Colonial Williamsburg's Christmas in the national spotlight

“On the twelfth day of Christmas

The wheelwright gave to me

Twelve wheels a-turning,

‘Leven lucky horseshoes,

Ten ladies’ bonnets,

Nine spools of linen,

Eight Christmas stories,

Seven burly barrels,

Six woven baskets,

Five Christmas rings,

Four ginger men,

Three violins,

Two powdered wigs,

And a candle to brighten my way!”

Those song lyrics introduced “Perry Como's Early American Christmas” special taped 40 years ago at locations in Colonial Williamsburg's historic area, early in November and broadcast nationally on ABC television on Dec. 13, 1978.

"It was the best of times for Colonial Williamsburg," remembered Sylvia Hunt, "and just magical," added Mary Ann Brendel, who along with their late husbands, Bob and Jack, respectively, were part of the seven-couple Colonial Dancers ensemble who participated in several of the hour-long show's scenes.

As they thought back over those days, Hunt said "memories just floated back. It was hard to realize that little Williamsburg had all those people here — Perry Como and John Wayne — to film a television special. From the time of the filming until the broadcast we were just full of energy and excitement."

The Colonial Dancers, then in their 40s, were just part of the numerous costumed employees who participated in the production. Many of the craftsmen, militiamen and the fife and drum corps were eager to show the color and flavor of an 18th-century Yuletide.

After several decades of performing a top-rated weekly television show, by the mid-1970s Como had reduced his performance schedule to some guest appearances and his annual Christmas and Easter specials. The Williamsburg location was one of many program sites through the years, others included the Holy Land, London, Salzburg, Paris and Ireland.

Colonial Williamsburg was abuzz with excitement as the Como crew taped for six days at the Governor's Palace, the Wythe House, Chowning’s Tavern, the Public Goal, along Duke of Gloucester Street and in numerous craft shops, where segments of the rewritten "The Twelve Days of Christmas" were staged.

Movie legend John Wayne was Como's special guest and always drew a crowd when people realized he was on the scene. Not only did Colonial Williamsburg employees gather, but tourists during that week followed the production schedule almost by the hour.

Wayne appeared in several sequences, but the most notable was with Como in the Governor's Palace. He was to read from a colonial soldier's letter written to his mother about the bleak holiday life with the troops. Hunt explained that Colonial Williamsburg had carefully arranged to have the words of the letter written in script to use on the screen. "Well, Wayne couldn't read the letter and sort of had a meltdown,” Hunt recalled. “Mr. Como told all of us to take a break while he helped ‘his friend.’”

That scene and others were recorded late one evening, not concluding until after 11 p.m. The dancers were to provide a background for one of Como’s songs, “Home for the Holidays.” Prior to the program, the dancers were told to learn the words to the song, which would be lip synced for the filming. “Mr. Como pulled Judy Brown and me out of the group, and we held hands while he sang,” Hunt explained.

“At one point, Judy couldn’t control herself, and she just burst into song. Mr. Como chuckled and said, ‘Don’t do that. I can’t hear myself.’” Judy, of course, was embarrassed by the incident, but the whole group laughed and readied for a second take.

Those who participated as extras in the 1978 show remember Como as warm and friendly, “like a member of the family,” Brendel reminisced. “Sometimes he would walk up to us and just begin a conversation.”

One of the best remembered scenes featured Brent Wooten, then 14 and a member of the Colonial Williamsburg fife and drum corps. As a drummer, he accompanied Como as he sang, “The Little Drummer Boy.” Wooten remembered, “When they were deciding who would be the little drummer boy, I was a senior member of the corps and was a smaller kid. I think they wanted someone shorter than Mr. Como.”

Everything about the filming “was interesting,” Wooten said, “and my fondest, or maybe funniest memory was at the end of the song, we were walking up the side road, with sheep in front of us. Suddenly, the sheep were relieving themselves.”

The crew all had a big laugh “and we had to go back and reshoot it,” he added.

Wooten explained that the “soundtrack for the song was done ahead of time and when we filmed, my drum was covered by a carpet and I didn’t make any noise while he sang.” He said classmates later teased him, especially about “Mr. Como brushing my hair from my eye.”

For Colonial Williamsburg, the show was the first of its kind ever filmed in the historic area. Movies were done in the early years of the restoration such as “The Howards of Virginia,” starring Cary Grant released in 1940. The NBC “Today Show” originated a two-hour broadcast from here on April 22, 1966.

Other guests performing on Como’s Christmas special include Diana Canova, actor, singer and then star of television’s successful series “Soap”; concert violinist and a finalist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Competition Eugene Fodor; and Virginia’s own Kylene Barker, who was then Miss America.

The hour-long program concluded at Bruton Parish Church where the College of William and Mary Choir accompanied Como in “Ave Maria,” his traditional closing song in his Christmas specials. That ended six day-long taping sessions.

Kale has written a number of history stories for the Gazette. In 1978 he covered Perry Como’s visit to Williamsburg for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Want to watch?

The entire program can be found online at bit.ly/2UCQoww

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