The best-selling single in history is Bing Crosby singing Irving Berlin’s, “White Christmas.” The single was released in 1942. The film of the same name starring Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and others wouldn’t be released until 1954. The idealized mid-20th century Christmas has become enshrined as a popular retro holiday mood over the decades. Matt Zembrowski and Milwaukee Entertainment Group celebrate the era with Bing Crosby Christmas on the Air—a live tribute show to the golden age of radio. Zembrowski plays Crosby welcoming guest performer Lori Nappe as Rosemary Clooney. The pair are joined by Paula Foley Tillen as pianist Skitch Henderson and Michael Skocir as radio announcer Ken Carpenter. Songs included on the program find a variety of influences as mid-twentieth century songwriters experimented with different locales and musical inspirations. Standards like “The First Noel,” “The Christmas Song,” and “White Christmas” are joined by less traditional mid-century stuff like “Mele Kalikimaka,” and “Christmas in Kilarney.”
It takes a lot of courage to play such recognizable celebrities in an intimate theatre setting. Zembrowski and company glide onstage with confidence in a live theatre approximation of a live Christmas NBC radio show circa 1950-something. Zembrowski and Nappe have very distinctive voices that are distinctly unlike Crosby and Clooney. More often than not, there are moments when their voices come strikingly into synch with memory of old recordings. Time and again, old Christmas songs dreamily resonate into a life somewhere between memory and the moment.
Michael Skocir brings the precise diction and deliver of a mid-20th century radio announcer with uncanny fidelity. The over-the-air ads for Philco radios and Chesterfield cigarettes are clever additions to the show from an era when ads were polished, formal and ingratiating.
It’s interesting to dive into the basement of an old mansion for this kind of show. Crosby’s recordings have been around for half a century. It was a much different time back then. Aside from the big radio on many living rooms, radio was much more of a fixed medium during the era of live radio. Granted, there were car radios back then, but the first in-car FM radio had just been introduced in 1952. The only popular form of record was a phonograph. People listening to Bing Crosby Christmas music back when it was first released would have been pretty tethered to one location.
Things are so sophisticated with media these days. People listen to holiday music on phones with earbuds while casually shoveling snow or cutting down a christmas tree. There can be music from several decades on shuffle at a Christmas party where everyone’s taking pictures and video that can be seen on phones all over the planet instantaneously. Christmas music from over half a century of recording is available in just about any environment while doing just about anything. Quite often the music is a minor wallpaper in the background. It’s nice to get back to an era when a holiday pop music show was something that required some kind of focus. Zembrowski and company present an evening celebrating an era when a Christmas radio show was a reason to make plans with the family. It’s charming.
Milwaukee Entertainment Groups’s Bing Crosby Christmas On the Air runs through Dec. 23 at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 West Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Entertainment Group online.