Tube City Almanac

December 22, 2008

Visit to Santa, 1963

Category: General Nonsense, History || By

Longtime friend, mentor and Alert Reader Clarke emailed me over the weekend. He's addicted to Turner Classic Movies --- and when it comes to addictions, that's not a bad one to have.

If you ever watch TCM, you know that between the features, the network fills time with "short subjects" such as newsreels, "trailers," and advertising and public domain films.

"So I'm sitting here watching a short film on TCM, entitled 'A Visit to Santa (1963),'" Clarke writes. "I wasn't paying much attention until I noticed Santa was on the Gateway Clipper. A few minutes later, he's on a Christmas float going past the Penn-McKee."

Sweet baby you-know-who in a manger. He hit the motherlode. A quick dash around the Internet tubes turned up a copy at the Internet Archive, where you can download your very own copy of "A Visit to Santa."

. . .

It's almost all shot in Downtown McKeesport (except for a brief side trip to Olympia Shopping Center) with plenty of footage of what must have been the 1962 "Salute to Santa" parade.

A quick search found several websites that discussed "A Visit to Santa," and most people called it one of the worst films they've ever seen. ("What the holy hell is this crap?" is one of the kinder comments at Internet Archive, which describes the film as "grueling.")

As a work of art, it's definitely lacking something. Produced by Pittsburgh's Clem Williams Films, the 11-minute short follows two young children (called "Dick and Ann," because "Jane" was copyrighted) as they fly in a "magic helicopter" to the North Pole to visit Santa's workshop ... which turns out to look an awful lot like the toy department inside The Famous at the corner of Fifth and Market.

(At least I think it's the Famous. It's not Murphy's or Green's, and Cox's didn't have wooden floors or old fashioned wooden columns like the store in the film.)

The pace is glacial, the music (Christmas carols played on a chord organ) is insipid, and the narration is one step below story hour at the library.

But boy, check out some of the scenery!

I'm not sure where these shots were taken. It looks to me like it might be the old Point Park in Pittsburgh before the Manchester and Point bridges were torn down, but I wouldn't want to bet on it.

"Every year just before Thanksgiving, he starts the merry yuletide by visiting towns and cities all around the world," the narrator says. "He makes his jolly trip in many different ways. He arrives by riverboat and finds many new friends along the way."

(I must have missed the verse of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" when Santa needs to take a tugboat down the Monongahela, but I digress. We come not to bury "A Visit to Santa," but to spot the landmarks.)

That's the intersection of Fifth and Market, Downtown. The awning of Kadar's Men's Store is visible to the left, while in the background you can see the old Market Street School (soon to become part of CCAC South Campus), the Elks Temple and the Famous. (All of those buildings burned down in the 1976 fire. The space where the Famous was is currently occupied by the NSOF social hall.)

"In many towns, the marching bands step out and step lively to the merry Christmas tunes," the narrator says.

Says the narrator: "Now, isn't that nice? They even have a big mail box to help Santa collect his letters from the boys and girls!"

That's Market Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. On the left is Hunter-Edmundson-Striffler Funeral Home. Directly behind the parade float is Market Street School, the Elks Temple (notice the "WMCK" sign hanging out front?) and the Famous.

"The little elves parade, too!" More shots of Market Street. The second view is taken from the corner of Sixth and Market, looking toward the Monongahela River. That's Immanuel United Presbyterian Church on the right.

Between the church and Fifth Avenue you can see a Western Union office, a loan agency (Beneficial Finance, maybe? HFC was in the Peoples Union Bank) and the Market Street exit of the Memorial Theater.

Notice what you don't see in the background --- U.S. Steel hadn't yet begun construction of its electric-resistance weld mill (the present Camp-Hill Corp. plant at the foot of Market Street), but slum clearance had already removed most of the old "First Ward."

At left, the corner of The Famous, and just visible are Ohringer's Furniture and the top of the old Stone's Furniture Store ("Try Stone's for Soft Beds").

In the 1960s, Stone's was occupied by Wander Sales and was used as a warehouse for Schulhof's Tires; I'm pretty sure the building was struck by lightning and burned circa 1963. (The lot is now the site of the state liquor store, check-cashing outlet, Family Dollar and Sherwin-Williams.)

(Incidentally, several people emailed me to say that this year's Salute to Santa parade was nice, but too long. I don't know about that, but I know that this parade seems much longer.)

"With all of the big new shopping centers opening, Santa has to use his new rocket to get around," the narrator says, "but he still uses his reindeer on Christmas eve."

(I'm glad he clarified that, because the thought of an ICBM streaking toward my house on Dec. 24 would make visions of Weird Al Yankovic dance in my head.)

That's Olympia Shopping Center, which was two years old in 1962 (if that's when these shots were filmed). Thrift Drugs --- whose successor, Rite Aid, just recently vacated its longtime corner location --- is visible in the background.

"For Dick and Ann, their visit is almost over, but Santa's saved his pride and joy 'til last," the narrator says, "they'll take his rocket to the super Toy Town trains!" (If Toy Town has a rocket, why does it need trains?)

The Famous burned when I was two years old, but I suspect that's the basement. None of McKeesport's other department stores would have looked like that, except maybe Hirshberg's and Helmstatder's. But I don't think Hirshberg's sold many toys, and I don't think Helmstatder's ever used its basement as a salesfloor.

Ditto for these scenes --- if they were shot in McKeesport, then I suspect they were shot at The Famous, because I don't think any of the other department stores had those high ceilings and wooden floors, nor would they have had the space to dedicate this much room to toys.

That's some stereotypical late 1950s department store scene, though. You can almost envision Jack Benny being confronted by an unctuous floorwalker (played by Frank Nelson).

. . .

And that's about it, except for the moral, delivered by the jolly old elf himself: "Always remember, the entire Christmas celebration commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, hundreds of years ago."

Why was this film made? Who knows? According to a newspaper obituary I found in an online database, Clem Williams died in 2003 in Seminole, Fla., so I can't ask him.

Clem Williams Films was founded sometime before 1945 (the earliest reference I can find) and lasted until at least the mid-1980s. A check of various library databases indicates that the company rented cartoons, popular movies and industrial films to high schools and colleges, but was probably best known for distributing highlight films from the Steelers, Pirates and other sports teams and was located at 2240 Noblestown Road until 1985. The building is now a church called Calvary Chapel.

If I had to make a guess, I'll bet this was designed to be shown at elementary schools to very small children who might be afraid of Santa.

(Every Catholic school kid of a certain age can remember the dreaded "movie day," usually right before the Christmas break, when everyone traipsed down to the cafeteria or gymnasium to watch a scratchy 16-mm film. My friend Steve called them "Scotch tape capers" because so many of the prints broke and had to be patched with you-know-what.)

. . .

This certainly isn't Clem Williams' best work (some Internet critics call it, unkindly, "the worst Christmas film ever produced"), and it sure doesn't hold much interest for anyone who isn't from McKeesport.

But for McKeesporters of a certain age, it's a sure-fire Academy Award-winner, and we can thank Mr. Williams for preserving --- albeit inadvertently --- some great shots of Our Fair City during the holidays!

. . .

(Watch "A Visit to Santa" in all of its grainy glory here. And if you spot yourself in the crowd scenes, post the information in the comments section.)

Your Comments are Welcome!

You know, this movie is so bad that its actually really good. And being from McKeesport – I think it should get an Oscar. That really made my Christmas – I enjoyed that!
John - December 22, 2008

the shot at the point is the Allegheny from about 6th st. that’s the end of the 10th st bypass, you can see the Ft Duq bridge approach piers, and that’s the old manchester bridge behind it, at least, i think it is. sure looks like the bridge in the background
Derrick - December 22, 2008

Always good to see old home movies of the local area. The Santa at 3:49 looks to be “Uncle Ed” Schaughency from KDKA TV and Radio.
And that does look like the Famous. I was part of the work crew that converted the old department store into the Gold Coast discount store about 1968. I remember the Famous fire quite vividly. I was returning a rental truck that day to the truck rental place on Walnut St in Christy Park, across from, IIRC, The Hi-Fy. I could see the plume of smoke downtown and fire trucks screaming by on Walnut.
Bill Huston - December 22, 2008

Great movie. I was born and grew up in New Castle (very similar to McKeesport in those days), and we had almost the exact same parades. Both downtowns have gone through the same upheaval.
George - December 23, 2008

“Every Catholic school kid of a certain age can remember the dreaded “movie day,” usually right before the Christmas break, when everyone traipsed down to the cafeteria or gymnasium to watch a scratchy 16-mm film. My friend Steve called them “Scotch tape capers” because so many of the prints broke and had to be patched with you-know-what.) “

Hey, reminds me of the Bell Telephone movie they used to show with marionettes performing the story of The Nativity and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”
Thee dude - December 23, 2008

That movie was made before my time but I did like seeing our fair city. Does anyone know where the shots of the train set were taken?

You could tell waht era it was from when they talked about the doll shop. It says “A doll for little girls is spun to wash to dress and spank” I don’t think that type of advertising would fly today.

It is a bad movie but interesting to know that it was made right here in our city.
Chris - December 23, 2008

Awesome piece of McKeesport History. I have shown it to numerous people and many believe the toy area to be Gimbels in Downtown Pittsburgh. They had a decorated (like the rocket ship) elevator that went to the top floor only during christmas to the special toy department.
Adam Spate - December 23, 2008

Some great memories in this clip. Mc Keesport l963. Great Days. Always remember how powerful that Mc Keesport High School Marching Band was. Big drum line and powerful sound. The steel mills were humming and everyone had a job some where. You could spend a day shopping in Mc Keesport and bump into all your buddies from high school and talk about all the football games and upcoming sports functions. Parking was tough downtwon then because everyone and I mean everyone wanted to come to Mc Keesport and share in the Christmas events. Murphys cafeteria was always crowded and you had your choice of a lot of movies to go to. Live Music was Big and disc jockeys were there but no big deal. If you needed Lionel or American Flyer trains you had Odos Hobby Shop. You wanted a good fish sandwich you went to Lipperts. Sams Hot dogs still were the best. Back to Mc Keesport Tiger Marching Band. They were the Tops around. The Mc Keesport Marching Band in those days under the direction of Joe Krysik Learned a BRAND NEW HALF TIME SHOW EACH WEEK> repeat they did a new Half time Show every week. The band did not play the same show all season. Also back in l963 you could cruise in your cars All Customized to Eat N Park and the car hops would come out . Porky Chadwick was the daddy o of the radio and everyone seemed to be more happy and pleasant back then???? Today you might have more sophisticated equipment and electronics but the personal touch is not there. Class of l963. Great times in Mc Keesport.
Boom - December 25, 2008

grew up in Duquesne, but my mom would take me on the bus to Mckeesport to shop on Saturdays. the sidewalks were so crowded you could hardly move and the butchers shops had sawdust on the floors and the smoked meat aroma made your stomach growl. Greens five and ten had the wonderful smell of rosted nuts and the Memorial theatre used to show 25 cartoons for a quarter. it was a great place back then.
Dave - December 27, 2008

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