My recipe for a kitsch Christmas is comprised of three main ingredients; Lots of great holiday music, an aluminum Christmas tree, and a book about aluminum Christmas trees.
1. The Music
I purchased several “retro” Holiday CDs to get my Como Audio Musica in the holiday spirit. What would a kitsch Christmas in Massachusetts (or anywhere else for that matter) be without Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops? Pops Christmas Party, recorded in RCA’s hi-fi “Living Stereo”, includes 21 classic Christmas tunes, Fiedler-style. Originally released in record form back in 1959, this CD adds additional holiday music and has great sound to boot. To quote the liner notes: “…the original multi-track work parts were painstakingly restored to eliminate problems caused by oxide flaking, defective rewinds, and other forms of material fatigue. Because the original recordings were made on multi-track machines with tube-type amplifiers, these machines were restored and used to play back the work parts. Rudimentary equalization was employed only to smooth out frequency response over manual edit points in the original work part. No external processing (e.g. computerized noise reduction) was used in order to preserve the full frequency spectrum and dynamic range of the original source…The result is a pure copy of the original recorded performance…” Since the title might be misleading to some, I should like to point out these are studio recordings, not a compilation of the annual “Holiday Pops” live performances.
Without a doubt, no kitsch Christmas would be even semi-authentic without a little Esquivel! No, that is not a Mexican adult beverage. I speak of the band leader, pianist, composer, and international man of mystery known as “The King of Space Age Pop”. Some called his music ground-breaking, as in dig a big hole in your backyard and bury his records. Considering he opened for Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas many a time, he deserves more respect than that. Merry Xmas from the Space-Age Bachelor Pad (BMG DRC1-1363) has long been out of print, but thankfully, the CD can be had on eBay, which is where I scored my used copy. It is a curious title considering, as legend has it, Esquivel was married six times. He married for the last time in 2001 at the age of 82 (his bride was 25). Not surprisingly, he died a short time later. Be that as it may, this CD preserves 12 crazy Christmas cocktail lounge sounds originally recorded between 1959-1962. Be a hep cat and play this far out CD on your Musica while you nurse a dry martini, you dig? It is the living end.
Twelve Songs for Christmas (Seeburg Music Library, B00AB7J8MS) could have come out of an early 1960’s time capsule (if they had CDs back then). For your edification, Seeburg was a juke box company that also manufactured the Seeburg 1000, a background music machine from the late 1960’s/early 1970’s used by businesses like cafes, offices, factories, and department stores. The machine played 9” proprietary vinyl records, mostly instrumentals, supplied by Seeburg. The purpose of this background music was to make workers more productive and consumers more relaxed (presumably to spend more). Seeburg was not the only game in town when it came to this type of thing, but they were one of the better-known companies. The remastered audio on this disc makes it sound like each record had just been slid out of its paper sleeve slumber for the first time. You can actually listen to this original music yourself for free, including holiday songs, on your Como Audio music system by tuning Internet radio station “Seeburg 1000” (128 kbps, MP3) out of Los Angeles. In Internet radio mode, go to Station list > Stations > Search stations > Type in “SEEBU” > Select the station.
Jingle Bell Swing has been re-released more times than Santa has had to let out his red suit. Originally released on vinyl as Jingle Bell Jazz in 1962, this various-artists mainstream jazz compilation is sure to put a swing in your stocking. I am not sure what that means but it sounds good. I recall playing tracks off of Jingle Bell Jazz 31 years ago when I was a jazz DJ at WERS-FM (we still played vinyl records back then) as I peered out the back-bay studio’s expansive picture window onto Beacon Street as the snow gently fell. But I digress. My favorite track is Blue Xmas featuring Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, with Bob Dorough (Schoolhouse Rock) handling vocals and sounding rather like Dave Frishberg (the two would record an album together decades later).
If your taste in holiday tunes is more twisted, there is always A John Waters Christmas (New Line Records) from 2004, and Rhino Records’ 1989 Bummed Out Christmas (Rhino, R2 70912). The Waters’ disc has some well-known retro recordings like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer performed by Tiny Tim and Sleigh Ride by Alvin & The Chipmunks, mixed in with politically incorrect nuggets you are not likely to hear on your favorite holiday radio station including Fat Daddy,Santa Claus Is A Black Man, and Here Comes Fatty Claus. Would you expect anything less from The Prince of Puke? Note the “Parental Advisory” sticker on the cover and be sure not to play this CD until after the curtain climbers have gone to bed.
The track list on Rhino’s Bummed Out reads like an April fool’s joke, but it was a real commercial CD (now long out of print, but available on eBay). With various artists performing such holiday classics as Santa Got a DWI,Christmas in Jail, Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas, Santa Came Home Drunk, Somebody Stole My Santa, and Christmas in Vietnam, this CD should have come with a coupon for a free bottle of Prozac.
A Very Vinyl Christmas
Taking care to avoid the tired holiday “chestnuts” we have all committed to memory since we were five, below are my recommendations to play on your Como Audio Turntable (did you know vinyl goes great with aluminum trees?).
Don Patterson:Holiday Soul (Prestige 7415), 1964
George Winston:December (WH-1025), 1982
Bella Fleck & The Flecktones:Jingle All the Way (Rounder CR 00148), 2008 (but issued on vinyl for the 1st time last year exclusively by Barnes & Noble).
Bobby Timmons:Holiday Soul (Prestige 7414), 1964 (not the same music as Don Patterson’s LP)
Various:The Stash Christmas Album (Stash Records ST 125), Mono, 1985
Sharon Jones:Holiday Soul Party (DAP-037, Barnes & Noble green vinyl), 2016 (Unfortunately, Jones passed away in 2016)
Booker T. & the MG’s:In the Spirit of Christmas (Stax S713), 1966
Most of the songs in the above album list originally date back to the 1960’s, but there have been some very good recent releases worthy of a spin:
JD McPherson’s Socks (New West Records, NW5273) came out just last year, but the 12 original songs have a distinct 1950’s vintage vibe. The title track, as well as Hey Skinny Santa and Ugly Sweater Blues, are especially fun, as are the animated music videos. A limited edition “coal in the stocking”-colored vinyl edition was released about two weeks ago in addition to the more festive green colored vinyl. It also came with a large lyric booklet with wonderful illustrations consistent with the album cover.
Along similar lines but different is Joel Paterson’s Hi-Fi Christmas Guitar (Bloodshot Records BS 978) from 2017. This is just Paterson, Alex Hall on drums, Beau Sample on bass, and 14 of their closest Christmas songs. Sometimes less is more, if you know what I mean, and the simplicity of this album is a gift all its own. With Guitar’s great retro-looking cover (it even has imitation “wear” at the top and bottom), I was more than willing to shell out a few extra bucks to get the autographed record instead of the less expensive CD. I enjoyed Paterson’s music so much, I recently bought three of his CDs on his home-grown Ventrella Records label, which Paterson describes on his website as a “go-broke-slow scheme”.
I recall playing tracks off of this record 31 years ago when I was a jazz DJ at WERS-FM (we still played vinyl records back then) as I peered out the Back Bay studio’s expansive picture window onto Beacon Street as the snow gently fell.
Another of my recent eBay finds was Christmas Holidays at Radio City Music Hall from 1958 (RCA, LSO 1010) and The Three Suns A Ding Dong Dandy Christmas (RCA, LSP 2054) circa 1959. The former is a perfect example of what we lose when we download digital album files. Open the gatefold cover and you are presented with an impressive, 12” x 12”, 9-page color booklet printed on thick paper stock, containing lots of photographs and some fascinating information about Radio City Music Hall and the preparation involved to put on this holiday extravaganza. To quote from the booklet (bearing in mind this was written in 1959): “With its more than 25,000 light bulbs, the Hall consumes electricity equivalent to that required to supply a town of 10,000. The master control board for all this accumulated wattage contains over 4,000 handles, switches, buttons, and dials, yet it can be manipulated by one electrician.” I even loved the “Important Notice” sticker inside the gatefold: “This is a TRUE STEREOPHONIC RECORD specifically designed to be played only on phonographs equipped for stereophonic reproduction.” Back in 1959, two channel stereo was still a relatively new thing, so the notice was warranted.
As for Ding Dong (excuse my abbreviation), if you prefer to dip your toes into the Christmas lounge experience rather than jump in head first, this album would make a good introduction. It is nowhere near as far out as Esquivel, but these 14 instrumentals will certainly set the holiday lounge mood. Featured prominently are such hipster instruments as the accordion, harmonica, tuba, bells, xylophone, and electric organ. The liner notes define this album as “…a collection of melodic Christmas songs with a real crazy rhythm. The beat is Cha-cha, Merengue, and Rock n’ Roll, all wrapped up in one.” As it turns out, this album enjoys its own little cult following and was even re-issued on CD with new liner notes. Tech the Halls: The original inner paper sleeve the record came in provided a great primer on stereo records, which was a new thing in 1959: “Each groove in the stereo record has two sound tracks containing both lateral and vertical modulation. In order to pick up the two sound tracks, a stereophonic cartridge equipped with a small diameter stylus has been developed to move both laterally and vertically simultaneously. This stylus reproduces the lateral and vertical modulation contained in each groove wall and channels the information to the proper amplifier and speaker. The information contained in the inner groove wall is fed to the right-hand speaker whereas the information in the outer groove wall is fed to the left-hand speaker. The net of it is an overlapping and blending which gives music a more natural, more dimensional sound…in short, enveloped in solid sound, you will hear music in a truer perspective.”
One trivial but very cool element missing from my used copy was RCA’s “Miracle Surface” hype sticker on the cover:
To this day, no one is exactly sure what “317X” was, but you must admit, it was a cool space age designation.
Record Store Day (Again)
Record Store Day is not just one day in April each year. RSD is so nice they decided to celebrate it twice. Black Friday also happened to be Record Store Day, as if you needed any more incentive to go shopping. Braving the traffic, I went over to the dork side to spend some quality time with my fellow vinyl geeks at Newbury Comics in Norwood, MA. At the top of my shopping list was Christmas in Soulsville on green vinyl, limited to 500 pressings, though I ended up having to buy it from Newbury Comics’ website after discovering it was not available in their stores. Afterwards, I swung by Barnes and Noble just up the street in Walpole, MA to pick up Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas (Rhino Custom R1-556744). The album is made by Rhino Records exclusively for B&N. Gee Whiz has 14 fantastically festive songs by R&B artists like Otis Redding (Merry Christmas Baby), King Curtis (The Christmas Song), and Clarence Carter (Back Door Santa). Most of the tracks were taken from Atco’s Soul Christmas from 1968, long out of print in vinyl. With shoppers trampling each other over “door busters”, I could not think of any other way I would rather have spent black Friday.
An Internet Radio Christmas
When you are not spinning Xmas vinyl or CDs, here are ten Santa-approved Internet radio stations (in no particular order) from around the globe that honor Christmas in their hearts and keep it all year. I have indicated the broadcast country of origin, a sampling of artists each station plays, and the data transfer rate (which can fluctuate based on your network’s capability). Generally speaking, the higher the kilobits per second (kbps), the better the sound, although a station streaming in the AAC audio codec with a lower kbps should sound better than a station streaming at higher kbps in the MP3 codec since AAC usually sounds better. Got all that? To learn the kbps of a given tuned Internet radio station, repeatedly press the “i” key on the Como remote control (this function is not available in the Como Control app). Psst: If you own a Musica and experience frequent station buffering, consider using the rear Ethernet connection instead of Wi-Fi and change the setting to Wired: System settings > Network > Manual settings > Wired.
SomaFM Jolly Ol’ Soul, San Francisco (128 kbps, MP3): The Impressions, The Drifters, The Skyliners.
Antenne MV Cool Christmas, Germany (192 kbps, MP3): Kylie Minogue, Bryan Adams, Michael Buble.
The Cutting Edge of Christmas, New York (128 kbps, MP3): Pat Benatar, Red Car Wire, Jack Johnson.
Vibration Christmas, Switzerland (192 kbps, MP3): Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Kylie Minogue.
Calm Radio Classical Christmas, Toronto (128 kbps, MP3).
CleansingMusic Christmas, USA (130 kbps, AAC): Rod Stewart, Janis Ian, Bing Crosby, Jackson 5, Burl Ives
A.M. America OTR Christmas Channel, Chicago (40 kbps MP3): Fibber McGee & Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, Jack Benny, Broadway Is My Beat, Family Theatre, etc.
SomaFM Christmas Lounge, San Francisco (256 kbps, MP3): Sunday People, Neurobic, Montesco.
181.FM, USA (128 kbps, MP3): Choose from 18different Christmas streams including diverse genres like Swing, Soundtracks, Rock, Kids, Gospel, Smooth Jazz, R&B, and Oldies.
Digital Impulse Radio Christmas, Croatia (320 kbps, MP3): Amy Grant, Bruce Springsteen, Celine Dion, Elvis Presley, Rihanna, Dolly Parton, Air Supply, Jim Reeves, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Willie Nelson.
To tune any of the above stations with your Como Audio music system, go to Station list > Stations > Search stations > Enter the station name. Or got to Station list > Stations > Genre > Seasonal-Holiday > All Stations > Scroll down and make your selection from the list.
A Spotify Christmas
2. The Tree
When I was a child during Christmas time, I well remember visiting our upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Holmes, one of the nicest people I ever knew, and marveling at the glimmering aluminum Christmas tree in her compact living room. Mind you, this was during the mid-1970’s, after the aluminum tree fad had faded. Other than pictures, I had never seen a real “live” aluminum tree before, so it was intoxicating to see that shimmering, space age silver tree. Mrs. Holmes had the tree loaded with silver tinsel and decorated with tasteful ornaments. After having contemplated it for many years, this Christmas I was determined to display my own authentic, vintage aluminum Christmas tree. If an aluminum tree was good enough for Martha Stewart, gosh darn it, then it was good enough for me. I spent a month scouring eBay for trees early in the year, hoping they would cost less if I bought “out of season”. Some of them indeed sell for a small fortune, but I was determined not to have to take out a second mortgage to buy a 50+ year old Christmas tree.
I eventually settled on a made in the USA, 6.5’ “Pom-Pom” tree in okay used condition. The aluminum Pom-Pom tree, so-called due to the pom-pom-like formation at the tip of its branches, gave it even more of a space age look, like plumes emerging from a just-launched, shiny metal rocket. Other brands referred to this type of tree less accurately as ”The Sparkler” or “The Fountain”.
I was determined not to have to take out a second mortgage to buy a 50+ year old Christmas tree.
The seller, who was not the original owner, told me she still had the original carton, but the carton was too deteriorated to hold its contents and would be tossed. I asked her if she could salvage any information from the carton about the tree and include it since I am an information junkie. When I opened the box, I found a white bubble envelope containing the original bill of sale slapped to a piece of the carton. I could make out a date of 11/9, but unfortunately, no year was indicated. The description was “al. tree, 91 branches (the higher the branch count, the “fuller” the tree will look), 6 1/2 ft tall, #691”. I could also see the buyer (“Robinson”) paid an astronomical $7.45 after a 20% discount! The store responsible for this bargain was Gimbels of Philadelphia. Being vaguely familiar with that name from Miracle on 34th Street, I did a Wikipedia search and hit pay dirt. Gimbels operated from 1887 to 1987 and at one point was the largest department store corporation in the world, racking up almost $3 billion in sales in today’s money. It was Gimbels that first came up with the department store-sponsored parade, the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade, in 1920, four years before Macys. In 1925 they opened a “higher-end” store you may have heard of…Saks Fifth Avenue. According to Wikipedia, “Gimbels principles and merchandise sought to reflect the ideals of middle-class America. Their principles consisted of ‘courtesy, reliability, good value, and enlightened management’. By using middle class values Gimbels attracted shoppers to a store that also could fit their budgets.”
Since I purchased it more than a month after the New Year holiday, my newly acquired tree sat in its substitute cardboard box in my basement until a few days ago when I unpacked it and set it up for the first time. I know there are some who put out their Christmas decorations for Thanksgiving, but when I was growing up, my mother (now 84) never allowed putting out any decorations before December 1st. As a child during the holidays, that was nothing short of torture. As an adult without children, I do not follow my mother’s golden rule, but I do wait until the day after Thanksgiving to decorate. The tree setup was time consuming and tedious, having to insert each branch by hand, one by one, into small holes in the silver painted wooden “trunk”, taking care not to crush the pom poms. I did not need to buy a tree stand because the tree included a convenient aluminum (what else?) fold-out tripod stand.
Since string lights pose an electric shock hazard with aluminum trees, the option back in the day was to use a large rotating color projector to light up the tree. I wanted more color options than a color wheel offered, and I did not want a big, clunky machine grinding away every night, so I came up with the ingenious (if I may say so myself) idea of buying an inexpensive 30watt multi-colored LED flood light on Amazon. It does a perfect job of bathing the tree in 16 vibrant colors, the super-bright LEDs do not get hot, it does not use a lot of electricity, and it is remote controlled! I hung glittery white Christmas ornaments so they would also reflect the different colors of the flood light.
According to the American Christmas Tree Association, 77% of American households are expected to display a Christmas Tree this year, and 82% of them will be artificial. Now if your plan calls for a live tree this Christmas, you should know that NBC News recently reported a significant shortage of live Christmas Trees, a result of continued poor weather conditions in tree growing regions. Retail prices have been increasing and are up as much as 10% this year. Inventory is at historic lows and it is estimated it will take 2 to 3 more years until the inventory normalizes. Perhaps this Christmas you will say it with silver (aluminum, actually).
3. The Book
To complete the Kitschmas triad, some appropriate kitsch reading material was in order. “The Evergleam Book 60th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” by Theron Georges is like an illustrated hardcover catalog of Evergleam aluminum trees. Based in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, Aluminum Specialty employed hundreds of people and was the largest manufacturer of aluminum trees, producing over 1 million trees by 1969. Detailed in the book are 120 models including rare specimens like the Peacock and Pink. According to Wikipedia, a 7’ all-pink aluminum tree sold for $3,600 in 2005. All the folks who tossed their aluminum tress ages ago are probably kicking themselves now.
Did you know Evergleam even made an aluminum tree for use outdoors, and a tree with bright red bows affixed to the end of each branch? The latter model was called, appropriately, the “Bow Tip”, and the bows were made by machine from red “Sasheen” ribbon from 3M. In the book you will also learn the top 3 selling models as well as the rarest Evergleam of them all. Georges’ book, an expanded edition of his first book, “The Wonderful World of Evergleam”, is chock full of great color photos, vintage adverts, user manuals, newspaper clippings, information about Evergleam color wheels, and more, all printed on high quality coated art paper. Why there is even a section with tips on how to buy and maintain an authentic Evergleam of your very own. I reached out to Georges, who works full time as a corporate pilot, to ask him a few questions:
PS: What is one popular misconception about aluminum trees?
TG: The biggest misconception by far is that aluminum Christmas trees are a 50’s phenomenon. Actually, they are 60s’. As you know, they were first commercially debuted for Christmas 1959, but they were most popular during the Space Age of the early 1960s.
PS: After all these decades, why are people still fascinated with these trees?
TG: This is a complicated question to answer. For me, it is threefold. At the root of it all is pure nostalgia — the cherished memories of my childhood in San Antonio, TX spent celebrating with my parents’ original tree from the 60s, even when they were already considered passe. I am captivated by their architecture and perfection of form, the math, the angles, the style…all of it makes aluminum Christmas trees captivate my imagination. And still, they speak to me from another time. They are a window into our past and conjure up images of Khrushchev, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Gagarin, Van Cliburn. I especially love to appreciate them in their social and political context.
PS: I understand you own quite the collection of aluminum Christmas trees?
TG: I do have a collection of trees. In fact, the entire collecting community is very active and there are some outstanding trees held by private individuals. Mine is not the largest, but it is unique among Evergleams in that I have at least one example of every known type ever produced by Aluminum Specialty, except for the Burgundy-Blue (which was loaned to me for the book). And, the Silver Spruce…if it even exists. There are no known specimens anywhere.
PS: What is your favorite Evergleam tree model?
TG: It is nigh impossible to say which is my very favorite. Each is unique and has its own personality and idiosyncrasies. But if you’re going to press me, I would say that the Peacock Tree is near the top of the list. Essentially for all of the reasons above. And I finally got to meet its creator, Wes Martin, out in LA. So, that makes it even better!
Alas, the used aluminum tree I bought off of eBay ten months ago was not an Evergleam. According to the seller, it was manufactured by Star Band out of VA. I am not an Evergleam expert, but after reading Georges’ book, I could spot some differences between the two. For one thing, the “trunk” of an Evergleam tree is wrapped in foil, whereas my tree’s trunk was painted silver. The floor stands that came with Evergleam trees had floor protectors at the end of the feet, but mine did not. Nevertheless, I am very pleased with the overall visual impact the tree makes, and it transports me back to Mrs. Holmes’ living room in Pawtucket, Rhode Island 40+ Christmases ago.
I am captivated by their architecture and perfection of form, the math, the angles, the style…all of it makes aluminum Christmas trees captivate my imagination.
A Como Audio Christmas
We are very exciting to be participating in The Innovation and Design Building’s (where our office is located) annual Winter Revelry this year. If you are in the Boston Seaport District between December 5-7, please stop by our booth and get a head start on your holiday shopping. This annual pop-up event provides a unique indoor shopping experience with 15 high-end vendors participating, including a mini Christmas tree farm. Admission is free and there will be a DIY gift wrapping station for your convenience. Built back in 1918, the IDB is located at 23 Drydock Avenue in Boston. The holiday market hours are 11a-7p on 12/6 and 12/7. Stop by and say hello. We would love to see you there!
Music is an important component of any celebration, especially the holiday kind. Whether you prefer CDs, records, or Internet radio, or listen to all three, be sure to make music a part of your plans this season. Remember- if you are entertaining this holiday, you can group multiple Como Audio music systems and really make your home sing. From all of us at Como Audio to all of you, Merry Kitschmas! We hope you enjoy the (holiday) music.
Next month’s Tech Rap: Como Audio’s hand-picked Preset Internet Stations.