A Living Christmas Card

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 4:24pm
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The world and the nation have changed radically in the last several decades, gradually pulling Block Island into the vortex spinning forward. Much of the technology we take for granted has evolved during my lifetime, from the first spacecraft to orbit the earth to the moon landing that today’s children know as history. I am not sure when my family got a television; I know the first we had was a Philco, on loan from the man who owned the High View and didn’t want to leave the boxy black and white set in a building closed over the winter.

Television brought us images of places we had never seen, and introduced us to people we had never met. It brought a chorus of Block Island students to Providence and sent them home, as well as to the rest of Rhode Island, via a “Living Christmas Card.”

The Block Island School 1956 Yearbook includes a photograph of the whole cast of the December 1955 production captioned: “Television provides a new mirror to reflect the light of our students’ accomplishments for vast audiences to see. Over a million viewers through this electronic miracle received our “Living Christmas Card” over WJAR-TV. Television fans throughout New England have reported that in their opinion ‘The wise men were the wisest, the shepherds the most trustworthy and the angels the sweetest ever seen.’”

The 1955 photo shows 25 faces, angels big and small, shepherds and kings, the full tableau surrounding Mary and Joseph, with a narrator at the side to tie it all together. Offstage were the Music Director and various helpers who made the over-night journey to Providence, to the aerie of WJAR-TV.

The television studios were downtown, on the top floor of the old Outlet, not an outlet in today’s parlance, rather the largest department store in the still-thriving pre-mall retail district of Providence. There was more local programming then, Rhode Island talk shows into which school productions could be incorporated. Little Block Island also had an “in” — the Chief Engineer at WJAR had two granddaughters, his own little angels, living on Block Island.

In December 1957 I was a very disappointed first grader; I had been sick and my parents — in the way that seems unreasonable when we are six — decided I should not make the long awaited trip to WJAR. A year later, though, I was on the tiny Sprigg Carroll, a little angel heading for Point Judith. We followed the “old” road, Route 1, which took us past the former Bostitch factory with it broad lawns and long traffic light and the old East Greenwich dairy with its statue of “EG,” its trademark black and white calf. The city showed when we reached the crest of a hill in Cranston. It had the look of Oz, lower rooflines clustered around the spire of the tall Industrial National Bank — today known as the “Superman Building.”

Most of us had been to the mainland previously but a sign of the difference in the times is the fact that that Christmas show trip was the first off-Island venture for a few children. It was certainly the first hotel stay for many of us. We spent the night at the Narragansett Hotel — long since demolished — across the street from the Outlet. The Music Director who created this – and all our programs in the midst of teaching the first three grades — didn’t stay at the hotel. She seized the opportunity to visit her family in Pawtucket taking with her one of the youngest children who she feared would be most homesick.

Every piece of that first trip was an adventure. Escalators ran between the lower floors of the Outlet and to reach the top story one had to take an elevator, run by an operator who opened and closed the doors, all as exotic as... television.

It was not exotic at all; our angel costumes were simple, plain pale cotton sewn by our mothers. Older pictures show the girls in the upper grades with halos and wings, painstakingly constructed, but the first year I went half way to Providence it was realized that the box holding them, and the manger hay, had been left behind. The props would have to be done without but the Music Director’s husband went off, found a farm and met us in Providence with a bale.

Today we can see satellite pictures of storms and share the science available to meteorologists. Then, we saw the Weather Girl who stood behind glass and wrote upon it in numbers legible to the viewer. At the studio we learned it was not miracle writing but a simple flipping of the image, just lights and mirrors. The lights in the studio, we quickly realized, were bright and hot, and we had to sit still for the whole time, no small job for primary school “angels” waiting the whole production to sing one song.

The concentration put into sitting still may be why I better remember the end than the beginning of the program. It concluded with the uplifting “Joy to the World” preceded by “We Three Kings,” which marked the entrance of the Kings, three high school boys dressed in turbans and capes. Their coming was foretold by “Star of the East,” a torturously long song, the close of which meant the end was in sight!

The moment for the little angels to sit up and sing “Away in a Manger” might have come just previous to that l-o-n-g song, and at some earlier point shepherds with staffs but no sheep entered. The program began with “Birthday of a King” and I know the chorus of “O Holy Night” was repeated, the line of singing angels following their words when they came to “fall on your knees... “ The one we waited to be old enough to sing was “Angels We Have Heard on High” with the long trailing eighteen syllable “gloria.” The narrator, one of the older girls, her angel’s robe belted and her head haloed with silver tinsel, related pieces of the traditional story from the gospel we now hear only in church.

It was an incredible adventure. The first year I went to Providence, after we finished our program, we went into the “parlor” of the talk show hostess into whose program we had been wedged. We sang of Frosty Snowmen and Winter Wonderlands and felt part of another world. We were given a little time to scamper through the Outlet, looking at the holiday decorations; we were happy to see the Weather Girl, to us a big celebrity, in the elevator and thrilled when a talk show host asked us if we were part of the group from Block Island.

Technology was changing rapidly and the next year WJAR came to the Island to film the show. The cast was expanded to include more of the school population. A boys’ choir was added, each member spiffed up in a white shirt and bow tie. The traditionally costumed cast was placed on the stage that filled one end of the two high school classrooms that were separated by high doors that opened, creating an auditorium used for all programs. The filming took longer than in Providence, filled with stops to readjust lights and cameras.

The last Yearbook photo is from December of 1963. The little angels were gone but the number of shepherds more than doubled; the role of the narrator had crossed gender lines, the tinsel belted robe given way to a dark suit and tie; the musical accompaniment had been expanded to include two violins. It was a grand finale, one supposes, to the end of an era.

When the program first aired in the mid-fifties many people didn’t have televisions and recorders were unimaginable; older residents told me they recalled a feeling of the town shutting down while groups congregated around sets to witness the miracle of seeing the Island’s children broadcast, live, from Providence. Eight short years later television was familiar; everyone watched but without the same wonder.

Today, photos of the Living Christmas Card are reminders of a long worked upon and anxiously awaited school production that belonged to the whole community. Television was new, the opening of a door onto a world of electronics and communications of which we could not dream, but the true miracle of those early Block Island productions was that they happened at all, each a feat of extraordinary proportions given the time and place.