There’s a Yule duel brewing this Christmas day.
Not one, but two separate versions of “The Yule Log,” one of television’s oddest yet most heartwarming holiday habits, will beckon families as they open their gifts.
There’s the traditional log, burning brightly since filmed by New York’s WPIX-TV in 1970, and another that will air uninterrupted for 24 hours on INHD, with a high-definition picture so crisp you’ll be tempted to reach for a poker.
For many years a peculiarly New York tradition, both Yule logs will now glow in most of the country.
It seems silly: Why would anyone want to fill their television screen with a picture of a burning log, backed by a soundtrack of Christmas carols? Yet its inventor bet correctly that “The Yule Log” would resonate with New Yorkers sentimental for the notion of home and hearth while living in apartments without fireplaces.
Christmas is also a day to slow down, to set aside life’s frenetic pace for enjoyment of family, and nothing symbolizes that unhurried attitude better than a picture that doesn’t change for hours.
“In a way, it was the first music video,” said Mitch Thrower, whose father came up with the idea, “and the star was a burning log.”
The log has burned for so long, at least in New York, that many anticipate its return as they do eggnog or ornaments.
“There’s a sentimental attachment to it,” said Chip Arcuri, who painstakingly re-recorded the soundtrack for this year’s showing. “When you watch ‘The Yule Log,’ at least for me personally, it brings back such poignant and personal memories of growing up.”
Arcuri may be more attached than most. He and a friend started a Web site devoted to “The Yule Log,” and he’s watched it so often he knows when the sparks fly up from the right side of the log.
Mitch’s dad, Fred Thrower, then general manager of WPIX, lit the log in 1966. He was looking to do something different as a holiday gift for viewers, and figured it wasn’t much of a sacrifice to cancel the scheduled Christmas Eve showing of roller derby and substitute a three-hour televised fireplace.
Gracie Mansion, the home of New York City’s mayors, volunteered its majestic fireplace — a move it regretted when a spark burned a hole in a valuable oriental rug.
The original Yule log lasted only four years before the film wore down and a new one had to be made in Palo Alto, Calif. That’s the one still in use today, a seven-minute film loop that keeps repeating.
“The Yule Log” was gradually cut down to two hours and moved to Christmas morning (Christmas Eve commercial time was considered too valuable). Then, after it ran in 1989, it met the fate of just about every television show — it was canceled.
Fortunately for Arcuri, he’d made a videotape copy of “The Yule Log,” so his family kept watching. Others were out of luck, until WPIX decided to revive the tradition for a wounded city in 2001.
“The Yule Log” film was tracked down in the station’s New Jersey archive where it was misfiled in a film can for a “Honeymooners” episode entitled “A Dog’s Life.”
“We have a good habit, depending on your perspective, of not throwing things out,” said Betty Ellen Berlamino, the station’s general manager.
Paradoxically, “The Yule Log” does very well in the ratings. That’s one of the reasons WPIX decided to restore the show to its original three-hour version for this year’s 40th anniversary, and make a one-hour special on its origins. Its title, “The WPIX Yule Log: A Log’s Life,” is a winking reference to the film can where it was found again.
Restoring the original soundtrack wasn’t easy. Some of the songs had been cut, others shortened. The soundtrack is filled with mid-1960s easy listening artists, and WPIX didn’t have a discography. Of the 70 selections, 34 are out-of-print and 12 had never been on CD.
Enter Arcuri. A holiday music collector, he owned every one of the 70 songs. He helped digitally remaster the soundtrack, and expressed surprise when WPIX insisted he be paid for his work. Now there’s even a Yule log podcast available.
Jason Patton lived in the New York area for many years and considers himself a passionate Yule log fan. He’s now vice president for business development on INHD, a network that caters to some of the estimated 24 million homes with a high-def set.
He thought a new version of “The Yule Log” would be a great way of letting HDTV owners show off their pictures to friends and family at the holidays. The INHD Yule log has been airing since 2003 and, since the number of HDTV owners has been doubling every year, is available to many more people each year. It will air for 24 hours starting 7 a.m. EST on Christmas.
His was filmed by Ron Roy, the guy behind those computer screen savers that look like tropical fish tanks.
Patton, of course, thinks his Yule log is superior to the competition.
“This Yule log is filmed in high-definition,” Patton said. “I think they’re still using the one made in 1970. It’s a grainy film. It looks like it’s 30 years old and it’s not going to fill up the full screen.”
The WPIX Yule log will air on 10 other stations also owned by Tribune Broadcasting, and on the WGN superstation.
There’s no question which log will be burning Christmas morning in the Arcuri home.
“They can’t hold a candle to the WPIX Yule log,” he said. “There was something special about the fireplace they used. It was just magnificent. And the fire itself — it was a roaring, happy, mesmerizing fire. You can’t compare to the original.”