December 8, 1963 – Frank Sinatra, Jr., was kidnapped from his dressing room at a Nevada casino. His father, Frank Sinatra, Sr., offered $1 million in ransom, but the kidnappers said they only require $240,000. Junior returned home safely after two days, and police arrested the captors before the week was out.
December 6, 1964 – The most famous reindeer of all made his network debut when NBC aired the premiere of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." A true American phenomenon, Rudolph originated as a 1939 promotional gimmick for the Montgomery Ward department stores. His reputation soared after Gene Autry recorded the famous song 10 years later.
December 9, 1965 – It was the classic that almost wasn’t. When CBS execs got their first glimpse of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," they weren't amused. It was slow, they insisted. It had no laugh track. And jazz music? Really? Nearly a half century later, the offbeat cartoon still captures American hearts.
December 18, 1966 – No way — too scary. That’s what Theodor Geisel said to the suggestion that horror actor Boris Karloff voice the Grinch in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." But Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss, eventually relented, the special debuted on CBS and Karloff’s growly grouch still charms viewers young and old.
December 20, 1967 – Robert Redford was the epitome of sexy — too sexy, as far as director Mike Nichols was concerned. Though Redford auditioned for Nichol’s classic "The Graduate," the starring role of Benjamin Braddock ultimately went to Dustin Hoffman, who did a stellar job of looking goofy and sexually inexperienced.
December 21, 1968 – NASA launched Apollo 8, the first manned space craft to orbit the moon. The craft provided the first glimpse ever of Earth from deep space, and laid the foundation for the successful voyage, seven months later, of Apollo 11, when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the surface of the moon.
December 14, 1969 – Five brothers from Gary, Indiana, made their premiere on the "Ed Sullivan Show" — Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael Jackson. A pudgy-cheeked, 11-year-old Michael crooned “I Want You Back,” sporting a royal purple hat and executing a spin dance move familiar to any fan of his '80s "Thriller" video.
December 31, 1970 – The Fab Four hadn't been getting along for years at this point. Paul McCartney then wanted his in-laws as the group’s new managers, while George Harrison, John Lennon and Ringo Starr preferred an outsider. Squabbles exploded into fury. On the last day of the year, McCartney filed a lawsuit to dissolve the Beatles.
December 17, 1971 – "A Clockwork Orange" debuted in theaters, treating a shocked public to director Stanley Kubrick’s stylized vision of a dystopian future, featuring a young Malcolm McDowell as a sadistic gang leader and the state’s equally sadistic attempt at rehabilitation. The film generated such furor in Kubrick’s native Britain that he withdrew it from circulation there in 1974.
December 30, 1972 – Phones rang in journalists’ homes at 9 a.m. with instructions to prepare for a special briefing. At 9:45, President Nixon announced an abrupt end to the bombing of North Vietnam and a resumption of peace talks. The U.S. had dropped more than 20,000 tons of bombs on the North in a dozen days.
December 26, 1973 – "The Exorcist" premiered. Audience members reportedly vomited, fainted and even suffered heart attacks. Indeed, the movie narrowly escaped an X rating. “The film contains brutal shocks, almost indescribable obscenities,” wrote critic Roger Ebert, in an otherwise glowing review. “That it received an R rating and not the X is stupefying.”
December 31, 1974 – Fleetwood Mac was a solid, well-regarded band when someone handed drummer Mick Fleetwood a tape of a duo called Buckingham-Nicks. The musicians’ sound so impressed band members that they decided no formal audition was needed. On the last day of the year, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac.
December 13, 1975 – For the first time ever — and only the second time in its history — "Saturday Night Live" broadcasted with a seven-second delay. The reason? To bleep out anything inappropriate spilling from the mouth of obscenity-prone host Richard Pryor. SNL employed a delay again when Andrew Dice Clay hosted in 1990.
December 8, 1976 – The Eagles released the album "Hotel California." For eight months prior, Don Henley told Rolling Stone, “We just locked ourselves in [the studio]. We had a refrigerator, a ping-pong table, roller skates and a couple of cots. We would go in and stay for two or three days at a time.”
December 25, 1977 – Charlie Chaplin, the gifted actor whose little tramp elevated the art of motion pictures and charmed movie goers worldwide, died at his home in Switzerland. It had been more than a quarter century since he set foot in the U.S., after politicians denounced him for supporting an accused Communist.
December 1978 – Talk about a great Christmas to be an American. Milton Bradley introduced the classic "Hungry Hungry Hippos" game in '78. The Massachusetts toy company also came out with the electronic colors game "Simon," and "Star Wars" fans finally unwrapped their very own, licensed action figures from the hit movie.
December 19, 1979 – "Kramer vs. Kramer" premiered. Meryl Streep — who won the part of Joanna Kramer after Kate Jackson of "Charlie’s Angels" turned it down — was skeptical that a woman in a financially stable marriage would leave her son. Then her own mother told her she’d had moments when she almost walked out the door.
December 8, 1980 – John Lennon was shot in front of his New York City apartment building. Although he was rushed to the nearest hospital, he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival. Years later, his killer Mark David Chapman told ABC’s Barbara Walters that he’d hoped to acquire fame by murdering the Beatle.
December 11, 1981– Muhammed Ali fought his 61st and last professional boxing match ever, losing to Jamaican boxer Trevor Berbick in a unanimous 10-round decision, before a crowd of 10,000, at the Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre in Nassau, the Bahamas. The 39-year-old Ali was attempting his second return from retirement.
December 1, 1982 – Michael Jackson’s epic "Thriller" album was released and became the top selling album of all time. Hoping for an Academy award nomination, producers got the title track video played in a Westwood theater for one week in 1983. It opened for Disney’s "Fantasia," much to the dismay of unsuspecting parents.
December, 1983 – Help! Someone find me a Cabbage Patch Doll — quick! The pudgy dolls with the homely faces were the rage of the holiday season. A postman from Shawnee, Kansas, even flew all the way to London to nab one for his daughter, saying, “I just decided the kid was worth it."
December 22, 1984 – Madonna’s single “Like a Virgin” hit No. 1 and stayed there for six weeks. Jason Corsaro, the main recording engineer for the "Like a Virgin" album, recalled: “In those days, people often fooled around … and [Madonna] would say,‘Time is money and the money is mine. Let’s get to work.’”
December 18, 1985 – "The Color Purple" premiered. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in their first big screen roles, the movie shared the record (with "The Turning Point" from 1977) for the most Oscar nominations without a win (11). Spielberg did not even get nominated.
December 1, 1986 – "Les Miserables" took America for a trial run, opening at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House in Washington, D.C., for eight weeks. The production cost $4.5 million to stage, but made nearly all that back immediately, with $4 million in advance ticket sales for its March 12, 1987, Broadway opening.
December 1, 1987 – The English and the French started digging the Channel Tunnel, or Chunnel, which would connect the island of Britain with the European mainland for the first time in 8,000 years. When it opened in May 1994, the 31-mile Chunnel was the longest undersea tunnel in the world.
December 12, 1988 – "Rain Man" premiered and blew away audiences, thanks in part to lucky casting. Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro both turned down the role of Raymond. Dustin Hoffman, though, saw something the other two did not. He successfully lobbied to play Raymond as a withdrawn autistic, and went on to win the Best Actor Academy Award.
December 17, 1989 – "The Simpsons" made its TV debut as a half-hour sitcom. The longest running sitcom in the history of American television actually started life two years earlier, as 30-second sketches inserted into "The Tracy Ullman Show." Creator Matt Groening named the characters after his own family, substituting Bart for himself.
December 5, 1990 – Novelist Salman Rushdie showed his face in public for the first time since Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called for his execution following the publication of Rushdie’s 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses." In early 1991, however, Khomeini announced the fatwah was still on and Rushdie returned to hiding until the late 1990s.
December 31, 1991 – The Cold War was officially over. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR, formally ceased to exist in 1991. Six days earlier, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned and declared his office extinct, handing over the Soviet nuclear missile launching codes to Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
December 3, 1992 – “Merry Christmas.” That’s what Neil Papworth wrote to his colleague Richard Jarvis today, in the first text message ever. Papworth typed the message on his computer, and Jarvis, at a Christmas party nearby, received it on his Vodafone cellphone. Vodafone execs believed texting would be a great enhancement for pagers.
December 15, 1993 – "Schindler’s List" premiered. The film’s producer and director, Steven Spielberg, refused compensation, calling it “blood money.” All royalties and residuals from the movie that would normally have gone to the director instead were given to the Shoah Foundation, which records and preserves testimonies from survivors of genocide worldwide, including the Holocaust.
December 15, 1994 – Netscape Communications Corp. released Netscape Navigator 1.0. This was the first browser designed for modems, allowing the public — and not just academics in universities with high-speed connections — to surf the Internet. A year and a half later, its IPO would be one of the most successful in history.
December 29, 1995 – "Dead Man Walking" premiered. Sister Helen Prejean, the real-life nun on whose story the movie was based, was told she would be played in the film by “a famous actress from "Thelma & Louise.” When she was introduced to Susan Sarandon, Prejean says, “Thank God, she’s Louise.”
December 26, 1996 – JonBenet Ramsey’s body was discovered by her father in the basement of the family’s Boulder, Colo., home. It would take 11 years for the Boulder police to publicly apologize to the family and declare the parents were not suspects in the death of the six-year-old beauty pageant queen.
December 13, 1997 – "Jerry Maguire" premiered. The title role was written for Tom Hanks, who had to say no, due to his work on the forgettable "That Thing You Do!" Fine for Tom Cruise, whose dynamic portrayal of Jerry helped turn the feature into his fifth consecutive $100-million-plus film, a new record.
December 20, 1998 – President Clinton’s approval rating jumped 10 points, to an all-time high of 73 percent, after the House of Representatives approved articles of impeachment related to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Nine days earlier, Clinton publicly apologized — again. “I am profoundly sorry … Quite simply, I gave in to my shame.”
December 31, 1999 – Y2K! Would calamity strike on Jan. 1, 2000, when the “00” in 2000 wreaked havoc on software, causing computer failures that throw the globe into chaos? Y2K, said the Rev. Jerry Falwell, “may be God’s instrument to shake this nation.” In the end, it passed with nary a blip.
December 8, 2000 – "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" premiered. The title was a quote from Chinese mythology, and referred to hiding your strength from others. The Academy Award winning movie became the first foreign language film to earn more than $100 million in the United States.
December 2, 2001 – Energy company Enron filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It is the largest bankruptcy to date in U.S. history. Before its financial schemes collapsed, Enron execs were riding high, racing (and crashing) Ferraris and dropping $10,000 in a single visit to a strip club, the Wall Street Journal reports.
December 11, 2002 – As the U.S. mulled over the wisdom of invading Iraq, hundreds of protesters converged on the United Nations, asking for peace. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein called on his countrymen to stand strong: “Your heads will be held aloft in dignity and, God willing, your enemy will be defeated and humiliated.”
December 13, 2003 – U.S. soldiers arrested Saddam Hussein after they discovered the former Iraqi dictator hiding in a six-by-eight-foot deep hole, nine miles outside his hometown of Tikrit. Hussein, on the run for nine months, seemed to be “a man resigned to his fate,” according to a soldier at the scene.
December 19, 2004 – "Lord of the Rings" premiered. The Tolkien estate was never in favor of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation but seeing as J.R.R. Tolkien signed the rights away in 1968 for $15,000, there was nothing they could do about it. The films’ release sparked bitter family feuds, which have since been reconciled.
December 9, 2005 – "Brokeback Mountain" premiered. Michelle Williams, who played Alma, asked her two male costars to kiss in front of her. She thought it would help her get into character, particularly since she was dating one of them, Heath Ledger. But she had to goad them; the first few attempts weren’t passionate enough for her.
December 25, 2006 – James Brown died of congestive heart failure at 73 years old. Two days before he died, the singer, songwriter, bandleader and dancer promised, from his hospital room, the weekend’s shows would go on: "I'm the hardest working man in show business and I'm not going to let them down."
December 2007 – The U.S. economy officially slipped into recession after a 10-year expansion. So says the National Bureau of Economic Research, reporting in hindsight one year later. However, it would be nine months until the collapse of Lehman Bros., and nearly a full year until most Americans would feel the recession’s impact.
December 11, 2008 – Federal agents arrested superstar trader Bernie Madoff at his Manhattan home, accusing him of running a multibillion-dollar fraud scheme. Madoff, whose actions cost many their life savings, would eventually receive a 150-year sentence. Said one victim, Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, of Madoff: “'Psychopath' — it’s too nice a word for him.”
December 18, 2009 – "Avatar" premiered. The 3-D film with the blue, humanlike creatures was almost 60 percent computer-generated and was estimated to have cost $300 million. Director James Cameron first conceived of the movie in 1994, but had to shelve the script while he waited for technology to catch up with his vision.
December 22, 2010 – Under pressure from Jon Stewart’s "The Daily Show," New York City’s mayor, fire fighters and others, Congress overcame politics to pass a 9/11 healthcare bill. The $4.3 billion bill covered the cost of care for rescue workers and others who became ill due to repercussions from the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
December 15, 2011 – The Stars and Stripes lowered for a final time over Baghdad as the U.S. officially ended the Iraq War. “Lives have not been lost in vain,” said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Nearly 4,500 U.S. service members died, as did tens of thousands of Iraqis, in eight-plus years of combat.
December 14, 2012 – Adam Lanza — age 20, armed with semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle — killed 26 people in an attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty of the dead were children. Said Laura Feinstein, a teacher at the school: “Who would do this to our poor little babies?