reseda? In a mountain cabin in Big Bear? On a blanket by the beach?

Much like the town itself, Christmas here is no one thing. In fact, it is L.A.'s great glory — and occasionally its worst shortcoming — that it can't be defined in a single sentence. It's as different as tract homes and mountain hideaways, pine needles and palm fronds, empanadas and warm pumpkin pie.

In L.A., every time a car alarm goes off, an angel gets his wings.

This is no Bethlehem, that's for sure. But through sheer happenstance — and enormous talent — Los Angeles made itself into our nation's Christmas workshop.

Bada-bing, bada-burl.

Now, knowing New Yorkers, they also may stake a claim to having established our Christmas vernacular. After all, Clement Moore's story, the one best known as "Night Before Christmas," and Thomas Nast's cartoons also helped turn Santa into the world force he is today.

And in fairness, the American Christmas has been a group gift. The Brits gave us the tradition of gift-giving; the Germans, holiday trees; the Dutch came up with that corpulent elf.

But it is Hollywood and environs that took 2,000 years of Christmas and captured its poetry, kept the holidays a shining thing.

Not a bad gift, when you think about it. No exchanges. No returns.

Merry Christmas to ALL of my friends!!!


Joe said...

Just a quick stop by to say Merry Christmas Bob, I hope you had a great day!

Ciara said...

What a great view on christmas. L.A is such a fine city and I'm proud to say that I can admire it from a car ride of two hours away. Christmas must be something special over there.

Sue Lehman said...

Love the article, Bob. Did you really write that??? The only thing I miss about Christmas, being in CA, is the no-snow part. Coming from the snowy mid-west, I EXPECT to see snow at Christmas. Something about palm trees and sunny warmth outside, just doesn't get me in the mood. But, I had a great Christmas this year---both boys and Hubby here at home---what a treat. Hope yours was HO HO Happy too!

Ciara said...

Sue, I had came from the east also and it's really weird not seeing any snow !

R U Serious?? said...

I'm from New Jersey and I miss the snow every year.

Sue, I did write that but it took a few days of searching for links.So glad you spent Christmas with your son. Merry Christmas

Ciara, Thank you for finding my blog and commenting. I too miss the snow but Christmas is special wherever we are. Merry Christmas

Beth said...

A great post Bob!
Happy New Year!!!

The Gaelic Wife said...

You have a valid point. I hadn't thought of it that way. Of course, two of my favorite Christmas lines didn't actually come out of L.A.

London - God bless us, everyone.

Judea - And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

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