Christmas Eve, Hollywood, 1969: My mom, my younger sister, Tracey, and I sit in front of our brand new 10-inch Zenith television. I'm 7 years old and Tracey is 5. Our TV trays are still littered with the remnants of Sloppy Joes and Tater Tots. At 8 o'clock a large voice, like the voice of God, booms out of the TV: "Our regularly scheduled program will not be shown tonight so that we may present the premiere of a new holiday classic, 'Frosty the Snowman.'" Tracey and I twist in our bean bags, preparing ourselves for what will follow.
I'm sure that children across the country were watching the same program that night, but this Christmas special meant something deeper to our family, because our father was the voice of Frosty.
Months before the special aired I vaguely remember my father landing the gig that would change -- or at least add an interesting footnote -- to his career. He was an unusual choice for a holiday special. Jackie Vernon was a stand-up comic who had found success in nightclubs across America doing routines about how he used to be a dull guy, delivered in a slow monotone. His other famous routine was a nonexistent slide show that detailed his many disastrous vacations. Since Christmas and New Year's were my father's busiest months, I never associated him with Christmas trees or Christmas cheer. He typically spent the holidays by himself in New York or Las Vegas while we celebrated at home in Los Angeles.
Even my father seemed to be mystified by the fact that he was chosen to be Frosty. When asked, his standard and quite honest answer was, "Guess all the other fat guys were out of town that week."
My father was working a club date in Chicago the night Frosty debuted. He hadn't said a word about it, so as we watched the opening credits we had no idea what to expect.
The show began with Jimmy Durante singing the Frosty the Snowman song. My sister and I, who had inherited our mother's cynicism, started criticizing the show right away.
"It's not much of a song, as far as holiday songs go," I said.
"It's a baby song," my sister Tracey announced.
"Lots of people recorded it, but I don't think anyone made it into a big hit," my mother told us, lighting her first post-dinner Virginia Slim. "'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,' now that's a standard."
Finally a magician's hat flew onto a snowman's head, transforming the rounded lumps of sculpted ice into Frosty, a living, breathing entity. Delighted to be alive, Frosty opens his tiny, animated mouth and says, "Happy Birthday" -- in my father's voice.
At first it was hard to hear my father's voice coming out of a crudely drawn, walking, talking snowman. But soon I started to see that my father and Frosty shared certain physical characteristics. Frosty had a sly smile, the same expression that my father had when, for example, he was supposed to be on a diet and we'd catch him at 2 a.m. in his bathroom making spaghetti and clams in his portable coffee maker. After a few minutes the only thing that didn't seem familiar was the kind, delicate way that Frosty spoke. Then I pictured Frosty in his jockey shorts calling from his upstairs bedroom, "Cripes, how many times do I have to ask, will someone bring me a can of Tab?" I was home-free from there.
The show was upbeat enough. But then the plot turned and something unpleasant happened. An evil magician had trapped Frosty in a hothouse. He began to melt. At first there were just tiny beads of sweat, but they quickly turned into a downpour. By the time Santa broke into the hothouse, all that was left of Frosty was a thick puddle and his tiny man-made facial features.
I stared at the screen in disbelief. The show wasn't supposed to turn out this way. My father was not supposed to die. Pandemonium broke out in our rumpus room. The cartoon girl on the TV started crying, Tracey started crying, then I burst into tears. My mother had a train wreck on her hands.
"Frosty's gone!" the girl on the TV bawled.
"What happened to Daddy?" I yelled.
"Daddy!" my sister wailed.
With the dexterity of a linebacker, my mother turned off the television, scooped Tracey up into her arms, grabbed me by the hand and brought us upstairs to our bedroom.
No matter what our mother said, my sister and I were absolutely convinced that we'd just witnessed our father's demise on national television. "He's not dead," she said. "He's in Chicago working the Playboy Club." My mother called my father in Chicago, but he wasn't in his hotel room, which only confirmed our worst suspicions.
We didn't hear from my father until the next afternoon. My mother made us both get on the phone extensions while my father explained that at the end of the show Frosty comes back to life.
"How does he come back to life?" Tracey asked.
My father admitted that he didn't remember. "It's the hat or some magic wind or Santa. Jeez, I did the show so long ago I don't remember."
Our mother wisely decided to take us out on the night "Frosty the Snowman" played the following December, so it wasn't until two years later that my sister and I saw the scene where Frosty, aided by Santa and the magic hat, returns to life. But still the image of my father as a puddle of water haunted me for years.
Maybe in other parts of the country there are places where having your father be the star of a treasured Christmas special would make you the envy of the schoolyard. But not in Los Angeles. In our school, everyone's mother and father were some type of celebrity and there were hierarchies of fame. You don't know the depths of humiliation until Helen Reddy's daughter laughs in your face and calls you "Frosty Jr." I'd get more general reactions along the lines of, "I wanted to watch 'The Brady Bunch' Friday night but my mom made me watch that Frosty the Freakman instead. Frosty's a wimp! I hate that show! You suck!"
There was one area, though, in which my sister and I could claim a semblance of pride. Year after year, Frosty kicked snowman ass in the ratings. While other holiday specials fell into oblivion ("The Year Without a Santa Claus," anyone?), "Frosty the Snowman" had undeniable staying power. Tracey and I kept track of the ratings. We made charts and discussed any upward or downward trends.
"We're down five points this year!" I'd exclaim.
"But all the specials are down. Rudolph's down 12! It's still acceptable."
Tracey and I were having these conversations before we'd even reached puberty. There were a lot of other children of TV actors at our school. We figured that even if our father couldn't beat up their fathers, at least he could kill them in the Nielsen ratings.
My father also participated in a sequel to "Frosty the Snowman" called "Frosty's Winter Wonderland." In it, Frosty falls in love with a snowwoman and gets married. Frosty's wife was voiced by Shelly Winters. After a promising first-year rating, the sequel eventually fell by the wayside without diminishing the appeal of the original.
Eventually I lost track of the Frosty specials. I never watched them and rarely told anyone about my father's role in them. Once, while at college in New York, I met a guy at a Christmas party who was flying high on something. We were playing that old "my family is weirder than yours" college game. But when I told him that my father was Frosty the Snowman his mood shifted to one of nearly religious reverence.
"My brothers and I, we got it all figured out," he told me. "See, Frosty is Christ. The song says, 'Frosty the Snowman was a fairy tale they say.' Just like Jesus. Nobody thinks he's for real either. Frosty marches with his group of disciples, and teaches them how to love and stuff. My brother and I wind and rewind that tape. We've got it all down!"
I wanted to tell him that I was pretty sure that Jesus was not who the writers were thinking of when they created Frosty. Jesus at least had something to teach and some kind of message to impart. Frosty's most complex message was "Happy Birthday," a mantra he repeated whenever his magic hat was put back on his head.
"But the best part of it," the guy continued, "is the redemption. Jesus dies and is reborn. Frosty dies and is reborn. Jesus is going to come back. And Frosty's coming back. The last words of the TV special? 'I'll be back on Christmas Day!' Which is what?" The guy looked at me, annoyed that I needed to be prompted. "Jesus' birthday."
"I thought some scientists got together and decided that Jesus' birthday was in July or something," I said, excusing myself.
"What do scientists know?" he asked in disbelief. As if the world of science was much less conversant with absolute truth than the world of Hollywood Christmas specials.
Later, one thing from that conversation stayed in my mind -- the concept of redemption. From my very first viewing of the special I had missed Frosty's resurrection. And in the years that followed I had always found there to be something lacking in my Christmas holiday -- a sense of completion, of redemption, perhaps.
The next year I was in Los Angeles over the holidays and decided to talk to Tracey about this matter. Tracey had gone in a completely different direction than I had in terms of celebrating the holidays. Her apartment was filled with Christmas cheer. She always bought the largest tree she could find and decorated it with antique ornaments. Her living room housed a miniature collectible Christmas village, filled with endless replicas of shoppes and cottages. Her windows were frosted with bottled snow that had been manufactured by Monsanto, and continuous Christmas music filled the apartment.
I went to visit her the day after Christmas and was surprised to see her Christmas tree outside the apartment near the trash. I went inside and found that every frosted window, every clipping of plastic mistletoe, every component of her Christmas village, any evidence of Christmas had been cleaned up and boxed. When I arrived, she was furiously trying to yank strands of silver tinsel out of her vacuum cleaner. It was at that point that I realized my sister had probably missed out on the whole Christmas-as-redemption thing as well. Luckily my ailment was just a general ennui, while it seemed like Tracey was suffering from Christmas anorexia.
As my father got older, I was surprised to find out how proud he was about being the voice of Frosty. He would do his Frosty voice for children, sometimes without a request. Several times I was with him when strangers asked him where they knew him from. He'd always tell them about Frosty. I found this odd coming from a man who had worked with Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, who was a sensation on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and had been a constant guest on "The Tonight Show" and "Merv."
He returned one last time to do another Frosty special, a feature film called "Frosty and Rudolph, Christmas in July." It paired up the two most famous Christmas characters, but to little avail. Like a movie matching up two aging idols who used to command their own films, this animated special carried about it a whiff of desperation and futility. It never made it to the theaters.
My father died in 1987. All of the obituaries remembered him as the voice of Frosty. I doubt that this was what my father was aiming for when he first ventured into show business, but I knew from talking to him that he was proud of the association.
A year later, I was surfing channels on TV, and landed directly onto the animated image of a puddle of water alongside a top hat. My first inclination was to change the channel; his death was too new for me to want to watch this. But I kept watching. Like the children watching it everywhere, I felt despair over Frosty's death. But then, even though I knew what was coming, I found myself surprised when Frosty magically returned to life. If my life were a Christmas special, this would be the part where my heart grows two sizes, or where, after seeing those three hoary ghosts I'd march down the snowy streets, barking "Merry Christmas" at all my enemies. In short: I got it. Frosty was alive so a part of my father was alive.
There is a new Frosty special, called "Frosty Returns," voiced by John Goodman. I didn't watch it because I didn't want anything to challenge my memory of my father as Frosty. I was not alone. As petty as it sounds, Tracey and I were delighted to note that "Frosty Returns" was killed in the ratings.
Recently I watched the show with my 5-year-old nephew, Gage. Frosty comes on the TV screen and I tell Gage that Frosty is his grandfather. Gage gives me an incredulous look. "Huh? My grandfather's a snowman?" Gage laughs and I laugh. I let it go for now. But I know in the coming years it will mean something to him. The voice of the grandfather he never met will march on throughout all the Christmases of his future.