The New York City television station WPIX first broadcast its yule log “show” on Christmas Eve 1966, fifty years ago tonight.
It was a brilliant idea that the president of WPIX, Fred Thrower, had that year: give New York City’s many apartment dwellers an old-timey Christmas fireplace like the one they had never had for the night on their virtual hearth, the television. The station tossed out several thousand dollars worth of advertising in order to air two continuous hours of a fire burning in a fireplace. The advertisers may have wound up the ones gnashing their teeth, though, as a few hours of a burning log in a fireplace won the city’s ratings for the night. It was an idea that was instantly loved.
Since 1969, the original recording had been believed to be lost. WPIX announced this month that the original tape was found this year, was digitally restored, and will be aired from 11:00 p.m. till Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The above pretty much describes the TV viewing in my house on Christmas Eve when I was 10 or so.
(Anything that can make me feel like I am 10 on Christmas Eve seems to me to be a good thing.)
The Yule Log show was also Mr. Thrower’s way of giving his WPIX employees Christmas Eve off. Pop a tape in and go home to be with family.
WPIX usually played music, orchestral arrangements (Mantovani-type stuff) of Christmas carols.
There was a secret behind the perpetually burning log, of course. The burning fireplace was not shown live but was instead a two-minute clip of a film of a roaring fire in a fireplace that was looped every ten to fifteen seconds or so. In the videos below, watch and you’ll see the video stutter every few seconds as it loops back to the start.
Friends a bit older than I am and who were not unacquainted with smoking home-crafted cigarettes told me of watching the Yule Log burn for hours each Christmas Eve, that some of them would spend time in an attempt to see if the log, would … well, burn, at all.
The fireplace that was originally used is one in Gracie Mansion, the official residence of New York City’s mayor. WPIX’s crew removed the grate from the fireplace to get closer to the fire with their camera and they thus managed to destroy a $4000 rug when the fire threw a spark into the room that the grate would have retained.
YouTube has available many (MANY) Yule log clips, some as long as ten hours in duration. (Remember when YouTube clips were limited to ten minutes maximum? Good times … .) Comedians both known and unknown have created their own versions: there is a Darth Vader on his funeral pyre five-hour version, there is an Eye of Sauron version that lasts for several hours. In an ad that was put out last year, the actor Nick Offerman sat still for an extraordinarily long time (well, 45 minutes or so) and enjoyed a glass of Scotch by a fire while staring (sometime amiably, sometimes creepily) into the camera.
And there are many, many clips of various lengths on YouTube that are labeled the “original WPIX Yule Log.” They are and they are not. By 1969, the original tape had already detriorated, so WPIX recorded a replacement in a mansion in California, which is why the original was lost until this year: a technician took it home with him, and when he died recently, his family invited WPIX to inspect his archives.
WPIX aired that California fireplace tape for many years and the online clips are for the most part digitized renditions of a VHS recording that someone made in 1983 or so of the WPIX broadcacst that year.
Here is the WPIX Yule Log without Christmas music:
And here is what New York City residents usually see each Christmas Eve on their television sets (from 1986):
Tonight, that all changes.
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Merry Christmas Eve to family and friends and all readers who celebrate.
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