By Paul Aron
Many people can recite the lyrics to The Twelve Days of Christmas, or at least can remember the gifts for each day: five gold rings, four colly birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, a partridge in a pear tree and so forth.
When the singer and television personality Perry Como came to Williamsburg to videotape his Christmas special, he opened the show with a Colonial variation on the song. There were still five golden rings, but while Como made the rounds in the Historic Area he crooned of four ginger men, three violins, two powdered wigs and a candle to brighten my way.
Perry Como’s Early American Christmas aired on ABC on Dec. 13, 1978. By then, Como’s Christmas television specials were a holiday tradition that included a mix of carols and songs for fans of his smooth baritone style, including Some Enchanted Evening.
The program was well-received and won a prime-time Emmy nomination. His guests for the Williamsburg special included Diana Canova, the star of Soap, and movie legend John Wayne in one of his last television appearances.
Como, whose tradition of holiday TV specials began in 1948, included scenes of Williamsburg — which he called the cradle of American democracy. At the George Wythe House, for example, Como met Wythe and Thomas Jefferson. And at the Governor’s Palace, Wayne read a 1758 letter from a soldier serving in the French and Indian War to his mother in Williamsburg.
Brent Wooten was 14 and an experienced member of the Senior Corps of the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums when he was chosen to accompany Como as he sang Little Drummer Boy.
“We had to do two takes,” Wooten said. “The first one the sheep ahead of us relieved themselves.” Luckily, Wooten added, Como had a good sense of humor.
Wooten noted that if you look closely at the scene you can see carpet covering his drum. “My drum playing was done ahead of time,” he said. “I wasn’t making any sound while he sang.”
Wooten continues to drum at reunions of the corps. His daughter Shea is currently in the Fifes and Drums.
Betty Myers, now Colonial Williamsburg’s master wigmaker, was a visitors’ aide in 1978. She was sitting on a bench outside the print shop when she saw a man approach. “Oh, my God, that’s John Wayne!” she remembered thinking to herself.
“He came up to me and says, ‘Hi, little lady, how are you doing?’” Myers recalled. “Sometimes when you see stars on the screen they seem bigger than life and when you meet them in person they are smaller. But he was everything you saw on the screen — tall, broad shoulders and so gracious.”
But it was Myers’ mother, Joyce, who was completely enchanted. Joyce Myers also worked for Colonial Williamsburg and was escorting a school group on Nov. 7 when filming was taking place in the Historic Area. She saw Como coming toward her.
“She stopped and he shook her hand and she stated that today was her birthday,” said Betty Myers. “He said, ‘You deserve more than a handshake on your birthday,’ so he gave her a kiss on the left cheek.”
Crews tape a segment with Como (left) and John Wayne in the Governor’s Palace. (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)