Thursday, December 22, 2011

Culture Shock 12.22.11: When you wish upon a Wish Book

There it is was, on page 442. Seven and a half feet long, and the Holy Grail of G.I. Joe toys — the G.I. Joe aircraft carrier.

At a retail price of $109.99 — in 1985 dollars — you had to be a very good boy indeed for Santa to leave that under your Christmas tree.

I was never that good, but that's why they called it the "Wish Book," wasn't it?

Before the Internet killed the catalog business, you knew the Christmas shopping season had begun when the Sears Wish Book arrived in your mailbox. There were other catalogs — the J.C. Penny catalog wasn't bad — but none had the allure of the Wish Book. Whether you were a boy or a girl, it had just what you were looking for, whether or not you knew you were looking for it.

That's my idea of an "old-fashioned Christmas."

From remote-controlled airplanes and Teddy Ruxpin storytelling bears to Cabbage Patch Kids and the Atari 2600, the Wish Book was an illustrated guidebook to Christmas bliss.

You leafed through its slick, glossy pages — past the clothes and furniture, bedroom linens and other boring, adult things — and you stared in wonder, not just at the fancy, high-end toys that you suspected might be outside of Santa's price range, but at the elaborate displays of toys in action.

A two-page layout of "Star Wars" action figures might feature dozens of Stormtrooper action figures. Now that was more like it! Not just the one or two Stormtrooper figures you had, but an entire legion!

That was what you needed if you were serious about recreating scenes from the movies.

Just think: It was someone's job to put together those Wish Book photo shoots. Now that must have been a dream job.

The Internet has changed all that. Sears closed its catalog business in the early 1990s.

Nevermore a Wish Book. But while the Internet is great for ordering things, no website has yet come up with a browsing experience that equals sitting down with a fat, heavy catalog in your lap.

But when you had your wish list, what to do next?

Why, time to take it to the man himself, of course. Santa.

Today, you send a letter or email, or maybe you visit Santa's helper in the red suit at the nearest shopping mall. But there used to be a more ostentatious way of going about it.

Believe it or not, there was a time when TV stations aired shows that were nothing but young children sitting on Santa's lap and telling him what they wanted for Christmas. One of these was "The Santa Show," which aired Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in December on WAAY-31, taking half of the half-hour time slot usually devoted to cartoons.

A similar show aired for a time on what was then the Shoals area's NBC affiliate, WOWL-15.

Unfortunately, little video evidence of "The Santa Show" remains. You can find almost anything on the Internet, but the only video footage I could locate was a partial episode from 1982 (see

I can only assume that most children whose parents videotaped their appearance on "The Santa Show" either destroyed the evidence or are too embarrassed by it to upload it to YouTube.

As I explain to my younger friends who don't remember much of the 1980s, to say nothing of the '70s, it was a different time back then.

Local TV stations were desperate for programming and would air almost anything.

It was a strange time in American history: getting big books in the mail, writing lists on paper and sitting on Santa's lap on local television.

Our children will never believe it.

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