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(This article originally appeared in Tube City Almanac on Dec. 22, 2008.)
Longtime friend, mentor and Alert Reader Clarke Ingram emailed me over the weekend. He's addicted to Turner Classic Movies --- and when it comes to addictions, that’s not a bad one to have.
If you ever watch TCM, you know that between the features, the network fills time with “short subjects” such as newsreels, “trailers,” and advertising and public domain films.
“So I’m sitting here watching a short film on TCM, entitled ‘A Visit to Santa (1963),’” Clarke writes. “I wasn’t paying much attention until I noticed Santa was on the Gateway Clipper. A few minutes later, he's on a Christmas float going past the Penn-McKee.”
A quick dash around the Internet tubes turned up a copy at the Internet Archive, where you can download your very own copy of “A Visit to Santa.” Some Internet critics call it, unkindly, “the worst Christmas film ever produced.”
It’s almost all shot in Downtown McKeesport (except for a brief side trip to Olympia Shopping Center) with plenty of footage of what must have been the 1962 “Salute to Santa” parade.
A quick search found several websites that discussed “A Visit to Santa,” and most people called it one of the worst films they’ve ever seen. (“What the holy hell is this crap?” is one of the kinder comments at Internet Archive, which describes the film as “grueling.”)
As a work of art, it’s definitely lacking something. It even has the dubious distinction of having been mocked by Michael J. Nelson from “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
Nelson's website, Rifftrax, calls this slice of life in the Mon Valley in the early 1960s “a Christmas short of unknown origin that most probably was the result of Santa's short-lived collaboration with the producing team of Screwtape and Wormwood.
“Rather than being a right jolly old elf, Santa here is depicted as the Dark Prince of a vast slave empire made up entirely of children under 10 — it's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with less dignified clothing. Or put another way it's Manos: The Hands of Fate without the elephantiasis.”
Produced by Pittsburgh’s Clem Williams Films, the 11-minute short follows two young children (called “Dick and Ann”) as they fly in a “magic helicopter” to the North Pole to visit Santa’s workshop ... which turns out to look an awful lot like the toy department inside The Famous at the corner of Fifth and Market.
(At least I think it’s the Famous. It’s not Murphy’s or Green’s, and Cox’s didn’t have wooden floors or old fashioned wooden columns like the store in the film.)
The pace is glacial, the music (Christmas carols played on a chord organ) is insipid, and the narration is one step below story hour at the library.
But boy, check out some of the scenery!
“Every year just before Thanksgiving, he starts the merry yuletide by visiting towns and cities all around the world,” the narrator says. “He makes his jolly trip in many different ways. He arrives by riverboat and finds many new friends along the way.”
(I must have missed the verse of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” when Santa needs to take a riverboat down the Monongahela, but I digress. We come not to bury “A Visit to Santa,” but to spot the landmarks.)
That’s the intersection of Fifth and Market streets, Downtown.
The awning of Kadar’s Men’s Store is visible to the left, while in the background you can see the old Market Street School (soon to become part of CCAC South Campus), the Elks Temple and the Famous. (All of those buildings burned down in the 1976 fire. The space where the Famous was is currently occupied by the NSOF social hall.)
“In many towns, the marching bands step out and step lively to the merry Christmas tunes,” the narrator says.
Says the narrator: “Now, isn’t that nice? They even have a big mail box to help Santa collect his letters from the boys and girls!”
That’s Market Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. On the left is Hunter-Edmundson-Striffler Funeral Home. Directly behind the parade float is Market Street School, the Elks Temple (notice the “WMCK” sign hanging out front?) and the Famous.
“The little elves parade, too!” More shots of Market Street. The second view is taken from the corner of Sixth and Market, looking toward the Monongahela River. That's Immanuel United Presbyterian Church on the right.
Between the church and Fifth Avenue you can see a Western Union office, a loan agency (Beneficial Finance, maybe? HFC was in the Peoples Union Bank) and the Market Street exit of the Memorial Theater.
Notice what you don’t see in the background --- U.S. Steel hadn't yet begun construction of its electric-resistance weld mill, but slum clearance had already removed most of the old “First Ward.”
At left, the corner of The Famous, and just visible are Ohringer's Furniture and the top of the old Stone’s Furniture Store (“Try Stone’s for Soft Beds”).
In the 1960s, Stone’s was occupied by Wander Sales and was used as a warehouse for Schulhof’s Tires; I’m pretty sure the building was struck by lightning and burned circa 1963. (The lot is now the site of the state liquor store, Family Dollar and Sherwin-Williams.)
“With all of the big new shopping centers opening, Santa has to use his new rocket to get around,” the narrator says, “but he still uses his reindeer on Christmas eve.”
That’s Olympia Shopping Center, which was two years old in 1962 (if that’s when these shots were filmed). Thrift Drugs — now LifeSpan — is visible in the background.
“For Dick and Ann, their visit is almost over, but Santa’s saved his pride and joy ’til last,” the narrator says, “they’ll take his rocket to the super Toy Town trains!” (If Toy Town has a rocket, why does it need trains?)
The Famous burned when I was two years old, but I suspect that’s the basement. None of McKeesport’s other department stores would have looked like that, except maybe Hirshberg’s and Helmstatder’s. But I don’t think Hirshberg’s sold many toys, and I don’t think Helmstatder’s ever used its basement as a salesfloor.
Ditto for these scenes — if they were shot in McKeesport, then I suspect they were shot at The Famous, because I don't think any of the other department stores had those high ceilings and wooden floors, nor would they have had the space to dedicate this much room to toys.
And that’s about it, except for the moral, delivered by the jolly old elf himself: “Always remember, the entire Christmas celebration commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, hundreds of years ago.”
Why was this film made? Who knows? According to a newspaper obituary I found in an online database, Clem Williams died in 2003 in Seminole, Fla., so I can’t ask him.
Clem Williams Films was founded sometime before 1945 (the earliest reference I can find) and lasted until at least the mid-1980s.
A check of various library databases indicates that the company rented cartoons, popular movies and industrial films to high schools and colleges, but was probably best known for distributing highlight films from the Steelers, Pirates and other sports teams. It was located at 2240 Noblestown Road until 1985. The building is now a church called Calvary Chapel.
If I had to make a guess, I’ll bet this was designed to be shown at elementary schools to very small children who might be afraid of Santa.
This certainly isn’t Clem Williams’ best work, and it sure doesn’t hold much interest for anyone who isn’t from McKeesport.
But for McKeesporters of a certain age, it’s a sure-fire Academy Award-winner, and we can thank Mr. Williams for preserving — albeit inadvertently — some great shots of Our Fair City during the holidays!
Watch "A Visit to Santa" in all of its grainy glory here:
(This article originally appeared in Tube City Almanac on Dec. 22, 2008.)
Jason Togyer is volunteer executive director and founder of Tube City Community Media Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published December 24, 2020.