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Christmas special has a little bit of everything

Sunday, December 16, 2001

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's Christmas on television, that special time of year when all of your favorite shows compete for time slots against a sleigh load of holiday glitter. The specials range from crudely animated survivors of Christmases past to spirited new variety shows hoping to add fresh sparkle to an idea that's almost as old as television itself.

"There's always some competition," says George Stevens Jr., executive producer of "Christmas in Washington," an annual one-hour concert special that has been celebrating the season since the Johnson administration. "But our show has always worked, I think, because of the quality of the talent we're able to get."

TV Preview
"Christmas in Washington"
When:8 tonight on TNT
Starring: Reba McEntire, Tony Bennett, Charlotte Church, Mandy Moore, Usher

The Stevens family name carries a lot of weight, from Hollywood Boulevard to Capitol Hill. George Stevens Sr., who died in 1975, was a heavyweight director of scores of film classics from "Gunga Din" to "Giant."

Eleven-time Emmy winner George Stevens Jr. is a director/producer of film and TV who cut his teeth directing "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and who, as an executive producer, helped to make "The Thin Red Line." "Christmas in Washington" has been his baby since 1982. For the past six years, he's bequeathed the hands-on role of producer to his son, Michael Stevens.

"It's like a family of acrobats," Stevens Jr. jokes, "the Flying Stevens."

"There's no real trick to it," he says, "except you have to get a good blend of performers. That's what Michael is very good at. He has a good sense of who the good [singers] are. Add to that the president of the United States, the Naval Academy, Children's Hospital and scenes from the nation's capitol. It's always exciting when there's a new president in office, too. The president and Mrs. Bush will be there and he'll deliver a two-minute Christmas address to the nation. With what's going on, we think he might have something newsworthy to say this year."

This year's "Christmas in Washington" follows the Stevens Wish List like a holiday cookie cutter:

Reba McEntire, the most successful female country singer with more than 50 million records sold and star of The WB's first breakout comedy hit, "Reba."

Ten-time Grammy-winning jazz and lounge singer Tony Bennett.

Sixteen-year-old classical/pop crossover singer Charlotte Church, who recently released her newest disc, "Enchantment."

Usher, whose new R&B album, "8701," is a Top 20 hit.

Teen pop star Mandy Moore.

The U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club.

Now in its third year on cable channel TNT (the show originated on NBC), "Christmas in Washington" 2001 airs during a time of patriotic fervor unheralded in this generation. But Stevens says there are no plans to add additional red, white and blue trappings to the show.

"We don't have to," he says. "It's in the fabric of the show. The presence of the Naval Academy has always been there, and this year one or two of the midshipmen may be asked to say a few words, telling the audience that the show is being seen overseas on the Armed Forces Network. The Navy will do, 'I'll Be Home for Christmas.' I think that about says it all."

But Stevens says it's not the flag waving that will make the show stand out among the competition. It's the music.

"One of the things that makes our show special is that we have a large orchestra," he says. "Ian Fraser conducts. That's unusual for TV. The blend of performers this year [is something] I'm very excited about. Mandy Moore is brand new. Tony Bennett, tried and very true. Charlotte Church, a popular singer with a classical voice, and this fellow, Usher, who worked with Michael and me and Quincy Jones on the millennium special from the Lincoln Memorial. We thought he was just great. And this year we're adding Reba McEntire, who is country and Broadway and has her own TV series and everything else."

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