46 years ago on the Sunday before Thanksgiving a television special premiered starring Burl Ives, Lionel Hampton, Randy Sparks & The Back Porch Majority, and me. It was November 24, 1968, and I was just nine years old. Burl Ives was already a huge star known to many as the Wayfaring Stranger.
My mom said to call him Mr. Ives. Burl said I should just call him Burl. In those days, Burl Ives was to the holidays sort of what gravy is to turkey at Thanksgiving. He recorded “Holly Jolly Christmas,” a classic, along with “Silver and Gold,” and kids today still recognize his voice as that of Sam the Snowman as he sang Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
Born in 1909, Ives was just a couple years older than my own mom and dad, who had me as the last of five children, when they were almost 50. With Ives’ barrel chest, good nature and ready grin, it was easy to picture him as part of our Irish family. Soon after working with the old pro, it seemed like he was one of us, and he must have felt so, too.
Famous for “The Blue Tail Fly,” (aka “Jimmy Crack Corn”) and “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” Ives was an Academy Award Winner, Broadway-caliber actor, and a veteran of World War II. He was also a once-blacklisted artist who testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In 1968 – a volatile year in America – Ives, Hampton, Sparks and I appeared together in the KTTV syndicated television special, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” The whole show was filmed outdoors not far from Los Angeles. We’d meet at the studio early in the morning and then take a “stretch” together to location; it was my first time in a production limo. This one looked a lot like two station wagons welded together, but it was big enough to nap in and alright by me.
By the time we’d arrive on set it was already hot in the sun, so it must have been summer when we shot the special for its pre-Thanksgiving airing. I remember jumping around on rocks that were warm against my legs. It was the late sixties, so my bright green dress was super-short. Sitting and playing while they prepped the scene where jazz great Lionel Hampton calls forth amazing sounds from the rocks and stream, I had a feeling we were doing one of the coolest jobs in the world. We’d leave at night as the sun was setting. I think we only shot for a week or two, with another week in the studio putting the songs on tape, but the time I spent with these greats of the business was indelible.
All Things Bright and Beautiful opens with Burl singing a wistful tune and soon we hear the sounds of a little girl crying. The tears may have been “real” in that scene because crying on cue was one of my talents. What I remember most isn’t the crying, though, it’s the laughter, the singing, dancing, the sheer pretending and wonderful make-believe of it all.
It’s been decades since I’ve seen the program; it aired for many years when I had no interest in nostalgia. I could have taped it, but I never did. Last year, now that I care deeply, we were able to obtain a copy of the audio portion of the show from Archival Television Audio, Inc. They were kind enough to give me a 50% industry discount off the $85 price. To hear it now, Burl’s voice throughout with occasional splashes of mine, is truly priceless.
Industry trade paper Variety said at the time, “Tender and sentimental, it was time to prepare the populace for the day of thanks to come. This was the ebullient mood of the veteran balladeer and his contentment must have been contagious. It was more than a singer just moving around and piping his tunes wherever his journey took him. Here he was in the hands of seasoned people who gave Ives the great outdoors to cavort with his adorable youngster, ten year old Kellie Flanagan.”
My dad kept a scrapbook of all my jobs, reviews, advertisements, fan mail and publicity shots. He underlined my name in this story.
“What is more joyous than to see a cutie skipping in a meadow trying to keep up with her protector. She was ever with him and there must be a rush for her services now. She’s a doll and can take direction, too. ” Here, the underlining was particularly forceful. I’m pretty sure he faked Ives’ signature on the publicity still he gave me, or perhaps just wrote over the letters in a darker hand; either that or Burl’s writing was remarkably like my dad’s.
Variety continued, “For a pre-holiday musical feast, [All Things Bright and Beautiful] should be a perennial. With all the anger going on in the world its a welcome relief to hear the music of a contented man. It’s the kind of show that makes one feel good.” (Helm)
Throughout the show, Ives points out the many things the little girl has to be thankful for. Turns out, they are things I’m still thankful for today: a beautiful day, animals, trains, bells, little girls, and imagination.
We had a wonderful time filming the Thanksgiving special with Mr. Ives, and little did we know then, the best part was yet to come. On the night the show was set to air, the phone rang in our small Santa Monica home. It was Burl, inviting us to come over to the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, his home away from home. My mom, dad, me, my sister and nephew Erik all piled into the family’s Oldsmobile Cutlass for the last-minute trip into town. That’s how we came to spend an evening hanging out on a polar bear rug (remember, it was the sixties) with the Wayfaring Stranger, watching television and making memories.
Visit Kellie’s Facebook page.