Some of the more meaningful Thanksgivings I have spent have been with strangers, far from home. Whether it be a mixed bag guest list peppered with other wayfarers, or being welcomed into the home of a friend’s extended family, there is something about breaking bread with strangers that lends a certain poignancy to the holiday.
It’s sort of like a television special. The personalities gathered may be incongruous, may never be in the same place at the same time again, yet the spirit of the occasion provides a cohesiveness that, even if transparent, works.
There is also the discovery of common ground. One year I spent Thanksgiving in Long Island with a college friend. Before we entered his Italian grandmother’s home he warned me, “Just so you know, we don’t do the traditional turkey dinner. It will probably be lasagna.” I just smiled. “In my family it’s ravioli,” I said.
Speaking of television specials, usually a collection of comedy bits and musical numbers, there have been a few Thanksgiving-themed ones over the years. In fact, the tradition pre-dates television. Beginning in 1942, the Elgin Watch Company sponsored an annual Thanksgiving radio special, which aired over the Armed Forces Radio Service, featuring stars of the day such as Jack Benny and Jimmy Durante as well as the “stars of tomorrow,” such as comedy team Martin & Lewis, who appeared on the 7th annual special in 1948.
Here’s an excerpt from that show with a song from Dean Martin, followed by some zany laughs with partner Jerry Lewis and Barbara Jo Allen as Vera Vague.
As the postwar 40’s became the postwar 50’s, television began to replace radio as the main household entertainment. Here is country crooner Tennessee Ernie Ford, who hosted a variety show through much of the 1950’s, and company channeling Lawrence Welk with a Thanksgiving dinner themed musical number from his Thanksgiving television special.
Bob Hope hosted two: The Bob Hope Thanksgiving Special in 1964 and Bob Hope’s Pink Panther Thanksgiving Gala in 1982. The latter was a combined celebration of Thanksgiving and the Pink Panther, with guests such as Dean Martin and Willie Nelson. Hey, it’s a television special; don’t strain too hard for continuity
Thanksgiving is for all Americans, even the animated. The production team of Rankin/Bass, who created the iconic stop-motion holiday classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from 1964, released the animated Thanksgiving special The Mouse on the Mayflower in 1968, “told and sung” by the aforementioned Tennessee Ernie Ford.
In 1973 the Peanuts gang put their stamp on the holiday with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, featuring Snoopy’s feast of toast and popcorn and the music of jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi.
Even The Muppets got in on the action. Twice. First in 1979 with guest Arlo Guthrie, and more recently with the Lady Gaga and the Muppets’ Holiday Spectacular, from 2013, the second of Gaga’s Thanksgiving specials following 2011’s A Very Gaga Thanksgiving. A Very Gaga Thanksgiving was well received, but the Muppets’ Holiday Spectacular was a ratings disaster. She should; however, be credited with attempting to keep alive an endearing, if old fashioned, tradition.
Hosting a cross-genre, all-encompassing holiday special takes a certain kind of celebrity. Bob Hope was just bland enough to succeed. Tennessee Ernie Ford made some of the coolest country records of the 1950’s, but you would never know it watching his aw shucks television persona. Despite being one of the biggest entertainers of her era, perhaps Lady Gaga just isn’t the right face. Or maybe Americans’ tastes have simply changed. We live in a cynical time, and perhaps these corny television specials don’t resonate as they once did. Or maybe it’s the times themselves. We don’t watch live television events the way we once did, millions of families huddling around a communal TV. Everything now is on demand; convenient and fragmented.
But at its core Thanksgiving is not about television specials or novelty. Sure, the TV is often on during Thanksgiving, but it is usually tuned to football or It’s A Wonderful Life. Nothing wrong with that. Part of what makes Thanksgiving so special is this lack of commercialism. It is about home and family. And this should be interpreted broadly. Home does not have to be your house, and family does not have to be your blood.
After the laughs and the tunes, Bob Hope summed up this finest of American holidays quite succinctly. I leave you with his words from 1950, and sincerest wishes for a warm and grateful gateway to the most wonderful time of the year.