“Church Christmas TV Special Ready,” Ensign, Dec. 1980, 64–65
Church Christmas TV Special Ready
“Mr. Kreuger’s Christmas,” a television special starring Jimmy Stewart, has been prepared by the Church’s Public Communications Department and filmed by Bonneville Productions for Christmas release.
Aimed at 150 markets in the United States and 10 in Canada, it will be shown between December 5–24. Once the special has been scheduled in a given area, local public communication directors will inform bishops and stake presidents so that they can announce it.
Jimmy Stewart plays Willie Kreuger, a lonely old widower and the custodian of an apartment building, who has no one to share his Christmas spirit with but his cat George and his fantasies of a richer life. One of those dreams comes to life when he puts on the Tabernacle Choir’s “White Christmas” album and finds himself, still dressed in his janitor’s clothes, conducting the choir in the Tabernacle.
Carolers stop by, and a little girl, Clarissa, leaves her mittens. Dreaming of helping her decorate his tiny Christmas tree, he finds himself decorating a tree on Temple Square, surrounded by all of the lights and glamor of that place at Christmas time. And bending over his small nativity set, he suddenly finds himself in a stable where shepherds breathlessly adore a newborn Child. In the most moving scene of the special, Stewart thanks the baby for helping him when his wife died, for teaching him to understand a lonely person in his building, for being with him. On his knees, he says, brokenly, almost astonished, “I love you.”
Clarissa and her mother, returning for her mittens, invite him to come caroling with them. The special ends with a message from the Church concerning the Savior. The events of the Savior’s life are woven through the life of a boy named Jeffrey Jensen. A scene of Mary holding the infant Jesus fades into a scene of Jeffrey’s parents holding him as a baby. The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist fades into a scene of Jeffrey as an eight-year-old, being baptized by his father. It ends with Jeffrey in the airport, scared but triumphant, leaving on his mission. By calling a toll-free number given at the end of this message, viewers can receive a booklet with scenes from the Savior’s life in it and a record.
The special was produced by Michael H. McLean of Bonneville who, with Alan Henderson and J. Scott Iverson, wrote the script. Keith Merrill was the director.
“Our challenge,” says Brother Allen, “was to find some way to capitalize on the success of ‘The Family … and Other Living Things,’ the Church’s first commercial television special. It was number one in Los Angeles in its time slot—extremely successful in terms of ratings—but some people felt that it did not have a sufficiently direct message. We also needed some way to use the Tabernacle Choir effectively.”
After four years of trying to find the right combination, “Mr. Kreuger’s Christmas” clicked. Jimmy Stewart accepted an invitation to star in it and began growing out enough whiskers for stubble immediately. It was filmed in Salt Lake City in March 1980 in one hectic week, “a miracle right there,” marvels Brother Allen. “Most of the scenes of the Savior’s life were shot in New Mexico. The baptism took place in the Rio Grande—and it was cold! They were wearing wet suits under their robes and their teeth were chattering by the time we were finished—but they did it until it was just right.
“And there was a wonderful spirit on the set. The script girl is a professional who used to work for Alfred Hitchcock. She was in tears at the kind of cooperation and community feeling there. Everyone was in tears during the Nativity scene. I’ve seldom had such an extraordinary feeling myself.”
At a dinner held with Bonneville personnel and General Authorities, Jimmy Stewart received a “treasure box” containing his genealogy. In response, he not only expressed his appreciation for the gift but his appreciation for the experience: “This story is not only enticing, but it is something that is very important. The Christmas story is told as well as I have ever seen it—told better than ever before. Such a story could do a lot of good in today’s world.”
He paused, then half-jokingly said, “What really made it impossible for me not to consider not doing this was that I would have the privilege of directing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I’ve been a devoted fan of the Tabernacle Choir for many, many years.” Then, with no trace of joking: “I’m absolutely serious when I say this is one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had.”