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Christmas past rings out in musical memories


THE BOX ON top of the shelf is marked "Christmas Music." It originally held a pair of brown loafers, but for the past 20 years it has housed a collection of tapes I've made and copied, music I want to hear for the next three weeks or so.

These tapes are my Christmas Top 40. Many came from LP albums back in the era when records were marked mono or stereo.

I usually begin with a sentimental favorite, "Fairest Lord Jesus," an old hymn with music by Franz Liszt. It's one of these evocative melodies that usually has me in tears in a matter of seconds, but these last few days before the 25th are an interlude when it is always a good idea to have a handkerchief ready.

Then I decide it's time for upbeat music and reach for those 13 essential tracks marketed in the 1960s as the "Phil Spector Christmas Album." I punch up the Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans' version of the "The Bells of St. Mary's." This is not really a Christmas song, but who would ever split hairs about any selection on this great tribute to the season.

I picked up my copy at a dreary Patapsco Avenue flea market near U.S. 1 on an even more depressing early December Saturday. If the house ever caught fire, this would be one of the possessions I'd run to save.

I think I was a sophomore in high school one December morning at least 30 years ago when Jay Grayson was the morning disc jockey on WBAL radio. He played a carol, "Deck the Halls," and announced the source, Dick Liebert at the Radio City Music Hall pipe organ.

Like many a tune, it stuck in my head all day after just one hearing. By 2: 30 in the afternoon, I was marooned in an English class during a prolix discussion on Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler." All I could think of was that music.

The minute the hall bell rang to release me from that long-winded afternoon, I knew I had to have vinyl. I split for the bus and headed to the music source of 1960s Baltimore, a battered warehouse that escaped the Baltimore Fire and stood opposite what we then called the Civic Center.

It was a record store, properly known as General Radio and Record. Little did I know that the Ben Glass who owned this house of merry eighth notes was the father of the esteemed composer Philip Glass. The senior Glass just wandered around his cluttered aisles and was ever a pleasant merchant.

A woman named Rachel worked the front counter. She looked like Beatrice Lillie in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and knew the price and location of every record in this joint's daunting inventory. I asked for my "Deck the Halls," and she responded, tersely as ever, "Victor, Christmas, third bin on the left."

Records were expensive then, and RCA wasn't doing customers any favors. I believe my copy was in mono, so it was therefore maybe 80 cents cheaper than the stereo version. Rachel rang up the sale, tapping the cash register's keys with her elongated nails, always enameled in deep scarlet.

That record, whatever its cost, turned out to be a bargain, considering all the pleasure it's brought over the years. I put it on the other night, a played and replayed Christmas classic now scratched and ideally seasoned.

Alas, there are some Christmas sounds and songs that never made it onto vinyl or recording tape. I'm speaking of the kinds of experiences that can't be commercially packaged, the kind you have to witness to appreciate.

When readers of this column tell me about their Christmas memories, so often the conversation turns to the old Hochschild Kohn department store and its mechanical device known as the Laughing Santa.

He was a big, mechanical doll who rocked back and forth in a store window. He had a deep, sonorous, infectiously funny laugh that was amplified out onto the sidewalk. Part of the fun of this annual attraction (Hochschild's used it for years) was the ripples and waves of laughter it occasioned from those assembled on the curb.

You laughed and the person next to you started laughing, too. The more it stayed the same (it was a record, after all), the more you cackled. His "Ho ho ho" made you smile, then titter, then chuckle. Before long, people were roaring.

Now, maybe 35 years after the Laughing Santa disappeared from Howard and Lexington, it doesn't seem possible that a mechanical dummy and sound amplifier could have cast this happy spell.

Let me tell you, it did.

I'm glad there are certain musical sounds that never made it to a compact disc. I might cry too much on hearing, year after year, the program of my grade school Christmas assembly.

I think of Therese Gonzalez, my Quebec-born French teacher, leading her class through the old carol "The Sleep of the Child Jesus." Or the choir of the best singers in the school, the seventh-grade girls, dressed in draped white gowns, doing "Angels We Have Heard on High." Or my younger brother, Eddie, being asked by Sister Francis Patrick to step before the whole school to do a killer solo number, "The Coventry Carol."

At those concerts, the best piano player -- a nun named Sister Mary Agnes -- would sit down at the Knabe, the famous Baltimore-made piano. She could play anything, but her specialty was "Winter Wonderland." She could make those 88s sound like chiming bells. And because it was the season of musical memory magic, she could make it snow. Halfway through the first chorus, the fine white powder would start falling outside the window.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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