When I was a little kid, my family would make an annual pilgrimage from Ann Arbor to Chicago to visit my aunt Cheryl and her husband David (DB to us) to do some Christmas shopping. We’d stay at their house in Riverside, right next to a house Capone apparently had built for his sister. Then we’d go downtown and visit Marshall Fields’ main store in the Loop and have Christmas tea in the famous Walnut Room.
Tea by the big tree was fine, but as a child of the ‘80s I was a greedy little consumer. Early on I discovered a treasure trove in the basement no one else seemed to care about: a little metal rotating rack of cassette tapes.
Cassettes from the Golden Age of Radio.
Already a fan of The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, and The Green Hornet, I would race to see what shows they had this year. Mostly I was looking for episodes of shows I already loved, but I did pick up some episodes of Dragnet, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, and my first ever episode of The Six Shooter.
One year (can’t remember when, but I must’ve been in double digits) I saw a bland pink insert that said:
Old Time Radio
Miracle on 34th Street
Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood, and John Payne star in this radio version of the yuletide classic about the Macy’s Santa who claims to be the real Kris Kringle.
I knew zilch about the Lux Radio Theatre, but I adored that film, so I wheedled and cajoled until my folks bought it for me. We listened to it on the drive home to Ann Arbor.
It’s delightful, of course. Broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1947, just two months after the film premiered, the show is an abbreviated version of the movie. The original leads are supported by several familiar radio actors, such as Bill Johnstone, who just a few years earlier was playing Lamont Cranston, here cast in the role of District Attorney Mara, and getting perhaps the biggest laugh from the live audience. And Alan Reed, the voice of Fred Flintstone, plays R.H. Macy with glee.
There’s a lot of charm in this version. Maureen O’Hara flubs a line, saying “wheel whiskers” instead of “real whiskers,” but she soldiers on. In the chat after the performance John Payne reveals that “Teddy” Gwenn actually played Santa Claus in the real Macy’s parade that year.
That broadcast was so popular that they repeated it in 1948 and 1949, though without Natalie Wood. The script improved a litte, fixing the glaring error from the film about Daniel D. Thompkins (he was Vice President under Monroe, not Adams).
But for me Wood’s performance is essential. For years I tried to find a downloadable version of the 1947 recording with Wood in the role. Finally I gave in and recorded my old cassette onto MP3 and loaded it into Soundcloud.
A long way of saying, Merry Christmas. Here’s my gift to you.