(Dear Reader: Lest you consider this an odd subject for this publication, please remember that Mr. Dickens and Mr. Poe broke bread together, and were admirers of each other’s work; and that the Carol is one of the most gripping ghost stories in the history of literature!)
“The best-loved actor of our time, in the world’s best-loved Christmas story!”
- Orson Welles
A CHRISTMAS CAROL starring Lionel Barrymore Mercury Theater 1939
This radio production of "A Christmas Carol" aired on December 24, 1939 with Orson Welles as the narrator. Lionel Barrymore reprises the part of Ebenezer Scrooge, with Everett Sloane (Marley's ghost), Frank Readick (Bob Cratchit), Erskine Sanford (Fezziwig) and George Coulouris (Ghost of Christmas Present). Adapted from the Dickens novella, Barrymore was fast becoming a tradition on the radio with his Scrooge performances. Welles himself had play Scrooge on the radio the year before for The Mercury Theater.
Picture if you will a brisk Christmas Eve of the early 1970’s in the snowy countryside around Defiance, Ohio. A teenage boy and his young sister sneak away from the extended family festivities taking place in the wood-paneled basement, to hunker down on the carpeting in front of a hulking Entertainment Center upstairs. The strains of Bernard Herrmann conducting Tchaikovsky’s Theme from Piano Concerto No.1 (aka Tonight We Love) begin, and soon the two are whisked away to Queen Victoria’s England—and somehow, to Franklin Roosevelt’s America at the same time!
WOWO Ft. Wayne (“The 50,000 Watt Voice of Farming”) was rebroadcasting the classic 1939 Campbell Playhouse production of “A Christmas Carol.” The show was as magical that night as when first heard on the eve of the Second World War, and its powerful dramatization of Dickens’ heart-gripping tale of redemption was to be one of the main reasons why the present writer—only 4 years old when Classic Radio Drama was decimated by the American networks in 1962— became a life-long lover of “The Theater of the Imagination,” as well as a sometime portrayer of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Like your first children’s book, your first song, or your first date, your first Carol is often one of those things that stays with you forever. And countless listeners have had the same experience with that specific production of this tale—for in an art form notorious for its fickleness, that production’s miser, Mr. Lionel Barrymore, played the role to a national audience for two solid decades.
But before the curtain rises on that epic, let’s take just a moment to set the scene…
In the summer of 1843, while taking his daily walks among the common people of London, 31-year-old Charles Dickens decided to craft for them a holiday gift that would also quickly raise cash for himself. His “Ghost Story of Christmas” sold out by Christmas Eve, and the tale was soon seen as stage play, musical, by 1901, silent film.
The author himself performed public readings of it, and said that his story was best listened to in a darkened room. And in 1905, the Carol debuted in the nascent “audio drama” field by way of three-minute cylinders from British Music Hall performers Bransby Williams and Albert Whelan.
The first radio reading of the Carol was on December 22, 1922, on pioneer station WEAF in New York. Many stations followed suit, and on Christmas Eve 1928, the fledgling Columbia Broadcasting System broadcast a two-hour full-cast Carol.
And that all brings us within hailing distance of the afternoon of Christmas Day, 1934…
During that heady time of early national broadcasting (even international, considering that many radios then received shortwave) “the CBS” (as some called it then) presented a “Variety Special” that originated from literally across the breadth of America. Newspaper ads humbly proclaimed it “THE WORLD’S GREATEST RADIO PROGRAM,”
( WORLD'S GREATEST - Caption: Newspaper ad for Lionel Barrymore's 1934 radio debut, where he is topbilled among a host of talents.)
And as renowned M.C. Alexander Woollcott would be presenting grand opera, broad comedy, popular orchestra and chorale music, and Hollywood-cast drama, from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, there was some truth to the adline.
And amidst all the program’s bright offerings, the Washington Post “On The Air Today” columnist announced that:
“. . . (the) reason (C.B.S.) has . . . to be excited over the big Christmas pageant at 2:30 this afternoon . . . is that Lionel Barrymore will be heard over the air for the first time ever when he takes the part of the immortal ‘nasty man’ in Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol.’”
Yes, the diamond in this continent-spanning gold ring of a Christmas gift was actor Lionel Barrymore’s debut radio performance, in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Born in 1878, Barrymore was descended from two famed American acting families, the Drews and the Barrymores. Eldest of three siblings in a famed twentieth century performing triumvirate,
Lionel is also the great uncle of today’s Drew. He is perhaps best known today as Mr. Potter in another Christmas perennial, Frank Capra’s film It’s A Wonderful Life—acasting choice that owed much to his 1934 role here and what followed from it. Audiences back then had seen him on the Broadway stage since 1900, in parts including Macbeth; in Silent film since D.W. Griffith’s Fighting Blood of 1911; and as winner of the 1931 Best Actor Oscar for the Talkie A Free Soul. WhenBarrymore was introduced by fellow show business legend Welles in a broadcast not long after this one with the appellation used as the subtitle for this essay, for once such words were not empty ballyhoo.
(Just for the record, the New York Evening Post referred to this 1934 Yuletide extravaganza as, “a special three-hour commercial,” [italics mine], and just as surely as the profusion of performers and national scope of this production did not come cheap to its sponsor, we can trust that the Nash Motor Company made sure to take time remind listeners of their fine automobiles!)
( JOHN, ETHEL, LIONEL - Caption: John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore in 1904. John was the "baby," though Lionel once joked on a radio program that his brother's dissolute living had allowed him to catch up and pass him).
Sadly, a recording of this broadcast does not seem to be extant, but of the program’s total three-hour length, the Carol appears to have only been a thirty-minute version, half as long as CBS’s free-standing, Barrymore-less broadcast of the tale the year before. But whatever the duration of Ebenezer Scrooge’s trials, Lionel came out of them a bona-fide hit.
So when the rolling year came ‘round to December 4, 1935, it was announced that not only would the star return to the role on the twenty-fifth of that year, but also that he had been signed to a new contract for an additional five years in the role. It was noted in the press that for a single annual event, this kind of long-term arrangement was unprecedented; but in fact, even that half-a-decade would be merely the beginning of his time spent in Scrooge’s drafty old house.
( "Ebenezer contemplating the mic of CBS." A moody portrait, taken when Lionel began his Carol contract for the network in 1935.)
“Dickens’ immortal ‘Christmas Carol’ has been read to children for many years and has been seen at Christmas pageants in tableaux and little stage plays. This year the youngsters over the country are going to have the treat of a lifetime.”
Maybe the writer for the New York American had missed it, but of course, those that had been of an age to listen had already had the treat of Barrymore’s Ebenezer the previous year. We don’t know if then eight-year-old Buster Phelps had listened in 1934, but he did have the honor of taking part in the story this time around as Tiny Tim. Phelps’ career began in 1931, and would include such films as Little Men and Anna Karenina, where he was the son of Greta Garbo and (later a Scrooge himself) Basil Rathbone. He retired from films in 1949, and passed away in 1983.
The American writer went on to say that, “Lionel is fast becoming one of the greatest favorites on the air.” And one at the Herald Tribune seconded the praise: “(his) characterization of Scrooge . . . will be an outstanding drama presentation over WABC Christmas Day . . . .” It would be a longer show this time, allotting forty-five minutes for the telling of the tale, and it would be Barrymore’s first before a live studio audience. To start this all off right, The Saturday Evening Post carried a full-page, full-color ad for the broadcast with a fine portrait of Barrymore in character, framed by an evocative painting of Bob Cratchit with Tim on his shoulder by Norman Rockwell.
( A beautiful Saturday Evening Post ad, with Cratchits by Norman Rockwell, promoting Lionel's 1935 broadcast.)
Moving on to their 1936 edition, CBS planned to present their Carol in the setting of an existing series—Friday’s Hollywood Hotel, sponsored by Campbell's Soup, fell on Christmas Day that year, and the host for the broadcast would be up-and-coming singing/acting star Dick Powell. After only three years, a solid tradition was already being formed with this union of actor and story, and so the star himself was given generous column space in the papers to speak about his play to his public. (Such pieces are sometimes ghostwritten for celebrities; but as Lionel was a creative, well-spoken man, both here and throughout, we’ll trust that the words attributed to him are indeed his.)
“’Ye Ghosts of Scrooge'
By Lionel Barrymore
One of the reasons why I enjoy playing the role of Scrooge in Dickens' ‘Christmas Carol’ each Christmas season over the Columbia network is the fact that I believe in ghosts.
Although Scrooge was confronted with three ghosts: namely, the ghost of Christmas Past—his memory; the ghost of Christmas Present—his intuition; and the ghost of Christmas Future—his imagination, people today may have as many as seven or eight ghosts haunting them. It all depends upon their experiences, for in the innermost recesses of every human mind there are the memories of the past, the intuitions of the present and the imagination of the future.
It is foolish to harbor awesome thoughts about ghosts for they are in reality man's conscience and therefore his best friend. If man refuses to accept them as such, they will force themselves upon him anyway as they did upon Scrooge when he had closed his eyes and heart to the spirit of Christmas season [sic] and the joy of living.
Happy Childhood Days.
It took the ghost of Christmas Present to remind Scrooge of his happy childhood days, and many are the Christmas days that I have been confronted with the ghost of my own childhood. I am always happy to know that my Christmases were no different from the millions of other children in the world. I see plainly the long awaited Christmas visit which Ethel, John and I made to Grandmother Drew's home in Philadelphia each year. I see father and mother returning on Christmas Eve from a long theatrical tour with their arms overflowing with tempting packages. There would be a fancy new dress or a china-faced doll for Ethel, a pair of boxing gloves or a shiny toy sword for John, and usually a new book or a paint box for me.
As the ghost of Christmas Past vanishes, I see the ghost of Christmas Present approaching. Although this same ghost showed Scrooge the homely simplicity of Bob Cratchit's Christmas Day and the quiet reverence for the One who had created the day, it shows me the American Christmas of today with its 11 o'clock risers who grab a hasty breakfast, rip open their gift packages, gasp out a thrilled ‘Gee! Thanks! It's just what I wanted’ and then rush out to a football game to cheer themselves further into the spirit of the day.
Nevertheless, despite the great change which has taken place between the Christmas of Scrooge's time and the Christmas of today, I sincerely believe there is still as much Christmas spirit as there was when Dickens wrote his immortal ‘Carol’ about Scrooge. I believe the whole world is still very much aware of the significance and tradition of Christmas, and that it is not so much how a person spends the day as it is how he feels in his heart.
Greedy Mode of Living.
Although the ghost of Christmas Future showed Scrooge how tragic his future would be if he continued in his selfish, greedy mode of living, this same ghost is revealing to me now the eagerness with which America is waiting to hear the story of Scrooge's enlightenment again this year. The ghost shows me the thousands of letters which will again be sent from all over America confirming their love for this immortal Dickens' story and their' indebtedness to the Columbia network and the Hollywood Hotel sponsor for permitting them to hear it again…”
—The Washington Post, December 20, 1936
(Very much an educated Twentieth Century man’s Freudian/Jungian understanding of “ghosts”!)
But as these words of Lionel’s were being read by the fireplace all around the country, in sunny Los Angeles the star’s wife Irene Fenwick was very ill. As he tells it in his book We Barrymores:
“(I was with friends) in the garden on Christmas Eve 1936, when Irene suddenly died. “
Among other maladies, sources report that she suffered from what would today be diagnosed as anorexia nervosa; the Barrymores had no children, and by all accounts Lionel genuinely doted on his often-ailing wife of 12 years. The Philadephia Record reported that Irene’s doctor found Barrymore on his knees at her bedside, weeping, and that he remained so distraught over her death that he had to be taken to a sanatorium.
There had been some chilliness in Lionel’s relationship with his brother over this marriage at first; John had dated Irene earlier, and so had disparaged the state of her chastity to Lionel. But after a few years, that breach had been repaired. And so:
“I was supposed to go on the radio in ‘A Christmas Carol’ the next day. With hardly a moment to read through the lines in advance, Jack took my place and gave that memorable performance which perhaps you recall.”
The day after, The Washington Post reported that:
“Lionel Collapses, But a Barrymore Acts as ‘Scrooge’ . . . And so it was the voice of John that recited the memorable lines of Dicken's [sic] ‘Christmas Carol’ over a nation-wide broadcast . . . .”
(John Barrymore at his Streamlined Shakespeare mic, not long after pinchhitting for brother Lionel's Scrooge.)
Speaking of voices, it is a pity that this program does not appear to exist in recorded form, because there is probably more than one reason why some might have recalled it as “memorable.” John idolized his older brother, and as Sir Toby Belch in the transcription of his 1937 Streamlined Shakespeare broadcast of “Twelfth Night,” he can be heard to mimic Lionel lovingly and well. The present author has always surmised that he did that in this role, too, and was gratified to find that author Margot Peters in her book The House of Barrymore maintains that that was indeed the case. As she told me:
“Where I got the info that John imitated Lionel, I can't tell you at this date—I was researching the book in the 1980s. But the story goes that no listener knew that Lionel did not read Christmas Carol that day, because John did a dead-on imitation of his brother's Scrooge. I'd say that John did it to show that he could—‘I can do what Lionel does any day!’ That sort of attitude, as a kind of stunt.”
And Lionel would be called on to return the understudy favor just a few years later. Though unwell from decades of severe alcoholism, John was a comic regular on a popular radio variety show in 1942, and at a rehearsal on May 19, he collapsed. Again, from Lionel’s book:
“‘The show must go on’ is a hackneyed phrase, but it means something to old actors. I took Jack’s place on the Rudy Vallee show on the evening of Thursday, May 21st, and though my voice and heart were heavy, I did the best I could, as Jack had done for me that Christmas after my wife died.”
The younger Barrymore died just days after the broadcast.
( Lionel was a frequent guest, and John a regular, on singer Rudy Vallee's radio variety show.)
When Christmas came around again in 1937, Hollywood Hotel featured the Carol again, but enhanced their previous year’s gift to their listeners. MGM offered a sixty-minute preview version of their upcoming Adventures of Tom Sawyer film with Tommy Kelly and Jackie Moran, followed by forty-five minutes of Lionel Barrymore Scrooging about.
Campbell’s Soup’s sponsorship of the Yuletide special event on CBS continued. And after the publicity bonanza created on Halloween of 1938 when Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre “dress(ed) up in a sheet and jump(ed) out of a bush and (said) Boo” to America with their “War Of The Worlds,” the company had picked up that series as well. So come Christmas, Campbell’s planned to offer their traditional gift in a new package: The Campbell Playhouse (“Orson Welles, producer”) would present Lionel Barrymore in “A Christmas Carol.”
But, like one of the sponsor’s soups, the off-stage plot thickened over time . . .
Impressed no doubt by the radio success one of the biggest members of their stable of “more stars than there are in heaven,” MGM studios had planned a film version of Dickens’ classic showcasing him—but the star’s recurring hip ailment flared up again. Not wanting to let the project die (some say, because of the uplifting nature of the story as war clouds gathered in Europe), Barrymore is said to have recommended that British character actor Reginald Owen take over the role.
The film was shot, and MGM hoped to promote it and its star on their in-house radio program, NBC’s Maxwell House presents Good News of 1939 (though it was 1938, the title of this Depression-Era program was regularly updated to look hopefully ahead to each coming year.) So Barrymore was paid not to play the part he was known for. But he did narrate the broadcast, as he had the film’s trailer. (In later years, the publicity for the perennial seasonal rereleases of this movie actually DID feature Barrymore’s name in its ads. Perhaps MGM attached his trailer as the film’s lead-in—or perhaps this was an “intentional mistake,” to lure in the great unwashed?)
Host Robert Young introduces Dickens’ tale enthusiastically; and from the cast of the film, Gene Lockhart and Kathleen Lockhart (real-life spouses) are warm-hearted as the Cratchits, and Ann Rutherford is a uniquely sweet Christmas Past. But beyond that this Carol is not the “good news” promised.
As he had in the movie, Owen presents on mic a strangely lackluster Scrooge. And the overall production is very weak: the poor suffering Carol is crammed into a twenty-minute segment of the one-hour variety show—and at that, shoehorned into an ill-fitting setting of broad comedy sketches. The script is very much an adaptation of the film, rather than of Dickens’ text, and carries over the flaws of its model.
Meanwhile over at CBS, since Barrymore had agreed not to compete with MGM’s Scrooge by playing the role for Campbell’s, a new lead was needed. So boy genius Orson Welles took on the role himself, apologizing during his curtain call for Barrymore’s absence. (This may be where the legend began in Old Time Radio fandom that Barrymore had been too ill to perform the role.)
As per the Mercury’s usual standards, the 1938 production is good overall. The script differs interestingly from the norm: it opens with the Nativity story from Luke’s Gospel; it contains portions of Dickens’ text that are rarely employed in dramatizations; and the merry flights with Christmas Present are fuller than usual. Alas, in an attempt to “radio-ize” the piece, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is given spoken dialogue! (To this listener, that weakens the character—I believe Dickens meant the Future to be as generally silent towards Scrooge as it is towards all of us.) And Orson Welles’ Scrooge was not only likely disappointing to listeners because they were used to Lionel Barrymore’s wonderful characterization, it is also far from the young actor’s own best shining hour. The twenty-three-year-old sounds like he’s doing a stock college play or comic opera “Old Man.”
To be fair, the present author’s dear friend, ex-“Lucky Charms Leprechaun” Arthur Anderson, feels a bit differently:
“I thought Orson doubled well as Scrooge and as Narrator. I had been in radio since age eleven, and a part of my adventure in radio of which I take great pride was being with Orson Welles; on December 23rd, ’38, I was cast as the Ghost of Christmas Past. These shows were done in Studio 1, which was CBS’s largest studio, on the twenty-second floor of 485 Madison Avenue. Looking back, I think I did a good job. But I never thought about that, then. All I thought about was the enjoyment, the pleasure and the satisfaction I got out of being in this wonderful storybook production. I was just incredibly lucky.”
A few words about the interconnectedness in the world of the Carols: not only did Arthur Anderson perhaps narrowly miss working with Barrymore on this broadcast in 1938; by a strange coincidence, he had nearly been part of the famous Scrooge’s 1937 edition as well. Arthur had originally been cast as the lead in the film The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which was previewed on that edition, but lost the part by outgrowing it during production delays. (For the further adventures of Mr. Anderson, now in his ninety-second year, see his autobiography, An Actor’s Odyssey.)
The next Yule, Barrymore would finally join up with Welles and his players. And among radio Carols, that oneis The Big One!
( The Carol that many consider the best of Lionel's nineteen, here heralded by the New York Times.)
The Christmas Eve 1939 Campbell Playhouse presentation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” narrated by Orson Welles, featuring his Mercury Theatre company, and starring Lionel Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge, was the performance mentioned in the beginning of this essay that made the present author’s teenage Christmases brighter. And it has done that for many others as well, because it is one of the best-known broadcasts from the Golden Age of American Radio Drama, kept alive by repeated broadcasting, as well as by way of reel-to-reel tape, vinyl record, audiocassette, CD, and web-stored mp3 file.
It is the most famous of all of Lionel Barrymore's performances as the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner.” And it is one of the most loved of the literally hundreds of vintage radio Carols, too, because it is quite wonderful.
The broadcast was welcomed with much fanfare. The Charleston Daily Mail proclaimed on Christmas Eve that it would “ . . . bring one of the drama's noblest names to Columbia's Christmas caravan in one of the greatest stories by one of the world's greatest writers . . . .”
And this Carol does indeed do justice to the richness of the story, with its one-hour length making it one of the longest of all of Barrymore’s performances of the tale. The script, likely by the Mercury’s chief radio scribe Howard Koch, gracefully adapts Dickens’ text, as well as artfully inventing some dialogue and business that opens up the first scene a bit from the prose story’s largely descriptive beginning.
To this listener, Orson Welles was equaled as a Storyteller in the network radio era only by Jackson Beck (narrator of radio’s Superman, TV’s Little Caesar ads, etc.) And his work here is spellbinding—much more so than the year before, perhaps because his focus was split then by his doubling in the lead. Dickens’ narrative line “. . . I am standing in the spirit at your elbow. . ." that I took for the title of my book on the subject of audio Carols is grippingly delivered by him, and stands as a descriptive statement of the power of audio drama itself.
Ernest Chappell (of several other audio Carols, including his own 1941 Victor Records production) does his usual highly personable job as announcer, and the Mercury actors are all in fine form. Everett Sloane is pained and paining as Marley’s Ghost (and is heard doubling well as Young Scrooge, this listener believes); Frank Readick is meek and mild as Bob Cratchit, with Bea Benederet the backbone of the family as his wife; Ray Collins is an avuncular Charity Gentleman; and Georgia Backus, Erskine Sanford, George Coulouris and all hands simply play the Dickens out of (or rather, into?) the story.
Bernard Herrmann’s score is cheering, rousing, and frightening by turn, and is well played by his “band of merry melodians;” and the effects by sound artist Harry Essman and crew are as good as they get, in this era when Welles and his company were in the very forefront of those bringing the art of radio drama to its peak.
Above all, the “Classic ‘39” production has that wonderful, ineffable quality described by veteran actor William Gillette (the stage’s first Sherlock Holmes) in 1913 as “the illusion of the first time.” By dint of excellent acting, direction, and production, the story truly unfolds for its audience as if just now happening as they listen, rather than being reenacted in arch, arid tones from unapproachable holy writ.
Welles’ introduction to this show stated that “‘A Christmas Carol’. . . has long been a classic . . . and Mr. Lionel Barrymore’s appearance in it is rapidly becoming one . . . .” And as for the glowing description of Lionel by Orson that opens this article, the veteran actor here demonstrates why he was so beloved. His Scrooge is marvelously formed, from the first rant in his office Christmas Eve to the last playful tweak of Bob’s nose there the next morning, building from genuine emotion to heartbreaking terror in the gripping climax in that “church yard overrun by grass and weed, and choked with too much burying.”
The 1939 Mercury Theatre production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is quite simply one of the finest adaptations of the story ever, in any medium. If you haven’t heard it, give yourself a wonderful Christmas gift this Yuletide!
( A return to the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1939 brought a new photo sitting.)
The 1939 production was apparently not broadcast from the same New York studio that Arthur Anderson described for the 1938 show, but rather from Welles’ new base of operations as he began his film career, Los Angeles. All of Barrymore’s previous Carols had originated there, and Orson and several of the Mercury players had moved to California earlier in 1939. Sources state that Welles had stopped commuting back to New York for the Campbell’s show by October of that year; and Variety, which regularly posted NY-LA-NY transits by then, lists none for either Welles or Barrymore at this time.
But that newspaper does note that Campbell’s executive Diana Bourbon came west to direct their Carol in 1940, when Dickens’ ghost story of Christmaswould became the only story ever presented twice in the sponsor’s Playhouse. Again, the broadcast was highly anticipated; the writer in the Wisconsin State Journal saying that it was, “. . . the real ‘must’ in drama . . . a radio tradition,” just as Welles has described it the Yule before. And the newspaperman cited another reason to tune in:
“There is a possibility that Lionel will not be physically fit, but even if he should broadcast from a wheelchair, you'll hear an incomparable Scrooge. He may not try to do it again.”
Newspapers of the era began to report on “listening parties,” where groups of friends gathered together around the figurative fireside of a common radio to share the tale. After only a few short years, Barrymore’s Carols already had the chief hallmarks of a deeply held tradition: the yearning for the repeating of it, and the fear that it might be lost.
And indeed, the 1940 broadcast did fulfill the five-year contract for the role that the star had signed with the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1935. But other Networks would be only too happy to pick up a property that by this time had become as hot as a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop.
So in 1941 and 1942 it was the National Broadcasting Company’s turn.
( In 1941 (publicized here) and 1942, Lionel presented his annual gift by way of Vallee's NBC series.)
On popular singer-bandleader-actor Rudy Vallee’s Sealtest Show, they presented what had become by then a certified Christmas favorite. In its radio listing, the Wisconsin State Journal ranked Barrymore’s performance with “King George VI's Christmas message . . . (as) among radio's gifts to its listeners Thursday.”
(Even so, Lionel had some worthy competition for the Scroogestakes during Yuletide 1941. By this time other notable actors, including Roland [Lost Horizon] Colman and Edmund [Miracle on 34th Street] Gwenn, were joining in the annual audio Carol derby...)
In his 1941 Carol Lionel is joined by his castmate from the film Test Pilot, Dix Davis; he would be a Cratchit Boy again in the second Vallee broadcast of the story the following year. Fellow child actor Tommy Cook would work with Davis in a 1942 Carol, and recalls him as, “the best all-around child actor from the West Coast—brilliant.” Other members of a sort of informal “Radio Carol Stock Company” that formed over the years who are present in this show include Lou Merrill (who Cook also describes as brilliant, adding “great memories of working with him!”), Barbara Jean Wong, Eric Snowden, and Alec Harford. Reprising her role of Mrs. Cratchit from the 1938 broadcast and movie, Kathleen Lockhart is joined here as there by daughter June.
And in the lead, Barrymore turns in a vigorous performance, his voice having much of the same dark heaviness as found in his 1939 performance for Campbell’s.
The half-hour Campbell’s script from 1940 is not available for comparison, but this one of the same length from the next year is a distinct drop in quality from the Classic ‘39 one-hour. Already short, it is hurt additionally by time lost to the show’s introduction, commercials, and closing; there is almost no segue in or out of the Ghosts’ scenes; and the latter portion cuts directly from Tim’s death to Scrooge’s grave. As often seems to be the case, the Cratchit Dinner scene is left the fullest, and played the best—likely those involved sensed its crucial centrality to the story.
Barrymore speaks elsewhere of an evolution of his Carol scripts down through the years, and there are some continuities to be found. Here, something from the 1939 Welles production is carried over: as the opening Office Scene ends, the narrator happily tells us that, “Cratchit ran home, to play Christmas games with his loving family . . .”—and then there is an ominous musical sting telegraphing the shift in tone to—“. . . Scrooge, on the other hand . . . went home to . . . his banker’s book.” (Did this effective moment originate with the Mercury’s musical whiz, Bernard Herrmann, and was it carried over on Lionel’s wishes, who appreciated its effect as a composer himself?)
As for our 1941 host, though some sources claim that Vallee plays Bob in the show, he in fact narrates the piece. And although he does not attempt a British accent (many actors don’t in these vintage American productions; in fact Barrymore himself generally goes only so far as Mid-Atlantic), he does a competent job. But interestingly, though Vallee was said by some employees to be a bit of a Scrooge himself as a hard-driving perfectionist unforgiving of error, the singer can be heard to make several very noticeable mistakes in the lyrics of the well-known carols sung during the broadcast!
Moving on to 1942, in addition to doing his second NBC Carol, Barrymore moonlighted in a modern Wartime variation on the theme. The syndicated Treasury Star Parade program "A Modern Scrooge," was hosted by Fredric March, later to be an early TV Scrooge himself. In this story, a town crank refuses to buy Bonds—until a Ghost shows him his nephew’s peril on the battlefield, for want of the bullets that his money would have bought. Lionel here creates a character different from his Ebenezer Scrooge, and as “Jeb Kreaker,” proves again that of himself, his brother, and his sister, he was the only one of the famous Philadelphian theatrical threesome who could convincingly portray a rural American Midwesterner.
Following its two years in the Vallee, 1943 saw the Carol presented within the framework of Barrymore’s own weekly half-hour series, The Mayor of the Town. Then in its second season, this “situation dramedy” would remain the story’s home through 1947. First carried over CBS, the show later moved to the fledgling American Broadcasting Company (which itself had spun off from NBC in 1943), granting Barrymore’s Scrooge a debut on that network.
(Over several networks from 1942-1949, Lionel had his own series, which usually featured his specialty at Christmas.)
Two Mayor Carols are in circulation, and their scripts differ in tone from Barrymore’s earlier broadcasts; perhaps written by that program’s seasoned radio scribe Jean Holloway, their phrasing and rhythm seem a bit more homogenized into the contemporary series episode form.
And how was the quality of work of the star himself? Lionel Barrymore was named “Best Actor of 1942-1943” in a poll of national radio listeners, based largely on his annual Carolsandthe Mayor series.
The first Mayor Carol recording in circulation is usually dated 1942. The present author believes that is likely a mistake, as newspapers for Christmas of 1942 confirm Lionel’s Carol on Vallee’s show again that year, with “a Christmas Party” on his own Mayor series. The production is more likely from 1943, as the announcer in the transcription says that we are returning to “. . . a Christmas Eve one hundred years ago . . .,” which takes us to the year when Dickens’ book was published.
(Concerning the developing relationship between that writer and this actor, S.J. Wolf, in a December 19th New York Times Magazine profile titled "Old Scrooge to the Life!" said that,
"To ... listeners Ebenezer Scrooge will live not because they have read of him, but because an actor has carried him through the air into the homes of the Fezziwigs and the Cratchits of the land." (At any rate, this production is graced with very nice musical underscoring and transitions, but sadly the script is not one of the better of Lionel’s many half-hour productions. The necessary cuts are not well-chosen: there is no confrontation with Cratchit while leaving the office, and when (alas, as with 1938’s, a speaking!) Christmas Future appears, he takes Scrooge directly to his gravesite, granting no buildup to the climax. Other changes do not help either: Present wakes Scrooge with a whisper at his bedside, instead of the much stronger moment of bidding him into his greens-bedecked sitting room with a boisterous call; and early on, adult Scrooge watching his childhood flashback scene uncharacteristically tells his harsh schoolmaster that, “Christmas is very important . . . to a child . . . .”
But the acting is very good. Barrymore brings more dark humor to his Scrooge than before—he employs as much a cynical superiority to others, as he does anger. (It’s a valid choice for the character, in some ways stronger than simple ranting; George C. Scott would take a similar tack in his excellent TV Movie version forty years later.) And Agnes Moorehead brings a real sharpness to her Mrs. Cratchit this year, at times reminiscent of her spinster aunt in the 1942 film, Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.
(Lionel with Anges Moorehead - MAYOR OF THE TOWN's Marilly the housekeeper, and Mrs. Bob Cratchit.)
An A(rmed)F(orces)R(adio)Service rebroadcast Mayor Carol is available for listening that generally labeled as the 1944 edition. It too is a solid production, which a newspaper article from December 4th's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette subtitled "Star Pens Music For Broadcast" states is, "enhanced by orchestral background for the program written by Mr. Barrymore." That year's December 25th issue of Life magazine features a wonderful seven-page spread promoting Lionel accompanied by a text proclaiming that:
“. . . millions of Americans who have forsaken the old custom of reading the Carol aloud to the children on Christmas Eve, would hardly consider Christmas to be Christmas without hearing Barrymore harrumph and growl his way through the role of old Scrooge . . . .”
The portfolio of fully-cast, fully-staged pictures shot on the MGM lot is a tantalizing “what if?” look at what a Barrymore Scrooge film may have looked like. . .
In an example of the synergy among Carols down through the years, thelast picture in the series, showing the reformed Scrooge reading to a Tiny Tim seated on his lap, was later the basis for the beautiful painted cover on the 1947 set of 78 rpm discs which preserved Barrymore’s Carol for home listening.
("Mr. Scrooge - are you quite yourself, sir?" The Morning After: Robert O'Connor as Cratchit, with Lionel as Scrooge. (LIFE magazine pictorial, 1944.)
(Just for the record, sources show that by this time there was sometimes more than one Barrymore miser per Yule haunting the airwaves, with both live and ghostly rebroadcast shows.)
And so “Lionel Scrooge” marched on.
The publishers of a contemporary Garden City reprint of Dickens’ novel presented this paean to the star as their Forward:
“Four years ago A Christmas Carol appeared on a radio program . . . critical to begin with, (those who tuned in) were prepared to be resentful of any liberties taken with their beloved story . . . . That the radio presentation at Christmas has become one of the most popular fixtures of the air, is due almost entirely to the sympathetic genius of Lionel Barrymore whose ‘Scrooge’ is so incomparably right that the tale takes on new luster in his telling of it.”
The wonderful full-color illustrations of Scrooge by Everett Shinn that grace the book are clearly meant to suggest a slightly gaunter version of the actor.
(Artist Everett Shinn's Lionel-esque old miser, from the 1938 edition of Dicken's classic for which Barrymore furnished the Forward.)
And in the Introduction, Barrymore again shared some of his own feelings about the character and the story:“To contemplate Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is to stand in awe before a mighty edifice of heroism and cowardice, anchored deep in the soil of all humanity. Its pinnacle is the homemade crutch of Tiny Tim, bright in a fluorescent beam of tenderness which touches heaven; while far below, in subterranean darkness, at the foundation a human termite bores at the shoring timbers of charity . . . .
There is something I feel of Scrooge at the moment I assume his character. I seem to shrink, and an unnatural meanness of disposition comes upon me. The transition is rapid, and I go out into the city Scrooge in body and mind, an actor’s privileged metamorphosis. That remaining remnant that is still myself (at least enough of it remaining to direct me to the radio [sic] or the theater in which I have contracted to appear) grows increasingly wary and uncomfortable . . . .
I open the stage door in the face of a beaming and solicitous,
‘Good evening, Mr. Barrymore.’
‘Barrymore? Who is Barrymore? Scoundrel!’ I snarl. The ragged children at the stage door call after me, ‘Merry Christmas, Mister Scrooge!’. . . .
‘Bah, ye leeches, ye wasters, spenders! Yer plight’s of yer own makin’. Away with ye, let me pass! Ye’ll get nothin’ out of me!’
‘We’ll wait,’ is chorused after me as I slam the door . . . .
(Then) Scrooge is at the microphone, and there, Marley’s phantom-messenger points his bony finger while, like a gust of wind along a gutter’s edge, comes his voice. ‘Christmas past, Christmas present, Christmas yet to come.’
“(At the end of it), as I back away from the microphone in the thunderous peal of the rollicking bells, my spirit lifts up out of the weight of pounds, shillings, and pence, flees the cramped, thin body of Scrooge, and leaps to catch up with the joyous spirit of the day. What little of the miserly Scrooge remains is wrung out of me by the handshakes of those about me on the stage.
It’s Christmas and Scrooge is no more, his pinched-thin, miserly stoop has left my body; I breathe more easily, less stingily; my step is lighter and my heart is lifted.
I wish to shower coins on the children in the theater alleyway, but as I go to the radio station as the miser Scrooge, I play that part and carry not a penny. Now I am confronted with the embarrassing expedient of borrowing from my friends; even the stage doorman unloads his purse for me to scatter among the children who had wished—even Scrooge—a Merry Christmas.”
Among the many Barrymore Carols not available for listening today are the other four Mayor editions. But fortunately, we do have the written record of Dorothy O'Leary, who was “present at the creation” of the 1947 production, as reported in the New York Times that December 21st:
“Comes Wednesday, the day before Christmas, when the average man is filled with good-will and cheer, Lionel Barrymore will be gruff, grumpy and waspish. The fact that Barrymore is no average man is not the cause of this individuality; his ill humor will be his preparation for the role of Scrooge in which he will be heard that evening on ABC…So close to his heart in his delineation of Scrooge that Barrymore seems to become the frosty spirited, covetous old sinner. His friends say they avoid him that day; early in the morning he seems to start shriveling…
At the rehearsal he is exacting and demanding, although his regular ‘Mayor of the Town’ rehearsals are consistently casual and easygoing. For ‘A Christmas Carol’ he is satisfied with nothing less than perfection.... (This year) Agnes Moorehead, usually heard as Marilly, is Mrs. Cratchit, Conrad Binyon, who regularly is Butch, is one of the young Cratchits; Bill Johnstone and Henry Blair are added to the cast as Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.
Mr. Barrymore admits he does not remember who conceived the happy notion of his portraying Scrooge, but knows it was not his own suggestion…. Through changing networks, sponsors, time-lengths and scripts, the most constant factor in radio’s version of Charles Dickens’ classic has been Lionel Barrymore.
His performance is not static, however. Directors say there is always a slight deviation in his interpretation and that it improves every year. Mr. Barrymore is noncommittal on this point. He just says he has fun being Scrooge.”
With these first-hand recollections leading the way, a few words here about Lionel Barrymore the man, both the external and the internal, seem fitting. First, what did he look like on the outside, when playing the scenes he just described?
Several sources, including Hollis Alpert in his book The Barrymores, claim that the actor did his radio performances as Scrooge in costume. The present author can hear many Old Time Radio fans howling at that idea, and finds it a little hard to credit himself; such dressing for the mic was very rare in those days. But the operative word there is “almost.”
There were exceptions. Ed Wynn’s “Fire Chief,” for one, and Fanny Brice’s “Baby Snooks,” for another. So with a legendary actor in an iconic role, in productions often done before a live audience, maybe there were occasions when Barrymore’s Scrooge faced the audience in the Victorian garb seen in his Carol publicity photos. But for the record, one of his Tiny Tims, Stuffy Singer, says “no,” at least in the case of his show.
And what was Lionel Barrymore like on the inside, in the years that he played this role?
In his book introduction quoted above, his newspaper essay we looked at earlier, and another piece that we’ll come to in a while, the actor speaks of how he felt about Scrooge—especially the sunny, redeemed Scrooge of that glorious Christmas morning. Did he understand, too, the darker miser that we first meet one harrowing Christmas Eve?
Following are some more words from the man’s autobiography. First, concerning the time of his first marriage, which failed:
“If (the reader has) hung on this far, he has tried to stick confused clues together and determine what manner of person this Barrymore really is. I am trying to indicate throughout that I am an unusually nice fellow, but I perceive that some of the evidence is against me. Not to excuse myself for anything but simply to set down what seems to me to be true, I suppose that my frustrations as a painter, my preoccupation with music, and my obsession with the idea that I wanted to escape from the theater contributed toward making me a difficult person to live with. These and all the other weaknesses and instabilities which may mark even persons of the highest good will—and none of us in our hearts ever doubts his own essential good will—made me abrupt, made me thankless, made me thoughtless, made me sour.”
And then, about his physical ills:
“I admire men who can meet misfortune with a stiff British lip or a ‘Heigh Ho!’ but I am not one of this breed. In adversity I dree my weird with full diapason, keen like a crone at a hanging, and call pitifully upon the gods to drop all nonessential affairs and give me their full attention.”
Adversity. For years, the broken hip that never properly healed caused Lionel great pain. It also led to a serious drug dependency and the inability to move about freely. Arthur Anderson tells this story:
“In 1945, I was traveling from service duty in Idaho and Texas to Hawaii on my way overseas. I had a break while passing through Los Angeles, and met up there with one of the first radio producers who had used me back in New York, Knowles Entriken. He was then doing Mayor of the Town, and told me of one occasion when the cast all left for supper break before the show, and Mr. Barrymore was left all alone in the studio in his wheelchair . . . . The microphone had been left on, and in the control room they could hear him express his frustration by mumbling
‘. . . F@*&K everybody . . . !’”
The Bard might have said that Lionel suffered “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” but that “he was a man, take him for all in all.” Every really good actor uses their Self as the clay from which to sculpt the characters they create, and out of this man Lionel Barrymore came a living, breathing Ebenezer Scrooge.
One of the very best.
And now, back to our story—with a quick sidelight by cathode ray tube:
At least as early Dumont TV’s experimental Carol in 1943, radio’s numerous Scrooges were beginning to have Christmas competition from the new “radio-with-pictures” variety. And talk of going into the belly of the beast—Lionel’s 1949 radio Carol was sponsored by TV manufacturer Capehart! (In fact, we may have only barely missed a video Scrooge from Lionel: it is said the actor wanted to work in the new medium, but was discouraged by his long-standing film contract with MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, at a time when the older medium still hated the newer.)
But on the radio, still a fixture in many more homes than that newfangled picture box, Barrymore’s role as an essential part of the nation’s Christmas continued through the Forties.
In 1946, The Associated Press announced that “(for the) Christmas season . . . two features . . . have become fixtures, Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge in Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and Kate Smith's ‘The Small One’ . . . .” And in 1947, The Racine Journal-Times expressed even more strongly the sentiment that was shared by many Americans:
“Christmas without Santa Claus, holly wreaths, and beloved Lionel Barrymore taking the part of Scrooge in Dickens' Christmas Carol would be a sorry Yuletide indeed.”
The bond between Barrymore and his listeners had been forged in the Yuletide fire during a decade where they had shared a Great Depression and a World War. Perhaps the story is true that he’d encouraged MGM to go forward without him on their filmed Carol precisely because of what Dickens’ story meant during such hard times. In fact in 1947, Lionel was encouraged to immortalize his signature role for future generations on 78rpms, by way of the new MGM Records company.
(Cover painting of Lionel's 1947 record album production of the Carol - based on a photo in the 1944 LIFE magazine series. )
That same year, Mayor moved for one Fall-Spring season to ABC; it was then on hiatus over the winter, until revival by Mutual for its final Spring season in 1949. That gave CBS the chance to welcome Barrymore and his Carol backhome in 1948with a star-studded two-hour spectacular not unlike his debut on that net in 1934; and as with that original, it was presented on the afternoon of Christmas Day.
(Harking back to his 1934 debut, Lionel is again top-billed (after the host) in an all-star 1948 broadcast featuring his Carol.)
Wrigley’s Christmas Festival opens with Gene Autry and Bing Crosby, and includes a multitude of acts ranging from the comedy of Burns & Allen and Danny Kaye, through John Nesbitt telling the tale of “The Juggler of Notre Dame,” to music from The Andrews Sisters and the Mitchell Boys' choir.
It is all a jolly Yuletide cornucopia—Autry and Crosby even present their Christmas classics "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "White Christmas.” But as with the 1938 Owen broadcast that Barrymore bowed out of, the twenty-three-minute Carol gets a bit lost in the shuffle here. In this author’s opinion, an omnibus is far from the best type of showcase for such a singular story.
But when the Carol’s time at mic does roll ‘round, the homey Autry sets the stage well…
“Now folks, we’re comin’ to that great big Christmas present, with special wrappin’ ‘n’ bows…Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’…starring that First Gentleman of the Theater, Mr. Lionel Barrymore…”
The production is another solid one from Barrymore and his company. In form, it’s a natural progression from those of the previous few years, with a similar script, and some of the same music, as the Mayor versions. Lionel is in good form, bringing a very bright energy to the opening office scene with Cratchit, whose portrayer here uses a voice suggestive of Brit Stan Laurel's—an effective choice. And he builds to great power in the scene with nephew Fred, whose—
“A Merry Christmas—God save you, Uncle!”
Scrooge parries with a strong—
“May the Lord pity you, nephew—Humbug!”
That specific line is not from Dickens, but the script overall remains fairly faithful, considering its length constraint. And the star is well supported by the talent of a cast that includes Raymond (Perry Mason) Burr as a Charity Gent, and as a somewhat somber Present; and by Hans (everything under the sun) Conried as a chilling Marley—whose coming here actually frightens Scrooge right down the halls to his sitting room, rather than finding him sitting there with his gruel as in the original.
In the time with Christmas Past, a line is added in an attempt to somewhat explain Scrooge’s development, as his Schoolmaster chides him with—
“Christmas isn’t at all important!”
The story’s compression eliminates lost love Belle, as well as jumping straight from the joyous Christmas dinner at the Cratchits in the Present, right to Christmas Future at the gravesite (yes, alas that Ghost speaks again—but thankfully, only one gargled line!) We then hear Ebenezer's rebirth on Christmas morn, and the narrator takes us on to the happy meeting next day with Bob back in their office.
After hearty applause from the live audience, the entire two-hour extravaganza is closed with some words from host Gene Autry—
“On this Holy Day, we oughta stop, and sorta count our blessings, because we here…are truly blessed…with freedom, with peace, and with plenty. So let’s be grateful, shall we? And let our hearts go out to those in other lands, who don’t have as much as we do…. This is really the time to remember His words: ‘Good will, toward men’…the spirit that oughta be with us, 365 days of the year.”
Very Dickensian, that.
Come 1949, Barrymore would complete his “conquest by Christmas spirit” of all the major radio networks. It was the Mutual Broadcasting System who presented The Capehart Christmas Hour mentioned earlier, a thirty-minute Carol plus thirty minutes of holiday music. For the next three years, his Carol stayed on that network.
It was a propitious match—to this listener’s ears, the 1949 and 1950 broadcasts are excellent ones. As the actor wrote in his autobiography:
“(Our) adaptations of Dickens’ CHRISTMAS CAROL . . . (have) apparently become a fixture which people expect and accept because after all somebody ought to read the CAROL to children at Christmastime.”
(Even President Franklin Roosevelt was known to do that for the youngsters of his family during his time in the White House in the Thirties and Forties. But he may not have been among those who gave that practice up in deference to Lionel’s version—because as the actor admits in the same book, they were well known to be on far opposite sides of the fence politically.)
“An odd thing about this is that we have produced it differently from year to year, with various players and with various cuts and additions to the original, but no one has seemed to notice . . . .”
Some of us have certainly noticed, Lionel.
There is an art to compressing material without taking out its heart. And the 1949 script manages that very well indeed. True, the trimming means that the only scene with Christmas Past is the breakup with Belle, and that the story ends with a deliriously happy Scrooge telling Turkey Boy what he’ll do for Bob Cratchit the next day, instead of us seeing it happen; but the words used are prime Dickens, and finishing the story on the high note of Christmas morning actually works very well.
And perhaps because an actor always knows and appreciates when he’s working from a good script, Lionel rises to rare form and does a fine job. So does the rest of the cast, which includes several members of the unofficial Radio Carol Stock Company—Joseph Kearns (from TV’s Dennis the Menace), Eric Snowden, and Byron Kane.
The judicious cuts leave room, in that Occupied Europe/Cold War era, for a patriotic speech by Barrymore in the coda:
“Ya know, it’s always seemed to me that the story of Ebenezer Scrooge held a moral for nations, as well as people . . . for if all the nations of the world will banish greed, cruelty, avarice and selfishness, then truly it’ll be a ‘Happy New Year’ to all the woooorld’ . . . !”
The sentiment sounds as if it comes from the heart, and knowing the actor’s other comments about the piece and his feeling of responsibility towards it, it seems highly possible that Barrymore drafted this Dickens-quoting sign-off himself. One that the author would have heartily agreed with.
The 1950 broadcast ends with a similar patriotic passage, this time, sadly, having the troops newly arrived in Korea as a point of reference. The production uses the same script as the previous year’s, and is as strong a production overall—if anything, after sixteen years Barrymore’s performance in the lead is even fresher and more vigorous than the year before. And as proof of his other talents, the announcer at the end of the 1950 broadcast invites listeners to write in for a free collection of Christmas stories from Guideposts magazine which contains one written by Barrymore himself.
As for the next year’s broadcast, Variety’s “Gros.” gave it a very favorable—and very perceptive—review:
“Mutual network launched its Yule season programming Sunday (23) in top style, choosing Charles Dickens’ classic, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ with Lionel Barrymore in the familiar Scrooge assignment. It was Barrymore 18th annual airing of the role.” (It was actually the sixteenth; but without exhaustive records in front of them concerning Barrymore’s missed broadcast in 1936 and his narrator’s role in 1938, newspaper writers of the time can be forgiven for often miscalculating his burgeoning Scrooge tally over the rolling years.)
“Although the tale was pared down to a half-hour's running time, its careful editing kept the stanza clear and effective. Dickens’ basic message that Xmas was a time for benevolence and charity show through the script. His characters are so well drawn that they never wear out their annual visit and manage to sustain interest despite a rereading, reviewing or rehearing.
Barrymore's interpretation of Scrooge has become as much a classic as the Dickens’ tale. He still carries the role with sharpness and wit and is completely effective as he changes from tyrant to benefactor. Other cast members projected the story’s spirit and Tiny Tim's windup ‘God bless us all, everyone’ was still a sock clincher.”
“A sock clincher.” (God bless Variety and its clichéd showbiz lingo.) And even St. Nick himself tuned into the broadcast!
(Notice for Lionel's 1951 Scrooge, featuring another Christmas icon!)
On to 1952, where (fittingly, as it would turn out) it was back yet again to where things had started for Lionel Scrooge & Co., as it was CBS who presented them on the Hallmark Playhouse that year. A recording of this one is not available for auditing, but we are blessed with another on-the-scene report in the syndicated newspaper column TV-RADIOLOGIC that week. Tom E. Danson announced that "Barrymore's 'Scrooge' Gives Writer Cold Chills," and that. . .
"...if shopping and the addressing of cards didn't do it, then the full import of the Yule season struck me last Sunday in Studio A of Columbia Square as I watched Lionel Barrymore in rehearsals as 'Scrooge' in Dickens classic, 'A Christmas Carol.' As Ebenezer Scrooge, being played by Barrymore for the 17th consecutive season, ranted and raved against his poor employe [sic], Bob Cratchett, the father of hapless Tiny Tim, I felt like rising from my seat and taking a poke at him! However, when Old Marley, pinchpenny Ebenezer's deceased partner came back to haunt Scrooge, I scored a point on my pad for our team.
Barrymore's venom in playing this mean old Dickens character was truly something to behold; he all but devoured his fellow actors! Then when he realized the error of his ways, mainly through the efforts of little Tiny Tim, this veteran performer read his lines with all the sweetness and light of Old Nick, himself!
'Scrooge,' Barrymore told me after the dress rehearsal, 'is just an exaggeration of someone we've all met--but his toughness was only skin deep, really.'
At this point producer-director William Gay of the CBS Radio 'Hallmark Playhouse' presentation interrupted us with the request that Mr. Barrymore read again through some of his earlier scenes. Right off, without the least bit of hesitation, this fine actor sailed back into the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and his penetrating screams of 'Down With Christmas!' all but turned my blood cold!
Proving that there's nothing of Scrooge in his own makeup, is what Barrymore told me as I prepared to leave the studio. 'You know, Tom, I've seen a great many Christmases. The presents I've received over the years, most of them forgotten now, would fill a warehouse. But if I could have one Christmas present this year of 1952, do you know what it would be? I'd like to see all bitterness go out of the people as it did with Scrooge, and then I'd want as a follow-up to see a lasting and wonderful peace brought to the peoples of all the world.'
A very warm feeling suddenly surged through me, and I forgot all about the previous session of cold chills."
Not long after the broadcast, the actor became the host of this series, which was soon to be rechristened the Hallmark Hall of Fame. And his 1953 performance of the Carol there marked nineteen years since Barrymore’s first essaying of the role. Simon “Stuffy” Singer, that year’s Tiny Tim, speaks:
“I remember doing three or four shows with Lionel Barrymore. One was the story where the little boy gets trapped up in a tree by Death, because Death is trying to take the grandfather—On Borrowed Time. And I think I may have actually done A Christmas Carol more than just this once? All probably because I remember hearing—and this was very reflected, I didn’t hear it directly—that the reason that I did multiple shows with him was because he didn’t generally like children, but I was okay! And that was because on basically every show that we did, my Mom and I would play catch . . . .
Now I was born at the end of ’41, so I would have been about 12 at this time. It was the downtime that was kind of dangerous for kids—hyperactive kids—and indoors she would manufacture a ball made out of paper and tape or at a movie studio she would bring gloves and a ball, and we would play catch. That was something that kept me happy, and kept me out of messing around with the instruments or the orchestra, or the—what did they call it?—the special effects guys, the sound effects folk.
As far as the cast of Christmas Carol: I knew Anne Whitfield—I’m guessing that she’s a little older than I am. I worked with her a lot; I think she was in Peter Pan.”
(Stuffy did voice work for the Disney animated feature.)
“Herb Butterfield, wow, it seemed like he was every place. He had a little bit of a different kind of voice, if I remember correctly. And I worked with Parley Baer a lot, but I can’t tell you where.
As far as Lionel Barrymore, now, remember, I was just a little kid then . . . I don’t remember somebody rolling him around, so it could have just been a chair, but I think that he was in a wheelchair.
And as I recall, these shows were done in a big theater, I want to say on Vine Street, with an audience—and I mean a large audience.”
(It was likely CBS Columbia Square on Sunset, near Vine, where NBC was.)
“And my recollection is that my Dad was my—if you want to call it anything—my interpretation or inflection coach, and we certainly did the script many times before we went into the studio. I don’t think I knew the story until such time as we started doing the script; but remember, this was something different from doing a TV show, where you could do it over and over again. With a radio show you’ve got to hit your mark right—now!”
And twelve-year-old Stuffy did just that. Though Tim is a very small role in this script, he is an appropriately earnest little lad.
Besides Stuffy’s Tiny Tim, that other noted young Carol character, Turkey Boy, was played in the 1953 broadcast by twenty-six-year-old Dick Beals of Davey and Goliath and “Speedy Alka-Seltzer” fame. Beals had a medical condition that kept his stature small and his voice young, but he lived to the ripe old age of eighty-five.
But alas, this Carol as a whole is problematic. Though 1952’s is not available for comparison, the 1953 CBS script by Leonard St. Clair is a decided step down from the previous MBS ones, once again falling into the trap of exchanging weak new lines for Dickens’ stronger originals—hearing Cratchit move about the office, Scrooge barks, “shall I hire you a fiddler to accompany your dancing?” Oddly, Past and Present are presented in nearly as threatening a vein as Marley; once again, mute Future speaks; and the plot is without a Fezziwig dance, a Belle, or an Old Joe! A musical score of powerful choral singing is both interruptive of the story, and ineffective as transitions.
But good work is done by all of the seasoned radio cast including Joe Kearns as Marley, Parley Baer (later the “Keebler Elf”) as Past, and John Stephenson (“Jonny Quest’s” father) as narrator. And though his voice is getting a bit thick with age at seventy-five, Barrymore does yeoman like work—even after eighteen returns to the story, he does not just walk through the role. There is commitment evident, with a welcome variety from his earlier performances.
And it was to be this legendary Scrooge’s final bow.
Lionel Herbert Blythe (his legal birth name) passed away at the age of seventy-six on November 16, 1954. He had been scheduled to do the Carol again in December, so as a salute to the actor and in tribute to a truly amazing achievement in radio history, host Edward Arnold introduced the transcription of the previous year’s production.
The legendary run of two decades' duration was over.
As we have seen, Barrymore had been named “Best Actor” in a 1942/43 national radio listeners’ poll, based largely on his Carols, and the annual visits by his Scrooge were always welcomed in the press like the return of an old friend. And he had for all intents and purposes finally presented the character on screen (without, sadly, the key redemption scene), as Old Man Potter in Frank Capra’s 1948 holiday classic, It’s A Wonderful Life. Some notes of a swansong here by the man himself, from the liner notes to his 1947 record version:
“As you know, I have played many roles during my career. But, if there is one role I really hope I’ll be remembered for, it’s that of Ebenezer Scrooge. Yes, Scrooge was as miserable, miserly, and mean a character as ever lived. He was completely without faith, friends, or love, nor did he want them. And yet I have always loved the old humbug—not for what he was, but for what he became. That, to me, is not only the moral of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ but one of the great lessons of Christmas and life itself. It’s not what a man is, but what he can become that’s important. And it’s never too late (or too early for that matter) to start ‘becoming.’
I’ve played Scrooge more times than I can remember, and each time I like him—and ‘A Christmas Carol’—more and more. My biggest thrill of all comes when Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning to find that he’s alive . . . and that being alive, for the first time, is a joyous thing.
That’s the Scrooge I love. The Scrooge who says, humbly, ‘I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.’”
And thanks to Lionel’s heartfelt work in the role over the course of many years, that was the Scrooge that AMERICA loved, too. The year after his passing, the press release for the LP reissue of his 1947 78 rpms said that, “. . . after Mr. Barrymore’s lamented death, the recording takes on a deeper significance, preserving as it does his remarkable performance . . . .” (Of course, for every silver lining, there's a dark cloud: in 1953, Professor William R. Clark of the University of Connecticut had complained to a newspaper reporter that his students now identified Dickens' Carol with the voice of Lionel Barrymore - but recalled little else about the classic book!)
Down through the years, the almost childlike giddy expectation shown in the newspapers each time a visit with Barrymore’s Scrooge was approaching makes it clear that many Americans felt just as the co-author of the classic OTR tome The Big Broadcast, veteran announcerBill Owen, did:
“I never missed Lionel’s annual interpretation on radio—he was Scrooge, as surely as Basil Rathbone was Sherlock Holmes.”
(Newspaper column from just after Lionel's death in 1954. Well, reader, has TV surpassed Radio in the Christmas Competition? Ye author thinks it's a tie.)
And through the wonder of modern technology, that annual tradition outlived the actor himself. Recordings of his Carols continued to be aired by radio stations starting the first year after his death, and rebroadcasts even occurred at Network level, as with those of CBS in 1957 and NBC in 1965. And interestingly, newpaper ads that had often mentioned “Dickens’ immortal story,” now moved that adjective to tout the performance of, “the immortal Lionel Barrymore”!
For many, that immortality has indeed continued right down to the present day…
As your author drove to and from Candlelight Services back home in Northwest Ohio on a crisp, starlit Christmas Eve recently, several Scrooges and company flew in through the car radio on that clear Midwinter air which is so conducive to AM radio waves . . . .
The quirky Jonathan Winters version, from a local PBS station . . . . all the way from New Orleans’ WWL the film-like Focus on the Family edition ….and last but far from least, Barrymore and Welles’ 1939 triumph, from Chicago. As it did when it first washed over me in the 1970’s, the classic production is still joining those hurtling through the skies like the Ghosts of Christmas, from stations all across America (as is my own Quicksilver Radio Theater production, I am proud to say.)
The piercing morality tale that young Charles Dickens brought forth from the depths of his soul, that spans past, present and future to remind us of the eternal consequences of our everyday actions, still feeds our souls today. The Father Christmas-like Spirit of Christmas Present, and his child A Christmas Carol, are still bursting with life nearly a century and a half after Dickens’ passing—as surely as are the Barrymore dramatizations of the tale, now over half that age themselves.
And so, as Lionel observed:
“I feel it a great honor to have been selected to play the role of Scrooge at Christmastime, and if there is any message I could add to Dickens' teachings, I would say, ‘Get on speaking terms with your ghost, better known as your conscience. Make of him a friend—a friend who will be able to point out, as he did to Scrooge, the way to a happy life.’”
(—The Washington Post, December 20, 1936)
For much, much more about the hundreds of Radio/Audio CHRISTMAS CAROLs produced over the past century, see the BearManor book STANDING IN THE SPIRIT AT YOUR ELBOW, available from the author at QuicksilverRT@aol.com. (Where you can also acquire copies of many of the productions mentioned in this article.)
Craig Wichman is an actor, writer, producer, and lifelong lover of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
He is the founder of the modern audio drama group Quicksilver Radio Theater, with whom he has played such legendary characters as Frankenstein’s Monster and Ebenezer Scrooge, and which has taken awards from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and the National Audio Theatre. And he was a longtime performer at the Friends of Old Time Radio conventions, where his roles in recreations of vintage scripts ranged from Sherlock Holmes to Shakespeare’s Cassius, and where he was honored to join the ranks of several veteran radio actors as a recipient of the Florence Williams Award.
Craig is the creator of the short film A Christmas Carol–In Eight Minutes, was nominated for a Best Actor Award at the Chicago Horror Film Festival for his work in the title role of The Devil You Know, created a role in the premiere of the acclaimed Off-Broadway show The Bardy Bunch, and will soon be seen in the feature film The Adventures Of Paul And Marian.
As a writer his work includes scripts for Quicksilver and Openhousenewyork, articles about the Carol in Nostalgia Digest and Radio Recall, about Christ as a character in motion pictures in The Lutheran, and about his personal impressions of the 9/11 attack for his hometown newspaper, Defiance, Ohio’s Crescent-News.
Craig lives in New York City with his classical singer wife Bernadette and their orange tabby Tyler.
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