Simple Gifts – Part II

Though they could not be more different the next two gifts that R.O. Blechman offers us share a common theme:  memory.  One is written looking at the past, the other writing of the present before it becomes the past.  One is born out of a life of poverty, the other of privilege.  Both are rich in language and perhaps richer in a sense of family – again in two very different ways.

In the wake of an attempt to turn the book into a play that put it, briefly, back in the spotlight I recently reread Moss Hart‘s Act One. When it was first published in 1959 I found the story of his early life in the tenements of New York difficult and unsettling reading and put the book aside unfinished.  Fifty-odd years later I still found the story of his early years unsettling but myself better equipped to understand it.  His writing is witty and, if at times slightly romantic, unsentimental.   I only wish he had lived to give us Act Two and Three.

This segment, narrated by José Ferrar, mixes archival photographs of New York of the time (1910s) with still shots of the characters that make up Hart’s family.  An ingenuous way to present this gift of memory.

Christmas could not have been more different than as recorded by the eleven year old Teddy Roosevelt in 1869.  I particularly enjoyed that very matter-of-fact last sentence. Illustrator Chas. B. Slackman and actor Dean Wareham take us into the pages of the young man’s personal diary for another snapshot in time.

A left click on the Gift Tag will open the next gifts:

December 13 -1974:  Malta becomes a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations.

Simple Gifts – Part I

This time of year those of my visitors who own televisions are not doubt inundated by seasonal specials – Rudolph, Frost, Peanuts et al.  It seems the same things turn up every year.  But there were some wonderful Christmas specials out there that made one or two appearances and then disappeared from sight.  Two years ago I mentioned A Child’s Christmas in Wales but I also remember A Gift of Love, a gentle, touching TV movie with Angela Lansbury, Lee Remick and the much under-appreciated Polly HollidayPeeWee Herman’s Christmas Special (the Christmas special to out special any special) and Simple Gifts, Six Episodes for Christmas.

Created for PBS in 1977, Simple Gifts was produced by illustrator, cartoonist and graphic novelist R. O. Blechman.  The premise was a simple one: actress Colleen Dewhurst offered us six “gifts” in the form of spoken word, music and animation vignettes with the hope that we would open our hearts and receive them in the spirit they were being given.

As well as contributing a segment himself, Blechman called on fellow artists Maurice Sendak, James McMullan, Seymour Chwast, and Charles B. Slackman to create graphics  to match words by writers as varied as Sendak, Virginia Woolf, a young Teddy Roosevelt, Moss Hart and Sir Edward Hulse.  The stories were voiced by Hermione Gingold, José Ferrar, Paul Dooley; amongst the musicians was the familiar name of Willian Bolcom.

Fortunately a broadcast by PBS Cleveland has been preserved and posted on YouTube by David Hansen – a big thank you to David for giving us this gift. And in the spirit of the piece I’d like to share that gift with you over the next few days.


The style of Maurice Sendak is unmistakable in the Prologue that introduces the episodes.

During what is referred to as the “Little Ice Age” winters in England reached the coldest in the country’s recorded history and the Thames River froze over 26 times between 1408 and 1814.  Though it was known that Queen Elizabeth enjoyed target shooting on the frozen river in 1564 and other sports were played on it’s ice bound surface, the first Frost Fair was held in 1608.  In Orlando Virginia Woolf sets the episode of the young nobleman and his Russian Princess during this great event.  In adapting it for Simple Gifts Chwast and Blechman change the period and soften some of the social aspects of Woolf’s tale – said to be based on the love life of her own lover Vita Sackville-West.

It’s a remarkable series of short films and I’m at a loss as to why it hasn’t become a holiday tradition. Well perhaps by posting them here I can start one.

A left click on the Gift Tag will open the next gifts:


December 10 – 1884: Mark Twain‘s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is published.