Boomers Watched Santa On Radar

Tracking Santa Claus from the North Pole on Christmas Eve by radar is an example of a tradition that had its origins in the early boomer years and which continues today. Radar had been used, in rudimentary forms, as far back as the late 1930s. World War II advanced the use and technology. It was during the war that radar operators noticed that weather patterns gave them a noise reading; through experimentation, a Doppler Radar system was developed that could be used by the National Weather Service in the early 1960s. But that is getting ahead of our story.

The Cold War was in full swing in the 1950s and radar technology stood at the front lines of our defense systems. When your opponent could launch a missile attack at any time, the more advanced your radar system was, the earlier warning you’d have to mount a counter-offensive. So went the conversation in the schoolyard.

What we had were two seemingly-divergent radar paths — civilian and military use — that met one day in December of 1955. The story begins in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A Sears Roebuck store ran an ad in the local newspaper that gave children a “Santa hotline” number to call on Christmas Eve. Instead of reaching Santa, the mistyped number connected callers to the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). After receiving a few calls, Colonel Harry Shoup began telling children that even though they had the wrong number, they could rest assured that Santa was on his way because he was spotted on radar leaving the North Pole. The tradition began from then on. In 1958, Canada and the United States jointly created the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), which took over the duties of tracking Santa’s trek on Christmas Eve each year and reporting to TV stations. They would then air the report during the weather forecast.

For Mister Boomer, seeing the radar tracking of Santa Claus each year on the evening news seemed as commonplace as Cheerios and corn flakes in the morning. Of course NORAD could track Santa. Every schoolboy knew they were our military defense system.

The presentation of this “fact,” though, did leave much to be desired. Mister B recalls the station his parents watched most often showing a visual that was supposed to be Santa on his sleigh, being pulled by reindeer, flying overhead on the radar screen. The program, broadcast in black and white, was received on the family’s Sylvania TV and displayed on the tube in dull shades of gray that echoed the Midwestern December sky. For a full fifteen seconds, there it was: a lightbox with a cut-out of Santa’s sleigh and reindeer casting a hazy shadow on the “radar” screen. The now-familiar sweeping radar arm turned clockwise around the screen, illuminating a white, circular light when it reached the twelve o’clock position. Even for a six year old, the presentation had the feel of a project a dad might make in his garage.

Another channel’s presentation was even worse: they didn’t even bother to project an image. Instead, they literally stuck a white silhouette directly on their “radar” screen. Santa’s position didn’t move. Santa couldn’t move. Yet these and countless other TV stations reassured boomer children that Santa was on his way, with lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh.

The tradition lives on today with a technology update that lets kids track Santa even on a cell phone!

What memories of tracking Santa by radar can you recall, boomers?

Who’s the Leader of the Club?

When we boomers ran home after school and turned on the TV, we knew all the lyrics to the opening song of one of our favorite TV shows, and it was all about M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E! Of the many TV shows associated with early boomer times, The Mickey Mouse Club is among those remembered with great fondness.

Walt Disney opened his California Disneyland theme park on July 17, 1955. As a way of gaining further exposure for the park, he conceived of The Mickey Mouse Club as a companion TV show, to air alongside Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. This time, however, the show would be designed for kids, and to be broadcast in an after-school time slot. The first show aired on ABC on October 3, 1955. Right from the start, merchandising was a big part of the show’s branding. Like Davy Crockett before it, The Mickey Mouse Club gave us our own “club hat” to don when the show appeared on our TV screens. Can anyone — to this day — think about Disneyland or The Mickey Mouse Club without the ubiquitous mouse-eared hat?

In the beginning, Walt asked that the kids on the show be regular kids instead of professional entertainers and actors; that idea was quickly shelved, and the first cast of Mouseketeers was formed. Among the first batch of talented kids who would perform on the show was Annette Funicello. Born in 1942, she fit the profile Disney was looking for: under the age of fourteen and exhibiting a talent for singing and dancing. She was already a veteran performer, and quickly became a favorite of Walt Disney. Under contract with Walt, she went on to appear in numerous Disney films and TV shows such as Zorro, then starred in a series of “beach” movies in the 1960s with Frankie Avalon. She even released hit songs. In the mid-70s, she became the spokeswoman for Skippy Peanut Butter. Her career was underway at age 10, but skyrocketed due to her appearances on The Mickey Mouse Club.

Reruns of the show, and half-hour edited versions of the original show, were broadcast in the early 1960s.

Annette was one of the prime child stars of The Mickey Mouse Club. As such, she was part of the Red Team, which got the most air time. (The show created Red, White and Blue teams.) White and Blue Mouseketeers didn’t get to appear in the famous roll call segment, but rather attended live location appearances and filled roles in the filmed serials created for the show. Among the Mouseketeers in the second string were Don Grady, who later went on the star in the popular My Three Sons TV series; Tim Considine, a regular actor in Disney movies for years; and Johnny Crawford, who became a TV star in his own right on The Rifleman with Chuck Conners.

The Mickey Mouse Club was conceived as a variety show for kids. It had song and dance routines performed by the Mouseketeers, serials, news and a cartoon. Of course, Mickey Mouse was featured prominently in every episode. At the end of each show, the theme song was slowed down and once again, we could sing along at home: Now it’s time to say good-bye, to all our com-pan-y. M-I-C … see you real soon! K-E-Y … why? because we like you! M-O-U-S-E!

After being cancelled in 1959 due to budgetary and contract issues with ABC, The show was revived in the 1970s with a more diverse cast of Mouseketeers. Among the child stars from that incarnation who went on to greater fame was Lisa Whelchel, who later starred in The Facts of Life. Though not a Mouseketeer, Kurt Russell was signed to a long-term contract in 1960 by Walt Disney himself. He was considered the top star of Disney films through the 1970s. It is part of the Disney legend that Russell’s name was the last thing Disney wrote before he died.

The show proved to be the launching pad for the greatest number of child actors when it was revived once again in the 1990s. By this time, the format had been altered to more resemble Saturday Night Live than the original variety show theme. But what is most remembered from that era are the Mouseketeers who have became household names: Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Britney Spears, Keri Russell and Ryan Gosling have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of boomer-era Mouseketeers.

There aren’t many shows that can stake their nostalgic claim for three generations of kids. The Mickey Mouse Club will forever cast a round-eared shadow on children’s TV for years to come.

What is your recollection of The Mickey Mouse Club, boomers?