Rummaging around the WPIX New York archives last summer, Rolando Pujol found the 16 mm footage of the Tribune station’s original, fabled Yule Log, which had been presumed lost forever. “I see it as a major historical find,” says Pujol, WPIX’s digital and social strategy director and archivist. That footage of a fireplace aglow in Gracie Mansion, NYC’s official mayor’s residence, will return to TV this Christmas Eve, 50 years after its 1966 debut. The uninitiated should not expect much action—the Yule Log resembled digital wallpaper long before the computer era. Pujol spoke with B&C contributing editor Diana Marszalek about what makes it such a social-media star and the log’s enduring grip on viewers’ holiday imagination. Although as any archivist can see, there were positive signs from the beginning. “On Dec. 24, 1966, the fireplace got the featured position on the TV page of The New York Times,” Pujol notes. “That’s really cool.” An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Does finding the lost Yule Log footage make you a hero? At least now I know what the lead of my obituary will say. It was also like sitting on a really big secret and you simply can’t contain yourself. From the moment we announced [the discovery] to the public in November, the reaction has been just phenomenal. This is an important piece of television history. It’s also very meaningful because it’s the first version of something that set off a Christmas industry built around televised fireplaces. It’s a humble film, it’s scratchy, it’s been played a lot and it’s very special because of what it represents in history and in the hearts of viewers who encountered this in 1966.
What is it about the log that makes people so gaga? You will see streams on Netflix [and] on DVD that feature different fireplaces and different music. But none of them have that wonderful, fuzzy, nostalgic value. The idea was always to create a special Christmas for viewers. It was basically wholesome. What we did in editing the raw footage is similar to what was done in 1966. We took two minutes and stretched it out over an hour. And we have never fundamentally changed the soundtrack. If we did that, there would be holy hell to pay.
Tell us about the part of your job that requires pretending to be the log. We created a Facebook page and a Twitter account called PIX Yule Log and they give the log a voice. On Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, I pull out my computer, turn on the TV set and I tweet out factoids, thank people who are sending us photos showing the fireplace on TV and a real fireplace. When you are the voice of the Yule Log, it’s pretty stressful.
Given what TV has become, do you think the log has much of a future? I have no doubt the Yule Log will be airing in 50 years. We do all sorts of cutting-edge things on social and digital and are very much geared toward that. There are kids 5 and 10 years old turning on this bizarre fireplace [and] they don’t get it. But soon they will.
What was your holiday TV routine as a kid? The Rankin/Bass specials—Rudolph, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, Frosty the Snowman. I would get the TV Guide, make sure Rudolph was on at 8 p.m., circle it and make sure we were home. If I missed it, I felt terrible because I’d have to wait another year. There is still something about watching A Charlie Brown Christmas at the exact same time millions of other people around the country are doing it. You feel part of something bigger.