A Christmas Tradition: Lionel Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge

barrymoreMultiple actors have played Ebenezer Scrooge in numerous adaptations of Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol.” But one actor performed the role every year, creating a 20 year tradition.

From 1934 to 1953, Lionel Barrymore came into homes over the radio as the miserly Scrooge who is visited by three ghosts as a warning to change his cruel ways.

Barrymore only missed two performances in the 20 year span: in 1936 when his wife Irene Fenwick died on Dec. 24, 1936; and in 1938.

John Barrymore took over for his brother in 1936 broadcast and Orson Welles performed the role in 1938.

Lionel Barrymore’s radio performance in “A Christmas Carol” is credited as making the Charles Dickens story popular in the United States, according to the book “The Man Who Invented Christmas” by Deckle Edge.

However, Barrymore never performed the role on screen. He was set to star in the 1938 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” However, arthritis kept him wheelchair bound so he dropped out of the film. Reginald Owen starred as Scrooge, per Barrymore’s suggestion, according to The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump.

Barrymore’s Ebenezer Scrooge is entertaining, but his delivery is similar to many of his other crotchety characters, such as Mr. Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life” or Dr. Gillespie in the Dr. Kildare series. You can hear his performance in the 1939 “Christmas Carol” performance on the Campbell Playhouse, directed and narrated by Orson Welles with music conducted by Bernard Herrmann:

Barrymore passed away on Nov. 15, 1954, nearly a month before what would have been his Christmas broadcast. The only broadcasts still survive are 1938, 1939, 1944, 1948, 1949 and 1952, according to the National Radio Hall of Fame.

Lionel Barrymore with Rudy Vallee performing

Lionel Barrymore with Rudy Vallee performing “A Christmas Carol.”

Many of the broadcasts aired the week of Christmas:

  • 1934: Broadcast aired Dec. 25. The program was part of a CBS Christmas Party sponsored by Nash-Lafayette.
  • 1935: Broadcast aired on December 25 and was sponsored by Campbell Soup on CBS.
  • 1936: John Barrymore took over for his brother after Lionel’s wife died. Broadcast aired on December 25 and was sponsored by Campbell Soup on CBS during the Louella Parson’s Hollywood Hotel program.
  • 1937: Broadcast aired on December 25 on CBS, sponsored by Campbell Soup on the Hollywood Hotel program.
  • 1938: Lionel Barrymore was absent and Orson Welles played Ebenezer Scrooge. Broadcast aired on December 23.
  • 1939: The show aired by The Campbell Playhouse, narrated and directed by Orson Welles. Bernard Herrmann conducted the CBS Radio Symphony during the show. Broadcast aired on December 24 on CBS and was sponsored by Campbell Soup.
  • 1940: Broadcast on December 20 on the Campbell Playhouse on CBS. Directed by Orson Welles.
  • 1941: Lionel was taking over for John Barrymore’s role on the show during this time. Rudy Vallee played Bob Cratchit. Broadcast on December 24 on the Rudy Vallee Hour on NBC, sponsored by Sealest Brands.
  • 1942: Broadcast on December 24 on the Rudy Vallee Hour on NBC.
  • 1943: Broadcast on December 22 on “The Mayor of the Town,” Lionel Barrymore’s own radio program on CBS.
  • 1944: Broadcast on December 23 on CBS during the “Mayor of the Town” program
  • 1945: Broadcast on December 22 on CBS during the “Mayor of the Town” program.
  • 1946: Broadcast on December 21 on CBS during “Mayor of the Town.”
  • 1947: Broadcast on December 24 for the last time during the “Mayor of the Town” program. The show was now on ABC.
  • 1948: Barrymore’s performance was part of NBC’s “Wrigley’s Christmas Festival” which included featured Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, Danny Kaye, Gracie Allen and George Burns, and Hedda Hopper. Broadcast on December 25.
  • 1949: Broadcast on December 25 through WGN.
  • 1950: Broadcast on December 24 through WGN, and was locally sponsored by Andrew McCann Plumbing and Heating in Chicago.
  • 1951: Broadcast on December 23 in a syndicated program.
  • 1952: The program is aired on The Hallmark Playhouse on CBS stations; broadcast December 21.
  • 1953: Lionel Barrymore’s final performance as Ebenezer Scrooge. It broadcast December 20 during the Hallmark Hall of Fame show on a CBS affiliate station.

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