If I was to be stranded on a proverbial desert island and forced to choose only three Christmas CDs to accompany me, I would choose 1.) "A Charlie Brown Christmas" 2.) "Christmas Cocktails" and 3.) a custom compilation that would feature all of the recorded Christmas output by Mr. Stan Freberg - perhaps the last great satirist America has ever produced.
Fifty years ago, Uncle Stan walked into his longtime home of Capitol Records located at Hollywood & Vine and recorded a Christmas single entitled "Green Chri$tma$", a song that was labelled "offensive", "sacrilegious", and "controversial" for its time.
Capitol barely released it, Freberg nearly switched labels, disc jockeys ran the risk of being fired for the simple act of playing it, radio stations hardly played it until the 1970s - a full decade after its release - and the print and advertising media had a field day slamming both the artist and the single.
All this over a Christmas record.
Earlier this year, I decided to delve more deeper into this song and its surrounding controversy upon its release in 1958. I scoured the Internet and visited several libraries in the process to find as much as I could surrounding "Green Chri$tma$".
What I found was informative and quite illuminating. Armed with this evidence, I present an appreciation of this Christmas satirical masterpiece from the mind of Stan Freberg.
X-ray of Stan Freberg (From his box set "Tip Of The Freberg")
Back in 1988, Freberg wrote an insightful autobiography entitled "It Only Hurts When I Laugh" that is a hilarious read any time of the year. One chapter is entirely devoted to "Green Chri$tma$" - which is where I began my research. I have chosen select highlights from that chapter with very little commentary from me:
Chapter 19 - Green Chri$tma$: Deck the Halls With Advertising
"Green Chri$tma$" was probably the most controversial recording I ever made. All my life I had been disturbed by advertising's increasingly blatant intrusion into Christmas. True, my having been raised as a Christian, in a minister's home, was mostly responsible for my feelings about it, but once I began working as a professional advertising person around people in agencies and clients, I suddenly realized that the overcommercialization simply didn't have to be.
It was a terrific revelation to me. These people had an option. If a company wanted to tie some product into Christmas that just didn't fit or that was grossly out of place, it was the job of its advertising agency to talk them out of it. If the agency was the one who had dreamed up ways of lashing some extraneous product into the holiday - say, dog food or underarm deodorant (any moment now we'll hear, "Christmas is a stressful time: Never let 'em see you sweat") - why then, it's the client's job to talk the agency out of it. Client and agency should save each other from themselves. Why? Because it is the ethical thing to do.
Never mind that Christmas started out as a remembrance of the birth of Jesus and the gifts brought to the Christ child in Bethlehem. Or that the essence of Christmas at its root level is simply to love and to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The issue goes far beyond the religious aspects of the thing. What we are talking about here is "taste." Simple good taste, from a purely secular standpoint.
I have no quarrel with companies advertising children's toys under Christmas trees, or facial cosmetics, or books, or cassette tapes, or luggage, or clothes to wear - things one might normally give as presents to one's family or friends - even food products, if they seem to be appropriate for Christmas. Guidelines should be apparent to any thinking human being. But unfortunately, as we are all only too painfully aware, blatant Christmas advertising has become as out of control as the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
As Christmas drew near in the last days of the Fifties, I was appalled once again by the unfathomable taste of giant companies devising still new ways of tying their products into the holiday. On millions of billboards and in fill-page magazine ads, Santa Claus was seen climbing into a chimney with a full bag of... toys? Not a chance. Cartons of Lucky Strike cigarettes were peeking out of the top of his sack and overflowing it. American Tobacco's idea of Christmas giving.
Coca-Cola, 1938 (Downloaded from Coca-Cola.com)
Another company, Coca-Cola, had decided years before to claim the icon of Santa for themselves and have Santa drinking a bottle of Coke after his hard Christmas work. THE PAUSE THAT REFRESHES, it said in a banner headline just under his beard, followed by their logo. Were they declaring that not only Coke, but Santa himself, were trademarks of the Coca-Cola Company, Atlanta, Georgia? Hard to tell.
At any rate everybody had talked for years about the overcommercialization of Christmas, but I hadn't noticed anybody doing anything about it. I started thinking about doing something about it, and what finally sent me into action was a magazine ad run in places like Newsweek and Time, showing a family coming down in their pajamas and robes on Christmas morning.
As the mother, children, and dog look on in wonder, the father hovers back a bit on the stairs, a proud look on his face. There, under the tree, is a brand new set of five tubeless tires. Tires? The boy was expecting a bicycle, but no matter. These tires are a much niftier gift. Maybe Dad will let him help jack up the family car and put them on! Good tires on a car are very important. But talk to me about that during the other eleven months of the year, okay?
That tire company may think I'm just being flip here, and I am. But give me a break. When was the last tune you came down on Christmas morning and discovered a set of tires under your tree? Did the tire tycoons think that anybody could possibly relate to that ad? What was being smoked by the people who came up with the concept, to say nothing of the ad manager at the tire company who approved it? The answer to these and other questions may never be answered. But one thing is for sure - those tires ended up on my record of "Green Chri$tma$."
Another ad that gave me pause at that time was a Jell-O Christmas layout from General Foods in all the magazines. A pear tree was laden with Jell-O, and nothing else. It was decorated with a different box of Jell-O on every branch. They apparently had decided it was a bit much and added a lone partridge on top. But under the tree was, you guessed it, nothing but different-colored Jell-O molds. Down below, the copy read, as close as I can recall:
On the first day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
Two lemon Jell-Os,
Three grapes a singing,
Four raspberries cooling ... (etc.)
I wonder if the wife of the marketing VP of General Foods' Jell-O Division ever tied boxes of Jell-O to her Christmas tree branches: "Yes ... we're having a different kind of tree this year. Do you love it?"
Of course, when I sat down to write "Green Chri$tma$," I had to try to drain off enough of my outrage in order to be entertaining enough to make my point. As I have said, outrage in its natural state is not too salable. The hard part comes in covering the social message with the candy coating of humor. Otherwise, you end up as just another crackpot preaching on a soapbox, and I'm getting dangerously close to doing that right now. I'd better just tell you how "Green Chri$tma$" went.
I was assisted by the great Billy May, who arranged my original music. We had a huge studio orchestra, a fine cast of actors, and my friend Jud Conlon arranged the songs for twenty-four voices. After you read the script - which is not as good as hearing it, but you'll get the idea - I'll tell you of the problems I had with Capitol Records before it was released. I played the part of Scrooge.
CAPT'S NOTE: If you have the MP3 of "Green Chri$tma$" on your computer, press play and follow along. If you don't have the MP3, download it here.
SCROOGE: (SINGING) Bah, humbug, everybody.
CHORUS: Good morning, Mr. Scrooge!
SCROOGE: Well, the meeting will come to order, if you please. Are all the advertising people represented here?
CHORUS: Everyone except Amalgamated Cheese!
SCROOGE: Well, if they're not here for the Christmas pitch, I can't help them find new ways of tying their product in to Christmas. That's why I'm chairman of this board! Let's hear it for me!
CHORUS: Hear, hear!
SCROOGE: All right, Abercrombie, what are your people up to?
ABERCROMBIE: Ahhh, same thing as every year. Fifty thousand billboards showing Santa Claus pausing to refresh himself with our product.
SCROOGE: Mmmmm, hmmm, well, I think the public has come to expect that and...
ABERCROMBIE: That's right. It's become tradition!
SCROOGE: You there, Crass, uhh, I suppose your company's running the usual magazine ads showing cartons of your cigarettes peeking out of the top of Santa's sack?
CRASS: Better than that! This year we have him smoking one.
CRASS: Yes. We've got Santa a little more rugged, too. Both sleeves rolled up and a tattoo on each arm. One of 'em says "Merry Christmas."
SCROOGE: What does the other one say?
CRASS: "Less tar!"
SCROOGE: Great stuff!
CRATCHET: But Mr. Scrooge...
SCROOGE: What? Who are you?
CRATCHET: Bob Cratchet, sir. I've got a little spice company over in East Orange, New Jersey. Do I have to tie my product in to Christmas?
SCROOGE: What do you mean?
CRATCHET: Well, I was just going to send cards out showing the three wise men following the Star of Bethlehem...
SCROOGE: I get it! And they're bearing your spices. Now that's perfect.
CRATCHET: No, no... no product in it. I was just going to say, "Peace on Earth... Good Will Toward Men." Period.
VOICES: MUMBLING IN BACKGROUND
MAN: Well, that's a peculiar slogan!
SCROOGE: Old hat, Cratchet! That went out with button shoes! You're a businessman... Christmas is something to take advantage of!
SCROOGE: A red and green bandwagon to jump on!
SCROOGE: A sentimental shot in the arm for sales! Listen!
MUSIC: CYMBAL CRASH
CHORUS: Deck the halls with advertising,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
While you can be enterprising,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
On the fourth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me
Four bars of soap,
Three cans of peas,
Two breakfast foods,
And some toothpaste on a pear tree!
On the fifth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me...
SCROOGE: Five tube-less tires!
CHORUS: Fo-ur quarts of gin,
And some hair tonic on a pear tree!
(TEMPO CHANGES ROMANTICALLY) Chest-nuts roasting...
ANNOUNCER: Sayyyy, Mother, as sure as there's an X in Christmas, you can be sure those are Tiny Tim Chestnuts roasting. Tin-y Tim Chestnuts are full-bodied... longer lasting! This visible shell... SOUND: KNOCK-KNOCK ANNOUNCER: ...protects the nut! Now with X-K 29 added, for people who can't roast after every meal.
GIRL TRIO: Tin-ee Tim! Tin-ee Tim! Chest-nuts all the way!
ANNOUNCER: Tin-y Tims roast hot ... like a chestnut ought! And ... they are (ECHO) mild, mild, mild, mild.
CHORUS: Deck the halls with advertising,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
'Tis the time for merchandising,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Profit never needs a reason,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Get the money, it's the season,
Fa la la la la la la la la!
SCROOGE: Words to live by, Cratchet!
CRATCHET: For you, maybe. Can't you just wish someone merry Christmas, for the pure joy of doing it?
SCROOGE: Why? What's the percentage in that? Let me show you how to make Christmas work for you!
CHORUS: We wish you a merry Christmas,
We wish you a merry Christmas,
We wish you a merry Christmas,
And please buy our beer!
SCROOGE: There you go, Cratchet! That's Christmas with a purpose.
CRATCHET: I know, but wait a minute. Don't you guys make enough profit the other eleven months? Christmas comes but once a year.
SCROOGE: Humph! Funny thing you should bring that up. That's exactly the point I was about to make. Hit it, boys!
SCROOGE: Christmas comes but once a year,
So you better make hay while the snow is falling,
That's opportunity calling you!
CHORUS: Rub your hands, December's here,
What a wonderful time to be
Glad and merry!
SCROOGE: Just so you're mercenary too!
CHORUS: Buy an ad and show all the toys,
Show all the toys up on the shelf,
SCROOGE: Just make sure that you get a plug,
You get a plug,
In for yourself!
SCROOGE AND CHORUS: Christmas comes but once a year,
So you better cash in,
While the spirit lingers,
It's slipping through your fingers,
Boy! Don't you realize
Christmas can be such a Monetary joy!
CRATCHET: Well, I guess you fellows will never change.
SCROOGE: Why should we? Christmas has two s's in it, and they're both dollar signs. CRATCHET: Yeah, but they weren't there to begin with.
CRATCHET: The people keep hoping you'll remember. But you never do.
SCROOGE: Remember what?
CRATCHET: Whose birthday we're celebrating.
SCROOGE: Well, ahem... don't get me wrong. The story of Christmas, in its simplicity, is a good thing - I'll buy that. It's just that we know a good thing when we see it.
CRATCHET: But don't you realize Christmas has a significance, a meaning.
SCROOGE: A sales curve! Wake up, Cratchet, it's later than you think.
CRATCHET: I know, Mr. Scrooge, I know.
CHORUS: On the first day of Christmas,
The advertising's there, with
Business Christmas cards,
And commercials on a pear tree...
Jingles here, jingles there,
Jingles all the way.
Dashing through the snow,
In a fifty-foot coup-e
O'er the fields we go,
Selling all the way...
Deck the halls with advertising,
What's the use of compromising,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
MUSIC: AS TRADITIONAL HYMNS ATTEMPT TO BREAK THROUGH THE MUSICAL ENDING, IT BUILDS TO A CRESCENDO. WE HEAR "JINGLE BELLS" PUNCTUATED WITH THE SOUND OF A CASH REGISTER RINGING UP SALES. ON THE LAST NOTE OF THE MUSIC, WE HEAR MONEY DROPPING IN AND THE CASH REGISTER SLAMMING SHUT!
(Downloaded from Google Image Search)
I was in New York when a call came in from a man named Lloyd Dunn. He was the new president of Capitol. (Alan Livingston had recently left for the executive suites of NBC television.) Dunn was a very square man from the world of marketing. If he had any sense of humor, he kept it well hidden under a rock. He also did not share my sense of moral outrage that Christmas had deteriorated into a sell-a-thon. He was calling now to tell me that on the advice of legal and many other people at Capitol he was pulling "Green Chri$tma$" off release.
I asked to speak to my A&R man, Ken Nelson.
"Ken has been overruled on this one," he barked. "This is a very offensive recording."
"Who is it offensive to?" I asked.
"Everybody in the world of business!" he said. "You'll offend everybody in advertising!"
"Not everybody," I said. "Just the ones who should be offended."
"One thing is for sure," he told me, "if we released 'Green Chri$tma$,' you'd never work again in the advertising business."
I said that was one of the hazards of being a satirist.
"Well, I'm personally offended by this record," he told me. "I came out of marketing, and I think this thing is in poor taste."'
"Haven't you got it all backwards?" I asked him. "It's the things I attacked that are in poor taste. The thought here is that the people who have used Christmas as merely a hook to sell products will be so shocked that they may rethink the whole thing."
(Downloaded from Flickr)
"Capitol Records itself is guilty of the very things you attacked," he said.
"Go back and listen again," I told him. "You missed the point. I never said anything about toys, records..."
"Well, be that as it may," he told me, "we're killing the record."
"That being the case," I told him sadly, "I'd like to be released from my contract. This is the last straw. You people are keeping me from being able to make a living as a recording artist." He said he was sorry I felt that way, and we hung up.
I immediately called my friend Norman Granz, the jazz entrepreneur, and told him of my problems with Capitol. Granz had told me in the past that he wished I were recording for his record label, Verve Records. He told me he would be happy to put out "Green Chri$tma$," without even hearing it. My name on it was enough for him, he said. I called Dunn back at Capitol and told him I wished to buy the master and take it to Verve Records, who would be honored to put it out.
Another long pause. Then Dunn said he'd call me back at my hotel room. Through all this, I had been unable to reach Glenn Wallichs, now Capitol's chairman. He was in Europe. Finally, a call came back from Dunn. Capitol had reconsidered and would put out my Christmas recording after all. "We want you here on Capitol," Dunn told me, laying on the charm. "This is your home."
(Downloaded from Google Image Search)
"And you will release 'Green Chri$tma$'?" I said.
"With just two very small changes," he told me.
"And they are... ?"
"Take out any mention of whose birthday we're celebrating, and cut the cash-register sound effect off the end," he said. "Okay?"
I could hardly believe my ears.
"Nooooooooooo way!" I told him.
I refused to become a victim of such censorship. I said to Dunn, "I've had it! I can release it as is with no cuts whatsoever on a different record label."
"Hold it," Dunn said. "I'll call you back."
He was stonewalling, but the next day he called and threw in the towel. He said they would release it as is against his better judgment. Capitol sneaked "Green Chri$tma$" out under the door that first year, with no attendant publicity whatsoever. I finally bought an ad and paid for it out of my own pocket. Here was a record that truly "escaped" from the Capitol Tower.
The reaction from the advertising world was a small explosion, as was to be expected. I was attacked on the editorial pages of Advertising Age and M.A.C. magazine (before it was called Adweek). Even the Los Angeles Times, which subsists mostly on ads, blasted me in an editorial on Christmas Day.
The editorial writer later sheepishly admitted he hadn't even heard my record, but he'd read about it. No wonder he missed the whole point.
If a few critics didn't understand it, most of the public did. The mail was 90 percent favorable. I got letters of praise and gratitude from bus drivers and senators, housewives and governors. The favorable responses from the religious community ranged from Protestants and Catholics to rabbis. Apparently, I had sent out a message that had cut across all boundaries.
A columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle reported that "Stan Freberg was in Gump's the other day spending some of his artist's royalties from 'Green Chri$tma$.' Freberg is a great one to talk about other people making money off of Christmas." When I told the columnist that I had already donated my artist royalties from my record to the Hemophilia Foundation, he apologized with a retraction.
That first year the record was played on the air in New York City only twice - both times by the same disc jockey, Martin Block. He was promptly told by the sales department, "If you play that again, you're fired!"
In Los Angeles my friend at KMPC, Stanley Spiro, told me that they were playing it, but they had to be careful how they programmed it. Blatant Christmas advertisers who figured "the shoe fit" refused to pay for their commercials if they were positioned within fifteen minutes of my record. "The Freberg record negates our message," they told the station.
I had struck a nerve. I was set for an interview on the Los Angeles station, KCBS-TV, about "Green Chri$tma$," during which they planned to play excerpts from the recording. At the last minute I was "pulled" from the lineup by the station manager Robert Wood, who later became president of CBS. "Why was I removed from the show?" I asked him, point-blank.
Wood told me. "The record is sacrilegious. I'm a very staunch Catholic."
I was flabbergasted. "Sacrilegious?" I asked. "Have you heard this record?"
"No," he said. "But I don't need to hear it. I heard all about it."
A few years later, Time came to me. They were doing an essay on the overcommercialization of Christmas. The writer, Barbara Wilkins, told me that "Green Chri$tma$" was the focal point of the whole story. "You were just ahead of your time," she said. She interviewed me for a full day. The essay was to run in the Christmas issue.
On Christmas Day I opened the magazine. There was no essay at all. Next day I called her at Time and asked what had happened. "The sales department of Time put pressure on the editors," she said. "At the last minute, they killed the essay."
Talk about striking a nerve.
Freberg at the microphone (From his box set "Tip Of The Freberg")
GREEN APPENDIXE$ PT. 1 - REVIEWS & CHARTS:
This review is from Milton R. Bass, a columnist for The Berkshire Eagle from December 2, 1958. Although there are probably dozens of columns about "Green Chri$tma$" published before this one, this was the earliest review that I could find in my research.
This is from the December 7th, 1958 edition of The Cedar Rapids Gazette and it's a two-for-one. The first column (left) under the headline "Songwriters Yust Go Nuts at Christmas" is by Associated Press writer Hugh A. Mulligan. His column mentions "Green Chri$tma$" (highlighted) and the other new Christmas songs for 1958.
The second column (right) is by Les Zacheis, the Gazette's noted music writer, under the heading "New Records in Review". While reviewing other new Christmas releases, he mentions Freberg's single - it's all of three paragraphs (highlighted) but Les hits the nail on the head (in this reviewer's opinion).
This local records chart was printed in The Van Nuys News on December 18, 1958. Look at that competition! We asked Keith Caulfield from Billboard Magazine about where Freberg placed on the Billboard Top 100 and the Billboard Holiday chart:
"Green Chri$tma$" debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart on Dec. 29, 1958 and spent two weeks on the chart. It peaked at No. 44. Billboard didn't have a Christmas/Holiday singles chart in 1958 - it was an on-and-off again chart that didn't start until the 1960s."
GREEN APPENDIXE$ PT. 2 - RELATED COLUMNS:
This column written by Bill Sumner of The Pasadena Independent was published on December 2, 1958. This funny, sometimes angry article discusses "Green Chri$tma$" and its B-side "The Meaning of Christmas", the lack of good Christmas music in general, and alludes to the controversy that was beginning to stir.
FYI, Freberg was a resident and the pride of Pasadena at the time.
Don Page, radio columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote this for the December 14, 1958 edition. By now, the controversy around "Green Chri$tma$" was in full bloom and Freberg appeared on Dick Whittinghill's radio show to talk about the satire.
A longtime journalist for the Los Angeles Times was given his own column in 1958. He was Jack Smith and he wrote a piece that wonders what the controversy is all about. In witty, well-written verse, Jack brags about being a big spender at Christmas and tells Freberg, in so many words, to lighten up:
"Money is only a symbol, Freberg. Don't take it too seriously." That's MR. Freberg to you, pal!
Several weeks later, the Times wrote the Christmas Day editorial and alluded to this very column (see the editorial above). Smith went on to write for the Times for 37 years and became as closely associated with the paper like Mike Royko in Chicago. His last column appeared on Christmas Day, 1995 - coincidence?
On December 25th, 1958 - the same day the Times printed their editorial against Freberg - this column by Bob Foster ran in the San Mateo Times. By now, the controversy had reached its peak and Foster decided to investigate it.
This column is a real gem - Foster looks at the outrage from the advertising community by reporting on several agencies reaction to "Green Chri$tma$". There are also priceless quotes from Freberg on his record, including the statement that opened this special yuleblog entry.
THE FINAL WORD:
I want to thank the staffs of the Allen County Public Library and the Chicago Public Library for their invaluable assistance in gathering many of the news sources printed here. It's been fun and informative tracking down columns, ads, and the like for this appreciation.
A special thank you to Alice B. of Readers Services at ACPL - she dug out volume after volume of bound magazines out of the catacombs in my search for those missing Christmas ads. She usually had materials requested pulled before I got there, was always helpful, and never complained once. Extra star to you.
Thanks also go to my wife & family who didn't understand why I spent the good part of August of this year ensconced at libraries and behind the computer typing all this up.
Final thanks go to Mr. Stan Freberg himself. As a member of the generation that you spoke of fifty years ago, I hope this look back on "Green Chri$tma$" will make other members of my generation and future generations stop, listen, and think about your message. I hope I did it justice Uncle Stan.
The final word doesn't belong to me. It comes to us from the Waterloo Daily Courier dated December 18, 1958 (look at the column "Laughs Self Into Hospital" directly below the masthead):