The notion that the standard old musical variety Christmas specials were old fashioned, forced and fake does not stand with “The Judy Garland Christmas Show.”
The first half of 1963 broadcast, after all, is sponsored by pills and cigarettes. Which is all you need to know about your host’s state of mind half a century back.
In fact the first image of the show is not a tree or a bell but a big pill — its main sponsor was Contac cold capsules with its hundreds of tiny time pills. The format of the show frames the viewer as voyeur — we see Judy singing her “Have Your Self a Merry Little Christmas” to her children, Lorna and Joey Luft, 11 and 8. After belting it out to them, she comes to the door and invites the audience in to the large living room, in anticipation for their Christmas party for close friends.
She sings more with the little kids, but the teenaged Liza Minnelli finally comes in with her boyfriend, the dancer Tracy Everitt. Together, they do the odd dance number “Steam Heat.” Jack Jones comes zipping in singing as he does, representing some sort of youthful injection with his non-Christmas entries, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and “Lollipops and Roses.”
What’s important to remember about the show was its timing: Originally shot Dec. 6, 1983, it was less than two weeks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination; in another two months the whole of pop music would shift with the introduction of The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
On that first “Sullivan” show as well as on the Garland Christmas special, the biggest thing in showbiz, apparently, was the musical “Oliver,” and producers had the Luft kids sing two songs from the Broadway hit. Music director Mel Torme shows up with a group of carolers but ends up doing his own “The Christmas Song” at the piano.
Here’s how TV was better in 1983: WHen there were commercial breaks, they would be for single one-minute spots, and then they’d be back. Just eight minutes total are reserved for commercials; they get twice that in an hour now. So the 51:44 “Judy Garland Christmas Show,” another weekly episode in her ill-fated, single season variety show, is packed with 20 songs overall — the kind of value you don’t get from music specials these days.