Michael McLean is one of the illustrious creative talents in the Church. Mr. Krueger’s Christmas – now a bona fide Christmas classic movie – sprang from his inspired imagination more than 25 years ago.
The 25–year anniversary edition of Mr. Krueger’s Christmas – re-mastered, re-recorded, digitally enhanced and sent on DVD with the Ensign Magazine to more than a million members of the Church far and wide – has brought back some of my most marvelous moviemaking memories.
I called Michael McLean. He was still out of breath from a whirlwind tour of his marvelous show, “Forgotten Carols” – 23 shows in 28 days. I asked him to share a few of his recollections with Meridian readers. He began by saying:
I think there’s something about doing a project with a legend like Jimmy Stewart that affects EVERYONE and EVERYTHING in a positive way. He was a miracle… in fact, the entire film was. It took me more than three years to get to that moment when I pitched the show to the First Presidency and Quorum of the 12. I was too young to know I couldn’t pull it off… and during the continual prayer I carried in my heart throughout the entire process I was amazed then (and am still today) how Heavenly Father rescued me from my navet and enabled me to fulfill that dream.
I discovered that Mr. Krueger’s Christmas is shown several times a day throughout the Christmas season at the Jimmy Stewart Museum on Philadelphia Street in Indiana, Pennsylvania. It alternates back to back with It’s A Wonderful Life.
A month ago I was contacted by the founders of Kruegerfest, a group of resolute and steadfast fans of Mr. Krueger’s Christmas who gather each year to watch the film at the LDS visitor Center. They were looking for a few treasured anecdotes from behind the scenes to add glitter to the quarter-century Kruegerfest celebration. It occurred to me that there must be others like them – well, maybe not quite so zealous – for whom “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas” has become a holiday tradition.
Much of what follows is lifted verbatim from my personal journal (pj). Other observations have matured with time.
Mike McLean and I met on a Sunday night. March 2, 1980. Earlier that day he had asked me – via his production manager – if I would direct his half-hour television special staring legendary actor James Stewart.
Click to Enlarge Mr. Kruger (James Stewart ) with Clarrisa (Kamee Lyons) on the set of Mr. Kruger’s Christmas. The production photo is from the scene where Mr. Krueger imagines himself to be a man of means and his meager basement apartment an elegant mansion. Kamee sent this picture to Jimmy Stewart when she graduated from high school. He signed it and returned it with a personal letter.
When God gives us blessings it sometimes feels like the entire basket is dumped all at once. My latest film, Harry’s War (with Edward Herman and Oscar winner Geraldine Page), was opening in multiple theaters and a gala benefit premiere on Tuesday night. I had to be in Phoenix Friday for the pre-production of my next film, Windwalker. But even as my mind was saying, “No way,” my mouth exclaimed, “Yes sir. With pleasure.”
My schedule was impossible, but in the movie business I have learned something about impossible. “Impossibles are impossible only as thinking makes them so.” My most successful early film was What Man Can Imagine. It was based on the visionary industrialist, Henry J. Kaiser. That’s what Henry said. I’ve always believed it. His words were ringing in my ears.
Frank Capra was my mentor. I knew him personally. We spent a day together on a film panel discussion only a few months before I got the call from Michael. I talked to Capra about his passion for making movies. I talked to him about directing Jimmy Stewart and making his wonderful film, It’s A Wonderful Life. His book, Name Above the Title, largely defined my perception of self as filmmaker.
To others that belong or aspire to belong to that privileged group of one man-one film, film makers, I dare to say, don’t compromise. For only the valiant can create. Only the daring should make films. Only the morally courageous are worthy of speaking to their fellow men for two hours in the dark. Only the artistically incorrupt will earn and keep the people’s trust.
It was beyond impossible for me to miss the opportunity to direct Jimmy Stewart, the great star of so many Capra films. Beyond that, of course, Mike’s movie was Capraesque in nature, featured the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and was being created by the Church for purposes of the Kingdom.
It is noteworthy that Stephen B. Allen, one of the executive producers for Mr. Krueger’s Christmas– whose support of the project and creative input on behalf of the Church was invaluable – went on to become the managing director of the Missionary Department.
Much later Michael shared with me the inspiration of the process that brought me into the project as director. From my journal, March 1980.
Michael and I became good friends in a few short days. He has remarkable talent. He shared what he believed was the inspiration behind asking me to be involved. I’ve been impressed with Michael’s confident communication with heaven in his life and professional matters.(pj)After Harry Harrison, the original director, backed out because of conflicting schedules, Michael realized that he had never felt good about using a non-Mormon TV director doing this job. He suggested that the Lord create an obstacle if Harrison was not the right man. Interpreting the unexpected conflict in Harrison’s schedule as an answer to prayer, Michael wrote down other alternatives (potential directors) on paper listing the pros and cons in a traditional objective T-bar of decision-making. He also made it a matter of prayer. “When I came to your name the cons became pros,” he told me.(pj)
Michael told me that Steve Allen agreed with his decision. Michael’s candor and confidence that I was the “right guy” for the film was enormously helpful to me throughout the challenges of making the movie. Being “director by default” was good enough for me. Curiously it would set an unexpected pattern for my involvement in future films for the Church. I never bothered to ask Michael what the “cons” might have been, nor do I really want to know. An old cowboy told me once, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”Click to Enlarge
Mr. Kruger (James Stewart) greets carolers in his fanciful dream of being a fine gentleman.
On Tuesday, Michael gathered the key members of his production team and introduced his new director. Some of them I knew since I had just shot back-to-back feature films in Utah. Some of them had actually cut their moviemaking teeth on my early films. The meeting ran so long I missed an interview with KSL TV and arrived late for the gala premiere, being suddenly much more absorbed with Krueger’s Christmas than Harry’s War.
With Jimmy Stewart set to play the lead, Michael and I began to see Mr. Krueger as James Stewart. We agreed on a re-write to alter dialogue and add moments of humor more suited to Stewart’s portrayal, knowing he would heighten empathy for the old man.
Harry’s War opened across the state of Utah on Wednesday. I missed it. I was locked away in my mother’s study in our old rock house in Farmington pounding away on her typewriter. My journal notes that, “Mother’s IBM Selectric II made the task easy and convenient in spite of missing the early morning start expected. Following Tuesday’s late screening it was 2:00 am before we made it to bed.” (pj)
As I write these recollections on my G-5 Quad Mac and watch words dance across my Cinema HD Display 30″ monitor at the speed of light I cannot help but grin about how the meaning of “easy and convenient” has changed forever. I spent the whole day working on the script. “Most of what I rewrote seemed to work. Michael loved all of it.”(pj) The idea for Mr. Krueger’s Christmas was based on a story idea by Michael McLean, Alan Henderson and J. Scott Iverson. E. F. Wallengren wrote the original teleplay.
How Michael McLean persuaded James Stewart to do a low budget half-hour TV special for the Mormon Church is a mystery that has found a place in Mormon folklore.
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Clarrisa is lifted to the top of the Christmas tree where she places the angel.
Michael recalled, “Over these twenty five years I’ve heard so many “faith promoting rumors” about Mr. Krueger’s Christmas from people who’ve “sworn” the stories were true. How Stewart was hired. Miraculous interventions from President Kimball. How the Church approved the film. etc. I’ve thought I ought to write a little novella about my experience as the film’s producer, but I wondered how the truth could possibly compete with some of the rumors. I’m pleased that you’re sharing your memories with the great folks at Meridian and their readers.”
However it happened, the fact that Michael persuaded James Stewart to play the role of Mr. Krueger was a decisive factor in making Mr. Krueger’s Christmasan enduring Christmas classic. The following transcript from the press conference following the filming offers some additional insights.
Reporter: “Why did you do a film so “off-Hollywood?”
Mr. Stewart:“I liked the script. I liked the message. I thought it was time we needed something like this.”
Reporter: “Were there any particular challenges to this role?”
Mr. Stewart: “Every role has its challenges, but then after fifty years I’ve learned a few tricks.”
Reporter: Kieth Merrill is a kind of Utah Golden Boy. What do you think of him as a director?”
Mr. Stewart: Kieth is a wonderful director. He has a great future. He did a lovely job.
I reflected in my journal.
My face flushed. Dagny mumbled something I didn’t hear. I felt more people looking at me than I realized. I knew he was too kind a person to say anything negative but I was breathless for a moment.(pj)James Stewart has worked with the best directors in the history of the motion picture business. After 50 years as an actor he knows more about the art of making films than I may ever know and yet interestingly he told me, “the excitement of the business is never knowing it all and always being able to learn. I still have much to learn. (pj)
Michael introduced me to James Stewart on Saturday, March 8. We went to Mr. Stewart’s home on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills and spent the afternoon discussing the story and the character of Mr. Krueger. Sometime later Mr. Stewart and I wandered through the canyons of costumes at Western Costume. I watched him select the wardrobe that defined his character. It was fascinating to witness the transformation before my eyes. “I did none of the picking only the approving as Jimmy Stewart had a distinctive idea of the character and how he intended to portray him.”(pj)
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Clarrisa (Kamee Lyons) discovers the creche’ and baby Jesus as Mr Krueger (James Stewart) and Carolers look on.
I asked Mr. Stewart on the first day we met what he would like to be called. He said “Jimmy is fine.” By the day filming began we were all calling him “Mr. Stewart.” He never demanded the deference; we just couldn’t help ourselves. The first day of filming went smoothly. Working with Jimmy Stewart changed from a thrilling opportunity to the minute-to-minute challenge of making a motion picture. He is a lovely man but very difficult to know. I reasoned that after 77 feature films and innumerable TV appearances establishing close new friendships must be excluded from his life. Perhaps before our week together is finished I will feel closer to him than tonight. By mid-day I had a strong sense of the importance of this show not only for the church but in the life of Jimmy Stewart as well though I don’t believe he quite realize how ultimately important it may be.(pj)
The first day of filming went smoothly. Working with Jimmy Stewart changed from a thrilling opportunity to the minute-to-minute challenge of making a motion picture. He is a lovely man but very difficult to know. I reasoned that after 77 feature films and innumerable TV appearances establishing close new friendships must be excluded from his life. Perhaps before our week together is finished I will feel closer to him than tonight. By mid-day I had a strong sense of the importance of this show not only for the church but in the life of Jimmy Stewart as well though I don’t believe he quite realize how ultimately important it may be.(pj)
Kieth Merrill gives direction to James Stewart
There were many professional reflections in my journal about working with Mr. Stewart as an actor.
Jimmy Stewart is a professional, totally, all the time in every way. But then of course he has made as many films as I’ve ever seen. Not actually of course but in my lifetime I’ll not likely approach 77 films unless the 2nd Coming happens before I die, I’m changed in the twinkling of an eye and appointed by the Ruling Councils to make more films. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?(pj)
On the day we filmed the dream sequence wherein Mr. Krueger leads the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, something uncommon occurred. We assembled the choir and rehearsed the number before Mr. Stewart came to the set. The cameras, lights and sound were in place. I sent the 2nd Assistant Director to Mr. Stewart’s dressing room to tell him we were ready. The dressing room had been set up under the choir seats on the north side in the lounge used by the General Authorities when General Conference was held in The Tabernacle.
Jimmy Stewart waits as Jerold Ottley rehearses the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
The AD returned to say that Mr. Stewart would like a word with me before he came to the set. He greeted me cordially as he always did – actor to director – and said in essence, “Kieth I suddenly realize that I need professional instruction before I go out there and pretend to lead that choir. Normally I could act it, but that is THE Mormon Tabernacle Choir out there! They deserve more than some actor faking it. They deserve the best that I can give them even if it’s only for a movie. Is there some way you can help me?”
Click to Enlarge James Stewart conducts the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as Mr. Krueger
What I learned about music playing baritone in the South Davis Jr. High School band did not exactly qualify me to teach Jimmy Stewart how to conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Even film directors have to face their limitations. I sent immediately for Jerold Ottley, conductor of the choir at that time. Jerold was the master, of course, and commenced at once to give Jimmy Stewart accelerated private lesson in conducting BIG choirs. I explained to the anxious singers waiting above that there would be a brief delay without giving them the reason.
Half an hour later Jimmy Stewart, dressed in the ragged clothes of Mr. Krueger, climbed to the podium and prepared for the scene. As he arrived someone in the choir began to applaud. Another picked it up and soon the entire choir was on its feet in a standing ovation. It was clear that the adoration was not about his Hollywood celebrity. It was a tribute to a man whose roles and life had always been a positive example.
Click to Enlarge Mr. Krueger (James Stewart) shows Clarrisa (Kamee Lyons) that he has used her mittens to decorate his Christmas tree.
For over half a century, Jimmy Stewart has been a surrogate brother, father, and friend to fans of American film. His projections on the silver screen are so much more than the words in his scripts – he made them our friends. He helped teach us how to live, and how to appreciate living. As an actor, he has and will continue to entertain and inspire millions. As a soldier, he fought alongside thousands of others to preserve our freedom. [Jimmy Stewart Museum]
James Stewart was deeply touched by the outpouring of genuine love, respect and appreciation. He in turn applauded the choir and there it was. Two grand American institutions paying homage to one another. In the film of course we see the choir clap for Mr. Krueger when he finishes conducting in his dreams, but the idea of the standing ovation came from the reality of what happened that day in the tabernacle, 25-plus years ago.
Even great stars need direction. I had imagined that directing Jimmy Stewart would be intimidating but it really wasn’t. Working with him was a great experience. He was so good. Three takes was rare for any one scene. He had his own sense of a scene but also took direction well. Only twice he seemed to be aggravated at all. Once when I was worried about matching the removal of his coat in a second camera angle. Another when the wind machine blew plastic snow into his mouth. “You better scrap this scene or the wind machine,” he said. “I can’t talk with plastic snow in my mouth.”(pj)
We shot Mr. Krueger’s Christmas in only 12 days, on a very modest budget. “When you consider we shoot a 90 minute feature film in 7-8 weeks it seems unreasonable to film a 30 minute special in less than a third the time but that is what we have to do.”(pj)
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Clarissa (Kamee Lyons) and her mother come back to invited
Mr. Krueger to come caroling and sing with them.
Mr. Stewart was in Utah over a weekend. Knowing he would be alone on Sunday – since we don’t film on the Sabbath – Michael suggested that we invite him to come to dinner with my mother and father in Farmington, Utah.
“Mr. Stewart,” I said, “how would like to come to the little town where I grew up and have a good old fashioned Mormon pot roast Sunday dinner with my mom and dad?” He accepted graciously. Michael and Lynn drove him to Farmington and we spent the day at the old rock pioneer house my father bought for $5000 in 1947 and remodeled into a truly beautiful home.
You have to remember of course that by 1936 James Stewart was a dashing Hollywood star. Not only a star but a young Hollywood hunk and my mother – the woman now fixing Mormon pot roast dinner for him in her own kitchen while he stood and chatted with her – was an excitable young woman of 24 who had swooned over Jimmy Stewart in the local cinema. My mom was meeting the Hollywood heartthrob movie star of her youth. You had to be there. You simply can not imagine how exciting it was for her and for my dad, who likewise “met” James Stewart as a hero of the Silver Screen in movies like Rose Marie, Next Time We Love and Born to Dance when he was still in college.
Jimmy ate the Mormon pot roast, carrots, hot rolls, mashed potatoes and brown gravy and praised my dear mother’s cooking. I say “Jimmy” now, because by the time we got to Farmington “Mr. Stewart” and I were friends and “Mr. Stewart” had become far too formal. We quickly learned that Jimmy was not one to “eat and run.” He spent the entire afternoon in my mom and dad’s living room telling stories, making us laugh and lapsing over and over again into the on-screen characters we had seen and loved in so many films over so many years.
On the day we filmed the nativity scene there was a spirit of reverence on the set that I had never experienced before. It would come again years later during Legacy and The Testaments, but on that day and special movie set it was unique and unexpected. The usual clamor of making movies – appearing to outsiders as chaos and confusion – was unusually ordered and calm. Efficiency was not diminished but communications were muted even whispered.
Following the rehearsal of the scene where Mr. Krueger visits the manger and pays homage to the Christ Child Jimmy pulled me aside and said, “I need to do this in one take.”
He had certainly proven his ability to nail a scene in one take, but on our low budget I only had one camera and I needed coverage to make the scene work. Cinema 101. Wide. Medium. Close Up. I tried to explain. Then, in that private moment, he shared his feelings for the Savior in a way that in our Mormon tradition was akin to bearing testimony:
For me this scene and these words are very personal and very real and I will not be able to do it twice.
I am confident in telling you that Mr. Krueger’s emotions as he kneels and talks to the Babe in the manger reflect in reality the feelings of James Stewart toward the Lord, Jesus Christ. The reverence for the Savior of the World so beautifully manifested by Mr. Krueger was a genuine sentiment for this marvelous actor who brought the wondrous old man of Michael McLean’s imagination to life. Gratefully he agreed to one additional take that gave us what we needed to edit the scene together.
Of all my lovely memories from Mr. Krueger’s Christmas, it is those surrounding Clarrisa I like best. Clarrisa is the little girl who loses her mitten and says, “Won’t you come and sing with us?” She is my own darling daughter, Kamee.
I hasten to add that Mike McLean made the casting choice all by himself. In the midst of his search for the perfect little co-star for James Stewart he met Kamee. He stayed at our home in Los Altos Hills on his way to Hollywood to cast the role. Kamee was 6 years old. Looking back I must confess that Kamee had an understanding – as in “showbiz savvy” – beyond her years. I her to be on her best behavior. She was “on” from the moment Michael walked in the door. She was charming, darling, infectious, precocious and anything but shy. When we persuaded Michael to sit at Dagny’s Steinway to play and sing – as he loves to do and we love too – Kamee climbed onto his lap, sang along and won his heart. We spent days in Los Angeles auditioning little girls but in the end Michael decided to go with Kamee.Click to Enlarge
Kamee Lyons, the original Clarrisa in “M. Krueger’s Christmas” with her daughter Kapri looking at the original baby Jesus from the creche’ used in the making of the film.
Michael was kind in his recollections.
You too were such a gift… and what a joy for you to direct not only Jimmy Stewart, but your darling daughter as well. I recall your introducing me to Kamee and walking the line between being a stage dad and the director of a film you came in on at the last moment. You should give lessons. You were great. It didn’t hurt that Kamee was such a cute thing… not a brilliant kid actor, but she had a sweetness that was undeniable and just right for the part. Plus, I figured if anyone knew how much she had to give, and what she could deliver, it was you. You handled it beautifully. Way to go.
It is always interesting and sometimes fun to look at old movie stars and wonder, “Where are they now?” It is even more delightful and certainly more positive to track down a child star who did not stay in the business but followed a normal path to a wonderful life. Today little Clarrisa [Kamee Aliessa Merrill Lyons] is 32 years old, with three children of her own. She was president of her class in high school, a classical harpist, an attendant to Miss California, a graduate of BYU with a masters in communication and the mover and shaker of our extended family. Kamee is married to Dr. Tim Lyons, an orthodontist in El Dorado Hills, California. They are active members of the Bass Lake Ward.
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Kamee Aliessa Merrill at high school graduation. This is the picture Kamee sent to Mr. Stewart together with the picture o them sitting together on the set of “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas” 12 years before.
Being treated like a movie star when you are 6 years old can quickly distorts your perspective of reality. We’ve laughed and laughed about how many months it took to unravel the spoiling that inadvertently took place over those 12 days. We joke that it took us a whole year to bring Kamee down from her high horse of celebrity. In fairness it was our fault. Most of Kamee’s scenes were at night. That meant she had to be bright-eyed, smiling and responsive only minutes after being awakened from a deep sleep in the middle of the night. She slept in her dressing room in her full costume.
I talked to Kamee about her memories of being a “little movie star” in Mr. Krueger’s Christmas. “I just remember being really tired,” she recalls, “but having two people getting me anything I wanted was pretty cool.” Biological clocks are not easily switched in children, and chocolate became the go-to remedy for crankiness.Click to Enlarge
Kamee’ Aliessa Merrill Lyons with her 2nd daughter, Kapri. You will note that Kapri is wearing the original costume for Clarrisa from the movie “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.” You will also note that Kapri is holding the original baby jesus from the creche’ used in the film. The costume and creche piece was given, to Kamee upon completion of the film which remain treasured mementos in the Lyons home. The children LOVE to watch Mr. Krueger’s Christmas and see their Mom as a little girl.
When Kamee graduated from high school, she sent Jimmy Stewart a copy of her graduation picture along with a production still of them together on the set. She thanked him for the influence that knowing him had had on growing up and the special place Mr. Krueger’s Christmas and Jimmy Stewart had played in her life. Jimmy responded with a lovely personal letter that ended, “Have a Wonderful Life and God Bless.”
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This is a copy of the letter Kamee received from Jimmy Stewart the year she graduated from high school. Kamee sent her picture taken upon graduation from high school and sent it with a letter to Jimmy Stewart to say thanks for the memories. Please note the way he signed off – Have a Wonderful Life and God Bless. James Stewart was truly one of the rare Hollywood good guys.
James Stewart donated all of his papers and memorabilia to the Brigham Young University. Upon completion of the film, N. Eldon Tanner of the First Presidency presented him with a leather bound book of his genealogy. Mr. Stewart’s role as Mr. Krueger will forever affect the Mormon Church, but it is clear that the Church affected him as well.
James Stewart died on July 2, 1997. Our family felt the loss in a very personal way. Jimmy and Mr. Krueger’s Christmas have certainly been a wonderful part of what we must say in gratitude has been a Wonderful Life.
2005 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.