Tag Archives: thanksgiving

Greene Avenue, 1930

My grampa isn’t my grampa yet, so let’s call him Frank. Frank lives in Brooklyn or Queens, depending on what year it is. He doesn’t change his address, but the borough containing that address changes with the whims of city surveyors.

The subway is a recent addition to his neighborhood. The place is rapidly urbanizing, but there are still some signs of its small town past, like farms. A few small farms lie nearby, some only a few blocks away.

Thanksgiving is on the horizon, and Frank’s dad wants to take advantage of this proximity. He knows a farmer close by with more turkeys than he knows what to do with. Rather than drop way too much dough on a bird from the butcher, Frank’s dad figures he can buy one of these young turkeys, raise it in his backyard, and get it nice and fat in time for the big holiday. He doesn’t have a very big backyard, but how much room does a turkey need, really? All they do is eat and sleep. He’s seen neighbors raise chickens and roosters in their backyards. A turkey can’t be any harder.

This calculation doesn’t take into account Frank, and his sister Kathy. Once the turkey comes home and takes up residence in the backyard, they look upon it not as a future meal, but a pet. Frank and Kathy bring it scraps from the dinner table. They pet it and play with it, even though the concept of “play” seems too complex for a turkey to grasp. They name him Tom.

This presents a dilemma for Frank’s dad. He knows the kids are attached to the turkey and don’t want to see it slaughtered. He is inclined by nature to make them happy. He is not the whip-cracking type of dad, but a sentimental sort, a lover of pranks, a story teller. He ushers at St. Aloysius on Sundays, then goes from church straight to The Eagle’s Nest to bartend and exchange jokes.

Frank’s dad is also a Great War veteran. He served in France to display his patriotism at a time when the propaganda of the age said the True Americanism of anyone of German descent was suspect, a time. And it is 1930, which means Frank’s dad is a dad at the beginning of the Great Depression. He cannot afford to simply throw away food, even food whose name is Tom.

So despite his fun-loving, accommodating nature, Frank’s dad takes the turkey, chops its head off, plucks it, and hands the carcass off to Frank’s mom, who will cook it.

If the idea behind killing the bird was to not waste food, this proves poor reasoning. Frank’s mom and dad eat, but Frank and Kathy do not. They sit in their seats at the dinner table and stare at pieces of what was once their pet and burst out crying, wailing “oh, Tom…” Frank’s dad sees no point in berating his children, but reminds them that this is all the food they have. They can eat this on Thanksgivng or eat nothing. They choose nothing.

Frank will become my grampa and he will tell me this story, and in his telling it will be a funny story. He will imitate his young self crying over a turkey and laugh at the memory. He will have gone to war in a strange land, just like his father, and will come home in one piece and have to raise children on a tight budget, like his father. In his rearview, the plight of a turkey will come to seem like small potatoes.

You could call this cold or cruel, but I know my grampa was not a cold or cruel man. Just the opposite, just like his own father. Grampa just knew that parenting requires difficult decisions, and in a no-win situation, perhaps laughter is called for.

I believe that today of all days, if you can use your childhood pain not for brooding, but for laughing, then you should be thankful.

Stew Leonard’s Red Legged Mountain Turkeys

Last summer, I attempted to relaunch my on-again, off-again podcast, Holy Goddamn! I only managed to get through two full episodes before time, tide, and the affairs of man intervened to make it impossible to do the show with any regularity. However, I did construct a bunch of dumb audio bitlets for it that made me laugh, and I didn’t want much more out of the whole thing than that.

Thanksgiving’s imminent arrival brought to mind a thread that ran through one of these episodes. If you live in the tri-state area, this is the time of year when you hear radio ads for Stew Leonard’s. These commercials feature the store’s namesake on site at the farm where he’s acquired some wonderful items for his stores just in time for this holiday season. More often than not, these items are some kind of poultry that cluck and gobble loudly, seemingly unaware of their fate.

In my version, Stew has imported tons of rare poultry (“red legged mountain turkeys”) from high atop the Colorado Rockies, just in time for the holidays! Unfortunately, Stew gets much more than he bargained for, as each subsequent commercial demonstrates.

Now you can hear all the ads strung together as one brief saga, so that they might live anew. Enjoy!

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Download here.

Slice of Turkey: Laugh-In, 1993

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade plays by a set of rules all its own. Not in the sense that they get to do whatever they want (although if they could run over pedestrians with impunity, that might make for a more exciting presentation). I mean more in the sense that they sincerely believe that they must go about their business in a very certain way, or else.

For instance, they seem to labor under the misapprehension that you simply can’t have a celebrity appear. They must sing. But they can’t just sing a song, either. The celebrity must also play some role, even if they’re not appearing in a Broadway show at the time. That role is, almost invariably, from a nursery rhyme or some other kids’ story. Why? That is a very good question.

Case in point: This clip from 1993, which features Laugh-In alums JoAnne Worley and Ruth Buzzi. They were ostensibly appearing in this event as promotion for a Laugh-In Christmas special that would soon air on NBC. So I wonder why, rather than appearing in outfits or as part of a setpiece that was more evocative of the famous swingin’ 60s sketch show, they had to dress in Little Bo Peep outfits and sing a song about meeting their prince(s).

There’s nothing materially wrong with any of this, of course. Both ladies seem to be into it and are definitely not phoning in their performances. It just leaves me wondering why they had to do it. I’m imagining the OCD-addled head of Macy’s Pageantry informing these ladies, “No, you MUST wear these precious shepherd costumes and you MUST sing these songs. You can not appear as yourselves OR THE DEMONS ATTACK. THE DEMONS IN MY HEAD.”

Slice of Turkey: Phyllis Diller, 1986

As I said in my inaugural post for this series, when I was a kid, non-balloon segments during the Thanksgiving Parade would often send me scurrying away from the TV with sense of cringey embarrassment. This was particularly true if the person appearing on my screen was going to belt out a song, or if they were somebody I’d never heard of, or both. The sight of this cleared the living room faster than the opening theme to M*A*S*H (which to Kid Me represented the pinnacle of adultness/kid kryptonite).

Which means that, in all likelihood, I never saw the segment below when it happened. In fact, I’m positive I didn’t, because if I had, I think my brain would have boiled and poured out of my ears out of sheer mortification. It features Phyllis Diller as Mother Goose, for some reason. Look: Phyllis Diller was a trailblazer, a very first successful female comedian at a time when Joan Rivers was basically the only other woman standup. (Yes, I know there were more, but as far as nationally famous ones, that was pretty much it.) She was on Scooby-Doo in animated form! Who else can say that, other than Jonathan Winters and Batman?

What I’m saying is, she deserves to be judged on her finer accomplishments, which are not on display here. Her delivery suggests someone who either does not know her lines or is highly medicated, or both. Even accounting for this, many elements of the bit seem as if they were constructed purely to embarrass her.

As with many Thanksgiving parade non-balloon segments, the number of items that make no sense in this clip are legion. To wit:

  • Why is Diller’s rhyme as Mother Goose sort-of dirty? Isn’t this supposed to be for kids?
  • Why were the cue cards situated at an odd angle from Diller? Couldn’t they have just put them to the side of the camera and spare this poor woman the effort of craning her neck, not to mention the embarrassment?
  • Why is Pat Sajak “surprised” about her being Mother Goose, like she’s just parachuted onto the scene? What purpose does this “confusion” serve?
  • Why is Sajak delivering his lines as if he just swallowed a fistful of downers?
  • Why are cast members of Another World shoehorned into this segment? Or Victoria Jackson, for that matter? (Ironically, nowadays Jackson sounds a lot like Diller did back then.)
  • What is it about the Hickory Dickory Dock segment that sends Diller over the brink of insanity?
  • Why does she suddenly want to be Cinderella? Why is she dragged off the “stage” Sandman Sims style? You just set her up to fail, didn’t you? DILLER HAS BEEN FRAMED!

The quality of this clip leaves much to be desired. However, the historic nature of this live TV meltdown demands that it be shared nonetheless.

Slice of Turkey: Cabbage Patch Kids, 1984

I genuinely love the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I’ve always made sure to watch a healthy portion of it each year, and do so especially now that I have a child who is still amazed by enormous floating balloons. The parade is, however, undeniably ridiculous, particularly the float/performance segments that occur throughout the presentation. They seem to originate from some alternate universe where musical tastes evolved and we kept developing pop stars in various media, yet Broadway musicals remained the most popular form of expression and those musicals ramped up the camp factor a good 25 percent.

When I was a kid, I found these interludes so cringe-inducing I’d have to leave the room. “And now, here to sing a number from the revival of ‘Carousel’….” boom, I was gone. The nightmare scenario came when something I kid-loved was featured in one of these segments, because I felt compelled to watch it even though I knew it would be horrifying. For instance, Spider-Man and other super guys from the Marvel Universe fake-punch each other to the tune of “I Need A Hero.”

As an adult, however, I find these things hilarious. And so I’d like to present a Thanksgiving advent calendar of sorts by highlighting many such segments from the days of yore. This inaugural edition comes from the 1984 parade and features a float dedicated to that year’s hottest toy, the Cabbage Patch Kids. Remember when moms almost murdered each other to bring one home for their ungrateful children? That was fun. I’m pretty sure Cabbage Patch Kids were the first toys that people wanted so badly they literally beat the shit out of each other, so naturally they are recalled quite fondly these days.

In this bit, Tim Conway talk-sings about these lovable scamps, although many of his “lyrics” don’t sound remotely flattering. The animation of the Cabbage Patch Kids appears much better than I would think would be possible for the time, but their semi-articulated mouths in the middle of ginormous heads are still horrifying.

Then, some kind of evildoer who sounds kind of like a decrepit Baby Bob emerges, trailed by some other ne’er-do-wells who want to rid the world of Cabbage Patch Kids for typical Bad Guy Reasons. Tim Conway looks more fed up than annoyed by this turn of events. (“Great, now what?”) A Cabbage Patch Kid in an army helmet emerges, and he delivers one swift kick to the rear of the main bad guy, which is plenty to send them packing. It concludes with a fiddle solo from Conway and a few tidy dance moves too because, dammit, that man is a professional. You don’t become a cast member of The Carol Burnett Show for 800 years without being a showman.

But above all, I think my favorite part of this video is the fact that the float is lugged along by an ordinary, unadorned Dodge station wagon. I feel like some manager at Macy’s had to ask a maintenance guy to borrow it. “Hey man, can we ‘steal’ your truck for the weekend? Just need to move some lovable moppets with huge heads and Tim Conway. Don’t worry, we’ll gas ‘er up.”

Following the Cabbage Patch Saga, you can see longtime Broadway staple Kaye Ballard sing “Home for the Holidays,” followed by an appearance by the Raggedy Ann balloon. Upon further reflection, I think I may have been at this parade. One year the whole family went to watch it in person, en route my grandparents’ house in Queens. My littlest brother had a Raggedy Andy doll he carried everywhere at the time, and when he saw this balloon bobbing down Fifth Avenue, he lost it. THEY’RE STEALING MY DOLLY! he howled, even though he was clutching his own doll at the time. Did we ever let him forget this, despite the fact that he was two years old when he said it? What do you think?

Bonus! Here’s a bank of commercials from this broadcast, including an odd Timex ad that I recall, some high quality plastic watches, and a G.I. Joe trucking set (?). I think this last thing is the G.I. Joe equivalent of R.O.B.