By Tim Hayes
We’ve crashed through the chronological wall into December now, so it’s a no-holds-barred, downhill-with-no-brakes sprint to the Big One – the holiday that bespectacled Red Ryder BB-gun lusting Ralphie Parker described as “lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, around which the entire kid year revolved,” in “A Christmas Story.”
Like Ralphie, Christmas brought a series of recurring events and themes when I was a kid.
Take Paul Shannon on Channel 4’s “Adventure Time” after-school TV show, for instance. For 11 months out of the year, Paul Shannon would play old Beetle Bailey and Kimba the White Lion cartoons, show Three Stooges shorts, and host a Cub Scout or Brownie troop in the little on-set bleachers. The kids would sing mossy old standards like “B-I-N-G-O Was His Name-O” or “A Great Big Brownie Smile” or “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Predictable, comforting, regular. You knew what you were getting, plopping yourself down in front of the TV after a tough day among the nuns, with “Adventure Time.”
But starting right around December 1, crafty old Paul Shannon would bring out his annual showstopper – the Rocket Ship to the North Pole.
This opened the floodgates to every kid in Pittsburgh to write letters to Santa, making their wish lists for presents. You would mail them in to Channel 4, and every day Paul Shannon would take a fistful of these hand-scrawled pleas for wagons, dolls, and probably a BB-gun or two, and read some out loud while tossing them into a special door on the side of the rocket.
After about 10 minutes of this – as you stared, bug-eyed, at home, waiting to get confirmation that your letter would make it on that day’s delivery run – Paul Shannon would close the hatch, start the Mission Control countdown, and the Rocket Ship to the North Pole would be seen blasting off from its launch pad into the sky. How awesome was that? To know that you and your buddies, sitting in your living rooms in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had an advocate with an express rocket route to Santa Claus!
When I was little, I bought the whole bit. Paul Shannon had a Rocket Ship to the North Pole, doggone it, and I had to get my letter to Channel 4 at all costs. And you can bet I did, year after year. Even heard my name on TV once, so I knew my letter was on its jet-propulsed way to Santa that afternoon.
Yeah, awesome and comforting at the same time. No wonder “Adventure Time” killed in the ratings during its time slot back then.
Eventually, you get older and the scales fall from your eyes. I had the opportunity to actually be in the bleachers during the live broadcast of “Adventure Time” one day, and got an eyeful. The bright colors on the set surrounding the bleachers were for the cameras and the kids watching at home, I learned. The back of those set pieces, though – the ones that you saw while sitting on those bleachers – were of old soda pop boxes and plywood. My first peek into the hidden, disappointing, disheartening underbelly of show business, I suppose.
Paul Shannon was very nice to us kids that day, but he was only with us during the segments when we were on the air. I got so flustered I forgot how to spell “B-I-N-G-O” when our big moment arrived.
But most of all, I thank Providence to this day that I wasn’t in-studio during the run-up to Christmas. I’m a grown man now, and I know that there’s not really a Rocket Ship to the North Pole that launched from Paul Shannon’s studio at Channel 4 every weekday afternoon in December at 4:45 p.m. I know that the “rocket” he stood beside was a plywood shell with a little door for the letters. I know that the sight of the thing blasting into the air was actually a clip they used and reused from an actual NASA launch.
But I didn’t know all of those things back then. And I’m so glad I didn’t. Christmas for kids is about believing in the unbelievable. That’s what makes it so awesome. And so comforting.
Copyright 2012 Tim Hayes Consulting