When CBS first aired "A Charlie Brown Christmas" in 1965 the landscape of television was set for rapid change. Every animation house had new holiday specials for release the following year, competing with an ever expanding list of live-action holiday specials to get viewers in the proper spirit.
But the TV world was very different before 1965 and waay different in 1960.
Go back far enough and many holiday specials were locally produced, some for regional broadcast only. Unless you lived in major market areas like Chicago or Los Angeles, true holiday specials from the major networks were a welcomed treat. In 1960 networks did not have a full-scheduled broadcast day. So if a special show was to air, look to prime-time.
One of the most famous TV Specials, not counting the annual airing of "The Wizard of OZ", from the late 50's was the NBC broadcast of "Peter Pan" starring Larry Hagman's mom - Mary Martin.
Peter Pan in the 1950's was a Broadway stage play. But NBC wanted to bring the show to television as a holiday special. So NBC filmed a re-staging of Peter Pan in its own studios for broadcasting over the NBC network in 1955, 1956 and 1960.
This is the famous 1960 edition which became a holiday treat for millions of kids in the years before the rise of animated specials. While it may not look like much now, more than 50 years ago this was like magic. Mary Martin as Peter Pan became for many kids, like me, an introduction to live theater. I think the performing arts today owe a lot to the cast and crew of Peter Pan.
I watched that Peter Pan version dozens of times. We recorded it from PBS. I didn't know it was a holiday special. But now that I do it makes sense. Clapping for Tinkerbell, the adventure, very Christmasy.
This was all so long ago that it seems more like a dream to me now.
Holiday specials from around 1960 were a mixed bag. While there were "holiday" episodes of TV shows from that era, "holiday specials" were mostly local events.
Large market stations like WBBM and WGN would create holiday shows "a la carte" style by piecing together filmed shorts purchased individually and added to local aired content to fill a complete time slot of 15 minutes to a half hour for a holiday show. Kids growing up in those regions of the country got to see these specials every year, up until the late 1960's.
When NBC re-staged Peter Pan in 1955 it was aired nationally by NBC affiliate stations across the country - and caused a sensation! So great was the public response to Peter Pan that NBC aired a second re-staging in 1956 using the entire cast of the Peter Pan Broadway show. These holiday specials were broadcast as "live" events and shown only once.
It was the 1960 NBC special that was recorded so the network would have a permanent copy to air each holiday season. That was important since CBS signed a contract with MGM to show "The Wizard of OZ" every year as a holiday special, beginning in 1959.
Now the stage was set for all three networks to begin regular broadcasting of nationwide holiday specials, like "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" from 1962. And as you all probably know, the Mr. Magoo special was created by UPA using their most famous animated character. And in the years before "A Charlie Brown Christmas" this Mr. Magoo special was truly special.
From this clip, you can see just how amazing a holiday special can be when everyone involved puts a best effort into the project, and remember that all of these songs were original and made just for this animated show: