Just Enough Information: Telephone Time, sponsored by the pre-breakup Bell Telephone System (Our Motto: “You’re stuck with us.”), was a filmed anthology series which ran from 1956 to 1958, originally hosted by John Nesbitt, then Dr. Frank Baxter. While the series occasionally had what would be big-name stars in the late 50s, more often the cast featured on-the-rise acting talent such as Cloris Leachman, Michael Landon, and Robert Vaughan, who would become big names in the decades to come. Another series produced by Hal Roach Studios, so there’s some good reasonable production values.
The Christmas Episode: “A Picture of the Magi”. Original Broadcast: December 24, 1957.
Tonight, Dr. Baxter introduces the story of the Magi as it really happened in Communist Hungary in the days before Christmas 1956. Not the Holy Land, we're reminded, but the barbed wire frontier of the Eastern Bloc. That’s not to say Israel doesn’t have a lot of barbed wire frontiers these days, but...well, let’s not push our luck just yet.
We’re presented a family of Hungarian farmers who are being ground under the heel of the “worker’s paradise”. Aranka, the young daughter, is reading about the Three Wise Men, their quest for the Baby Jesus…all that stuff you have to hide from the Communists. Zoltan, the son, is the voice of the underground radio (which, in an oh-I-don’t-know moment, broadcasts over the top of the government radio). And mom and dad Antol and Elga do what they can and wring their hands while their mother country goes to hell. The usual Cold War fare, in other words.
The parents and Uncle Miklos—and to his credit, Miklos is the only one in the cast who actually sounds like an Eastern European—send Aranka out to play while they deal with the grown-up misery talk. Wouldn’t you know it, she gets caught in the rain and seeks refuge at a abandoned vineyard where three black marketeers have taken up residence. When she hears that the big fella is named Melchior, she gets the idea they’re the Wise Men from her forbidden book. Fortunately, Melchior happens to be the one that doesn’t want to kill for silence, and he plays into her mistake by giving her one of the “gifts”, a new umbrella. In exchange, she gives Melchior a piece of bark Miklos brought her.
One night not too much later, state radio announces that the clandestine radio station has been shut down and all the participants summarily executed. Miklos tells Antol and Elga that Zoltan escaped, but the police know who he is…and who his family is. They need to leave the country immediately, because reprisals are a real bitch in the Soviet bloc. Aranka is so convinced that her three men are the three men that, after some cajoling and life-or-death threatening, she’s allowed to go to them while Antol and Miklos secretly follow her.
As it turns out, Aranka did them a favor by inadvertently revealing their secret, since a countryside swarming with Soviet troops is bad for business. Melchoir knows of a border guard who is a skunk, but he happens to be a greedy skunk, and he can be bribed to get them to the way to the border with a mound of black market goods. Somebody will have to stay behind to guarantee the bribe isn’t taken until the party is safely breathing freedom’s air, and Miklos volunteers. With the plan in place, the most dangerous Christmas story reaches its third act…and that’s as far as I’m going to take you.
As you can probably tell by the lack of jokey jokes, I thought this really was a good story once you can get past the 1950s TV version of Eastern Europe, where only one person doesn’t have a middle American accent and the voice of Hungarian state radio sounds like he came from the Bronx. It might be a little heavy for younger children for reasons which will become obvious once you watch the last five minutes.
Spot ‘Em: The father is played by Larry Dobkin, whose broadcasting career spanned seven decades. As a writer, he also created the character Grizzly Adams, who looms large over my 1970s TV memories, and the pilot episode of The Munsters. As an actor, he usually played a bit darker than this, but here he plays a noble guy.
But Don’t Take My Word For It: Another lovely Youtube member comes through with decent quality. This is the back end of a double feature, so I've set the video to jump ahead to the 25 minute mark when you press play. Don’t panic, we’ll get to the other half of that double feature in due time.
And that gets us to the end of disc two! Halfway there, friends.
Next: One of my unadvertised surprises while I work up the nerve to tackle five straight episodes of (shiver) Ozzie and Harriet.