America enters the 2011 Christmas season locked in the jaws of The Great Recession, the longest period of economic depression in our history since The Great Depression of the 1930s.
Occupy Wall Streeters are more prevalent than sidewalk Santas across the nation, and there is no smiling, optimistic Franklin Delano Roosevelt to wipe away our fears with a bank holiday and a New Deal. Working Americans are seeing their wages and benefits cut at unprecedented levels, and we are told we should be grateful to have a job while one of the 2012 Presidential candidates advocates the abandonment of child labor laws– the stage is set for a very Dickensian Christmas season.
How do we offer peace on earth and goodwill to all when we as a nation seem to be tearing ourselves apart? One simple answer would be to return to a Christmas past and revisit a lesson about acceptance of differences that heal old wounds.
As a card-carrying (Social Security card, that is) member of the Baby Boom generation, I, like my brother and sister boomers, was born in the period between 1946 and 1964. In fact, this very year I turned 50, and that is a time to reassess many things in life and try to see where my past fits in with my present. So in uncovering the boxes in the attic of my mind I came upon an almost, but not quite, forgotten memory.
Like most boomers, many of my memories stem from television, which was at times the babysitter of our youth. We did not have video games or computers, nor iPhones and iPads. We didn’t even have the Kardashians!
What we did have on occasion was the last vestiges of the Golden Age of television. This period, mostly during the 1950s, saw the works of fantastic talents, such as writer Paddy Chayefsky, offer teleplays about life in America that struck a chord with viewers. This certainly was true in Chayefsky’s Marty, which started life as a teleplay starring Rod Steiger and swiftly became an Academy Award-winning film in 1955 starring Ernest Borgnine.
TV offered some examples of this type of production in the 1960s and into the early 70s. Small, low-budget productions where the actors shined above the cheapness of small sets, and the writing was more important than the razzle-dazzle of special effects.
One early December night in 1972, Dec. 3 to be exact, I turned on CBS TV on Channel 2. I grew up in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, NJ so we had NYC’s Channel 2 for CBS. There I found the well-known CBS Special intro in full regalia with its familiar bongo beat tune. In this pre-cable era, getting a clear picture was a crapshoot at best. Fortunately, on this night, the set worked and the snowy image of CBS was much clearer due in part to the aluminum foil my mom wrapped around the rabbit ears of the TV antenna perched atop our RCA floor model set.
The screen faded to a beautiful graphic red house. The adult narrator spoke about a long ago Christmas, as the hands of a 10-year-old girl appeared with scissors, and she added construction paper windows and awnings to the traditional American house. We were told that this house was in Clear River, Nebraska--the house the narrator grew up in and the one where her most memorable Christmas took place, the Christmas of 1946, when she was 10 years old.
This wonderful graphic collage produced by contemporary artist Norman Sunshine, who won an Emmy for his work on this special, The House Without a Christmas Tree, slowly faded into the exterior of the exact same house in real life. The first scene is set in the simple kitchen of the house and features a father, James Mills, his precocious daughter, Addie Mills, and Addie’s grandmother.
As a 10-year-old myself, I was drawn into the simple scene, made simpler, and perhaps more real, since it was shot on video. The father was an actor I had not yet come across but one I would follow for the rest of my life, Jason Robards. The grandmother would also become a familiar face as I grew into a movie buff years later, Mildred Natwick. Yet it was mostly the 10-year-old girl, Addie, played by the adorable and relentless Lisa Lucas who won my heart.
Addie never knew her mother; she died when Addie was a baby. Her father never could overcome the loss, and the coldness of his heart froze out his daughter. The opening scene at the breakfast table was like a demilitarized zone and the demarcation lines were the pancake syrup and coffee cups. The warm-hearted grandmother tried her best to breach the divide between the two, but to no avail.
Christmas, a season of glad tidings, saw no gladness in the Mills house as James Mills forbade a Christmas tree in his house. His wife’s death took the joy of life out of his soul, and Christmas only reminded him of that loss. Addie knew the battle lines had been drawn, but she was determined that this Christmas she would have her tree and decorate it too.
While I began research on this article, I needed to find that 10-year-old girl of long ago, 39 years ago to be exact. Where was Addie Mills in 2011 America, and what is her take on the meaning of this small yet poignant Christmas kitchen sink drama?
Luckily, thanks to ours being an ever-smaller world, I found the girl of my Christmas youth in Florida of all places. I emailed the former actress and current journalist Lisa Lucas and kindly requested a chance to speak to her about this part of her life and the impact it may have had on the rest of her life. To my surprise, one crisp autumn afternoon a few weeks ago she reached me by phone and her voice transported me back to that Christmastime of 1972.
Lucas spoke from the heart about that time in her life.
"I still have Norman Sunshine’s collages,” she exclaimed with enthusiasm.
Obviously this was not just another gig for a child actor, but a special time she sought to remember and hold onto in her adulthood.
“You know, our director smelled of coffee; that I remember well,” she said.
The director was Paul Bogart, who later went on to direct episodes of All in the Family. Lucas is exuberant and much like her character Addie in her warmth. When I expressed that I kinda had a crush on Addie as a 10-year-old, she said, “You know, almost all of my fan mail comes from guys who are 50 and were 10 when the special was broadcast.”
Ahhhh … so it’s not just me after all. But what makes men of my age with dozens of Christmases in their collective past recall the one when they first met Addie? It has to be more than just nostalgia for an old TV show. Could it be that this specific special rekindles thoughts of a Christmas that was simpler in scope but special in its message?
Is this story by Gail Rock and teleplay by Eleanor Perry different from such holiday classics as A Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, for example?
Its production is smaller, its audience narrower, but its message is relevant in a way animation cannot touch because it is human in scope. I sought to find the answer and put together the pieces during my conversation with Lucas.
What of Lisa’s adult fellow actors in the teleplay?
“Jason Robards was loud,” she recalled, laughing. “I learned how to act by watching Jason Robards in our scenes together.”
The chemistry between the actors is evident, and Robards treats his character as a real broken person who sees his daughter as a representation of the tragic loss of his wife. He acts with Lisa not as adult-to-child, but as equal actor-to-actor, and the payoff are performances that connect.
The production started with rehearsals on the famous Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, California.
“I had free reign on the back lot, and I roller-skated onto the sets for The Way We Were, which was filming with Robert Redford,” Lucas said.
She also recalled a very special encounter in the Warner Brothers commissary at lunch.
“Groucho Marx was eating lunch, and I went to him with my blue autograph book, and he kissed me and left part of his egg lunch on my cheek,” she said.
Following rehearsals, the production traveled to Uxbridge, Ontario, Canada that stood in for 1940s Nebraska. Such locations as the school and house exteriors were shot there and lent to the 1940s feel of the production. The interior sets were constructed, and the production shot in Toronto at CFTO studios.
Yet it was the magic of the acting more than anything else that transported us to that Christmas of 1946.
Lucas remembers the warmth of the actors, specifically in the actress who played her Grandmother, Mildred Natwick.
“Our director, Paul Bogart, screamed at me to make me cry in a scene with Mildred that called for tears, and I recall Mildred being so kind to me as the tears flowed,” she said.
Lucas went on with her career, and in fact starred as Addie in three subsequent productions, The Holiday Treasure (1973), The Easter Promise (1975) and Addie and the King of Hearts (1976). I watched and enjoyed them all as I grew up with Addie, but it is that small little house without a Christmas Tree that stayed with me year after year despite the fact that it wasn’t rebroadcast each Christmas like so many other specials of the day.
Lisa’s resume is impressive and includes the role of Jill Clayburgh’s daughter in the acclaimed film An Unmarried Woman (1978). Lisa received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance from the New York Film Critics Circle. She continued to act through the 1980s, and then decided to change gears.
“I went to Yale for a year and then to Paris, where I studied at Cordon Bleu,” she said, adding that she later opened a restaurant in New York City.
Like many of us boomers, she was married and divorced and eventually went to Florida to care for her grandmother.
“I decided to go back to school while in Florida to study journalism,” Lucas said, and like everything else in her life, she brought passion to her new endeavor.
She began freelancing and was involved in coverage of the post-2000 Presidential election controversy in Florida, hanging chads and all.
“I have had pieces run in the New York Post and the New York Daily News and continue to enjoy my work as a journalist,” she said.
Somehow I always pictured the grown up Addie as a writer.
When I asked Lucas what, if any, memento meant the most to her from the special, her voice took on a more emotional tone.
“I have the star from the tree,” she said.
That star was what brought Addie and her father James together emotionally for the first time.
Why this story now, and what has it to do with America in December 2011? Well, our American family is torn apart due to political, economic and generational differences. And regardless of religious beliefs, the metaphorical Christmas tree is missing from our American house this year. Perhaps it is time to search our hearts and find our national star and realize, as Americans, differences are all right as long as we accept one another and do not demonize our fellow Americans for having different views.
Perhaps this Christmas teleplay of 1972 about an America of 1946 can bring us together this holiday season in 2011.