Ads of Christmas Past

Jesus crucified on an East Village fire escape, John and Yoko sell their album, an early punk-rock sighting, and other Yule celebrations


It’s yuletide in the East Village, 1970 edition: MGM, the big movie studio, is setting up shop to capture some local color on Second Avenue. But, as Howard Smith reported in his weekly Scenes column, Kip Cohen, of the Fillmore East, was having none of it, fearing the out-of-towners might exploit “the whole East Village scene.” So the club manager covered his venue’s marquee with black drapes and devised a “sound mechanism” to distort the filmmakers’ audio track.

The two-page spread in the December 10, 1970, issue of the Voice exemplified a new decade looking to make sense of the advances, struggles, love, and violence of the tumultuous Sixties. Smith also reported on the travails of Art Raveson, who was having “some really big hassles trying to sell boxes of Christmas cards portraying himself as a kind of tenement Jesus crucified on a fire escape ladder.” Smith added that the long-haired Son of God ringer had turned his one-room apartment into “a miniature Hallmark factory,” and that reaction on the street to his wares ranged from “the standard New York blank stare to outrage — one woman hurled a box of the cards into the gutter and stomped on it after a five-minute harangue.”

Almost half a century on, the ads on that spread reveal that the times were definitely a-changing. The Beatles were no more, but the Plastic Ono Band were releasing an album featuring one of the world’s most famous couples, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, in alternating portraits. A much smaller ad presaged that a more raucous style of rock was waiting in the wings: “PUNK MUSIC BY SUICIDE” exclaims the copy in an ad for a show at the Village Vanguard, more commonly thought of as a temple of jazz. The Ramones would not burst onto the scene for another few years, but Suicide bandmates Alan Vega and Martin Rev were already promising some “nasty punk.”

Another ad from that same month featured a man who needs no introduction now but was still a fresh phenomenon in 1970: Jesus Christ Superstar. As the copy asks, “Was he God, myth or magician?”

Well, he wasn’t yet a Broadway star, but the double album about his life was climbing the charts and would hit number one a couple of months later. Decca bought a full-page ad in the December 3 issue of the Voice to stoke the buzz and tell people what was happening, quoting a reviewer in the L.A. Free Press: “Potentially the single most important recording since Edison waxed his first cylinder.”

What would Christmas be without some serious hyperbole?