Christmas Eve at the Front

The night before Christmas 1943, millions of Americans sat before their radios, the dial lamps offering a bit of cheer, awaiting a show scheduled to begin at the top of the hour.

Cabbies, on a typically slow night, parked nose to tail along curbs, engines idling to keep warm and at the ready for the occasional fare, their dashboard radio receivers switched on. In barracks at induction centers and on bases around the country, men awaiting training or preparing to head overseas gathered near any available radio speakers, ready to hear what promised to be a very special broadcast – one that featured some of their brothers-in-arms already over there, at or near the front.

It was one of those rare media events, usually reserved for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats.” On that one winter night, all four major U.S. radio networks – CBS, NBC Red, NBC Blue and Mutual – devoted their airwaves to a single program featuring several amateur singers and musicians, along with jokes and sketches.

At 10 p.m. in New York, the announcer on the NBC networks began by apologizing that their regular Friday evening shows – “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” “Bill Stern’s Sports Newsreel,” “Fred Waring in Pleasure Time” – would not be broadcast that night, pre-empted by this special holiday presentation.

That radio broadcast, “Christmas Eve at the Front,” gave U.S. audiences a real-time glimpse of soldiers and sailors deployed around the globe that holiday season, and for those servicemembers, it was the opportunity to speak to the folks back home via the fastest-growing mass medium of the day.

At that time, more than 90 percent of Americans had access to a broadcast radio. News and entertainment programming on the air was, for the first time, rivaling newspapers as the medium of choice for news and entertainment. Even those who could not afford to subscribe to a paper could usually find a radio to listen to. Important programming attracted huge audiences. Many of FDR’s “fireside chats” reached more than 70 percent of the country’s population. Those were Super Bowl-like numbers.

Stephen Early, FDR’s press secretary, had little trouble persuading his boss of the power of radio when he delivered his first nationwide address into a microphone in 1933, while the United States was still in the throes of the Great Depression.

“It cannot misrepresent or misquote,” Early said. “It is far-reaching and simultaneous in releasing messages given it for transmission to the nation or for international consumption.”

On that Christmas Eve in 1943, a live audience gathered in a radio studio in Hollywood, Calif., ready for the broadcast to begin promptly at 7 p.m. local time. The show was scheduled to air in what was already being called “prime time” across all four U.S. time zones. Those in the audience that night, coached to applaud and laugh when prompted by lighted signs, or those who dialed into the program on radios across America, had little idea of the months of planning by technicians around the globe to make the show possible.

Those engineers were attempting something thought impossible only a few years before: bringing live voices from various spots around the world to a single point and broadcasting them to eager listeners at home. The first trans-Atlantic telephone cable was still a decade away. Communications satellites were the stuff of science fiction. This big show depended on relatively new technology and the vagaries of shortwave signal propagation.

It was an all-star production, and likely would have commanded high listenership even without its technical and heart-tugging aspects. The show was actually the idea of the military, which believed a real-time broadcast would be a tremendous morale boost not only for the fighting men, but also for their families back home, separated during this holiday season by an awful globe-spanning war.

When it came time to select the program’s primary host, the choice was obvious. At the time, Bob Hope’s network radio show commanded huge audiences each week. He had started his showbiz career on the vaudeville stage, and by 1934 was already working in radio and the movies. His first major film was “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” in which he introduced the song “Thanks for the Memory.” It became his theme, closing hundreds of Hope’s USO shows between 1941 and 1991.

However, the first voice heard in the 1943 Christmas Eve broadcast is not Hope’s. Following a rousing orchestra rendition of “Jingle Bells,” an announcer introduces distinguished actor Lionel Barrymore, whose portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in the annual radio production “A Christmas Carol” made it appropriate that he be a part of “Christmas Eve at the Front.”

Even so, his deep, sad voice sounds almost out of place after the peppy musical introduction: “Well, it’s Lionel Barrymore here in Hollywood, and here it’s Christmas Eve, the third our country’s experienced in the war. But tonight, I’m not going to play the part of Scrooge.”

Instead, Barrymore promises to take listeners “by the hand to the side of your loved ones fighting at every quarter of the globe” – including Italy, North Africa, New Guinea, Guadalcanal, New Caledonia, China (“where it’s already Christmas”), India, Panama, Alaska, Pearl Harbor and even “some of the ships of our Navy.” Then the actor introduces Bob Hope, “whose name is synonymous with joy to the GI.”

“The guest conductor of this worldwide tour,” as Barrymore describes him, immediately picks up the pace and the show is on. Greeted with loud applause, Hope quips, “Thanks, relatives!” As usual, the comic’s jokes are topical: “It has been so cold in the Midwest that even the Republicans are waiting for the ‘fireside chats.’” Then, after a few zingers, the most challenging part of the production begins.

The first stop is Algiers in North Africa. The signal fades a bit at times, but an unidentified voice tells us it is just after 3 a.m. as he reads from a prepared script. He informs listeners that this will for the most part be a typical day for the men working there. A soldier from Sheffield, Ala., comes on mic and, in a deep Southern accent, talks about how he and his fellow troops spent Christmas Eve so far from home.

It is difficult for us today – accustomed as we are to high-definition live communications from anywhere on the planet – to imagine how impressive this short, wavering presentation was to millions sitting in living rooms around the country.

Indeed, most had recently heard Edward R. Murrow as he dramatically described the Nazi bombing of London live, as it happened, using a shortwave transmitter. But the voice the audience was hearing this night was that of a soldier, a regular guy, whose distant transmission wraps with, “We return you to America.” There may well have been some wishful thinking in those five simple words.

Bing Crosby, Hope’s usual foil and movie partner, joins the broadcast then, along with the Army Air Force Orchestra, singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

Some of the segments that night came through so clearly that, based on their technical quality, they were almost certainly pre-recorded, most likely using either wire or metal tape- recording technology. That was especially true of the reports from an aircraft carrier and a battleship, the latter from which a sailor sings a beautiful tenor version of “Gesu Bambino.” Of course, the names and locations of those ships were never given on air, nor were those segments ever portrayed as anything but live and in the moment.

Except for atmospheric noise and some fading, most of the remote shortwave transmissions are surprisingly listenable. Others are difficult to understand. Some transmission paths did not work at all.

At one point, when nothing came through from Alaska, someone off-mic is heard saying, “No copy,” meaning if there is a signal, it is not readable. Another time, the listening audience can hear someone saying, “Go ahead, Panama,” since those standing by at most of the far-flung spots could not actually hear the broadcast to which those back home were tuned in. They had to be prompted over the shortwave radio circuit to begin their presentations.

Knowledge of shortwave propagation was quite limited in those days. That portion of the radio spectrum was still an unfamiliar quantity, mostly occupied by “ham” radio operators. Such long-distance radio transmissions were subject to not only seasonal variations but could even fluctuate day-to-day or hour-to-hour. Northern latitudes are especially problematic. Such glitches were likely an anticipated possibility for the broadcast. Hope, Crosby and crew handled it smoothly, ad-libbing, until they could verify there would be no bit from that “quarter of the globe.” Each time a signal from some distant part of the world was not able to make the trip, they moved on to the next segment. The planned 90-minute broadcast ended 15 minutes early because of the missed segments.

About 45 minutes into the program is a message from FDR, recorded earlier in the day. In his typically calm, strong, and positive voice, he reports on recent talks with other world leaders, discussing not only the continued progress in the war but what will happen when the fighting ends. He also announces that the new supreme commander of America’s war effort in Europe will be Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Speaking for about half an hour, the president in effect delivers yet another inspirational “fireside chat.” It is clear from this segment that he president does, indeed, understand the power of this still relatively new medium, and that the right words and intonation can positively affect the mood of the country.

The Army Air Force Orchestra concludes the program with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the NBC announcer again apologizes for the network having pre-empted “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”

It is difficult for us today to imagine what effect this broadcast might have had on its listenership across the country. We know a large audience tuned in, though there appears to be no ratings information available. We also know it was one of the first times in which people from so many points of the globe were able to speak live on a radio broadcast, letting their fellow Americans hear –in real time – what life was like where they were and how they were spending the holiday.

Despite expected technical hitches, this historic broadcast almost certainly accomplished its goal. Families felt a bit closer to their loved ones – more than 3.5 million Americans were deployed overseas at the time of the show – on this special night of the year

“Christmas Eve at the Front” can be heard today in its entirety – blemishes and all – online, including on YouTube and the Old Time Radio Downloads site.

Don Keith is a best-selling author and award-winning broadcast journalist.