Turn on your television on Christmas Eve at 8 and flip to Bay News 9. What you'll see is four hours of a burning log set to Christmas carols. • This log is the local version of a holiday tradition that dates back to 1966 and since then has been seen many times by many millions. • Was The Yule Log the first music video? Was it the first reality show? Was it a postmodern adaptation of the age-old custom of villagers in distant cultures and centuries felling seasonal logs for warmth and light?
It aired in the beginning only in New York. By now, almost half a century later, it can be seen in Philadelphia, Seattle, Miami, Denver, St. Louis and so on. It can be seen in high-definition, in 3D and on DVD, with titles like Just Logs, Just Flames and Visions of Tranquility. The Associated Press has called it "one of television's oddest yet most heartwarming holiday habits," and the San Francisco Chronicle has called it "one of the two or three best ideas in the history of television."
But the seeds of the story of the log, believe it or not, start right here, in Florida's sandy soil.
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Tampa. Turn of the 20th century. A man named Henry E. Snow was a businessman in real estate, active in Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, and one of the city's "best known and best loved citizens," his obituary would later say. He also was the grandfather of Frederick Mitchell Thrower II, born in 1910, a child of Bayshore Boulevard.
Fred M. Thrower grew up to be the father of the TV Yule log. He invented it.
He was all set to start medical school at the University of Virginia when the Depression hit. He was in New York visiting and his dad sent him a telegram from Tampa. Banks closed. No more school money. Get a job.
He started filing records in NBC's music library. From there, he went to ABC, to CBS and then to WPIX, an independent station in the New York metropolitan area, where he climbed the corporate ladder to the top.
He was, says his son, Mitch Thrower, "a kind of idea Santa Claus," a father who would sit with his kids in a hammock and look up at the sky and try to see stories and shapes in the clouds, "a decent man unafraid to suggest a humble, corny idea."
In a memo dated Nov. 2, 1966, the Tampa-born TV man told his staff he was thinking of doing something different on Christmas Eve. Instead of the scheduled tape of roller derby, he envisioned four hours of a log on fire, set to seasonal music, and with no commercials — "a WPIX CHRISTMAS CARD to our viewers."
"The effect," he wrote, "is that the television set became a fireplace."
And don't make it too fancy, he warned. Keep it simple.
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The original piece of footage, 17 seconds of 16mm film, was shot in New York's mayor's mansion. It lasted four Christmases.
In 1970, WPIX made new film, six and a half minutes long this time, which has been digitally remastered but is mostly unchanged and still plays this time of year all over America. It is acknowledged as the authentic, original log.
In the New York area in the '70s and '80s, it became a bona fide holiday tradition, a ritual as real as any other. People came to count on the annual signal to slow down and sit still. The TV was the new hearth of the home, and families gathered around.
"It's the thing on television," the new WPIX president told the New York Times in 1984, "that in my experience brings together the holiday thoughts."
Thoughts and feelings are free except when they aren't. In 1989, WPIX played it only on Christmas Day, not on Christmas Eve. Then, in 1990, the log was gone. That was a lot of valuable air to waste on content with no commercials. The log on the screen wasn't the only thing burning up in that fire.
A lot of people complained. They missed it. Others, though? It was the '90s, and the '90s, maybe, were too cool for the log.
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In its TV absence, log devotees clung to the past by turning to the future, where on the Internet they clicked onto TheYuleLog.com. Nostalgia for nostalgia. Lawrence F. "Chip" Arcuri started the site as "a tribute to the man who thought enough of humanity to try and interject a little warmth and joy into people's hearts at Christmastime. . . ."
"It wasn't just a piece of celluloid with the image of a flickering fireplace flying through the airwaves," he wrote. "It was a symbol. A symbol of a simpler time."
Then came 2001. After the terrorist attacks, WPIX decided to bring back the log, saying New Yorkers needed the TV equivalent of "comfort food." Viewers responded by making it the holiday ratings winner in the nation's media megalopolis.
"You're being consoled, maybe, by its warmth and its reverence and the spirit that it conveys of love and brotherhood and joy," Arcuri said last week from his home in North Jersey. "It soothes the soul. It tells you that in the end it will be all right."
"I think it goes back to the core of humanity, and to the core of TV," Mitch Thrower said from his office in Southern California, where he's an entrepreneur, "and that is we are all gathered around something, and we're all unified in a moment of time."
Since its televised return, the log, the WPIX original and so many earnest imitations, has spread from New York to the rest of the Northeast and then beyond. Washington. Atlanta. Dallas. Los Angeles.
This year, Time Warner Cable announced: "To experience Holiday Yule Log in 3D, viewers need a 3D TV with matching 3D glasses." So far this season, more than 4,000 customers, bespectacled, have streamed the 3D log more than 19,000 times.
And anybody with a computer can watch it anytime, anywhere, even though some of the comments on YouTube are more hardy har har than ho ho ho.
"I liked the part where the log was on fire."
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This year is the 10th anniversary of the log on Bay News 9. The Tampa Bay area's 24-hour news channel plays its own unique footage along with Christmas music and occasional news and weather updates along the bottom of the screen. It plays on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day, which is "the way it should be," says Arcuri of TheYuleLog.com.
Bay News 9 started doing it, said Kate Fox, the director of enhanced programming, "to do something a little different on a night when people don't want to listen to who was murdered and what fire happened."
E-mails to the station suggest it's appreciated.
"Your program brought back many happy memories. …"
"The scene and carols reminded us of our youth, our daughter singing them in the church choir. …"
The fireplace in the Bay News 9 film belongs to Curt and Sharon Lamm. They live in Palm Harbor. They bought two packages of Publix logs before Christmas in 2000 to set the fire for the cameras to record. "Our friends say it's just perfect," Curt Lamm said the other day on the phone.
They don't usually light a fire in their fireplace for Christmas. They don't have to. They can watch it on their 50-inch flat screen.
Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751.