Excerpt from New Book 7

DEC 25th

It’s been years since I woke up on Christmas morning before dawn.  Decades, I tell you.  But that’s the crappy side of jetlag.  Things were different a long time ago, though, when I was growing up, and there was a well-known unwritten rule in my household that stated the following: anyone attempting to invade the early American room (a colonial style sitting room where we spent much of our time) before 7:00 a.m. on the morning of December 25th with the intent of revealing the contents of the boxes which Kris Kringle had left behind just hours before, could and would be immediately expelled from Siblingdom.  It wasn’t engraved over the fireplace mantelpiece, but rather in our minds like the work of some finely crafted indoctrination, which seemed all the more disturbing.

         Being the smallest boy, that meant I had little say in the matter at all.  And whenever I wished to challenge that norm I would risk having facing my brothers on the issue.  I think one brother even said I might be put up for adoption if I ever questioned the mores of the Murdocks.  That made waking up on Christmas morning an extremely frustrating ordeal, since, as a young child, going downstairs to open up your presents is pretty much your only purpose in life.  It makes going through the other 364 days bearable.  But there was little else to do but wait it out.

          Now, I had no intention of reliving those tender moments of my childhood, but there I was lying on my back and wondering just how long I would have to wait before getting out of bed.  Silent, asleep and unconscious at that early hour,Greenwichseemed just like any place on Earth.  The only difference was many of the slumbering inhabitants were blissfully dreaming away on $2,000 mattresses, in 15-bedroom homes on 10-acre estates with six-car garages and 4 smart refrigerators.  But aside from that, the same.  My daughters and me, were all pretty much up and alert and thinking of ways to bide our time.  The girls behaved themselves stoically by staying in their bed to read and stick stickers in sticker books as the early morning minutes slowly ticked away.  It wasn’t dawn.  Dawn wasn’t even around the corner.  It was five.

         By five-thirty they had pasted approximately 38,000 stickers each in their albums and were in need of some kind of alternative to distract them.  I suggested we read a book together, which we did for a while, but the anticipation was making it difficult for them to concentrate.  That was natural.  There were about 100 toys in the room below waiting for them and all I had to offer was a book about the American . They finally interrupted to make a suggestion: “Let’s go open the presents!”

         “I’d thought you’d never ask!”  I slammed the book.  “Let’s ransack the place!  Screw the seven-o’clock rule!”

          “Yeah!”  They agreed.  My littlest didn’t quite know what “screw” meant, nor what relationship it had with the hour, but it sure sounded good to her.  “Screw the rule!”

         “Yeah!”  We tumbled out of bed and took heavy tiptoes to the top of the stairs and just as I grabbed the banister and readied myself to lead my children down the hill of glory, I stopped and listened, not quite unlike the Grinch atopMountCrumpit, or whatever the place was called.  In the distance known as the other room, I picked up a not so subtle snore, a snoring to be more precise, which is longer and deeper.

         Ana gave me a nudge, “Papi, come on!  What are you waiting for?”

         “We can’t.  We can’t wake up this family.”

         Clara, who had taken a liking to the new word, whispered, “Screw the family!”  She was a quick learner.

         “No, we don’t say that.  Now, it’s too early.  Let’s go into the other room and watch TV.  That’s what people do when they’re bored.  Look, they’re putting on Little Women.  How does that sound?”

        And with that, we managed to buy about 26 more minutes of time until Clara slipped into a state of mild coma because she couldn’t understand a word Katherine Hepburn was saying, which I could completely empathize with.

         So, as it got close to eight, I said enough was enough and that no one was going to stop us now, even if it meant jail time down the road.  We descended the stairway to attack the presents, and this time I won out.  It was a healthy sacking and no object wrapped in paper was left unscathed.  There is something very natural and satisfying about opening presents on Christmas morning.  It produces so much happiness.  Children from all over town were engaging in the same activity.  And some parents too.  In a sense, it was just like any scene in America were it not for the contents of the surprises which imagined exceeded what most people could or would be willing to afford.

           The present-opening frenzy was swift and effective, but once the moment had passed, and our breathing had returned to normal, a kind of activity vacuum swooshed in leaving us wondering what to do next.  We had opened all the gifts, breakfasted twice and were thinking about what to do for the next four hours before going over to my brother Bruce’s house to eat more.  I paced around the house several times and went back to the TV to see if Jo from Little Women had finally published her book so we could move on to something else.

         Just as I sat down, I remembered a program from my youth that was a fail-proof delight for the whole family.  I wondered if it was still on.

         Naturally I was thinking of the Yule Log.  Yes, the mighty Yule Log.  Christ!  I had almost forgotten all about it.  This was just the bit ofAmericana culture my girls needed to be exposed to.  It was the kind of homespun entertainment that would help them come closer to their other culture.  It was what set the occasional American from the true American one.  Spaniards I know who have actually seen this iconic show think it is the craziest and stupidest program of all time, and they may be right, but I always retort with three irrefutable and blistering words: Eurovision Song Contest.

        And that does the trick.  Never fails.

        Shows like The Yule Log are one of those cultural oddities whose existence is just plain impossible to explain, like clogs, candy corn and lily pants, but which make us humans those unique beings that we are.

        The Yule Log was a perennial favorite of mine from all the way back when I could barely add.  I admit it.  Many of us do now.  Plus, you must consider the circumstances.  We had fewer distractions in those days, the programming offer was slimmer and feebler, so, kicking back and letting yourself become entranced by the unrefined image of crackling wood, a Christmas tree and stockings, all accompanied by background music, seemed a reasonable choice.  They forged memories which have stayed with me ever since.

         My fear though, was that we had missed that opportunity.  I recalled that it always used to be aired on Christmas Eve, but just in case, I scoured the TV listings to see if a miracle would happen, but to my utter horror and dismay, came up with nothing.  Had the world become so cold and heartless that the simple delights in life no longer had a place?  I could do without mistletoe and Harrington’s Vermonthams, but not the Yule Log.  Not my Yule Log.

        Fettered but not defeated, I went to the internet and did a little investigating to see what I could find there.  It didn’t take me long to discover that my search for “The Log”, while unquestionably a nostalgic one, was far from a solitary one, and after a little poking around, I realized there were thousands of people like me on this planet who endeavored to reach into the past and extract this gem of late 20th-Century pop culture.  I read through pages and pages and, soon enough, I knew as much about the show as a person could ever want.

          Now, when I say I grew up with the Yule Log, by God, I couldn’t have been telling the truth more faithfully.  It is literally as old as I am.  Aired for the first time back on December 24, 1966, six months to the day before I was born, it was the brainchild of a generous-souled general manager of a local New York network called WPIX, a man by the name of Fred Thrower, who felt that modern fireplaceless apartments of the big city were making urban life cold and unfeeling.  He figured that the least he could do was bring a little warmth into the homes of those millions of New Yorkers who lacked a hearth.  So he came up with the idea of filming a few fleeting seconds of a glowing fireplace and then added a bit of cheery music to enhance the mood.  The first shooting, by the way, as done in the New York Mayor’s residence of Gracie Mansion, and during the session, they partially burned the rug.  I understand that they were not invited back.

       After some editing and looping, to give it a little length, the team at WPIX managed to turn it into a full-fledged show.  It was that simple and that boring, but there you had it.  A tantalizing seen of a winter light set to Christmas carols.

        But that was not the only novelty.  Thrower insisted that it run uninterrupted without publicity, which meant the owners of the TV station would offer to do it without economic benefit.  In other words, they would do it for free.  Basically this would be the channel’s Christmas gift to its viewers.  There is certainly something to be said for a man who is willing to forgo thousands of dollars in advertising money for the betterment of humanity, especially at a primetime slot like that, and especially in that era.  It was a bighearted gesture, indeed, created by a charitable person.  But, apparently, that was the kind of man Fred Thrower was.

         Did it work?  On paper, everything about the Yule Log seemed doomed to failure.  Who the hell was going to watch a TV program about a fire and music unless it was Apocalypse Now?  Mind you, the production costs would be impressively low, but would the people like it?

         It turned out, they did.  The Yule Log was a hit in the New York Metropolitan area from its inception.  I know it was in my home.  Or at least with me.  Every Christmas Eve around sevenish, if my memory does not fail me, the tube would be switched on and that never-failing flame and joyous music would warm the room.  It wasn’t as if you sat and let your eyes become mesmerized by the dancing flames for hours on end.  It was simply a kind of gentle background melody and occasional glimpse that accompanied you throughout the evening.  Many say that simplicity was its greatest attribute, it I sure hope so, because you couldn’t get any more basic than that.

         The show was broadcast annually for over twenty years until members of the new management at WPIX decided that it was outdated and, probably, not cost-friendly.

         In 1989, the Yule Log was aired for the last time and subsequently canceled, rather unceremoniously from what I understand.  Stashed away, it ceased to exist…and the world moved on.  If the shadows of the future were to go unaltered, the program would end up deep in the remotest storage shelves of oblivion.

         Enter the age of internet.  In2000 aman by the name of Joe Malzone was cruising around the web, not much unlike the way many of us do all the time, when he came across a snippet of the famous program on WPIX’s website.  We wondered if he could find some more.  Back then, we didn’t have resources like Youtube, and it wasn’t always that easy to track down old TV shows.  But still, a profound sense of endearment overpowered him as he watched, prompting him to search on and find more fragments.  He discovered additional bits and pieces and fit them together into a homemade digitalized version of the original.  Assuming that there just might be other people out there who felt the same way as he did, he also set up a webpage in honor of the Log and, in passing, beckoned its return to the airwaves.  It’s just one of those things Americans do so well.

         He called the site “Bring Back the Log” (it was later re-named theyulelog.com.), and slowly but surely people from around the country began to flock to his site and join him in his crusade.  Then he contacted WPIX and let the thought of reintroducing the show simmer in the producers’ minds for a little while.  Not long afterwards, the original video was accidentally stumbled upon in a warehouse and renewed interest rose.  Add the September 11 events and a yearning to regress to soothing familiarity, comfort food on the tube if you will, and Bingo!, on December 24th 2001, the once defunct Yule Log burned brightly anew on the screens of millions of potential viewers.

        Theyulelog.com, by the way, still exists and you go visit it whenever you like.  It’s a little cheesy and campy, like the very show itself, yet friendly, natural, simple and approachable.   Unpretentious and full of good intentions.  I think it embodies the spirit of the Log.

         In fact, it was on the website that I happily discovered that I hadn’t missed the program at all.  It was scheduled to start at 9:00a.m., just twenty minutes away.  Hallelujah!  A tree grows inGreenwich!  On top of that, the current webmaster, Chip Arcuri, announced that, for the first time, they would be adding an additional fourth hour with new music to the original 3-hour setup.  This was good news beyond my wildest dreams!  The girls were just gonna love it!  I raced to get them and sat them on the edge of the bed to experience the excitement first hand.  I told them to hold onto their seats because they were about to witness what every child in this country longs for.

          I stood up from my chair, stood in front of the TV and announced, “Boys and girls…”

          “We’re just girls.”

         “Don’t interrupt!  This is a magical moment.   As I was saying, boys and girls, this is Christmas!”

         I stepped out of the way and turned up the volume and let the majesty of the moment enrapture them.  No doubt, the first few minutes captivated their attention as they gazed at the dancing flames and listened to the melody of “Let is Snow”.  Their interest lasted but a few minutes when the youngest asked, “When does the show begin?”

          But the eldest, trying to prove she knew more about just about everything in life, rebuked.  “You don’t now anything, knucklehead.  The credits have to come on first.”

        It didn’t take long for me to be alone with my Log.

        In all likelihood, Fred Thrower did not have the stately homes of Greenwich, Connecticut in mind when he sought a facsimile of the blazing fire warming the traditional living room, in part because most houses could make do with the real thing, but it certainly came as a great surprise to me when I learned that the general manager actually lived in Greenwich for much of his life, and, what is more significant, he departed from this world in a bed in the Greenwich Hospital, on August 16, 1999, just a few months before the time when Malzone would start up his personal mission to bring his beloved program back from the grave.  It had been his hope to see it live on after him, and though he may not have been able to survive the revival, his dream has become a posthumous reality.

       Ironically, few people appear to know they had a resident of this caliber and humanity, and even fewer can recall his dying here.  Not back then.  Not today.  The New York Times mentioned Thrower’s death in its Business section, and it also included a brief obituary, but, from what I can tell, the Greenwich Time doesn’t seem to have anything on it in its archives.  Punch a dozen different searches on its search engine between that date and a month later you get zip in results.  Not a thing.  Maybe he was that low key.  You know, some people in Greenwich can be like that.

I’ll Be Home For Xmas 5

Here is a list of some of Greenwich’s famous residents and former residents.  Some are even illustrious:

  • Glenn Close (actress)
  • George C. Scott (actor)
  • Ron Howard (actor/director)
  • Victor Borge (actor/entertainer)
  • Diana Ross (singer)
  • Tommy Dorsey (musician)
  • Regis Philbin (TV host)
  • Brian Murdock (I just felt like doing this, forgive me)
  • Dorothy Hamill (Gold-medal winning ice-skater)
  • Bobby Bonilla (baseball player)
  • Tom Seaver (Hall of Fame pitcher)
  • Ivan Lendl (Tennis champion)
  • Steve Young (Quarterback)
  • Half of the Mets roster
  • Truman Capote (writer)
  • George Bush (41st president)
  • George W. Bush (43rd president)
  • many more…

Then there is Fred Thrower, former president of the local NY channel WPIX and generous-souled creator of one of most beloved Christmas traditions in the area, and later America itself.  It was a television program called “The Yule Log” and it consisted of the following: an 18-second filmed segment of a burning log in a Christmas adorned fireplace which was looped over and over for three hours while famous Christmas carols and songs were played.  You just can’t get any more basic.  Or cheesy.  Thrower’s idea was to allow a little warmth to enter the homes of millions of New Yorkers who live in apartments devoid of these ameneties.  That meant airing a program without the support of advertising and making it long enough so that employees could spend a little more time with their families.  In other words, it was a gift by the station to its viewers.  And there is nothing sappy about that.

         This show was endearing to a genreation of Americans that when it disappeared in the late 1980s, it was as if a piece of the holiday had been completely removed forever.  After a 1-man campaign to bring the log back, and a fortuitous finding of the original tape in a warehouse by an employee of WPIX, the show was returned and syndicated and is now more popular than ever.

       Fred lived in Greenwich for many years and died in Greenwich hospital back in 1999.  To this day, most people from Greenwich don’t know that.   Silent night