(Date Posted:12/22/2006 16:41)
'Log's Life' follows Yule trailblazers
It's cool to watch the Yule Log.
When WPIX-TV first announced its plan to broadcast, from 9 p.m. to midnight on Christmas Eve 1966, a closeup of a fireplace in which a Yule log burned while Christmas carols played, one newspaper headline trumpeted it as "Three Crackling Hours of TV."
That was 40 years ago, and for most of the intervening years, Channel 11's "Yule Log" has been an area institution. In honor of its 40th anniversary, WPIX presents a new one-hour documentary tracing the origin of the holiday TV offering, as well as the reasons for its disappearance and recent reinstatement.
"The WPIX Yule Log: A Log's Life" premieres tonight at 7. It's repeated twice tomorrow (3 p.m. and 1:30 a.m.), and again on Christmas Day, right after the 9 a.m.-noon broadcast of the "Yule Log" itself.
Produced by Jim Watkins, Kaity Tong and Marvin Scott, and narrated in tag-team fashion by Julie O'Neil, Jeremy Copes and Carlos Austin, "A Log's Life" is as pleasantly warming as that TV hearth seems to be.
It's a humble, and even sweet special about an well-meaning and endearing tradition. It's also the story of some dreamers: One concocted the idea as a "Christmas card to viewers," the other was a fan of a briefly dormant Yule Log, whose Web site efforts led to its Christmastime revival.
Credit for TV's "Yule Log" belongs to WPIX executive Fred Thrower, who was inspired by a Coca-Cola ad featuring Santa warming himself by a cozy fireplace. His concept was to carve out several hours on Christmas Eve and present - without commercial interruption or sponsorship - a film loop of a holiday fire in closeup, for the benefit of New Yorkers without working fireplaces.
His detailed memo, penned appropriately by visionary NBC pioneer Sylvester (Pat) Weaver (whose memos spawned "Today," "Tonight" and the idea of the TV special itself), warned against making the presentation too fancy.
"I think," he wrote, "if this idea is kept startlingly simple, that is its best chance of being effective."
And so it was: a 17-minute loop of 16mm color film, cycled for three hours while Christmas carols played and WPIX-FM provided a simulcast.
The documentary is big on little details. The original fireplace was one of a dozen at Gracie Mansion, but when the station set out to replace the aging film with new footage, the mayor's office refused to allow access. (Last time out, popping embers had burned holes in a $4,000 rug.)
The new loop, filmed on 35mm in 1970, was 6-1/2 minutes long. It provided the video for the "Yule Log" special shown on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day until it was pulled in 1989.
That would be the end of the story, if not for Joe Malzone, creator of theyulelog.com, which got enough hits to revive interest in the holiday tradition.
In 1999, Ch. 11 put the "Yule Log" on its Web site - and on Christmas morning in 2001, after 9/11, "Yule Log" returned to TV. Thanks to Malzone and record collector Lawrence (Chip) Arcuri, it now plays with the original 1966 playlist intact.