December 23, 2010

Mama, Papa and Henry III wait for Santa Claus

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

Christmas 1956, and the family of Henry J. Kaiser, Jr., was reveling in the beauty of the season and reflecting on its own good fortune and faith. As they had done the two previous years, the trio — Henry Jr., his wife, Bobbie, and son Henry III, then 4, recorded a holiday album to share their happiness with their friends and the employees of Kaiser Industries.

The album eavesdrops on the young family as they recount stories and sing in anticipation of Santa’s arrival on Christmas Eve. The child, nicknamed ;Henry Three (aka Henri Trois), vows to stay up to see St. Nick up close. Can he do it? His parents are skeptical.

Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. Kaiser, Jr., alias Mama and Papa to Henry III. Photo courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

Just about seven minutes long, the 1956 recording celebrated San Francisco Bay Area’s newest bay crossing, the Richmond — San Rafael Bridge, the release of a musical classic from “My Fair Lady,” and the talent of young Henry Three who showed his precociousness by reciting a poem in French and then translating it for “Papa” Kaiser.

For me, “Mama” Bobbie Kaiser’s reference to Santa coming from the north to Oakland over the “new Richmond Bridge” rang a bell. As a native of Richmond, I remember taking my last ride on the auto ferry that connected the East Bay with Marin. My parents had a ritual of cramming all eight of us in to our 1950 Ford and driving onto the ferry as a special Sunday outing. That ended in September of 1956 when the bridge opened.

Henry J. Kaiser, Jr., son of industrialist and visionary Henry J. Kaiser, showcased his singing talent by launching into “I Could Have Danced All Night” as Henry Three reiterated his determination to greet Santa whenever the jolly soul showed up at the Kaiser home during the night. The song, which was well known later, had just been published and performed on Broadway in 1956. Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle (actually sung by Marni Nixon) popularized the tune in the 1964 screen version of “My Fair Lady.”

Precocious child grows up

Henry Kaiser III with his guitar at the South Pole in 2001. Photo from the Kaiser Family Foundation Web site.

Henry Three’s Christmas album performance foreshadowed his success as a brilliant student who enrolled at Harvard University at 16 and as an innovative and eclectic musician, research diver, videographer and film producer.

In 2007, Henry Three produced a documentary film about scientists working in Antarctica with famed documentarian Werner Herzog. The movie, “Encounters at the End of the World,” was nominated in 2009 for an Academy Award for Documentary Feature. Kaiser appears briefly in the film and his underwater camera work is showcased in the DVD’s special features.

The Baby Boomer Henry Kaiser has an impressive discography and is well known as a gifted musician and composer. Wikipedia has this to say about him: “Recording and performing prolifically in many styles of music, Kaiser is a fixture on the San Francisco music scene. He is considered a member of the ‘first generation’ of American free improvisers.”