December 12 Illinois History Minute
It’s December 12th, and on this day in 1939, WILL Radio recorded University of Illinois English Professor Ernest Bernbaum giving a public reading of “A Christmas Carol” at the Natural History building. The recording, on five sides of 16-inch transcription discs, is one of the oldest recordings by WILL in the University of Illinois Archives.
But it wasn’t the first time Bernbaum had given a reading of Charles Dickens’ 1843 tale holiday tale. Bernbaum had come to the U of I from Harvard (where he had been a noted opponent of women’s suffrage) in 1917, and the Daily Illini, the U of I student newspaper, noted his public readings of “A Christmas Carol”, going back to 1918. His annual readings of the story were part of the public readings of English literature that were held on the university campus during the first half of the 20th century.
In his 1939 reading, Bernbaum noted that he was being recorded “by station W-I-double-L, somewhat to my embarrassment”, and told his radio listeners that he had been reading “A Christmas Carol” aloud to his Prose Fiction students every December for some 20 years. He said it was the story that had “revolutionized the keeping of Christmas, the story that made Christmas not solely the church festival of the holy Nativity, but also the festival of human brotherhood and human charity.”
After his 1943 reading, the Daily Illini reported that “Dr. Bernbaum completely captured the spirit of the lovable old miser (Ebenezer Scrooge) and his amazing transformation (through supernatural influences) in time to appreciate the Christmas day.”
But the newspaper noted that Bernbaum didn’t give a reading of “A Christmas Carol” in 1944, preferring to present a program of Christmas poetry by modern poets. Bernbaum retired from the University of Illinois in 1945. But another English professor remained to continue the “Christmas Carol” tradition.
Going by Daily Illini reports, Prof. Paul N. Landis had been giving readings of “A Christmas Carol” at various functions in the 1940s, notably as part of the local YWCA Christmas program. His deep voice was a perfect vehicle for Ebenezer Scrooge’s complaints about overabundant Christmas cheer. By the 1950s, his annual December reading at the University of Illinois was drawing capacity crowds to its auditoriums.
A December 13, 1950 recording of Landis reading “A Christmas Carol” survives among the WILL recordings in the University of Illinois Archives. In Daily Illini article announcing the reading, Landis said: “Dickens’ stories can be made to come to life … They aren’t realistic, but real; they happen. Scrooge is even better known than people who have actually lived, because Dickens’ characters move about”.
Paul Landis gave his final public reading of “A Christmas Carol” on the afternoon of December 13 1960. The Daily Illini reported a packed house at the Lincoln Hall Theatre, and a standing ovation when Landis was finished. WILL-AM broadcasts the 1960 recording of Landis’ reading every December.