Quick: What would you surmise is the longest-running radio show in the Hudson Valley? Whatever you guessed, it’s probably wrong. The true answer to that question is a program that, like Christmas itself, comes but once a year: Mark Rosen’s Rockin’ Christmas Eve, which will have its 32nd annual incarnation from 7 p.m. until midnight on Wednesday, December 24, this year on ROCK 93-3.
A Gardiner resident and SUNY New Paltz graduate who taught English at Middletown High School for 35 years before retiring in 2009, Rosen grew up with rock ‘n’ roll and seems to have been destined for a serious hobby as a record collector from the get-go. “When I was six years old, my brother and I would split buying a 45 record every week,” he recalls. “One of the first records I bought ties in with my interest in Christmas music: Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Clowns’ ‘Don’t You Just Know It.’”
Fast-forward to 1979, when Lennie Kaye of the Patti Smith Group was guest-hosting a rock ‘n’ roll Christmas radio special, playing “music I didn’t know existed,” says Rosen. One of the cuts sounded familiar: It was that New Orleans R&B group that he had discovered in elementary school, Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Clowns — only this time performing “Rock ‘n’ Roll Santa.” “Less than a week later, I found a sealed copy in a hole-in-the-wall store in Poughkeepsie that no longer exists,” he recounts. “It opened up a floodgate that never really closed.”
Growing up Jewish during an era when Christmas music wasn’t blaring out of every corner of every store and mall the minute Halloween was over, Rosen hadn’t been exposed to enough of the genre to develop much familiarity with it — nor the aversion that can be induced by oversaturation. Bobby Helms’s “Jingle Bell Rock” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” in the late ‘50s and the Christmas LPs issued by Phil Spector, the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons in the early ’60s had been about the extent of his exposure to Yule-themed rock ‘n’ roll — until the fateful night when he listened to that Lennie Kaye broadcast. Then his natural curiosity, musical tastes and the network of record-collector friends that he had already established by the late ‘70s propelled him to seek out Christmas novelty records by rock, soul, doo-wop, surf, rockabilly, punk, reggae, New Wave and alt-rock artists to add to his shelves. A new obsession had been ignited.
Coincidentally, that transformative incident happened in the same year that Mark Rosen married Leslie Grill, with whom he has two grown children, Erica, 31, and Kerri, 28. Though he was already quite a committed record collector by then, Mark did not make Leslie pass a rock trivia exam before proposing, like the Daniel Stern character did to the Ellen Barkin character in the movie Diner. “I would not be married to her if I had administered said test,” he laughs, saying that although he and his wife generally have similar tastes in music, she has learned over time to tune out his obsession with Christmas-themed rock novelties.
Rosen first tried his hand at spinning platters over the airwaves on his campus radio station in college, and in 1981 was recruited by Leslie Gerber to help him put together a setlist from his collection for a one-shot, two-hour Christmas rock show on WDST. The following year he entered and won a “Be a Deejay” contest offered by WPDH, which afforded listeners opportunities to host a show for one hour based on a setlist submission. While there he made the acquaintance of some WPDH staff members, and later successfully pitched his idea for a rock Christmas special, co-hosted by Rosen and a resident deejay. That was the beginning of a three-decade same-time-next-year relationship with the station. “Almost everything I play is stuff they wouldn’t hear anyplace else,” he says.
WPDH finally canceled the show in 2012, deciding to pick up a nationally syndicated Christmas rock feed that it could get for free. But over the decades, Rosen’s annual program had built up a following, and he had become established as something of an expert on Christmas rock, even publishing a scholarly article on the subject in the record collectors’ magazine Goldmine in 1990. So when WPDH let him go, “ROCK 93-3 wooed me. There are a lot of WPDH expatriates working there… They’re going after the same market.” Though he says that he has found it challenging to let his former “very faithful audience” know that he’s still around — just on another radio station — Rosen seems happy with his new on-air home: “They let me do what I want for five hours.”
That being said, he makes a point of keeping the show’s content totally family-friendly, although he has managed to hunt down a fair number of “holiday” tunes for his personal collection that are not suitable for airplay. Since his retirement from teaching, Rosen has been able to devote more time to his collecting hobby, haunting auctions, yard sales and eBay. He also sometimes works as the “fill-in guy” at Jack’s Rhythms when the record shop is short-staffed. “New Paltz has become a hub for record-buyers,” he says. “Both locals and weekenders know to go to Rhino and Jack’s, and they send customers to each other.”
His collection of oddball Yuletide tunes in many genres has grown quite substantial, enabling him to assemble a five-hour setlist for Christmas that is wildly eclectic. “I put a lot of work into it,” Rosen says. “I’m very meticulous about the playlist and how each set is arranged.” He shared the following sample setlist for a single hour of the program that he has planned for Christmas Eve 2014:
- “Smells like Christmas Spirit” by Dr. Dyke’s Cinnamon Cowboys
- “Christmas Morning” by the Sleepwalkers
- “Father Christmas” by the Kinks
- “What Christmastime Means to Me” by the Hi-Risers
- “Sock It to Me Santa” by Bob Seger & the Last Heard
- “Merry Christmas Baby” by Otis Redding
- “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by the Whirling Dervishes
- “Dear Santa” by Every Damn Day
- “Do You Hear What I Hear?/Baba O’Reilly” by Spiraling
- “Let It Snow” by Jon Auer
- “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Apside
- “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” by Art Carney
- “The Season’s upon Us” by the Dropkick Murphys
- “Christmas with Fat Aunt Bette” by Andrea Perry
- “Joy to the World” by the Fab Four
“The oldest song I play would be the Drifters, from 1955,” Rosen says of the ever-evolving program’s decades-spanning range. “The most recent ones came out a few weeks ago.”
So will the venerable mid-Hudson cultural institution that is Mark Rosen’s Rockin’ Christmas Eve go on forever? “Every year I say this is my last, and they keep pulling me back,” he says. But it’s probably best not to chance missing it this time around. If you’re stuck somewhere outside of local radio range this Christmas Eve from 7 to midnight, you can stream the show on www.rock933.com.