This is a combination Pittsburgh and holiday movie at the same time, as it was made by Clem Williams Films, an industrial films company that rented cartoons, popular movies and industrial films to high schools and colleges. They also made money distributing highlight films from the Steelers, Pirates and other Pittsburgh-based sports teams and sold all of their inventory to Kit Parker Films in 1985 with Clem himself retiring to Florida.
It’s also without a doubt the most yinzer yuletide movie ever made, as we first start in the home of Dick and Ann as their mom prepares them for bed and her quiet calm down speaking voice crackles with the patois of Pittsburgh, our local tongue one created from trying to yell over the blast furnace. “Yinz kids better go to bed before Santy comes dahn here tonight and not leave yinz no gifts,” she intones before refusing Dick’s request for water and acquiescing to his wish to tell his father good night. Dad’s in 1963 Pittsburgh did not put their kids to bed or even speak to them because they were either in the mill or drinking afterward.
Ann then wonders, “Did Santa get the letter we sent him?” We then see the letter, which is inside the mittens of Kris Kringle himself. Santa sits in a mid-century bachelor pad with a large leather La-Z-Boy which seems nothing like anything you’ve ever seen in any Christmas story, much less a Santa who has a magic helicopter or elves like Toby, who responds to the commands of Santa by saying, “Your words are my command, Santa.”
I mean, is it any wonder that Santa lives in a capitalist society where he himself rules over the proletariat eternal children, commanding them on a whim to fly to the Steel City to pick up two strangers and brag about his toy empire?
Santa’s location is actually a store called The Famous — thanks to the amazing Tube City Online web site — at the corner of Fifth and Market in McKeesport, once the center of industry and shopping and today what can charitably be called a ghost town. The holiday village is the ground floor of the also now gone Penn-McKee Hotel.
The crazy thing is I recognized this parade route because when I first started my life as a pro wrestler, the rookies all had to participate as part of the Pro Wrestling eXpress float and walk the parade route. An early Saturday morning, before the show, carrying a banner, throwing candy to kids who whipped it back at us and laughed. You pay your dues when you’re green.
There’s also a scene with Santa arriving on the Gateway Clipper and also him arriving — via rocket ship! — at what was the then one-year-old Olympia Shopping Center, a gleaming vision of the future up on Walnut Street.
This film is filled with terror, beyond the wonderful visions of holiday McKeesport, such as finding out that dolls are “fun to wash, to dress, to spank,” that little boys are bored by dolls and that when little girls play house they “cook and scrub the whole day long then serve a TV dinner.”
Dick may also be a budding hollow-eyed monster, as he watches a train set, he asks Santa, “Santa, do these trains ever wreck?” Santa nods and Dick can barely contain himself in reply, intoning “Garsh, that’s fun. Oh, no wrecks today.”
As Dick and Ann prepare to leave, Santa suddenly realizes the reason for the season, as the war on Christmas had not yet been fought and the man who coincidentally was given the dignitary title of Saint Nick says, “So glad you came. The entire Christmas celebration is to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ hundreds of years and the wonderful spirit of Christmas.” This ensured that Catholic schools throughout Allegheny County would come back over and over to rent this from Clem Williams.
Then, the film descends into Lynchian-madness decades before that was a thing, as the kind of Hammond organ that used to blare through malls trying to get you to come in and buy an organ kicks into full holiday hysteria and the man playing Santa stares coldly at the screen and just keeps saying, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas to all! Merry Christmas!” even after the audio stops playing.
There’s also an aside that Santa is too large to fit into some chimneys now, as a movie for kids about Santa, one to make them happy, fat shames the man who gives of himself to help make the season special.
At one point, the parade goes past what is now a Dollar General, the same place where last year there was a Santa display that had him carrying a gun and a baseball bat. Times have certainly changed, even if McKeesport still puts on a Salute to Santa parade every year.
You can watch this on YouTube.