After reading mt58’s article about Kalle Anka and Friends, I decided I needed to make watching a Disney clip show from 1958 a family tradition in my house, too.
If it’s good enough for the entire country of Sweden to come to a standstill on Christmas Eve? It’s good enough for my humble household.
So we watched it.
It’s not that good.
Of course, we can’t be sure we saw the whole thing. YouTube playlists aren’t always complete. The Ferdinand The Bull and the Clown Of The Jungle shorts and who knows what else were missing from ours. We watched those two separately.
Still, I don’t think we’ll try again next year. Oh, sure; the clips from Cinderella and Bambi are charming in their way, but Chip & Dale and Donald Duck grate on the ears and nerves. I was always more of a Looney Tunes man anyway.
My son, who knows these sorts of things, is visiting for the holidays and said,
“It’s like the Dinner For One New Year’s Eve tradition in Germany.”tnocs.com guest commenter virginpup
I had no idea what he was talking about.
Here’s what we learned:
It seems there was a stage actor and writer known as Lauri Wylie, though his birth name was Maurice Laurence Samuelson Metzenberg. In 1934, he was in a review called En Ville Ce Soir, or In Town Tonight, in English. He wrote a sketch featuring two characters, an elderly and wealthy woman named Miss Sophie, and her butler James.
It starts with a master of ceremonies explaining the basic plot. Miss Sophie is celebrating her 90th birthday the same way she does every year, with four friends coming over for dinner.
However, her friends have all passed on.
This means James has to stand in for each guest.
Before each course of the meal, Miss Sophie suggests a different drink – sherry, white wine, and so on. And with each suggestion, James asks, “The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” and Miss Sophie replies, “The same procedure as every year, James.”
Each course and its accompanying drink has a toast. James imitates each of the guests’ voices and characteristics. As he has to drink each of the four guests’ drinks to please Miss Sophie, he gets really drunk.
Wylie called the sketch Dinner For One, and it was a modest success.
A review of the show called the sketch “a very laughable burlesque of hackneyed sentimentality.”
The sketch was revived in the West End in 1948.
But somewhere along the line, Wylie sold the rights and made no money from its later popularity.
He died in poverty in 1951 at the age of 70. He was living in a camper van at the time.
In 1945, actor Freddie Frinton started doing Dinner For One in Blackpool. It was a popular part of his act, and he bought the rights for it so he wouldn’t have to pay a royalty every time he performed it. It appears that someone else owned the rights between Wylie and Frinton, but I haven’t found any details.
One of Frinton’s other roles was as the husband on Meet The Wife, a popular sitcom that ran on British television from 1963 to 1966.
The wife, played by Thora Hird, henpecked Frinton’s character, Freddie.
Freddie was a plumber who sometimes drank before coming home from work.
Because everything in the 1960s relates to The Beatles somehow, I’ll mention that their song Good Morning from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band includes the line, “It’s time for tea and Meet The Wife.”
Though the roles of James and Freddie required him to act drunk, Frinton never touched the stuff in real life. Yet he’s regarded as one of the great stage drunks. I didn’t know anyone kept such a list.
Two people of note saw Dinner For One in Blackpool in 1962. One was German television director Heinz Dunkhase, the other was entertainer Peter Frankenfeld.
Frankenfeld acted in sketch comedies and was one of the first game show hosts on German TV. He brought Frinton and actress May Warden to Germany to perform Dinner For One on his live variety show.
It was so popular, he brought them back the next year and recorded the performance. Dunkhase directed. This is the version that plays on German television on New Year’s Eve.
It wasn’t played every year from 1963 to 1972, but it’s been on every year since.
It’s usually on in the afternoon on Das Erste, the main channel, and repeated on the various other channels through the rest of the day.
And it spread to other countries.
Austria, Australia, South Africa, and all the Scandinavian countries all play it on New Year’s Eve.
Danish TV didn’t show it in 1985 and received so many complaints, the network there doesn’t even consider not playing it.
In Norway, it accidentally aired 15 minutes early in 1992, and the phone calls started coming in immediately. So many people complained that they tuned in at the right time but still missed the showing, that the network changed their schedule and reran it later that evening.
It’s appointment television.
But it’s special in Germany.
The post office there released a set of commemorative stamps.
The German airline LTU went out of business in 2009, but they showed Dinner For One on all its flights between December 28th and January 2nd every year, just so no German citizen would miss it while traveling.
Here in the United States, we repeat catchphrases from TV shows like, “That’s what she said,” “Yada yada yada” and “What’choo talkin’ about, Willis?” In Germany, they have, “The same procedure as last year?”
Everyone knows it.
Dinner For One isn’t well known in the UK. It was written and performed there for years, but its popularity faded decades ago. No one knows it now, except through a 2018 documentary about this obscure sketch that’s beloved in a half dozen non-English speaking countries.
It’s not widely known in North America either, though comedian Red Skelton wrote a very similar sketch at around the same time. This was in the early 1930s, before either Wylie or Skelton were famous, so there’s no evidence that one plagiarized the other.
However, Americans might know an episode of I Love Lucy called Lucy Does A TV Commercial.
Lucille Ball knew about Skelton’s sketch and got his permission to do something similar.
In the episode, she has to do a commercial for a Geritol-like tonic called “Vitameatavegamin” that happens to be one quarter alcohol.
After rehearsing the commercial a few times, she’s too drunk to pronounce “Vitameatavegamin.”
It’s a funny bit, funnier and more clever than Dinner For One.
And it begs the question: Why did an obscure bit of British vaudeville become so popular in certain parts of the world? Why is it in the Guinness Book Of World Records as the “Most annual airings of a television comedy sketch?”
No one seems to know.
Tradition is a funny thing. Our sense of humor may have veered away from broad physical comedy, but a generation found it tremendously funny once. That generation’s children grew up with their parents laughing through Dinner For One, so it’s a good memory. Everyone loves the familiar, especially around the holidays. That’s why we have turkey on Thanksgiving. It’s a pretty flavorless bird and no one really loves it, but it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without it.
In Germany and several other countries, it just wouldn’t be New Year’s Eve without Dinner For One.
Watch it once, just for fun.
And maybe you’ll do the same procedure next year.
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