Amahl and the Night Visitors – the Christmas special almost lost to time

Let’s put a few things aside. Frosty, Rudolph, Charlie Brown, the Grinch, George Bailey, Natalie Wood pulling on Kris Kringle’s beard, a bevy of movies with Lacey Chabert – the holiday season is filled with TV specials and feel-good movies.

Let me introduce you to one holiday special that, in its day, was appointment television, just as much as waiting for Rudolph or Frosty or Charlie Brown or the Grinch.

Amahl and the Night Visitors was a production of the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV anthology series, and it was re-staged and re-broadcast for nearly two decades. This was “prestige” television in the days before PBS. Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera specifically written and staged for television, would later be re-performed as one of the first color broadcasts in TV history.

This is the extremely rare 1951 kinescope broadcast of Amahl and the Night Visitors, featuring an introduction by the opera’s creator, Gian Carlo Menotti.

As I said before, the opera was re-staged each year, airing often on Christmas Eve. The 1963 NBC broadcast was filmed for re-broadcast in 1964 and 1965, and this 1963 edition – rebroadcast with a 1964 intro – features the hosts as Kukla, Fran and Ollie – at that time one of the most popular children’s TV characters on the air.

And here’s a staged performance from 1978 – this time, instead of the opera appearing on an NBC soundstage, the production was filmed in Israel.

There’s actually a reasonable amount of Amahl and the Night Visitors tie-in merchandise for this annual opera. RCA Victor produced several 45 RPM boxed sets and LP’s with the music.

I’m not going to lie – there are some seriously cringe-worthy moments in the 1951 performance, most notably the appearance of one of the Kings in lampblack makeup. Yeah, no. But for what it is, an earnest appeal to the innocence of childhood and the miracles to happen on such a wondrous moment in time … I’m glad that future productions updated and modernized those more unsavory broadcast tropes.

That being said, Amahl and the Night Visitors has fallen to the days when the Hallmark Hall of Fame was a prestige broadcasting anthology series and not a collection of seven thousand Christmas romance films with the same plot and the same actors.

Hmm… wonder what would happen if they actually showed this original Hallmark Hall of Fame program on … oh, I don’t know … the Hallmark Channel? 😀