This Christmas - NELSON featuring Carnie and Wendy Wilson
Yesterday afternoon I abducted my reluctant daughter Maureen Murfin to attend Christmas with the Nelsons at the Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake for a matinee performance. I won a pair of tickets from the silent auction a few weeks ago at the Tree of Life UU Congregation in McHenry. I was the only bidder. Frankly, expectations were not high.
The Nelsons, Mathew and Gunnar, are the twin sons of teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson who charted pop hits of their own in the ‘90’s best known for their long blond hair—they joked that they were once the Nelson Sisters, Farrah Fawcett and Joni Mitchell. But wait, there’s more! They are also the grandsons of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson whose family was featured in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, at television staple that ran from 1952 to 1966—the longest running family sitcom until The Simpsons.
Ozzie was a saxophone player and dance band leader who hired Harriet Hilliard, a former teenage vaudevillian and chorine as his girl singer in 1933. The couple married in 1935 the year the band had its only number one hit, And Then Some. They were very successful on radio with band broadcasts, guest appearance, and regular slots on the variety program The Baker's Broadcast and Red Skelton Show during the war years.
Still billed as Hilliard, Harriet had a successful film career on her own under contract to RKO. She is best remembered as Ginger Rogers’ gal pal in Follow the Fleet with Fred Astaire. She played second leads in studio A pictures and starred in low-budget Bs—mostly throw-a-way musicals, comedies, and even a thriller. A couple of times she appeared with her husband including Sweetheart of the Campus in which Ruby Keeler made her final musical film appearance—a major comedown from her 42nd Street.
After Skelton was drafted in 1944 the couple launched the radio version of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, a domestic comedy with actors playing their young sons David and Ricky. The boys took over their own parts in 1949. The whole family appeared together in the 1952 film Here Come the Nelsons with Rock Hudson, of all people. The flick doubled as a pilot for a TV version of the radio program.
The family in the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
The boys grew up on the series in which the family’s real life California home was used for exteriors and the sound-stage interiors were based on the home. No longer connected to show business, Ozzie, who always seemed to be around the house, had no identifiable occupations to support their solidly middle class life-style. The series introduced Ricky as singer leading to his phenomenally successful career. When the boys grew up and married their wives—June Blair and Kristin Harmon were written into the series and eventually their young children.
Ricky Nelson easily attained stardom on his own based on his good looks and personality sometimes seen as a wholesome version of Elvis Pressley. He had a string of hits including hitting Number 1 on the Billboard charts with Poor Little Fool and Travelin’ Man and had a brief early ‘60’s film career with supporting roles in Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin and The Wackiest Ship in the Army with Jack Lemmon.
The Nelson twins Mathew and Gunnar with their father Ricky when he got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The British invasion dimmed Ricky’s star as it did with many teen idols. He continued to record and tour by the early ‘70’s he was consigned to the Oldies circuit of county fairs and packaged tours. At home in California he became part of the country-rock genre developing around Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon. Long-time fans resisted his new music and he felt that he was booed off stage during an Oldies concert at Madison Square Garden. The result was Garden Party which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts and revived his career.
Ricky Nelson died in a plane crash on December 31, 1985, flying from Guntersville, Alabama, to Dallas, Texas, for a concert. He was only 45 and was laid to rest next to Ozzie in Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery.
The Nelsons in their glory days as a pop sensation.
His twin sons had been playing local Los Angeles clubs since they were 14. Four years after their father’s death the duo had breakthrough success with their double platinum debut album After the Rain, which featured the No. 1 hit (Can't Live Without Your) Love and Affection. After struggling with their original label, Geffen Records they have put out more than a dozen CDs on their own Stone Canyon label. They moved from Southern California to Nashville while much of their music became more country oriented. They continue to tour as a duo and also with the multi-media show Ricky Nelson Remembered and Scrap Metal—celebrity all-star rock band with a rotating cast of ‘80’s era heavy metal band members from acts like Slaughter, Night Ranger, and Vixen.
And they have made this Christmas show an annual event and have released two Christmas albums, This Christmas (2015) and This Christmas Too (2016).
So how was the show? Heavy on Nelson family nostalgia and self-depreciating humor. It opened showing an entire Christmas episode of the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet running about 23 minutes without commercials. While there was the expected gentle humor it must be said that the show has not worn well, which might explain its notable absence from any of the old TV cable channels. But the episode did hint at Ozzie’s reported control issues and perfectionism.
Then the boys—now well into their 50’s but still youthful looking—bounded on stage. Backed by a solid drummer and a stand out female country fiddler—my apologies for not catching her name which was not mentioned in the printed program—The Nelsons put on an entertaining show blending film and video clips, family lore, and comic set pieces like “The Most Dangerous Christmas Toys” mixed with take on seasonal standards with a country rock twist. They sang-along with a video of their father to Travelin’ Man. A nice enough way to pass a holiday season afternoon although certainly not a program to be remembered among all-time favorites.
Maureen’s Facebook review summed it up:
I am not now, nor have I ever been cool. However whatever street cred I may have accidentally acquired over the years has surely just gone out the window as I attended Christmas with the Nelsons with my father. I was prepared for something really hideous. I am too young to have been a fan of Ozzie and Harriet, Ricky, or even the Nelson brothers in their heyday. However, I must admit it was an endearing show and certainly helped set the right tone for the Christmas season.
An original highlight of the show was the song This Christmas which they made a throw-away claim to have reached No. 1 on some kind of list—probably a new holiday music chart for downloads or YouTube hits. At any rate, I had never heard the song before. It was catchy enough but not likely to reach the holiday canon. They performed it along with a video pairing them with Carnie and Wendy Wilson of Wilson Phillips and like the boys offspring of a famous father—Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.