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Laugh Lines : Time for Those Personalized Cards From Hell

November 24, 1994|CHRIS ERSKINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I had set the trap: the Brady Bunch Christmas album, a national treasure that seems to only get better with time.

The kids were playing in their rooms when I cranked up the volume. In seconds, they came running, holding their little ears with their little hands, begging me to turn it off.

I handcuffed them and loaded them in the car.

The purpose of this family sting was the taking of the annual Christmas card photo. You've probably seen them. Sometimes it's a photo of the whole family, sometimes just the kids. It's a holiday tradition as quaint and wholesome as Cheez Whiz hors d'oeuvres. But a lot easier to screw up.

You may remember that it was the pressure of coming up with a good Christmas card photo that drove George Bailey to near suicide in "It's a Wonderful Life." In fact, I believe the original title was something like, "It's a Wonderful Life . . . Until You Try to Come Up With One of Those Goofy and Ridiculous Christmas Card Photos." It was later changed for marketing purposes.

For several years, I simplified the process by using some children living down the street. Not only did they wear nicer clothes, they also had all their teeth.

Unfortunately, friends who knew us well finally noticed and complained to my wife, who was unaware of the ploy and threatened violence if it continued.

This year, I promised to use our kids. I even promised to come up with the best-ever Christmas card photo anyone's ever seen.

My first goal was a scenic background. Trees, wildlife, the finest wilderness spot in the L.A. Basin.

We were in the car only a few minutes when I spotted a stand of trees outside a 7-Eleven in the Pico District. It was perfect. Kind of green. Not much graffiti. And the panhandlers ran when they saw the kids spill out of the car.

As I prepared the camera, the children lined up.

"Dad, Emily isn't wearing any shoes."

No big deal, we could crop the photo.

"Dad, look at Jessica's hair."

I combed it with the car keys.

"Dad, Christopher isn't wearing a shirt."

"You didn't say we needed shirts," Christopher explained.

Fortunately, every 7-Eleven carries a fine line of boys clothing, consisting mostly of T-shirts with neon pink lettering. The smallest size fit him like a wedding dress.

Back outside we went. The kids lined up again. I aimed the camera.

"Smile!"

No smiles.

"How can we smile when we haven't had lunch?" one asked.

"Because I said so," I patiently explained.

Still no smiles.

Then, in a wonderful Frank Capra moment, my oldest daughter pulled me aside.

"Dad, the holidays aren't about silly Christmas cards. Or fancy lights. Or even expensive gifts," she said. "The holidays are about the joy of giving."

So I marched back inside and, in the spirit of Christmas, bought three Slurpees, three jumbo hot dogs, two giant orders of nachos and a Tori Spelling poster--all for about the price of a tank of gasoline.

Back outside we went. Several panhandlers had returned and were milling around, giving me tips.

"Your oldest daughter needs to lift her chin," one said.

"Your F-stop setting is a little low," another added.

"Hey kids, got any spare change?" asked a third.

The kids searched their pockets.

"All I have is a 20," Chris said.

"That'll do," the man replied.

I grabbed the $20 bill, stuffed it in my pocket and aimed the camera.

"Smile!"

Still no smiles. I told an off-color joke. Big yuks, especially from the panhandlers, and the kids smiled.

Click.

It's not the finest Christmas card photo anyone's ever seen.

But it'll do.

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