Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

My home at Christmas, 2003

I expect today will be the quietest day here at the yuleblog. So if you're reading this on Christmas Day, thanks for looking in and we wish you a very Merry Christmas! We hope Santa brought you everything on your list this year!

We won't be open tomorrow for exchanges or returns. Nope. Not even open for business. We're taking the rest of the year off.

It's going to take more than a week to sort through the massive amount of downloaded material we've compiled here at the yuleblog.

At last count, we have over 160 complete albums we've downloaded through the sharity network. Add in the 50 odd Christmas comps sent to the yuleblog via our PO Box or downloaded on the net, and all of the Christmas CDs
I purchased during this month and the ones I'll receive as Christmas gifts... There's only so many days on the calendar!

Adding this to the pile doesn't count:

This is my Christmas gift to you. Not exactly a "best of" but these are some of my favorites songs from the many albums, singles, and the occasional MP3s from
all the Christmas music I've shared this year.

A few people (you know who you are) received earlier rough cuts of this sampler with a totally different lineup of songs. This is all NEW so you might want to get this new version while its being shared!

We've shared a-plenty. Over 3200 downloads since Thanksgiving. Counter that number with this one: just over 70 comments left here. This is partially my fault. I've never allowed "anonymous" comments to be allowed on the yuleblog.

Until now.

Starting today, anonymous comments will be allowed. This is your chance. If you've read something here, if you've downloaded something here, if you're going to download the sampler, please take one moment to leave a comment.

I will try to answer as many comments as time will allow me this upcoming week. General questions about the albums I've reviewed here are encouraged.
Christmas wishes from family, friends, and readers like you will take precedent.

If you have requests for specific long-lost Christmas songs, I will try to point you in the right direction. I won't be posting any new shares to start next year - just reviews. Requests for an upload of an album I've never offered will remain unanswered. Any unsolicited link to other web sites will be immediately zapped like a bug.

In closing, I want to send my very best wishes to everyone along the sharity network. Thanks for all the work you've done this year to brighten the holiday with the gift of music.

This was my first year within that network. It was a lot of hard work, sacrifice, and sometimes it was a pain in the ______ (you have your word, I have mine). But its worth it when you get a comment or letter thanking you for helping someone grab those Christmas memories.

Will I be a member next year? Only time will tell...

It's time. The kids are coming downstairs to open their presents. Time for me to put the first year of my online diary of additions to my Christmas music collection to bed.

We'll open gifts, have a hearty breakfast, and spend the rest of the day with family. Some time today, I will get the final tracks from FaLaLaLaLa's ADVENTure In Carols 2006 and Ernie's 25 Days Of Christmas, burn them, and listen to each of them for the first time. I can't think of a better way to end my Christmas!

Thanks for stopping by (as you have) and hope you'll continue to visit us at the yuleblog throughout 2007!

A Christmas Yuleblog Sampler - 2006

Happy listening... and Happy Holidays!


NOTE: At the same time the giant ball drops in Times Square
(January 1, 2007 at midnight EST),
every link at the yuleblog will drop as well.
If you haven't clicked, get going!

James Brown - 1933-2006

Early this Christmas morning, we lost a true pioneer in music.

James Brown passed away at the age of 73 after a battle with
prolonged pnuemonia.

To honor his memory, I offer this classic Christmas song:

James Brown - Merry Christmas, I Love You

We loved you James... Dazzle them angels with your moves!


Sunday, December 24, 2006

My Favorite Christmas Memory

It's Christmas Eve... the whole world is settling down for tomorrow -
one day of "peace on earth" (subject to change).

There are a lot of thoughts running through my mind - most of which
will be covered in tomorrow's post.

I want to share with you a story I wrote several years ago. Some have
read this, many have not. This includes several members of my family
who are looking in for the first time. I hope you'll enjoy it.

Originally published at on November 29, 2004:

December, 1982 wasn't starting very well for many people. It had been a rough year with the economy and recession the way it was. No one knew that better than a middle aged woman standing in line at the gas company, ready to plead for leniency so she could continue to heat her home. Paying bills was all brand new to her since the divorce and she was barely staying afloat.

Her 4th oldest son sat quietly in the waiting area, reading a book and secretly wishing the gas company would side with his mom. The boy had witnessed his mother accomplish many things in the past year; balance a checkbook, balance her time between being a mother and father to her four children living at home, devoting time to her old friends and a new church she was involved with, and treading the line of sanity and insanity to keep up with it all.

As she neared the end of the line, the middle aged woman reviewed her papers and her checkbook figures. The child support payment was due in the first week of December and it was spent already on food, the phone bill, gas for the car, and if there was anything left Christmas presents. She wasn't good at lying, conning, or bluffing at the beginning of the year; it wasn't her nature. How far she had come in a year's time, she thought to herself.

After she was through at the gas company, it was off to school... again. She shot a somewhat disgusted look at her 4th oldest son, who was re-reading that dumb Chicago Cubs book again. At home, he was quiet and kept to himself in his room. He tried to keep up with his older brothers but never was able to garner their attention or respect.

At school, however, it was a totally different story. He had always been the class clown and would do anything for attention or a laugh. For a time, it was cute. Now, as he reached adolescence and after the divorce of his parents, his classmates were annoyed by him. So his antics became more forced, more harsh, more biting to no avail. He was losing friends and teachers were losing their patience.

As punishment for his recent crimes, the boy was forced not to go on the annual Christmas shopping trip to downtown Chicago; something he wasn't going to do anyway since he didn't have enough money for the bus fee, let alone gift money. He smiled knowing the punishment the principal tried to hand out didn't work.

"If you're not going on the trip, you're still required to come to school," the principal snorted. "You will spend the day here, doing class work and cleaning chores. My secretary will have a check list for you to do." The boy went to school and did what he was told, never complaining once.

The Sunday following the incident, the boy and his mother attended their new church. He liked going to the services while his mom worshipped in a new way; speaking in tongues, raising hands, etc. As church ended and members of the church congregated, the secretary approached the mother and boy. She had been a member of the church for years and wanted to say hello to a familiar face. During the conversation, the mother learned of the punishment the principal gave.

The gas company bought the story. Now she was ready to tackle the school problem. Her 4th oldest ran to her side and was thrilled the gas would stay on. A quick death stare from his mom told him he wasn't out of the woods yet.

They pulled into the school parking lot, nothing new for the middle aged woman. On many occasions before, she was here to learn about a fantastic new stunt her 4th oldest was being punished for. Many times she had to sit and listen to the rather pompous and arrogant principal tell her what a bad kid her son was. She kept the boy out of school today for some reason and now she dragged him into the office.

"Very nice to see you again." the principal said in a patronizing way.

"SIR," the mother countered. "I understand you kept my son here last week while the others went on the Christmas trip and made him do manual labor."

"Well, yes... but..."

"I just came from my doctor's office, sir." she interrupted.

The boy's eyes widened for a brief millisecond, hearing his mom's lie, then returned to normal. He then sagged a bit, playing up the injury his mom was about to tell the principal. He tried to keep from smiling throughout the dissertation / ass reaming his mother gave the startled principal. It was the only time in the son's life he ever heard his mother use the "F" word.

As they left the office, the secretary smiled and gave a friendly look to them both, reminding the middle aged woman about a church function. As if coming out of a trance, the mother smiled and returned to her old self again; quaint, proper, thanking the secretary for the reminder.

In the hallway, the 4th oldest said goodbye to his mom. Another death stare.

As the middle aged woman reached her car, her oldest friend, neighbor, and crossing guard for the school arrived. They chatted briefly about their prospective days, chitchatted, gossiped, etc.. Many of her old friends gave up on the middle aged woman long ago. She was thankful to her friend for standing by her throughout the divorce, the new church, and as she tried to raise her family.

Before the friend began her crossing guard duties, the middle aged woman reached into her purse and handed her a $20 bill. It was only a fraction of the money she owed to her friend. But she had nothing else to give her for Christmas. They played the usual game of "keep that - take it" before the friend pocketed the money. The middle aged woman went home, winning two small battles that day. But as she thought about the larger picture, she knew she was losing the war.

Christmas Eve... at last. The middle aged woman sat quietly in her drafty home, looking at the hastily assembled Christmas tree she had bought three days earlier. She was exhausted, mentally, physically, and spiritually from the divorce, the year, her church, and from her family. She had made her last decision before Christmas that day: one present each for her kids or food for the next half week until the child support arrives.

The presents laid under the Christmas tree. Nothing for herself.

The food banks were out of food. Her checking account stood at $0.56 cents. The phone was disconnected. Again. The thermostat was set at 60 degrees as the thermometer read 15 below outside. The car had two days worth of fuel but it didn't matter. The fuel line had frozen up at the shopping center and sat there still. None of her friends could lend her any money due to the holidays.

The middle aged woman looked at the broken TV set that went out months earlier and saw her Bible sitting atop it; her altar. She wasn't in the mood for "It's A Wonderful Life" or the sixth re-reading of Job and his story of patience. She looked at the family pictures on the wall and studied them again for the umpteenth time.

The newest family picture was just a proof; 2 x 3. There was no money for grand pictures like 3 x 5s or 4 x 6s. Not even enough for a colossal 8 x 10. It stood there as a testament to the middle aged woman. Through it all, she kept her family together, clothed, fed, protected, parented as best she could with no rewards or prizes for herself. As she looked at the picture, she began crying.

Off the family room was her 4th oldest son's room. He was awake, re-reading the Chicago Cubs book (again). He heard the crying, then sobbing from his mother in the family room and wanted to go to her side. He continued to listen as the sobs quieted down to sniffles and figured she was okay.

He was getting tired of hearing his mom crying and was constantly praying for a miracle. The boy was determined one day he would pay her back for all the things she sacrificed bunted and the Cubs won 2-1. Santo and Banks had solo home runs the next day against the Dodgers while ...

A knock at the door.

The middle aged woman opened the door and saw a person standing on her dark porch (the light was broken). The person was silhouetted by the headlights of a car that stood dead center in the driveway. For a brief moment, the woman stared at the faceless person, haloed in halogen light, speechless.

She turned on the foyer light and the familiar face of the secretary from school and church came into view. The middle aged woman, overjoyed to see any happy face, broke into tears and instinctively wrapped her arms around the bewildered secretary. The hug lasted for a brief time as the woman composed herself and the secretary waved at the car to come forward.

"We have something for you." the secretary explained.

Three large men emerged from the car and headed to the trunk. Each grabbed two sacks of groceries and headed to the porch. The middle aged woman's eyes were now two times larger than they ever were as the men came into her home and placed the bounty on the table. She sat next to the table staring at the bags, half dazed and half confused. She was crying uncontrollably. She was speechless.

The secretary came in with a large frozen turkey and placed it in the sink. The middle aged woman sat stunned, not able to move or speak. The secretary wished her a blessed Christmas and went to her side. The angel hugged the middle aged woman, still comatose at the outpouring of relief. As the secretary turned to walk away, the woman finally squeaked out the only two words that would come:

"Thank you."

The mother cried for her sons who immediately assembled in the kitchen where the mountains of food, glorious canned food, sat in paper bags. They stared in amazement at the bags and listened to the story of how a school secretary had come to rescue their Christmas.

The 4th oldest arrived last and saw that the miracle he was praying for had come. He went to his mother and gave her a hug that lasted for decades it seemed. By this time, the boy was crying along with his mother.

"I've been praying for this for a long time, momma" he whispered.

The mother now clenched her son so tight that the boy felt like he was going to snap in two. He finally asked to be released for the simple act of breathing. He began walking to his room, crying still and thankful. As he walked past the family Christmas tree, he squatted down to floor.

He wasn't there to look at the single present for himself. He looked into the manger that guarded the presents under the tree. The baby Jesus was looking up at him as Joseph, Mary, and the assembled cast of wise men and shepherds all looked at the swaddled clothed infant.

The boy turned around and peered into the kitchen where his mother was putting the Christmas gifts of food away. She actually looked happy for the first time that month of December, 1982. The son turned back to the manger, tears finally subsiding.

"Thank you for giving my mom a good Christmas this year."

Thank you for Christmas, period.

Don't forget the milk and cookies PLUS the carrots to feed the reindeer. Get to bed...


Jim & Tammy - Christmas With Love From

This is it - the second of three posts on Christmas Eve and the last shared LP of the year!

Boy, have I saved the worst for last! Err... that's best for worst! Wait... I meant to say best for least! No... it should be least for worst! Darn it... I've saved the least for last... ARGH! THE BEST FOR LAST!!!

Don't count on it.

Can you believe that this is the photo shopped clean version of the album cover? Someone must have used this in their garage under their engine when they changed the oil - it was that bad. The album was in great shape though.

And regardless of what you might be thinking about this album, fear not. Tammy Faye Bakker (now Messner) only has ONE song on the whole album and the only contribution Jim Bakker made to this album was the back cover notes and an executive producer credit to his name.

The rest of the album is performed by one time members of the PTL family in its heyday. To some, it's your standard 1980s teleevangelist type of album - usually sold at touring revival concerts or through a 1-800 number. If you close your eyes, you can imagine the 80s bouffant hairdos, the linebacker blouse shoulder pads, and all that mascara.

There's nothing really memorable here vocally outside of Tammy Faye (for all the wrong reasons of course). But there are two instrumentals on the album that truly stand out.

One of the problems with "O Holy Night" is that massive buildup to the final peak in the song. Many vocalists have tried, few have succeeded, some should never have even attempted it. Violinist Vern McLellan performs "O Holy Night" on the album and you'll be surprised by it. It's got a lot going for it, some good, some bad.

The other instrumental is "Away In A Manger" by the PTL Orchestra. The orchestration is pure 80s, the arrangement is quite good, and it's definitely the standout track of the album. Then I began to wonder. WHY is it the standout track? Why does this sound out of place yet familiar?

A simple look on the back cover will tell you everything you need to know. Underneath the scrawlings of Jim Bakker and just above the logo for PTL Records & Tapes lies the answer:

The one and only Thurlow Spurr!

My friend Ernie has posted at a few items from Mr. Spurr at his blog (most of which are currently available to download). Earlier this year, I reviewed Spurr's "Christmas; Time For Song" album which you have to read to understand the full effect that Thurlow Spurr has on me. I'm too far tired and depressed to explain it.

What a way to go out on:

Jim & Tammy - Christmas With Love

I would say "Happy listening..." but I just can't.


Sy Mann & The Malvin Carolers - Let's All Sing Christmas Carols

I wasn't going to share this album out because who needs another Christmas organ music LP?

This album and I have a long history. I found it earlier this year when I located just the record alone at a local Goodwill store. The album cover turned up much later.

The front cover was in great shape. The back was hideous. Watermarks, coffee mug rings, a small food stain... was it food? It took me forever to clean it up in Photoshop.

Why all this for a Christmas organ album? When you see the name "Sy Mann" on the back cover, you tend to overlook little details like coffee and food stains!

For those who don't know who Sy Mann is, let me quote from a review I did back in August of an album I got last Christmas from our friend Ernie at his incredible blog Ernie (not Bert) (which he just upgraded to STEREO! WOW!):

"But organ music in the hands of Sy Mann, then it becomes something that deserves special attention. If the name Sy Mann sounds familiar, that's because he was one of the main forces behind "Switched On Santa" - one of the top five Christmas albums of all time."

On this album, Mann gets plenty of solos at the Wurlitzer organ solo on tracks like "Deck The Halls", "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", and "White Christmas" (whose lyrics were never printed on the back - guess that was extra $$$ when they licensed the song!).

The Malvin Carolers are also featured on the album, singing your favorite Christmas carols. They do a fine job on standards like "Joy To The World", "Silent Night" and "The First Noel" but listen for those Mann accents on the Wurlitzer!

"Let's All Sing Christmas Carols"... not a bad idea for this first of three posts on Christmas Eve:

Sy Mann & The Malvin Carolers - Let's All Sing Christmas Carols

Happy listening... and singing if you like!


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Pat O'Brien - A Quiet Christmas

Who's Pat O'Brien? (For those who know, please feel free to skip ahead).

Pat O'Brien was an actor whose work for Warner Brothers back in the 1930s and 1940s is legendary. He appeared eight times together with Jimmy Cagney; most notably in "Angels With Dirty Faces" in 1938.

Two years later, he was forever immortalized in "Knute Rockne All-American" playing the lead role. Remember Ronald Reagan saying "win one for the Gipper?" This is it!

My personal favorite role of O'Brien's came many years later in 1959. He played the Chicago cop who tracked down George Raft (and Tony Curtis & Jack Lemmon to a degree) in "Some Like It Hot".

By the late 1950s, movie roles for O'Brien were scarce. He began appearing on television quite regularly in westerns, drama anthologies, and the like.

In 1964, O'Brien scored a television special entitled "Here Pat O'Brien" which featured him singing and reciting stories. Someone at Recording Industries Corporation (RIC) thought quickly and issued a soundtrack of that TV special. It apparently sold well enough to let O'Brien try his hand with a Christmas album.

This album contains eleven tracks. But the record labels shows seventeen stories and poems contained within the eleven tracks. Hmmm...

When I transferred this, I decided to offer two versions of this. The first is in its original LP format - all eleven tracks preserved the way it is. The second version is the separate tracks version with each story or poem all to itself - for those who want to skip directly to a certain poem or story within.

O'Brien does a masterful job reciting poetry and reading stories (O Henry's "The Gift Of The Magi" is presented in its entirety here). The singing? Well...

Do you remember a favorite grandfather or uncle who took part in the Christmas sing song at your homes on Christmas? Their faint voices adding to the mix? Sounding like they were half asleep or about to pass out due to lack of oxygen? Then this will bring back some memories.

Click two for the Gipper:

Pat O'Brien - A Quiet Christmas (Original LP version)

Pat O'Brien - A Quiet Christmas (Separate tracks version)

Happy listening...


The Murk Family - Christmas With

This is the first of two posts on this Saturday before Christmas that will contain TWO links!

During one of my vinyl raids of a local thrift shop here in Fort Wayne, I came across this album whose cover definitely caught my eye.

Then I found a different version of the album in another bin!

The Murk Family are Jim & Donna (the parents) and Bill, Becky, Brenda, and Barbara (the alliterated offspring ). The name sounded familiar. Then I remembered this.

Their family caught a big break in 1963 when Jim won the "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour" - the "American Idol" of its time. This led to hundreds of appearance all over the world.

If you ever saw them perform, you probably wouldn't have forgotten them. Each one of the kids plays a stringed instrument while mom plays the vibraharp (see the back album cover below).

This only sounds bad but it's not. There's a lot going on in this album (or albums).

The first album (ornament cover) was issued on MFM Records (their own label) in 1970. The second (picture wreath) was released a year later on the Toya Records label of Chicago.

So what's the difference in the two? Nothing. They are the same album. The Toya album cleaned up a little better (both on the album & artwork) and that's all.

I think you might find these a change in pace. There are unique versions of Christmas songs and well performed too! My personal favorite is "The Only Thing I Want For Christmas" - a damn good song!

I think you might find these a change in pace. There are unique versions of Christmas songs and well performed too! My personal favorite is "The Only Thing I Want For Christmas" - a damn good song!

Be on the lookout for Jim Murk. He recites several of his poems on the album with a lonely organ accompanying him.

Two choices for your shopping pleasure:

The Murk Family - Christmas With
(MFM - Ornament cover)

The Murk Family - Christmas With
(Toya - Picture wreath)

Happy listening x 2...


Friday, December 22, 2006

Five golden LINKS...

If you're getting bored with Christmas (or already are), here are five places to visit on the web that might shake you up out of the Christmas doldrums:

1.) Jeffco Christmas

My Canadian brother Jeff has had albums and podcasts for your listening pleasure all month. If that's not enough, he has just posted his annual Christmas compilation "Christmas Turkeys 10" - a veritable feast of Christmas music that will make you smile, laugh, vomit, have convulsions, whatever. Still not convinced? Jeff's posted some of your favorite Christmas songs sung by the cast of "The Facts of Life"!


This has been the place to be at Christmas for three years running. It's the final weekend over at the King Of Jingaling's palace. There's going to be some incredible surprises in store. Other like minded Christmas music people will be gathering to bask in the glow of Christmas memories via music. If you can't find something to read, laugh at, listen to, and offer yourself in their easy to navigate forums, then check your pulse.

3.) Ernie (Not Bert)

Ernie doesn't sleep. Seriously. This guy has been burning the midnight oil, the drapes, the furniture, and has presented almost 200 Christmas albums this year! To make matters better, the albums Ernie's sharing aren't the low quality titles I've been offering... he's got some of the best Christmas music on the web! Get over to Ernie's place, browse around, and be sure to check out the outstanding photos Ernie takes as well!

4.) Queer Music Heritage

JD Doyle is at it again... He's just posted THREE complete Christmas radio shows - all new for 2006! Add these three shows to the TWELVE he's got archived at his web site and that's... carry the one... well, that's A LOT of Christmas shows! JD compiles Christmas music from gay and lesbian artists and presents them with in-depth interviews and vintage sound clips. Take a listen and tell Doyle the Captain sent you!

5.) Scott Marks podcast

Scott Marks has held many titles: film school professor (I took two of his courses), movie revival house manager, film critic and curator. He now lives in San Diego and has a regular gig on "Film Club Of The Air" on KPBS 97.7 FM. He recently went into the studio to record a podcast on two of his favorite holiday movies. For more info and to stream the podcast, click on the link above. To download the podcast, click here.

Happy surfing...


A Country Christmas (Decca Records)

Alphabetically, "A Country Christmas" has been at the very top of my list of shared albums.

Ironically, it's one of the last albums I'll be posting!

To kick off the Christmas holiday weekend, I give you this absolute gem of an album from 1963.

I found this LP in an antique store earlier this year. The cover hooked me and the lineup of songs reeled me in! I finally found a copy of "Captain Santa Claus" by Bobby Helms and "Tag Along" by the Wilburn Brothers!

This isn't your average run-of-the-mill country compilation either. There are some excellent examples of the Nashville sound and pure vintage old school twangy country sung by some of the best artists Decca Records had in their corral of stars!

You're going to find something on this album you're going to love. Be it the bluegrass sounds of Bill Monroe, the deep, rich sound of Red Foley's voice, or listening to pure storytelling on songs by Ernest Tubb or the three guys named Jimmy (or Jimmie) on the LP!

This made another and PFFFTT... here it is:

A Country Christmas (Decca Records)

Happy listening...


Thursday, December 21, 2006

O Tannenbaum - Christmas On The Rhine (Decca Records)

On the surface, this may seem to be an ordinary German Christmas album. If you look and listen a little deeper, you just might find some surprises.  There are abundant copies of this album anywhere you look. eBay probably has a few copies listed for auction as you read this.

But... some album covers have some suspicious red writing directly under the words "Christmas on the Rhine".

These words read: "Mixed Chorus and Orchestra under direction of Werner Müller" That explains why this album is a cut above the rest.

When you heard the words "German Christmas record", visions of oompah bands and overbearing Teutonic singers straight out of a Wagner opera might have filled your head. Not this album.

This is a well-orchestrated, well-arranged, and well sung album. Many of the standards are covered ("O Tannenbaum", "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht") but there are a few gems that standout from the rest. "Leise Rieselt Der Schnee (The Snow Falls Quietly)" can be put alongside anything put out by Fred Waring.

"Am Weihnachtsbaum (By The Christmas Tree)" is lush and lovely - a perfect Christmas song. "Kling Glockchen (Ring, Little Bell)" is by far the winner. This song is bouncy, very catchy, and all the elements of the album are capsulated in this track. This is the one you'll remember!

Nehmen Sie hören sich (take a listen for yourself):

O Tannenbaum: Christmas On The Rhine

Happy listening...


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Bob Ralston - Christmas Hymns & Carols

This album (my last repost of the 2006 downloading season) was originally offered at last December. To quote from I wrote a year ago:

"Bob Ralston came from a show biz family: his mom was the 13th employee hired by Walt Disney – she was the voice of Minnie Mouse!

"After his formal music training ended, he played six nights at week with the Freddy Martin Orchestra from 1959-62 at the Coconut Grove in Hollywood.

"When that stint ended, he was approached by Lawrence Welk to be a pianist / organist / arranger for his Champagne Music Makers in 1963. It was a job he held until Welk and company went off the air in 1982 and continues to hold as arranger / organist for the occasional Welk reunion road show that tours the US.

"Today, Ralston presents five one-hour pops concerts each month in an intimate (40-seat) setting at his home in Granada Hills, CA. In addition to these regularly scheduled programs, he offers custom concerts to bus tours that visit weekly.

"I found this album at a thrift store and was immediately dazzled by two things: 1.) the near mint condition of the album (the original wrap was protecting the cover nicely) 2.) the jaw dropping number of songs listed on the cover! 30 SONGS!

"Ralston takes three songs, adds a simple chorus (nothing too heavy like Conniff or too contrived like Mitch Miller), blends in his great organ playing, and creates 10 medleys, each unique in its own way.

"If you like this album, Ralston released a Christmas CD in 1992 (74 Minutes of great theatre pipe organ music at Kansas City's Granada Theatre) that you can purchase at his website.

"This is the MONO copy... I'd love to find this in STEREO"

UPDATE: In May, 2008, I found a stereo copy at long last. You now have two album versions to choose from:

Bob Ralston - Christmas Hymns & Carols (MONO)

Bob Ralston - Christmas Hymns & Carols (STEREO)

Happy listening…


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Alcoa Singers - An Old-Fashioned Christmas

Are you a fan of Schoolhouse Rock? Do you find yourself humming its catchy song "Conjunction Junction"? You probably will after reading this next yuleblog entry.

The album you see to the right was released in 1979 by the Alcoa Singers in conjunction with the rebroadcast of the 1978 Rankin-Bass animated TV special "The Stingiest Man In Town" - a musical based on Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" written by Fred Spielman and Janice Torre.

The album features selections from the animated TV special that were originally sung by the likes of Dennis Day, Tom Bosley, Robert Morse, and (in the title role of Scrooge) Walter Matthau. More on the Alcoa Singers and their album later.

This wasn't the first time these songs were sung on television. When I found this album by The Alcoa Singers, immediately behind it was an album that conjuncts (if such a word exists) with everything described so far!

The second album I found was the ORIGINAL soundtrack to the first television broadcast of "The Stingiest Man In Town". Back in 1956, "The Alcoa Hour" first broadcast "The Stingiest Man In Town" as a live-action television special, was rebroadcast on television every Christmas several years thereafter, and a soundtrack was released in conjunction with that:

This soundtrack has long been out of print (what a coup!). Upon my first listen, I discovered that several of the songs listed were contained within tracks on the album and weren't separate. I transferred the album in two formats - the original LP format and a separate track format - and was set to offer it this Christmas.

Then I discovered the soundtrack was released onto CD for the first time this year. If you've been after this album forever, click on the link and purchase your very own copy.

Back to these folks.

Resplendent in polyester gear and sporting some wonderful 1970s hair styles, the Alcoa Singers got their start in 1961 as a volunteer group who would perform in (dare I say it?) conjunction with holiday functions for Alcoa employees.

Their singing is quite good. I enjoyed their versions of the "Stingiest Man In Town" songs (especially "The Christmas Spirit") but their other songs make the album.

They do wonderful jobs with such reverent songs like "The Little Drummer Boy" and "O Holy Night". "Here We Come A-Wassailing" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" pack a lot of punch (both last under a minute in length).

If you're looking for standout songs, you should take a listen to their version of "Jingle Bells" and the last track of nineteen overall on the album - a medley entitled "Sunshine Christmas". "Sunshine" lasts over six minutes and features 1970s "Godspell" like rhythms and singing. It's a true testament to its era.

Here's the link (no conjunctions necessary):

The Alcoa Singers - An Old-Fashioned Christmas

Happy listening...


Monday, December 18, 2006

Orion Samuelson - Christmas 45 - SINGLE

Our family weekend in Chicago was a blast - it brought back many great memories for my wife and myself, added new ones to our collection, and a brand new mess of memories with our kids for their folder.

As a kid who grew up in the Chicago area, I have memories so thick dealing with Christmas and Chicago radio that you'd need a whole new blog to catalog them all in.

WGN-AM (720 on your radio dial) is known as "Chicago's hometown radio station". It began broadcasting its 50,000 watt radio signal in 1924 - on clear nights, its signal can be heard as far away as South America!

Even though it pioneered the "news/talk" format long ago, the staggering variety of radio shows hosted on WGN is legendary - sports, news, cooking shows, radio dramas, you name it.

Since 1960, Orion (Oh-REE-un) Samuelson has hosted the farm report for WGN - helping the Midwest's farmers with crop prices, hog futures, and other agricultural news.

In this day and age of instant communication and technology, Samuelson is still at WGN broadcasting his farm report. Ponder this: the number three market in America, the number one radio station in Chicago, and they STILL broadcast farm reports!

Orion has several syndicated farm reports to his name, won hundreds of radio & television awards, and is a member of several radio & TV hall of fames.

His deep resonating voice is instantly recognizable to generations of Midwest farmers and Chicagoans and is no way the model for that other famous farm report radio legend Les Nessman.

Back in 1981, Orion decided to cut loose and have some fun. Gathering with some friends who called themselves "The Uff-Da Band", they re-recorded covers of Yogi Yorgesson's versions of "Jingle Bells" and "I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas" and issued them on Phonograph Records. If you look at the record label for "Jingle Bells", the songwriter credited is Samuelson - he's been around forever but NOT that long!

This 45 single probably never got past the borders of the tri-state area of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana - as far as Iowa maybe. So to many who hear this, it's just a homemade cover of two forgettable Christmas songs.

However, to those who know and appreciate Orion Samuelson, this is the ultimate Christmas present. To hear such a straight-laced personality like Samuelson - who would have given Ed Sullivan a run for his money in the "stone-face / barely alive" department - doing something so far-fetched like singing a Christmas song will no doubtedly cause some smiles and chuckles out there.

Play this one on the farm and watch the crops and cattle go bad:

Orion Samuelson - Christmas 45 - SINGLE

Happy listening...


Bob Mantzke Choralaires - Christmas Songs

Of all the albums and singles I've offered this Christmas, this might just be the most plain, the most obscure, and the least likely to download album in the whole pile.

Back in the 1960s, Bob Mantzke was a religious leader of choirs in Minnesota and issued several albums (which can be found on eBay here and here).

His leadership caused his Choralaires to win the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod Folk Festival back in 1961 - the first U.S. choir to win that competition. Only three U.S. choirs have ever won in Llangollen and Mantzke's won it twice!

Other Google searches show that Robert Mantzke (minus the Choralaires) wrote several Christmas musicals for kids that can still be licensed for performance.

Whether or not Bob is alive or dead is a mystery. So is the fate of Vend-O-Matic Sales, Inc - the company who issued this album some time last century. If anyone can fill in the blanks out there, drop us a line.

The music? If you're looking for a choir standing in front of a microphone with an accompanying organ playing all your standard Christmas fare with some occasional surface noise from the album, then this is for you.

Smile and sing on the beat:

Bob Mantzke Choralaires - Christmas Songs

Happy listening...


Friday, December 15, 2006

Christmas Weekend Getaway - Part 2

(singing like Bing & Bob) We're off on the road to Chicago... For the past several years, my wife and I brave the elements and the crowds to give our three children the Chicago Christmas Experience - Michigan Avenue, The John Hancock Center, and that jewel on State Street - Marshall Field's.

Some of you may know but for others, the store that was featured in the movie "Miracle On 34th Street" (a four letter word in our house with an apostrophe S) purchased Marshall Field's and removed their name off the marquee - an unpardonable sin that pure Chicagoans will never forgive or forget.

We're gone for three days! Another weekend Christmas trip means a chance for you to check your 2006 downloading season scorecards and catch up on anything you've missed:


Have a great weekend everyone!


Thursday, December 14, 2006

Alex Houston & Elmer - Here Comes Peter Cotton Claus

Last December, I was making the rounds online and came across Lee Hartfield's incredible blog Music You (Possibly) Won't Hear Anyplace. His entry of December 3rd of last year had a picture of the album cover that stayed with me for a long time (thanks Lee!).

That image came in handy when I found a copy of this album among a stack of kiddie records at a antique store in Valparaiso, Indiana. I'm not sure which purchase made me giddier; this album or the copy of "Sesame Street Disco"?

From the age of five, Alex Houston wanted to be a ventriloquist. He found his future partner in High Point, North Carolina and bought his dummy Elmer from a local sheriff for $50. Their career spanned 50 years!

They got their first break in 1954 on Jimmy Dean's first TV show, stayed there for five years, moved to Nashville and worked as an opening act to country stars like Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Dolly Parton, and a newcomer named Charley Pride.

Pride and Houston worked together for three and a half years. It was during this partnership that this album was recorded and Charley graciously wrote the liner notes for the back cover.

This album was recorded in 1972 on Willex Records and they really, REALLY tried to push the title track of this album down your throat: the first track on each side of the album is "Here Comes Peter Cotton Claus"!

As for the rest of the album, it sounds like Houston had Elmer at his side, doing both voices all in one take. I think it would have sounded better (if such a thing is possible) if he recorded them separately - the ventriloquist's tight-lippedness voice of the dummy would have been less present.

This album (and the dummy) should have stayed in the box:

Alex Houston & Elmer - Here Comes Peter Cotton Claus

Happy listening...


P.S. A Miss Renee Durham (who claims to be one of the lead kiddie voices on this album) left a comment concerning this album. But not here. Click on the link...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Through rain, snow, sleet, and hail...

I visited my post office box this morning and came away with four new Christmas compilations. That brings our running total to 27! Thank you to all who have sent your comps in - they will be given a good home here in Fort Wayne!

There's still time if you'd like to send one in... each compilation will be reviewed in February here at the yuleblog. It will be very interesting to see the different themes, songs, and styles that other Christmas home enthusiasts employ on their comps.

And from the ones I've received so far, this February is going to be a month to remember!


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

DeWayne Fulton - Christmas Greetings From

Our next offering is of the quiet variety... and it doesn't get more quiet than Christmas harp.

Mention the harp and some people think immediately of Harpo Marx. Others think of Robert Maxwell. Or Bianco.

How about DeWayne Fulton? Anyone?

I found this record at a garage sale for the very low price of free. As the family thanked me for taking a small stack of albums off their hands, I asked for more info on this album.

"It was one of our uncle's albums and he never played it at all." was all I could get.

Google searches came up with very little until I came across a cryptic web entry ( that listed an interview with Fulton from the Folk Harp Journal.

According to the interview, DeWayne Fulton was a founding father in pop/jazz harp. He recorded sixteen albums over his long career, played for Emperor Hirohito and Presidents Lyndon Johnson & Ronald Reagan, studied at Julliard, the Vienna Academy of Music, and performed with symphony orchestra globally.

Unfortunately, the article doesn't mention Christmas and didn't have a discography. In the midst of my research, I found other Fulton albums on the Safari Records label posted at eBay, GEMM, and Musicstack - all from the decade of the 1970s (if anyone finds a correct year for this album, let us know!).

The music on this album is pure, unadulterated Christmas harp music. No orchestra, no choir to hum or sing softly, no accompanying piano in the background. Fulton covers all the classical Christmas carols and does it well. This is a definite change in pace.

String this one along sometime:

DeWayne Fulton - Christmas Greetings From

Happy listening...


Monday, December 11, 2006

The Mexicali Brass - Winter Wonderland

In January of this year, I reviewed "Christmas Brass" by Monterey Brass, an album I found at FaLaLaLaLa last December.

In that review, I listed a number of albums that were released in the wake of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass' "Christmas Album" in 1968. The LP you see to the left was even mentioned in that review:

"Mexicali Brass - Winter Wonderland (I just found this at my local Goodwill... will post soon!)" Better late than never!

This is one of three albums I know of released by the Mexicali Brass - "Jingle Bells" (released with many covers) and "Christmas With" (available at FLLLL).

Of the nine songs on this album, there's three you'll recognize instantly ("Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow", "Sleigh Ride", "Go Tell It On The Mountain"). However, pay close attention to the other songs flavored with that Alpert / Tijuana Brass sound - little gems in their own right and great background music to all those homemade Christmas compilations.

Get ready. Here comes the ski lift:

Looks like iTunes and Rhapsody have this album available for download - therefore I've taken down my download link.  If you really want this album, click on the links to purchase far better versions of the music that I ripped and shared!


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bowen & Csehy - Christmas Steepletime

The day I have been dreading has come...

We can't put it off anymore... Today I begin hauling the 14 giant Rubbermaid boxes of Christmas decorations and our 6-ft Christmas artificial tree and deck the halls with boughs of holly - FaLaLaLaLa, la la la la (what an original plug. Zzzzz).

Today is the first Sunday that was free and clear for the entire family to be in one place.

Lately, it's been a blur of Christmas school plays and parties, trips to the shopping mall to find presents, organizing Christmas get togethers for families and friends, shovelling snow all day Friday, and trying to find time inbetween all of this for my ramblings here at the yuleblog.

In the meantime, here's an album that you're either going to love or hate. It's an appropriate album for a Sunday since it was released on the Singspiration Steepletime label - formerly a division of Zondervan.

Beyond that, I have no clue about Mrs. Wilmos Csehy who plays the vibraharp or Georgina Bowen who plays the chimes. No information is given on which church they attended, where this was recorded, or what year this was released. I have Googled it every which way but Sunday and still fallen short.

This album has a great sound - I was excited to see the word vibraharp on a Christmas album cover. However, the pace they set is about one step slower than a leisurely walk of a turtle and it doesn't let up throughout the whole album. What sounds bright and fresh at the beginning sounds and feels like a funeral march at the end - my whole day in album form!

Don't say I didn't try and warn you:

Bowen & Csehy - Christmas Steepletime

Happy listening...


Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Pac-Man Christmas Album

You're stunned, right? This cover does have that effect!

Here's another album that I posted last year at FaLaLaLaLa - the home of preserved Christmas vinyl memories! Here's what I wrote at the time:

The only thing I could find about Kid Stuff Records is that it was active between 1982-1984 and put out about a dozen or so of these albums based on popular video games of the day (Asteroids / Yars’ Revenge / Missle Command / Donkey Kong).

I originally bought this album on eBay so I could include the cover in my annual Christmas CD compilation [in 2004] when I saluted the 1980s.

I’ve never completely listened to this album but it follows the standard kiddie record formula: tell a story, interrupt it with a song, repeat.

I must admit I’m not a huge fan of kiddie records…

Maybe it’s because I never had them as a child. I was too busy listening to my mom’s records – Rat Pack, Lawrence Welk, early Elvis & other 50s rock-n-roll albums. Sometimes I would raid my older brother’s record collection – Beatles, obscure movie soundtracks, Cheech & Chong, K-Tel Records.

There’s been much talk on [FaLaLaLaLa] about kiddie records – Peter Pan Records, the Caroleer Singers, even Basic Hip has devoted two [now THREE] FULL years to the subject.

People do remember what they listen to as a kid… and someone MUST have heard this when they were a tyke. Now you can too…

The Pac-Man Christmas Album

Happy listening...


Fogwell Flax & The Ankle Biters From Freehold Junior School - Christmas 45

Whew... give me a second... I'm shortwinded from typing out that title!

This Christmas single comes to us from across the pond - a British single that made the rounds back in 1981.

Fogwell Flax was (still is) a comedy performer / impressionist whose big break came on the now legendary British kids show "Tiswas" in its final year of 1981-1982. For more on this anarchic, pie-flying, and show, check out "Tiswas Online"

Looking at the picture sleeve seen here, Mr. Flax is holding a CB radio surrounded by some of the ankle biters. So that should give you an idea behind the title of "One-Nine For Santa".

My first reaction was: "Why did Flax release this CB radio themed Christmas song so late?" By 1981, the CB craze was all but dead in America. Not so in England. Their craze occurred for several years in the early 1980s.

There are picture sleeves and there are picture sleeves. You can probably tell which category this one falls into. This record (and sleeve) caught my attention on eBay earlier this year (I bid and won this item at auction).

Watch out for them Smokeys:

Fogwell Flax & The Ankle Biters From Freehold Junior School - Christmas 45

Happy listening, good buddies. I'm 10-10 on the side...


Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Piano Rolls & Voices - All Time Christmas Hits

Here's a fun album that was one of my first posts over at FaLaLaLaLa last year:


While this album was being recorded, a young man was invited to observe the session from the control room. He enjoyed the sound but was astonished to look through the studio glass and see no one at the keyboard!

He was watching a Duo-Art instrument at work, and being too young to remember the national craze for Pianola player pianos required an explanation of how this new and fascinating instrument operated. Air forced through tubing by a pump, he was told, causes hammers to strike the proper strings of the piano, all regulated by a continually moving perforated paper roll.

Although a familiar sight fifty years ago, the Pianola has not lost its charm. In fact, a whole new audience has developed for this “live” form of reproduced music. Piano rolls and players are very much available today, and the Aeolian selections used here demonstrate the versatility of the instrument. Singers performed with the player to help with the Christmas cheer of the repertoire.

Enjoy perennial favorites such as Winter Wonderland, Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow!, always identified with this time of year, and The Chipmunk Song, All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth and Frosty The Snow Man for the children.

Skillful vocal arrangements by Dick Hyman blend the voices with the rolls and provide an old-time lilt that has just the right spirit for the holiday season. Don’t mind the slight hum on the record – it’s the electric motor that provides the power for the vacuum pump.


I found this at a thrift store for 10 cents. The only player piano Christmas album that I knew of was an Intersound CD that I own and is long out of print. I thought I hit the jackpot!

Upon listening, the voices threw me for a loop. Think Mitch Miller in a saloon in the old West and you can imagine what these songs sound like.

But where else can you hear a player piano perform "The Chipmunk Song"?

One last note: Dick Hyman, the vocal arranger, has had a long musical career dating back to the 1950s. He has served as composer / arranger / conductor / pianist to most of Woody Allen’s movies since 1983.

The Piano Rolls & Voices - All Time Christmas Hits

Happy listening...


Earl Grant - Winter Wonderland

Well... how do I follow up from yesterday's longwinded but true story? How about a shortwinded true story about the album (or albums) in this yuleblog entry?

Around this time last December, I went on one of my first power Christmas album searches throughout the Fort Wayne area and found this copy (pictured above) by Earl Grant.

The album cover (in good shape) stated this was a re-release and the record was in excellent shape. I can't remember what I paid for it but I knew it was a steal.

With album in hand, I went to my local Kinko's to create color copies of the covers so I could transfer them over to my computer at home.

I arrived home with the copies but left the album at Kinko's! I immediately called the store and they couldn't find the album on the glass or around the workstation! I was depressed beyond belief!

I called the following day (different shift, different people) and got the same answer. Two weeks passed and I found myself back at Kinko's. I asked if they had a lost and found.

They brought out a HUGE box chock full of papers, computer disks, one cell phone, computer cables, and several hundred family photos that were left behind like my album (which wasn't there). I returned the box to the counter and thanked the lady behind the counter.

"What did you lose?" she inquired. I told her it was a Christmas album.

A quick twinkle of the eye from the lady. "Wait a minute..."

She disappeared into the back room and came back out with my album! I was overjoyed!

"I thought I saw it back there..." she said as I interrupted her with a few thousand "thank you's" and even a little jumping up and down. I brought the album home and all was well with the world.

A great ending to this story, yes? WAIT... there's more.

A week later, I was on another search and rescue mission at a local Goodwill store when I found another copy of the SAME album (pictured right)!

However, this version was the original 1965 release with the word "STEREO" prominently displayed! Both the album and covers were in great shape and I wasn't complaining about the 25 cent price tag.

In both cases, the music of Earl Grant is great to listen to - the perfect organ album to listen to when warming by the fire with some cocoa in your hands.

This is a great light Christmas organ album He's not a virtuoso like Jimmy McGriff or a Jimmy Smith on the organ but his stylings (and his singing) are just perfect.

My favorite track on the album has to be "Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep" where Grant foregoes the organ and plays this one on the piano, bringing this Irving Berlin song to life instrumentally!

There you have it. I have two versions of the same album. You can choose whatever version you wish:

Earl Grant - Winter Wonderland (Decca)

Earl Grant - Winter Wonderland (MCA)

Happy listening...


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Toledo Fire: Ten Years Out Of The Ashes

For those of you who have received this year's version of my annual Christmas CD, this picture may look familiar. For those of you who didn't receive it, have I got a story to tell you!

Ten years ago - December 6, 1996 - a date which will live in inflammatory. My then-fiance-now-wife and I were suddenly attacked as a result of a basement fire in my apartment building in Toledo, Ohio.


Ann was a fledgling medical student from Indiana who had come to Chicago to attend medical school. I was working for CD Exchange, a used CD store chain in the Chicago area. Ann would come into the store periodically to sell compact discs for money when her student loans ran out. Before I left that job for the Suncoast Motion Picture Company as an assistant manager in 1994, I had asked Ann out on a date. She said yes and the rest was history.

A year later, we were engaged and Ann received her medical degree. Her training took her to the metro Detroit area and I remained in Chicago to gain some more experience in management. I wanted to transfer to a store closer to Ann but the company's cheap ways would pay for the move if you were a full fledged store manager.

Another year passed. Our relationship was still long distance and not gaining the momentum we both wanted. The strain was beginning to show in the summer of 1996 when my big break came; a store had opened in the Detroit district. The only catch was that it was located in Toledo, Ohio - 1.5 hours south of where Ann had settled in Auburn Hills. Realizing this was a "take it or leave it" offer in more ways than one, I accepted the promotion.


The move was a complicated affair due to several problems; no furnishings of my own, the moving coordinator wanted the move done yesterday and as cheap as possible, and thanks to our schedules, Ann and I only had two days to locate an apartment in Toledo, sign the rental contract, and be ready to move in five days later!.

We found an older apartment complex named Southbridge Square Apartments in Toledo. It was about two minutes from the store in Southwyck Mall that I was preparing to manage. The monthly rent was reasonable, it paid for seven basic cable channels, and nearby amenities were within walking distance.

As I lugged heavy boxes up and down the stairs on the day of the move, I began to meet and greet some of the other residents in the building. The average age of my building was around 74. So much for hanging around the pool.

I began my official duties as a store manager on August 1, 1996. Instead of being four hours away from Ann in Chicago, I was 1.5 hours away south of her in Toledo. As I began exploring Toledo, I discovered it wasn't Chicago by any stretch of the imagination.

I was craving Chicago style hot dogs, deep dish pizza, a good burrito. I missed the local used bookshops, the record stores that had everything, all the specialty stores in those Chicago neighborhoods I knew so well. I needed a newspaper that didn't just print Associated Press reports verbatim. I could only follow my beloved Chicago Cubs on the radio (good clear nights only).

Toledo shut down after 11 PM everywhere, had a great zoo (more on that later), and very little else. The people of Toledo were friendly but most of the discontented ones found their way into Southwyck Mall (and eventually the store I managed). They did a quick lap, hitting each store, openly grumbling about their situation, their lots in life, and let everyone within hearing distance know about it.

There was always a buzz around the town that Chrysler would close down their aging local plant - built in 1910 but still cranking out Jeeps. Local union members were so militant that they would strike on a whim or weld the doors shut on Jeeps on the assembly line to protest over the years.

Everyone complained and wanted to pass the buck. I kept searching for roses amongst the thorns and kept getting stuck. When your hometown hero is Jamie Farr, you know Toledo's got problems.


The inside of my apartment after the fire.
Smoke left soot everywhere; note the "It's A Wonderful Life" poster.

I began decorating my apartment with my extensive movie memorabilia collection. "Reservoir Dogs" UK subway posters, Beatles "Anthology" standees, replica movie posters of Frank Capra films, vintage movie stills from hundreds of classic films. I had been collecting and carrying this stuff around for ages and I finally had a place to display it.

A collection of movie and political buttons hung on the wall. Rare promo posters from Star Wars, Disney, and Alfred Hitchcock. My Christmas CD collection (which numbered around 50 CDs) was displayed alphabetically above the 1000+ VHS tapes I had bought or received over my lifetime. Vintage LIFE magazines were left on the coffee table to read. Hundreds of books (some from my childhood) were placed on shelves around the apartment.

My bedroom was a part-time storage area for most of this memorabilia when I began decorating. By the time the apartment was presentable to the public, 1/2 of my memorabilia still remained in my bedroom. I was preparing for Ann's first visit to the apartment so I hauled select furniture pieces, stereo speakers, boxes of summer clothes, and knick-knacks I didn't want to display down to my storage area in the basement of the apartment building.

In early November, 1996 (shortly before the busy Christmas shopping season began), I decided to invite some of my co-workers to the apartment for pizza, chips, and Pepsi (B.Y.O.B). I didn't want them to tread the path to the bed past boxes and piles of clothes to lay their coats on. Some things stayed (my collection of Kennedy assassination newspapers, my album collection), some things went (my entire baseball card collection). For the first time since I moved in, my bedroom had a floor.

My co-workers were floored from the moment they stepped inside. They simply gawked and marvelled at the treasures I had on display. What was to be a two hour party lasted for four and a half hours as they kept finding new stuff that I forgot I had. It was one of the better nights that I spent in Toledo.


On Friday, December 6th, my day began by working the morning shift at the store. For good reason too. On this night, Ann was planning to travel down from Auburn Hills for a visit to the Toledo Zoo's annual "Lights Before Christmas". Despite being that much closer to each other, Ann and I had rarely seen each other thanks to our conflicting schedules. We were still in a long distance relationship and some doubts were being raised.

We weren't sure we'd make it into 1997. Now was the time to tread lightly.

At the end of my shift, Ann came by the store and we left for a quiet dinner. We talked about many things - she was dealing not only with smarmy patients but smug doctors who loved giving interns a hard time. I was coping with new trainees and a management staff that didn't get along too well when I wasn't around. We talked about our families, plans for Christmas, and upcoming schedules.

Looking back on it, I never complimented her on how radiant she looked that night or how happy I was to see her after a prolonged absence. Darn that hindsight.

After dinner, we travelled over to the zoo. The night was clear, cold, and brisk. We walked the grounds of the zoo, looking at Christmas lights in the shapes of primates, giraffes, and other zoo creatures. We watched families of all shapes and sizes take in the whole spectacle and pose for pictures. We saw sleep-robbed elephants in their concrete bunker home as hundreds of visitors came in for a brief break out of the cold.

Before we knew it, we made a whole circuit and reached the exit/entrance. Our night was ending.

Or so we thought.


As we made our way out of the parking lot, I began to think about my Christmas tapes. I was in the process of recording them and was way behind in getting them out. Ann was heading back to Auburn Hills tonight and this gave me a three or four hour window to get some work done. In ways, I wanted her to go more than I wanted to stay (Hindsight: what the heck was I thinking?).

We reached the parking lot of my apartment building around 9 PM. Ann had some things she had purchased earlier in the day up in my apartment and wanted to use the restroom before the trip back. I found my key and opened the front door.

A whoosh of warm air hit us as we entered into the foyer of the building. We began walking up the steps when we both heard a dull, piercing alarm. We both looked at each other as if to say "what is that?". At the top of the stairs, we turned down the hall to my apartment and as we entered, we heard yet another alarm. Ann was already inside as I stood in my doorway wondering about those alarms I never heard before.

"I'm going to check this out" I told Ann. I walked back to the top of the stairway and peered over the railing. I was greeted with a current of white smoke (think the death plague in "The Ten Commandments") heading towards me.

I then heard a stunned but calm voice that didn't yell but simply said "Fire!".

I raced back into the apartment: "ANN, WE GOT A FIRE!"

"CALL 911!" was her response.

As I reached for the phone, I yelled at her "RUN UP AND DOWN THE HALL AND KNOCK ON DOORS!" and I stuck my head out into the hallway and yelled at the top of my lungs "FIRE!"

My loud bellow (and those who know me know that I can bellow) caused an instant flurry of doors opening, footsteps running in every direction, and people shrieking in terror. By this time, smoke and its accompanying heat was pouring upward from below and dancing through the halls.

I dialed 9-1-1 and waited for the operator to come onto the line. I heard Ann's voice yell something but I couldn't make out what she had said thanks to the fire alarms that were now blaring throughout the building.

"9-1-1 Emergency."

"We've got a fire at Southbridge Square Apartments at 1255 South Byrne Rd!" I urgently told the operator.

Wait a minute, where WAS Ann?

"Okay, we got fire engines alerted... what apartment did you sa..." Her voice faded out as I heard the fire burn the phone lines out.

At that same moment, the fire burned through electrical lines to the building causing the lights throughout the building to fade quickly, then out completely. The only remaining lights were the emergency lights in the hallways.

When the lights went out and I heard the operator get fried, I became frightened for the first time in this whole chain of events you just read. The total time between the moment we walked into the building and this very moment was around 90 seconds.



The smoke began to get toxic black and the heat was growing more and more intense. I last remembered she was in the hallway. I went through the open door to my apartment and made the decision to leave it open. If Ann was at the other end of the hallway and tried to make her way back, she could get in.

I dropped to my hands and knees and began screaming loudly and wildly for Ann. I had crawled to the end of the hallway on my side of the building and reached the wall. She wasn't passed out on the hallway floor so I stood up. Big mistake. The moment the smoke met my eyes and lungs I was gasping for air. I dropped back down and crawled back to my apartment.

Ann wasn't anywhere to be found. I began to panic.

Still gasping from the smoke and sweating thanks to the heat, I went out onto my balcony. My eyes cleared, I breathed better, and went back into the hallway once more. I continued my yelling of "ANNIE!" at the top of my lungs in hopes she was alive or could hear me. The smoke knocked me flat again and I had to retreat to my patio balcony.

The smoke was making its procession from the hallway across my living room ceiling, over my head on the balcony, and into the Toledo night air. The balcony faced out onto a huge courtyard connecting five or six other buildings. Why not one of those buildings, I thought to myself. I knew I couldn't risk entering the hallway further.

I sunk to my knees and began crying and shaking. The only thing I could do was to yell Ann's name into my apartment and hope the sound traveled into the hallway. I wanted her to walk or crawl or stagger her way back to me. The image I had in my mind was she was lying in a hallway or an apartment dead. I yelled and yelled and yelled.

"KNOCK OFF THE YELLING!" I heard a voice yell. It seems a neighbor heard my voice carry across the courtyard and took umbrage. Only in Toledo.


I ignored my ignorant neighbor and kept yelling Ann's name over and over on the balcony. By this time, other people were coming out of their apartments and gathering in the courtyard. Several people began running to the front of the building to spot flames, others just stood and gawked.

Ten minutes had passed since we first walked into the apartment. It felt like ten years. Off in the distance, I heard fire engine sirens over the cackle of old ladies and staring bystanders.

"Buddy, you need to get down from there" called one person.

"Climb onto the edge and lower yourself down. We'll get you down..." another voice reasoned.

When I moved in, I had learned that the height to all the balconies on the apartment were standard at 10 feet. Thanks to a slope in the earth directly under my balcony, it was around 15 feet. I had nothing else to lose so I climbed over the edge and hung to the rail while I moved my feet off the balcony.

I began to slide down the railing a little further when I felt a hand grab my left ankle, then right. I slid down further, they got better grips, and I let go of the railing and felt gravity pull me down into the arms of strangers, then terra firma.

I didn't bother to say thanks or ask their names (hindsight: to those three men who helped me down, wherever you are, my eternal thanks).


I began running to the front of the building. By this time, police units were on the scene and the first fire engines were arriving. More people were standing and staring and I pushed my way through them to get to the entrance of my building.

The parking lot was full of tenants - watching, scrambling for their cars to escape the cold, or helping elderly tenants slowly walk across the icy parking lot. Smoke was pouring out from vents, opened patio doors, or broken windows. There was movement everywhere. I began screaming again for Ann.


The voice had come from above. I looked toward a balcony where an old lady stood with blanket around her. Next to her was Ann. She was alive. We both felt the wave of relief simultaneously and burst into tears. The old lady was comforting Ann now as I heard her say "See? I told you he was alright".

However, both Ann and the lady were still stuck on a balcony. I ran immediately to a police officer who was helping to clear the parking lot so a fire engine could move in. I asked him if a hook and ladder was coming because we had people trapped on balconies. He assured me there was one coming.

I ran back to Ann and told her the ladder was coming.

"Where did you go?" I asked up.

"I went to the end of the hallway and knocked on [the old lady's] door. She was startled and I chose to stay with her. Didn't you hear me?"

In the understatement of the night, I told her "there was a lot going on" and I didn't hear her.

The Toledo Fire Department finally arrived. After sweeping the building for other tenants, they determined the only people left near or around the building were Ann and her charge on the balcony - no immediate danger and hook and ladder would pick them up shortly. Firefighters began trekking downstairs into the basement where the fire raged.

Police had blocked off Byrne Road on both sides of our apartment complex to allow the fire engines access to our building. As I waited for the hook and ladder to show up, I noticed a line of cars that were trying to sneak into our complex via a side entrance by a trash dumpster.

One car got into the lot and drove right into the teeth of the confusion, stopped, killed his engine, and waited. It was also directly in the spot where the hook and ladder would no doubt need to be placed. I ran to the car and asked the driver what he was doing.

"I'm trying to get around the fire engines and back onto Byrne Rd." he stated matter of factly.

"Buddy, the hook and ladder is arriving soon and you're parked in his spot! Back up and get out of the way!" I yelled at the guy. He started his car and tried to back up. The only problem was three other cars were attempting to do the same thing the first was. I ran to the final car in the string and told him to back up and out of the lot.

"Why?" the driver asked.

At this point, my temper which needed an outlet for all the things that had just occurred found one. In a voice louder than when I was screaming Ann's name, I told this guy (in so many words, some profane) the following points: 1.) there was a fire 2.) my fiancee was trapped on a balcony 3.) he was blocking the area 4.) if he didn't move, I'd would throw him and his car into the fire.

After a disgusted look, he did what was asked and I went to the car directly in front of him. "Sorry, sorry, sorry" was all she said as she quickly reversed back and out of the lot.

The next car wasn't moving so I tapped on their window and told him to clear out for the fire engine. "Look, all I want to do is get through up there and out onto the street..." he pleaded with me. There's got to be a full moon out, I thought to myself.

"Go ahead... you'll bump into two police cars and a fire engine blocking the entrance. Be my guest!" I told the motorist. "NOW BACK UP AND GET THE [EXPLETIVE DELETED] OUT OF HERE!" He quickly complied. The car that tried to pull through first finally opened the spot up for the hook and ladder - arriving immediately after he had cleared the spot.

The ladder was in place and slowly extending its arm to Ann. As it reached out and stopped, I looked back to where all the cars were trying to sneak through. Two more cars were in lined up, ready to cut through again but staying back realizing there were fire engines present. They weren't in the way so I didn't mind.

Ann helped the old lady into the basket first, then she climbed aboard. The ladder began inching slowly back and in a few moments, both were back on the ground. Ann ran from the basket and found me in the parking lot.

The hug and tears lasted for nearly a full five minutes. She felt good and safe in my arms.

After we separated, I looked at her; she at me. It was at this point (my wife now concedes) that all of her fears, worries, or questions about our relationship went up in smoke - please forgive the horrible pun.


While the fire department was putting out the fire, the apartment complex manager finally arrived. She and several other office assistants began telling people to head to the office / community room to get out of the cold and (in her words) "to figure out what to do next".

We made our way into the room and indeed it was warm. They began making coffee and gathering names and corresponding apartment numbers. As people began settling, rumors were all around. It was arson, it was the faulty wiring, it was a blocked dryer vent in the laundry room in the basement.

The older people were especially shaken. This was their only home for the past twenty years (some people even more than that). A good majority of their worldly possessions were all left in their apartment and were in danger of being destroyed or damaged.

Ann gravitated to the elderly. It was magical to watch her deal with them - alleviating their fears, listening to their concerns, and assuring them all would work out. I was completely in awe and thought to myself how amazing she was. As she left the side of one senior to help another, I walked up to Ann and told her exactly that. I wasn't going to hold back anymore in this relationship. Ann was rather pleased.

Finally, the apartment manager spoke. There was something about her that made her looked odd. Perhaps she was tired and that's why she looked so haggard. Perhaps she was overwhelmed with everything that was now on her plate thanks to the fire.

However, when she spoke and slurred, you knew why. She was not falling down drunk, just out there. It was astonishing. This was the woman who was going to help all these people get back on their feet?

In essence, she told us that replacement apartments would be available in the next few days for all displaced. In the meantime, you were on your own. To those who wanted to call families, the phones in the office were available to call.

While the majority of the people had family close-by to assist them, there were two parties that didn't and had no place to go. One was myself, the other were a pair of sisters well into their 80s whose closest family was several states away.

We approached the apartment manager about the possibility of hotel fare for one or two nights not just for us but for the ladies.

"We're not allowed to do that... Maybe the Red Cross?" she blithely responded with a half drunk stare. We were indeed on our own. Ann walked up to the sisters and told them we were going to a hotel and invited them along since they had no place to go (isn't she incredible?).

We walked back to the apartment building with the ladies. By this time, the fire was extinguished and the police and fire departments began their preliminary investigations. We asked a firefighter if it was safe to enter our apartments to gather some possessions to take to the hotel. He said yes and asked two firefighters to accompany us for safekeeping.

As Ann helped the sisters, I made my way back to the apartment to gather my stuff, a firefighter walking behind me. I got to the open apartment door and noticed the initial damage. The heat had melted anything plastic in the place (window blinds, shower curtain liners, etc) and my apartment was darkly covered with layers of soot on everything.

I closed the patio balcony door, picked up my stuff, and closed the door behind me (hindsight: if I had done that before, it would have saved me $10,000 in damages). I walked back down and thanked the firefighter.

"Before I leave, tell me. What started the fire?" I asked. In words I'll never forget:

"A short in a wire in the breaker box started it up. This one was burning for a while."


A picture of me the day after standing by the entrance to the basement.
Compare the color of the walls to the interior photo of my apartment above.

The sunlight poured into the hotel window and awoke us on Saturday, December 7th. We headed back to the apartment and was greeted with an eerie, quiet calmness with a smell like a campfire. The parking lot was mostly empty as we headed to the office with the elderly sisters in tow.

The apartment manager wasn't present but a representative of the company who owned the complex was. She was ready to assist as best she could. She asked us to avoid the basement because building inspectors were examining the damage.

The sisters were waiting for their family to arrive today and they would do that in the community room. We said goodbye to the ladies who thanked and hugged us for all the care we had paid to them. It was the only bright spot of the whole ordeal.

With camera in hand, we headed back to the apartment and snapped several pictures of the damage. As natural light fought its way into the soot covered windows and patio doors, I got the first real look of the aftermath.

Everything was covered with soot. On the sides, underneath, inside, you name it. I moved to the table area in my living room where I was recording my annual Christmas tapes.

If you notice on the desk, only one CD was destroyed - a copy of Rhino Records "Christmas Classics". As for everything else, it was going to take a whole lot of cleaning and fire restoration to help out.

TVs, VCRs, phones, and the electronic equipment shown in the photo were unusuable and needed cleaning. Clothes, furniture, and rugs trapped the smoke and smell inside their fabrics. My memorablilia was stained and damaged to the point where it was unrecognizable. We began slowly wrapping everything that could be saved into garbage bags (books, posters, etc). Everything else needed to be thrown out.

We arranged for a fire restoration service to come out and shoot the works to the stuff they could clean, not necessarily save. They recommended a place in town that had treated sponges that would get the soot off the memorabilia. Ann's mother drove from Fort Wayne to Toledo and began helping us clean, restore, repair, or pitch.

I hadn't gone to the basement yet but couldn't avoid it further. Ann and I went downstairs and saw the charcoal stained hallways that led to the basement stairwell. As we looked at the damage around the door, it had occurred to me that the fire started almost immediately right after we entered the building the night before.

Hindsight: it's probable that when we did enter the building that night, it caused the pressure to change in the lobby and hallways, causing the fire that had smouldered in the basement to spread to the first floor.

We walked down the charred stairs and entered the basement. The only color beside the string of emergency lights strung from the ceilings was black. The fire didn't miss anything. We walked slowly to where my storage area was in the basement. We arrived at the area and saw complete devastation.

I look at these pictures ten years after and the flood of memories still well up.
It was utterly heartbreaking. I was grateful that Ann and I were alive but it doesn't compensate when you see things you've collected or owned literally in ashes right before your face.

I began looking for the source of the fire when I was greeted by a building inspector. He asked us to leave because they were still investigating the determinate cause of the fire. We headed back to the apartment and continued to clean and toss items.

Towards the end of the day, the fire restoration team arrived. We loaded their van full of furniture, electronics, and other items they would try to restore. As they sped into the night, I headed back into the basement to review my losses down there.

What I saw next deeply disturbed me. A firefighter and a building inspector were reaching into my storage area, picking up baseball cards and looking at them. Like schoolkids busted when the teacher turns around, they noticed me and quickly dropped the cards, faking about their business.

I snapped some pictures and found the origin of the fire - a crusted out breaker box located in the corner of the basement. I witnessed the scorch marks that travelled upward from the box to the ceiling where it spread across the ceiling to the storage areas where it worked down into them. If the storage areas hadn't been there, the fire would have burnt through the ground floor and into the apartments above.

"Hey," a voice called. I turned to find the building inspector who was looking at Dwight Evans' batting average on one of my baseball cards.
"You need to leave now."

Why? You gonna look at more of my baseball cards?" I
sarcastically / mildly in anger asked.

"Maybe. But you still need to go."

Only in Toledo.


Sunday, December 8th began with all sorts of arrangements: a new apartment was selected, work arrangements were set in place, and after the final cleanup of the old apartment was taken care of, we would have to clear the basement of my destroyed possessions.

The parking lot was full of U-Hauls, pickup trucks, and people moving things from one place to another. People were constantly talking to each other. What's the latest news? What caused the fire? Where did Mrs. Jenkins move to? The Vianello's are moving out to Perrysburg?

One of the most interesting tidbits of gossip facts I learned that day was about the company that owned the apartments. This company owned several apartment complexes in the Toledo area and were known for their cheap with a buck ways. The company kept everything clean and barely up to code. And believe it or not, this wasn't their first apartment fire.

They experienced a fire several years earlier that killed several University of Toledo students in an apartment building they managed and had to pay out handsomely.

I never learned the name of this company or took the time to search out the exact details. I'm hoping one day to do so. If anyone in the Toledo area or a staffer on The Toledo Blade would fill in the details for me, I would greatly appreciate it.

Another side item was the tipsy apartment manager no longer held her position at the complex. Either she was reassigned to another complex, was fired in wake of her appearance that night, or resigned because she didn't want to deal with the aftermath. Good riddance.

More stuff was thrown out from my apartment. I made endless trips that day down the stairs to the overflowing dumpster, each one just a little more heartbreaking than the next. By mid-afternoon, a team of workers hired for the day appeared and began moving my remaining belongings into my new apartment in the complex.

We began clearing out the storage area. As I took several loads went from the basement into the dumpster, Ann bravely bagged my ruins for me, knowing I would be too emotional to do so. She bagged copies of the Chicago newspapers documenting the Chicago Cubs playoff runs of 1984, the Chicago Bears Super Bowl victory editions, and all those baseball cards. I was too numb from the pain to even care anymore.

When I returned from one dumpster run, I came downstairs and saw that another team of workers were in the basement, helping other tenants clear their possessions. They noticed us bagging up our stuff and offered to help carry stuff up to the dumpster, no questions asked. Suddenly we were out of a job. They moved in, picked up everything, and took it out.

Ann walked to the stairwell leading up. Not wanting to be separated again, I went with her. "Where did the fire start?" she asked.

I led her to the end of the basement where 24 hours before, I saw the blackened remains of a breaker box. What I saw next was so out of place, I had to rub my eyes to believe it (just like in the movies). A completely new breaker box, complete with all new wiring and factory labels, was installed in its place! The new metal box just didn't glisten in comparison against the fire charred concrete walls of the basement, it glowed.

They got rid of the evidence and they're going to cover it up, I thought.

On cue, a building inspector appeared and told us we didn't belong down here and needed to leave.

Hindsight: The apartment complex had officially concluded several days later (and the fire reports back them up they claim) that a fire had broken out or was set directly BELOW the breaker box and was not the result of faulty wiring - clearing them of any responsibility or liability.

Granted, this conclusion was based on what other tenants had told me at the time but surely fire reports don't lie like that. One day I'll find the truth and put the whole thing to rest.


We walked out of the apartment building that changed our lives forever. I said goodbye to Ann's mother (hindsight: she was a big help during those dark days and still is - thank you Margie) and watched her leave.

Ann couldn't afford to take anymore time off work and was needed back at the hospital. In a span of two harrowing days, we survived a fire, went through so much heartbreak and renewal, and discovered we couldn't bear the idea of being separated. I didn't want to let her go. Ever.

We hugged for a long time in the parking lot outside of 1255 South Byrne Road. After an even longer kiss, I watched her buckle up and head back to Michigan.

I went to my new apartment where the boxed up possessions gave the apartment a strange funk smell. I had no furniture yet, no phone service, no television to watch, no food in the refrigerator, no clean clothes.

For the second time in Toledo, it was back to square one. Everything fell into place in short order. I maxed out a credit card to get a new wardrobe that night and the furniture and electronics arrived from the restoration service the next day. As expected, none of the clean electronics were in working order.

By the one week anniversary of the fire, it had seemed like none of it had happened. The Christmas season was in full swing and the store I managed was working like a fine tuned machine. My training had paid off and the employees were finally understanding all the new things I had taught them to do. It was the first time that the Toledo Suncoast store was in capable hands, according to one store official.

I didn't do much to the new apartment - I never had time. Most of the possessions were still boxed up and there was no way in hell that I was going to be moving them to the new storage area. I got a television from a local Goodwill store, the new mattress that replaced the waterbed was on the floor, and the furniture still remained unmoved in the living room.

I started getting phone calls from longtime friends asking "where the Christmas tapes were?" Postponed. When they heard the reason why, they relented. In the 22 years I've created my annual Christmas compilations, it was the only year that a tape never got completed. Somewhere deep in my basement (in a fireproof box) is a bag of Christmas tapes that were never shipped that year.

Ten years later, I can still rub along the cases of one of those cassettes and a fine soot will greet my thumb. Every now and then, I will find a CD case, a knick-knack, a book, something that has that fine soot. It's uncanny and a little unnerving when I find such an item.

After the Christmas season ended, I began unpacking my items from the boxes, determined to give Toledo a new start in the new year of 1997. Two months later, I had unpacked my last box of items when I received a phone call from my district manager: the store manager of the Waterford, Michigan had resigned (or was fired - never found out the full story). Knowing that Ann was only 10 minutes away in Auburn Hills, the district manager was offering me that store to manage.

I quickly accepted, repacked as fast as I could, got the U-Haul rented and loaded in an instant, and left Toledo in a New York minute.


It's hard to believe how much that fire changed my life. Like certain dates of the year and the seismic shifts the events of that day caused (November 22nd, 1963, September 11th, 2001), December 6th, 1996 was a turning point for my life.

It made me realize how much I needed Ann in my life. It made me lose important pieces of my childhood and early adult life, only to be replaced by new pieces of my new life with Ann, my children, and my post-fire adult life. It reinforced the blessings of the Christmas season and how important I try to keep those blessings alive through my daily interactions with people.

It also made me realize how fortunate I am that I don't accept life as it comes. I don't just walk through this life but I try to live life to its fullest. Living in Toledo for six months gave me a keen awareness of this fact.

To be fair, I've been back to the Toledo area since that fateful night. My family and I made a stop at the Toledo Zoo coming back from visiting Greenfield Village in Michigan two summers ago. Downtown Toledo looked clean and sprawling, a new downtown ballpark exists where the Toledo Mud Hens play (Jamie Farr greets you on the Jumbotron at the beginning of each game), the old Chrysler plant was replaced by a sprawling new complex, and the Zoo looks better than ever.

We drove past the old apartment building and mall for old time sake. They looked in sad, horrible shape. And it was just only 14 months ago that a race riot occurred in Toledo that made worldwide news. What the future of the city hold, only time will tell. I sincerely hope the people of Toledo revitalizes the city and themselves.


To all those longtime readers of the blog (I think there's about two), thank you for reading this far and I hope this story didn't bore you to death.

To all my family and friends who may be looking in for the first time, thank you for taking the time to visit. I hope you enjoyed this retelling of a story I've told you many times over, I hope you'll explore the rest of the yuleblog, and I hope you have enjoyed listening to this years edition of my annual Christmas CD.

To my wife Ann who was at my side, then got separated in the fire, and then was at my side to stay. Thank you for making this last decade since that night so memorable. I still feel that hug we share after we reunited in the parking lot. 1-4-3.

This is my longest yuleblog entry to date, possibly ever. I've rambled enough...

aka Capt