Friday, December 13, 2013

Kings, Clowns and Christmas

This month, as I have done every December since the DVD era began, I have spent my evenings revisiting many of my favorite Christmas-themed television episodes. As often as I’ve watched them, there is still something new to be discovered in almost every viewing.

Case in point: A few nights ago I popped in “His Busiest Season,” from the first year of The Bob Newhart Show. The plot had Bob inviting his group therapy participants home for a Christmas party. And for the first time I realized that one of the guests was known to me from a very different Comfort TV role. How had I not recognized his distinctive voice before?

The actor’s name was King Moody, and that alone would leave a memorable impression. He left a permanent imprint on the collective childhoods of my generation for his portrayal of Ronald McDonald in commercials that aired throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, most famously in a series of spots that transported viewers to McDonaldland. 

That episode was a reminder of how my classic TV memories are still intertwined with the commercials I watched back then, particularly during the holiday season. As fondly as I remember Mary Richards alone in the WJM newsroom on Christmas Eve, Kathy hearing the story of the angel’s sweater on Father Knows Best, and Samantha Stephens taking Will Robinson to visit Santa Claus, I feel the same warm glow of nostalgia from the Norelco ad where Santa sleds in on a razor, and the delicate ‘ding’ of champagne glasses in the Andre commercial. 

And I remember McDonald’s during the holidays, on cold winter nights, when going there for dinner was a special treat. I always ordered a Quarter-Pounder and fries, with a hot chocolate that warmed the insides.

The McDonaldland commercials ran for more than a decade, and were popular enough to inspire a range of tie-in merchandise, from Happy Meal toys to a playset sold in toy stores. If you were a kid then you know all the characters – the Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese, Captain Crook, the French Fry Goblins, the Professor and the evil Grimace.

And just like a television series, the commercials had their own Christmas-themed editions featuring snow in McDonaldland and McDonald’s gift certificates, sold for 50 cents each or a book of 10 for five dollars (Ronald wasn’t big on discounts for volume purchases). 

While Today Show weatherman Willard Scott is still the most famous man to don the yellow suit and red shoes of Ronald McDonald, it was King Moody who made the character a familiar and genial presence between Saturday morning cartoons. He did it by avoiding all of the clich├ęs that have made most clowns so annoying and creepy. He spoke in a normal voice, didn’t trip over everything in front of him, and seemed like someone you could trust your kids with when they visited McDonaldland – as long as you weren’t overly sensitive about their calorie intake.

It’s not politically correct to like McDonald’s anymore, and I don’t get there very often these days myself. Plus, now that I live in the Southwest where it rarely gets very cold, even around the holidays, those winter trips for a hot chocolate with marshmallows are no longer necessary. But the Golden Arches will always be part of my childhood Christmas memories, thanks in part to King Moody.

Two quick trivia notes to close this out:

If you want to see Moody outside of his Ronald makeup, you can find him in several episodes of Get Smart, where he played Siegfried’s assistant, Starker. 

King Moody’s son, William, is best known to wrestling fans as Paul Bearer, longtime manager of The Undertaker and a fellow who, like his dad’s altar-ego, clearly never met a cheeseburger he didn’t like.

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