Monday, December 1, 2014

DVD Review: A King Family Christmas: Classic Television Specials Collection Volume 2

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet
A King Family Christmas: Classic Television Specials Collection Volume 2
2 Discs, 200 minutes, 1965, 1967, 1974, 2009 / 2014
PollyO Entertainment
King Fam

Yeah, this blog is mostly rock and roll / punk / folk / et al., but it’s also about culture, sometimes from a media theoretical perspective. You’ve been informed.

If you are too young to remember the expansive singing King Family, let’s just say they make the Partridges and Bradys look like the Dead Boys and the Plasmatics. That’s not said negatively, just impressionistically. The 33-member (and growing) King Family rose to Christian, white bread fame by 1960s appearances on The Lawrence Welk Show. This exposure led to their own weekly program, which was broadcast as an opener to Welk’s broadcast. But it was their holiday specials that were replayed for many years that most people remember.

The sweaters and dresses usually matched, and there were lots of fur coats, when it was a symbol of wealth rather than animal cruelty. Hair (wigs and dyed blonde, with one brunette exception) was Dolly Parton high and everyone was emotional, which was often expressed in music.

Essentially, the King Family revolved around elderly Ma and Pa, who didn’t sing much put gave on-air support, the four middle aged King Sisters, the remarkably square teenage-through-early-twenties Swinging King Cousins (e.g., My Three Sons’ Tina Cole, who was usually out front), the “adorable” youg’ns, the King Kids, and assorted married-tos and in-laws, such as guitar wiz Alvino Rey and The Hideous Sun Demon (1959) himself, Robert Clarke, who was usually the emcee.

The first Holiday special presented on this collection over the two discs is their very first full-length Holiday special, “Thanksgiving with the King Family” (1967). By the time this came on, the audience was already quite familiar with the familia thanks to their weekly on-air outings. This particular special is the only one here not filmed on a soundstage in front of an audience, but rather at the sprawling ranch of the matriarch King, Gramma Pearl Driggs (the patriarch had recently joined Jesus, but more about that later), in Camarillo, CA.

We see the family arrive in a group, and various solo and group sings throughout the house, and on various parts of the farm. Much of this is cutsie (a term I will use often), of course, with the King Sisters in solid lead, again, both as a group and individuals. Most of it works, with songs like “Over the River” (as they arrive), “My Cup Runneth Over,” and “A Wonderful Day Like Today.” As with all these specials, there is a moment when Alvino gets a spotlight a couple of times, and rightfully so. In one he does a banjo solo while the King Cousins romp around him to that hip tune, “Turkey in the Straw”; he does get a more serious outing later on in a mixture of folk and Spanish acoustic.

One of the cutsie moments is when one of the Sisters talks to a group of under-10-year-olds about the meaning of Thanksgiving, which includes “the Pilgrims and Indians becoming friends” and “It’s like a prayer” to “thank our Heavenly Father, right?” Ah, for those innocent days…right?

Remember at the time these first two specials were aired, LBJ was president, we were getting deep into the Vietnam police action, there were race riots, campus riots, and the rise of hippie cultures and drugs. To Middle America, the world was entering a sphere that was totally alien to them. The King Family were a cultural throwback to familiarity and values that the World War II veterans and their clans could understand. For me, it might be the equivalent of going to a Ramones concert after the rise of rap.

Most of the time, this Thanksgiving special touches the right tones, both visually and aurally. However, there is the occasional either flat note. For example, while one of the Sisters is sitting among the kids and some puppies, she and the human pups attempt “If I Could Talk to the Animals.” A good example of kids should be seen and not heard to sing. An uncomfortable moment (possibly because I’m a city boy) is an instructional song about milking a cow to another gaggle of kids.

One of the strangest moments is a version of “There’s a Place For Us” (from West Side Story) dedicated to the recently late grandpa while a very creepy looking stained glass image of him stares at the camera. The Cousins do a “hip” Main Street Singers-ish “Red River Valley” to gramps. Gramma is often seen sitting in a wheel chair, without singing along, kinda seeming dazed.

The least successful number is a solo version by one of the Cousins of “Born Free,” which is of questionable pitch. That aside, this is an excursion into the 1950s mentality with a late ‘60s cover. While they never reach the level of subtle subversiveness of The Andy Williams Show (that’s right, you heard me), their earnestness can be comforting.

The second special on the first disc, “Christmas with the King Family,” is much better known, as it was played every year from its inception in, again, 1967, and the years that followed. In beautiful color and similar clothes and piled hair (remember, this is only a month later than their Thanksgiving Special), we spend the holiday with many cultural touchstones.

You know this is going to be filled with classic carols, like “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls,” but there is a lot more going on. Around this time, King daughter Tina Cole, arguably one of the more adorable of the Swinging King Cousins, was rising in fame, so they gave her a song to do as a solo, “I Have My Love to Keep Me Warm,” which she sings to her toddler child. She doesn’t really have the chops for live (though her taped segments work better), but you can bet there were many a teenager out there of both genders who watched the special just for her, for very different reasons. The same song is brought back again later (you mean they had trouble finding a different winter weather/love song?) in a totally different context as one of the King Sisters tricks her hubby to put up the outside Christmas lights.

One creepy moment looking through McLuhan’s cultural rear view mirror is an “inner thought” meeting of cousins Cam and Laurette as the writers set them up to have crushes on each other. She even hopes for a kiss, and says – twice – “even if he is my cousin.” At the time, this may have been seen as cutsie, but now, looking back, may I say eew.

Alvino gets another chance to shine on a slide guitar as he is accompanied two Cousins on harp (his daughter, who definitely keeps up with him) and bass (he’s in a sailor’s uniform). This is a lovely ethereal piece, followed by a “rockin’” and jazzy song and dance medley to “The Night Before Christmas” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Sure, it’s pretty sanitized for Middle America, but I’m sure it was considered risqué (they’re all in bed clothes) and pushing the envelope to its audience at the time; sort of the equivalent to white performers singing rock and roll in its early days.

The most infamous moment of this particular show, and probably the reason it replayed so many times (it’s here, and repeated in the two other specials on the second disk), is when King Sister Alyce sings “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” to a picture of her son, Ric, who is in the Army. Mid-song he shows up in a surprise move that brought many a tear to the audience, and to his mom Alyce. Perhaps it’s the punk rock cynic in me, but the first time I watched this, I could have sworn I saw an “I’m going to kill the person who did this on-air” look in her eyes, but maybe that’s more me than her. Anyway, she does manage to push through to finish the song, in that Jerry Lewis finale “Walk On” way. With so many soldiers in ‘Nam and with the war so present in the news as they announced the daily body count, this gave hope to those with kids fighting for… whatever the hell that was (I would also say the say for the Bush wars, by the way). Her other son Lex gets to shine with some extraordinary virtuoso piano playing that would have made Liberace proud.

And what would be a Christmas special on commercial television without some presents to remind us to buy. Yvonne quotes her dad as saying that it’s okay to see it as commercial as long as you keep the meaning clear. There you go, America, you can love Jesus and support the sponsors! Yay!

There are lots of songs from films, such as “My Favorite Things,” but most of the tunes are carol classics, including the kids doing a Christmas Pageant to my least favorite season song, “The Little Drummer Boy” (no Bing and Bowie tension here).

As a finale, they do something that is apparently quite common, and a King Family tradition, that I didn’t know about (for obvious reasons) until just a few years ago, by combining “The First Noel” and “I Wish You a Merry Christmas” (sung by the kinder) in “Row Your Boat” off-set fashion.

It’s definitely a sumptuous feast for those who thirst for the ring of the jingle bell, the smell of the wreath and the ho-ho-ho of the ho-liday.

Rounding up the first disk is an extra, one of their Black and White network shows from December 11, 1965 that focuses on the Christmas Season, with the expected (not meant negatively) songs, dance and routines with all the King Family groups.

The second disk starts off with yet another Special, “Home for Christmas with the King Family,” shown in 1974. Perhaps it was time to stop showing the last version as Nam was over, Nixon was temporarily vilified, and the times they were a-changin’. It was five tumultuous years which went from hippies to, well, it was the year the Ramones played their first gig.

As we meet the updated King Family, many of the Swinging Cousins are now married, and the kids are now teens themselves, with a new generation of cutsie kids on whom to focus.

The clothing and hairstyles have moved up with time, and the most common style has moved from the WWII upsweep to the down flip (Mary Tyler Moore wore the same style around this time). Heck, one of the now more-mature Cousins is even showing a hint of cleavage. Heavens to Morgateroyd!

The set is designed to look like a living room and kitchen, with a real fireplace, to represent the family gathering for Christmas. First up is a number from the ’67 classic, “Christmas Bells Are Ringing,” as if to say, “We’re still the fun loving family you remember so well!” Actually, there are a number of repeated songs, including “White Christmas” (including a really nice photo montage of the sisters from their earliest days through their career).

Continuing with the spirit of the season (as opposed to the holiday), the new generation of singing kids gather around Santa (Tina Cole) and sing what each other wants. After, a King sister sings “Toyland,” from one of my favorite Christmas films, “March of the Wooden Soldiers” (1934, aka “Babes in Toyland”).

One aspect of the King Family shows and specials is that they really work well in introducing the audience to certain members of the family, including the wee ones. It’s interesting to see here, after a jump of about 5 years since the last special, how some of the younger ones have grown. This includes the older ones, as well, as we first see Robert Clarke looking like a young Dick Clark, to now a middle-aged, mustachio-laden man with some definite filling out to his face. Of course, there is the replay of the surprise and then a catch-up of Alyce and Ric as they sing (with other brothers) a Holiday medley.

Alvino gets to show his expertize again, this time in a back and forth with his daughter on harp, in a mock and humorous showdown of talent on “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” They also bring back the memory of the creepy meeting of the cousins who are grown up now (late teens?); fortunately they reminisce without bringing back the kissing question. However, this leads to one of the moments I really enjoyed in this – if not all – of the specials, is a rousing version of the folk song “A-Soalin’” by the King Cousins, which includes some creative camerawork for the time. It’s a song for the season, but rarely gets played because it deals with begging, rather than consuming. Reminds me a bit of Steeleye Span’s version of the olde tune, “Our King.”

As with many of the specials, there are moments of reflection of the past of the King Family history, including the Sisters’ beginnings during or just after Dubya-Dubya Deuce.

While part of me was hoping somewhere they would sneak in a little of “The Dreidel Song” (especially since this special was written by Leonard B. Kaufmann), there are plenty of plush carols, summed up with the family around the tree doing the back and forth of “The First Noel” and “I Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

The second full show on this DVD is the “Christmas with the King Family Reunion Special,” from 2009. Mostly, it’s clips from the earlier three shows (including, yes, Rick surprising Alyce), and sometimes complete numbers, but it gives the viewer a chance to see how everyone grew up (i.e., aged) over the decades. Only two of the sisters are left at this point (the last one passed away 2013), but it’s nice to catch up. This probably isn’t one that the viewer will probably watch over and over, like the other three specials, but it’s a nice touch for the box set. Still, it’s interesting to think that many of the cousins in this reunion were probably older than their moms where in the earlier shows.

The extra for this disk is another Christmas themed black and white weekly show from December 25, 1965.

I didn’t grow up with Christmas, carols, or even Santa, and get tired of the Season pretty quickly (not to be confused with the holiday itself, as I said), but this was a nice escape into a world that doesn’t exist anymore except in memory for many.

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