The Christmas Special Day 20: Christmas at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1988)
Directors: Wayne Orr, Paul Reubens
Writer: John Paragon, Paul Reubens
Cast: Paul Reubens, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Grace Jones, k.d. lang, Dinah Shore, Little Richard, Cher, Magic Johnson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Joan Rivers, Charo, Kevin Carlson, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Fletcher, Darin Grimes, Rick Heitzman, Suzanne Kent, William Marsha, George McGrath, S. Epatha Merkerson, Alison Mork, John Paragon, Lynne Marie Stewart, Vic Trevino, Wayne White & the Del Rubio Triplets
Plot: As Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) makes out his list for Santa Claus, he gets a visit from his friend Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), who has strategically placed mistletoe into her hairdo to get kisses from everyone. She’s brought Pee-Wee his Christmas present: her own homemade fruitcake. Less than enthused, Pee-Wee gives her a bottle of homemade perfume that smells just like him. As he continues his preparations, he gets a call from Whoopi Goldberg, asking to be on his Christmas special, but he’s booked solid for the next two years. When he’s reminded that he forgot to get decorations for the Christmas party, he wishes he hadn’t been so selfish, getting the attention of Jambi the Genie (John Paragon). Pee-Wee uses Christmas to con an extra wish out of Jambi (he usually only gets one a day) and has the Playhouse quickly decorated, planning to use his other wish for “something special” later. Mail Lady Reba (S. Epatha Merkerson) arrives and Pee-Wee gives her a set of press-on toenails and an enormous letter to Santa. She gives him another fruitcake, and a huge box containing singer Grace Jones, who was supposed to be shipped to the White House. She sings her own rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” before she’s reboxed and sent off to Washington (where I’m sure President Reagan was highly appreciative). Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello stop by to make Christmas Cards, and Cher drops in to get today’s Secret Word. (It’s “Year.” So whenever anyone says “Year,” you scream real loud. You know where this is going.)
The King of Cartoons (William Marshall) drops in with a gift for Pee-Wee (two fruitcakes), and Annette starts the cartoon, preceded by a Christmas message from Joan Rivers on the set of Hollywood Squares. The excitement is heightened when a snowfall sends Pee-Wee out to play (after telling Frankie and Annette they can’t join him until they finish making their cards). As he plays, his friend Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne) stops by, and the two of them listen while the Del Rubio Triplets perform “Winter Wonderland.” Little Richard joins the gang as they go ice skating, but he’s not that good on skates, and has to watch as Pee-Wee demonstrates his own prowess, courtesy of his stunt double, Hans. Everyone goes in for hot chocolate to warm up and listen to a song by special guest k.d. lang, backed up by the Puppet Band. As night falls, Pee-Wee hangs up his giant Christmas stocking(s) amidst those of his friends, then tosses Frankie and Annette bread and water to sustain them as they toil away on the cards. Pee-Wee gets more visitors, more well-wishers, and more fruitcake… even, courtesy of Charo, one in Spanish. Pee-Wee’s friend Mrs. Rene (Susanne Kent) stops in to teach him about Hanukkah and gives him eight days of fruitcakes. Finally, Frankie and Annette finish making the 1000 cards, and are allowed to join the party. Randy, Pee-Wee’s Marionette buddy, seems to have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, so the Magic Screen shows him a video of a Nativity Play and tells him the story of the first Christmas. “Touched,” Randy gives Pee-Wee a fruitcake. Finally, Pee-Wee leads them to a new wing of the Playhouse where he has a couple of construction workers building walls using the fruitcakes for bricks. As the gang begins caroling, Pee-Wee hears sleigh bells – Santa Claus has arrived! Santa (Aaron Fletcher) pops in and tells Pee-Wee his list was so big that he didn’t have any presents for the other children. Pee-Wee’s friends, with the help of his flashback to Randy, convince him to sacrifice his presents so the other children can have Christmas, and Santa rewards him by inviting him to join him on his sleigh to deliver the presents. Before he goes, Jambi reminds Pee-Wee of his special wish, which he uses to wish for Peace on Earth, a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.
And everybody screams real loud.
Thoughts: If you were around in the late 80s, and were just at the right age, you might remember Pee-Wee’s Playhouse as something of a phenomenon. It was an odd sort of show. To kids, it was a bizarre, surreal blend of puppetry, animation and sketch comedy that tapped into a primal source of humor for us all, a sort of subversive answer to Sesame Street that seemed to want to use the same tricks, but instead of teaching us to spell and count, taught us to scream real loud. To adults, it was a weird production that was half parody and half celebration of the sort of kid-centered variety show that existed in the 50s and 60s, but was largely extinct by that point. To everybody, it was something that would prove impossible to forget even after Paul Reubens was forced to retire the character in disgrace. (We won’t go there, this is a family countdown.)
As an adult, it’s hard not to look at this and immediately understand that Pee-Wee creator (and performer) Paul Reubens was in this more to entertain himself and the older audience, and any kids who really got into it were just a little extra credit. If you doubt that, look at the guest list for this special. Find one seven-year-old circa 1988 who either knew or cared who Dinah Shore, Charo, or the Del Rubio Triplets were. Come on. I’ll wait. Most of the older guests seem to be wallowing in their own irony – particularly Frankie and Annette, who were riding an irony-fused wave of nostalgia popularity at the time. Only k.d. lang really seems to get into it, performing a wild and ridiculous rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock” that clearly demonstrates that she realizes how crazy what she’s doing is and has decided to just roll with it.
Pee-Wee himself, as a character, is hardly the role model of a Charlie Brown or a Rudolph… or even a Fat Albert. He’s kind of rude at times, openly disdainful of the gifts his friends give him, engages in a weirdly antagonistic back-and-forth with the viewers, and comes across as rather self-centered even at his best. It’s actually part of the reason kids liked him so much, I think – he was a more cynical character and, as a result, a slightly more honest one.
Even the bits that you usually get in a children’s show have a weird sort of twist. The scene where Frankie and Annette make Christmas Cards, for example, is the kind of quasi-education craft segment you’d get in any kids’ show… so why does Pee-Wee look at the former supercouple as if they’ve fallen from another planet? (Because that’s what most kids would do when some grown-up starts rambling about trying to make Christmas Cards with a potato, that’s why.) Perhaps the best “tip,” though, comes when Pee-Wee plays in the snow, and tells the kids at home that they can substitute 20 pounds of coconut shavings if they don’t have any snow at home. You’ve got to wonder how many kids tried to convince their parents to let them give that one a try.
Although this is billed as its own standalone special, even more than many of the others we’ve watched, it feels very much like a longer episode of the TV show. Reubens and his guests engage in most of the once-an-episode bits that we’re all used to from the weekly series, like his journey through the magic screen or his daily wish from Jambi the Genie. As was true for most episodes of the TV show, the plot is loose at best, with Reubens and company instead pinwheeling from one segment to another with no real logic or connectivity beyond the need to discuss Christmas and keep up the running gag about Pee-Wee getting fruitcake after fruitcake instead of real gifts.
It’s entertaining, at least, but perhaps not as much as a lot of the other Christmas specials we’ve watched this month. It has its charm, but Pee-Wee doesn’t really age as well as a lot of the other characters who’ve come together to make our Yuletide merry. Ah well. Perhaps the next cast of misfits will do better.
The Christmas Special Day 19: A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
Directors: Peter Harris & Eric Till
Writer: Jerry Juhl
Cast: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Kathryn Mullen, Jerry Nelson, Karen Prell, Steve Whitmire, David Rudman, Caroll Spinney, Gerard Parkes
Plot: Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) and many of the Muppets are off to spend Christmas at Fozzie Bear’s mother’s house (Fozzie and Ma Bear performed by Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson, respectively). They arrive to find that Ma is about to leave, having planned on taking a vacation to Florida for the holidays. Doc (Gerard Parkes) and his dog Sprocket (Steve Whitmire) are renting the house for a quiet holiday. When the Muppets arrive Ma decides to call off her vacation, and Doc finds himself surrounded by strange creatures. (Perplexed, he asks Sprocket if the Muppets are like the “Fraggles” his dog often reports encountering back home.) As everyone settles in, Kermit gets a call from Miss Piggy (Oz again), who is finishing up a photo shoot and plans to join them later. A Turkey (Whitmire again) arrives at the door, having been invited by the Swedish Chef (Henson), and the poultry-loving Gonzo (Dave Goelz) tries to convince him that a turkey at Christmas is more likely to be the main course than a guest. As more Muppets arrive, the farmhouse begins to descend into chaos: the Turkey tells Chef that Sprocket is the turkey, Fozzie Bear attempts to start up a new comedy routine with a Snowman (Richard Hunt), and the Turkey starts to hit on Gonzo’s girlfriend, Camilla. Scooter (Hunt) cheers everyone up with some home movies of the gang as babies, and just before Gonzo and the turkey come to blows, a group of carolers arrive: the Muppets’ friends from Sesame Street. They come in, Bert and Ernie (Oz and Henson) engage Doc in small talk about the letter B, and Christmas Eve.
Chef gets the Turkey into the kitchen and begins sizing him up for the pan, but the Turkey deflects his attention by pointing out the most delectable dish of all: Big Bird (Caroll Spinney). The news reports a terrible storm approaching, and Kermit begins to worry about Miss Piggy, who still hasn’t arrived. The different groups begin bonding, with Janice (Hunt) and Cookie Monster (Oz) “sharing” a plate of treats, drawing Animal (Oz)’s admiration, Oscar the Grouch (Spinney) offering to share his trash can with Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire), and Bert and Ernie leading the Sesame Street gang in a performance of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Kermit gets a call from Piggy and tries to convince her to stay off the road during the storm. The pigheaded (rimshot) Muppet doesn’t listen, though, and tries to hail a taxi. The Chef summons Big Bird into the kitchen, planning to prepare him for dinner, but is touched when Big Bird – feeling sorry for him spending Christmas so far away from his home in Sweden – gives him a present of chocolate covered birdseed. When Doc sees Kermit staring out into the snow again, he offers to head out and look for Piggy. As Kermit waits, his nephew Robin (Nelson) summons him to the cellar, where he’s found what he believes to be a Fraggle hole. The two frogs wind up in the subterranean world of Fraggle Rock, where the Fraggles are in the midst of their own midwinter celebration, in which Mokey (Kathryn Mullen) is giving Boober (Goelz) a yellow pebble – which has been a present from Fraggle to Fraggle 37 times. Boober gives the pebble to Robin. As the Frogs return to the farmhouse, Doc arrives on a dogsled wearing a Mountie uniform – all things Miss Piggy just happened to have for him when he found her in the snow. After all, Miss Piggy knows how to make an entrance.
With everyone finally safe and warm in the farmhouse (which is now so tight on space Gonzo and Animal have to sleep on hangers on the wall), Ma Bear officially welcomes everyone to her home and Rowlf the Dog leads the extended Muppet family in their annual Carol Sing. The music summons the Fraggles into the farmhouse, and they join in. Gifts are exchanged – Kermit gives Piggy a mink, and Robin passes the Fraggle Pebble on to Grover – and in the kitchen, Jim Henson himself watches on and smiles… then recruits Sprocket to help him wash the dishes.
Thoughts: We finally get to Jim Henson’s most famous family of characters, the Muppet Show Muppets, making the Henson company’s final entry in our countdown. This special hits on several levels. First of all, it’s full of fantastic Christmas music – in and of itself, that’s enough to make it worth watching. We get a lot of traditionals in the Carol Sing at the end, as well as plenty of other songs throughout. There’s also a song plucked from Fraggle Rock – the joyful “Pass it on” – and the show caps off with a slightly modified version of “Together at Christmas” from The Christmas Toy.
It’s also impressive just how many different stories the special manages to juggle. Kermit and Piggy’s story is ostensibly the A-plot, but it doesn’t really have much more screen time than the Chef’s attempts at dinner, Gonzo’s rivalry with the turkey, Fozzie’s new act, Ma’s effort to find room for everybody, or the introduction of the Fraggles to the rest of the family. All of these things could command a larger chunk if they eliminated the other stories, but it would be a real loss to do so.
It’s also worth noting that most of the stories are pretty original – no retreads of Dickens or Capra or O’Henry, even though Henson has turned to that well before. It’s interesting to note, though, that of the four specials we’ve watched from the Henson company, all four have dealt with gift-giving and self-sacrifice on a fairly significant level. Food for thought.
But the thing that makes this legendary for fans of the Henson company is because this is the only time the casts of all three major Henson families came together on-screen. We saw the Muppet Show and Sesame Street characters interact on several occasions in the past, but throwing in the Fraggles (at the height of their popularity when this special was made) makes it… well, extra-special. There’s even a small bit with the Muppet Babies, when Scooter shows the home movies, allowing us to see them as puppets for only the second time. (Their debut was in the feature film The Muppets Take Manhattan – for their own show, they were animated.) Unfortunately, due to rights issues with the music used in that scene, most of it was cut from the special’s DVD release. There are actually several scenes removed or abbreviated for this reason, so a complete version has never made it to DVD. Even worse, because of the fracturing of the Jim Henson company, in which the Muppet Show characters were sold to Disney and the Sesame Street characters given to the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), the three families are now all owned by three different companies. Because of this, the DVD has been out of print for years, and can only be obtained used. Good luck – I managed to snag it when it was new and I’ve been watching the same disc for ten years, and it’s now extremely hard to come by. (Although you can find the whole thing on YouTube, and it’s worth it.)
Jim Henson was one of those creators that comes along once in a generation. While he wasn’t the sole force behind the creation of the Muppets, and probably gets too much credit for Sesame Street in some circles, the fact that he was the epicenter of so many different creative movements in his too-short time on this planet is nothing short of astonishing. The fact that so many people continue to use his creations to tell new and wonderful stories 20 years after his death is astonishing. He made something magical and lasting, and this special is one of the few places you can see the scope of his talent all at once, all together, as it should be. That, in and of itself, is a Christmas miracle of a kind.
The Christmas Special Day 16: The Christmas Toy (1986)
Writer: Laura Phillips
Cast: Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Kathryn Mullen, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Camille Bonora, Brian Henson, Marsha Moreau, Zachary Bennett, Jim Henson
Plot: Rugby the Tiger (Dave Goelz) and the rest of the toys in Jesse and Jamie’s playroom (Zachary Bennett and Marsha Moreau, respectively) have an active existence, coming to life and playing whenever their children leave the room. They have to be careful to be in the same spot where the humans left them, though, for if they’re found out of place, they’re frozen forever. When the toys learn it’s Christmas Eve, Rugby is astonished. He remembers last Christmas, when Jamie found him in his brilliant box beneath the tree and he became the center of her world… he never imagined it would happen again. The old teddy bear Balthazar (Jerry Nelson) tells the toys to be ready to welcome the new toys into their midst, pointing out how the doll named Apple (Kathryn Mullen) was upset when Rugby stole her spotlight the year before. As Bathlazar tries to talk to Rugby about what’s about to happen, the catnip mouse named Mew (Steve Whitmire) tells them Rugby has left the playroom to get back under the Christmas Tree, where he believes he belongs. A clown doll named Ditz (Goelz again) steps out of the room to call Rugby back, but he’s found by the children’s mother, who tosses him back into the playroom. Ditz is now “frozen” – unable to move, unable to speak… essentially dead. The rest of the toys sadly bring him to a sort of graveyard in the closet for other frozen toys. As the rest of the toys grieve, Mew sneaks out alone to try to save Rugby.
Mew finds Rugby trapped in the linen closet, locked in after he got mixed up with some clothes. When he tells Mew how spectacular Christmas is (for Rugby, that is), Mew decides to help him back under the tree, showing him the real cat’s trick for opening the door. Back in the playroom Apple assembles a rescue party to go after Rugby and Mew. Rugby makes it to the Christmas tree, where a lovely box for Jamie is waiting to be opened. Mew gets the ribbon off just as Apple and the others find them. She implores him to leave the box alone, but Rugby ignores her. When he opens the box, instead of it being empty, he finds a new doll, a beautiful warrior woman who proclaims herself to be “Meteora, queen of the asteroids (Camille Bonora)!” Meteora rushes off and Rugby tries to seal himself inside her box, but Apple re-tells him the story of last Christmas from her own perspective, when Rugby took her place as Jamie’s favorite toy. As Rugby finally realizes the truth, he still tries to get in the box, and Apple and Mew remind him that he’ll be frozen if the humans find him. Meteora knocks over a chess set, and the noise summons Jamie and Jesse’s father. Before he sees the toys, Mew lets out a very convincing “meow.” Believing it’s just the cat, father goes back to bed. The other toys convince Meteora to return to her box by singing her praises and telling her how she’ll be recognized as a star come Christmas morning. Once she’s wrapped again, they head back towards the playroom. Just as most of them make it back, though, Mew slips from Rugby’s tail and is caught in the hall as the children’s mother opens the door. Rugby rushes to try to save him, but he gets trapped in the linen closet again when mother finds Mew and takes him downstairs to the cat. Heartbroken, Rugby retrieves his friend’s frozen body and tearfully sings him a song to tell him he loves him. Miraculously, Mew begins twitching, and wakes up. In the playroom, the rest of the toys take up the song as the frozen toys in the closet pick themselves up and stumble back to life. The next morning, Jamie and Jesse bring their new toys to the playroom (while the cat, Luigi, drops off a new mouse), and the rest of the toys welcome them. Rugby feels a moment of sorrow while Jamie tells Meteora she loves her, but spirits are lifted all around as she says the same to Apple, and to Rugby himself.
Thoughts: Once more to the Jim Henson company, friends, and to one of my favorite lesser-known Henson productions. The Christmas Toy, from 1986, was one of these specials that led into a (sadly short-lived) TV series, The Secret Life of Toys, about toys that come to life and play whenever their humans leave the room. Nine years later, of course, Pixar Animation would take the basic plot of this special and turn it into a billion-dollar franchise for Disney. And I’m not just talking about the “toys coming to life” part – let’s be fair here, everyone who has ever been a child has imagined that their toys come to life and have adventures of their own when they aren’t around. Of course, there’s also the notion of the comfortable favorite toy suddenly having his prominence threatened by the introduction of a cool new space toy… who doesn’t realize she IS a toy and thinks she’s really in… outer… space… Okay, look, I love Pixar as much as anybody, but if Jim Henson’s ghost had started haunting the crap out of their studio after the first Toy Story came out, he would have been entirely within his rights.
I remember watching this special as a child (I would have been nine the year it came out, so it’s likely I was part of the audience for the premiere) and loving it immediately, even wearing out a VHS copy taped from ABC. Looking back at it as an adult, it’s impressive to me how dark Henson and company were willing to get with these characters. Rugby, at the beginning of the special, is terribly arrogant and unlikable. When he starts singing that he was “the greatest Christmas toy of all,” you kind of hope he does get frozen.
Then there’s the “frozen” concept itself – for a small child, this could be terrifying. Think about it here… you’re little, you’re just starting to gain a comprehension about what death actually is and what it actually means… and then you watch a Muppet special where the lovable mouse drops dead because somebody looks at it. I don’t actually remember the spin-off TV show very well, but I’m pretty sure they dropped this particular aspect when it went to series, and that’s probably a good thing. It definitely adds a note of suspense and danger to the story, but it may have been too difficult to deal with on a weekly basis. (If you really want to be a stickler for continuity, you can probably argue that whatever Rugby did to bring Mew back at the end of this special broke that spell forever, but if you’re thinking that hard about it you’re probably thinking too much about this. Yes, I am speaking from experience.)
Like any good Christmas special, of course, the unlikable character finds redemption in the end. And like any good Jim Henson production, that redemption comes with the help of his friends. The relationship between Rugby and Mew is wonderfully constructed. They’re not buddy-buddy like Kermit and Fozzie or Bert and Ernie. Instead, at the beginning, Mew hangs out with Rugby mainly because all of the toys reject him (he’s “just a cat toy”), but Rugby gives him slightly more attention than the others. It’s not even good attention – Rugby mocks and degrades him more than anyone, but Mew latches on to him anyway. When Mew saves him, twice, we see Rugby’s attitude shift, becoming more accepting not only of Mew, but of Meteora as well. And all of it is part of his true education – the growing knowledge that he isn’t the center of the universe after all, but merely an important part of it for one child. Once again, Henson is teaching children a lesson: “It ain’t all about you, kid.”
The music is okay here, but the final number is fantastic. “Together at Christmas,” Rugby’s song to Mew, briefly became something of a Henson anthem, and we in fact will hear it once more a few days from now, when we pay our fourth and final visit to the Henson workshop, and look in on his most famous creations.
Speaking of those creations, like Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, this film sadly isn’t available uncut. Both Emmet and the Toys are still owned by the Jim Henson Company, but a few years back they sold the Muppet Show characters to Disney, which means they had to trim the introduction for both of these films, starring Kermit the Frog, to put on DVD. (Sesame Workshop got special permission from Disney to use Kermit in some of the DVDs of their older shows. I don’t know if Henson even asked…) The special is lovely in its own right, but the beginning is terribly abrupt, you feel like you’ve turned it on after it already began, and that’s why. The DVD itself is horribly barebones, not even taking you to a menu before starting the film. If they ever decide to dress this up and do a better home video release, I hope they come to some sort of agreement to give us Kermit’s welcome back again.
The Christmas Special Day 13: Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978)
Writer: Jon Stone, Joseph A. Bailey
Cast: Caroll Spinney, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Linda Bove, Northern Calloway, Debbie Chen, Will Lee, Loretta Long, Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman, Alaina Reed
Plot: On Christmas Eve the gang on Sesame Street takes a trip to the local ice skating rink. While everyone else is having a good time, Oscar the Grouch (Carroll Spinney) decides to poke fun at the naive Big Bird (Spinney again), asking him how Santa Claus can possibly fit through the tiny chimneys the buildings on Sesame Street have. Dismayed at the thought that Santa may not be able to get in, Big Bird and his friend Patty (Debbie Chen) set out to solve the mystery. They turn to Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson, and if you didn’t know that stop reading my article right now, you heathen), who suggests turning to the Santa Claus experts – the children – to find the answer.
Meanwhile, Bert (Frank Oz) is stuck for a Christmas present for his best friend Ernie (Henson again, I mean it, stop reading if you didn’t know that already because I don’t want you here). When he comes across Ernie’s Rubber Duckie, he gets an idea. Ernie, facing a similar dilemma, stumbles across one of Bert’s prize paperclips and decides to get him a cigar box to keep his paperclip collection safe. Going to Mr. Hooper’s store, Ernie finds he doesn’t have enough money for the box, and offers Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) his Rubber Duckie as a trade. As Ernie leaves, Bert enters with a similar offer: he wants to trade his paperclip collection for a soap dish where Ernie can keep Rubber Duckie. Mr. Hooper takes both deals, even though Bert and Ernie are both clearly distraught over surrendering their prized possessions.
When Kermit’s investigation proves fruitless, Big Bird and Patty recruit Mr. Snuffleupagus (Jerry Nelson) to try to test out a method for squeezing into a chimney. Snuffy, unfortunately, gets stuck. Outside, as Bob (Bob McGrath) and Mr. Hooper exchange holiday pleasantries, Oscar groans and launches into his own seasonal anthem: “I Hate Christmas.”
Bert and Ernie exchange gifts, and both are stunned to realize they’ve been given a gift intended specifically to compliment the very item they have sacrificed. Neither wants to confess to the other that his gift is now useless, and before either of them have to, there’s a knock at the door. Mr. Hooper is there with gifts for the boys – Ernie’s Rubber Duckie and Bert’s paperclips. Bert and Ernie are overjoyed at having their treasures back, but sadly say they haven’t a gift to give Mr. Hooper. The kind old man smiles and tells them they’ve already given him the best gift ever: the chance to see everyone get what they want for Christmas.
When the snow begins to fall that evening, Big Bird sends Patty home. As she leaves she tells him not to worry, she’s certain Santa will come, even if they don’t know how he’ll do it. Left alone, Big Bird decides to go to the roof and wait for him. Patty later turns up at Gordon and Susan’s apartment (Roscoe Orman and Loretta Long, respectively) to tell them she went back to Big Bird’s nest and he’s gone. Everyone on Sesame Street begins searching for him, while on the roof Big Bird watches them, wondering what all the fuss is about. With the temperature dropping and everyone worrying Maria (Sonia Manzano) confronts Oscar over upsetting Big Bird in the first place. Guilty, Oscar sets out to find him. On the roof, away from his safe, warm nest, Big Bird falls asleep, unaware of the figure that has joined him there. When he wakes up he sees nothing, not even footprints, and decides to go downstairs and warm up. He meets Gordon and Patty on the stairs, and Gordon refuses to let him go back outside. In Gordon and Susan’s apartment, he finds a beautiful Christmas tree and stockings loaded with presents for everyone – Santa must have passed while he slept. Gordon explains to Big Bird that it isn’t important to explain a miracle; the important thing is that they’re all together again. Oscar turns up and tells Big Bird he’s glad he’s back… but the Grouch can’t resist one last dig. “How do you think the Easter Bunny can hide all those eggs in one night?”
Thoughts: Jim Henson and company return, although this time he’s joined by some of the other great “J”s of his era – Jon Stone, the writer responsible for so many of the greatest Sesame Street moments of your youth; Jerry Nelson, who gave us the Count and Mr. Snuffleupagus (a word which, somehow, is not in my spellcheck); producer Joan Ganz Cooney, the woman who conceived of using entertaining television to educate children in what would become the Sesame Street style. Henson and his Muppets were integral to the success of this show, but he sure didn’t do it alone. Regardless, as fantastic as each of those creators are, the true magic of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street isn’t brought to you by the letter J, but rather by C and S: Carroll Spinney, the Muppeteer responsible for both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
Unlike the regular daily episodes of the show, this prime time special didn’t have any of the cutaway educational segments, didn’t include lessons on counting or spelling… instead, the Children’s Television Workshop used the opportunity to teach a moral lesson or three. And like they did in all their finest moments, they did so without preaching, presenting the lesson in a way that would be easy for children to accept, understand, and internalize.
The A-plot of this special belongs to Oscar and Big Bird in a way that shows off their relationship for what it is: an older sibling (Oscar) who enjoys picking on the younger (Big Bird), but still feels responsible and tries to set things right when confronted with the consequences of his actions. Anyone who has a brother or sister can probably relate – it’s crafted in a very realistic, natural and believable way. Spinney plays their relationship with Oscar’s edge and Big Bird’s unrelenting sweetness clashing at every turn, allowing the kids to worry along with Big Bird until the obvious conclusion is reached at the end. Spinney is a master performer, and I only wish I could have been there to watch him rushing back and forth between the two characters as the camera cut away. Dude must have been exhausted.
The story reveals a depth of character I don’t think is obvious when you’re a child watching these specials. It’s telling to me that only Maria, out of all the adults on Sesame Street, is able to convince Oscar to go out and look for Big Bird and fix what he did wrong. That’s not an accident – Maria and Oscar have a surprisingly complex relationship, in which Maria plays both mother and big sister to the Muppets. It’s one of the few moments in Sesame Street history where I remember seeing one of the human characters get genuinely, justifiably angry, and Sonia Manzano pulls it off wonderfully. Oscar comes across as the problem child who reacts to a stern but loving hand when gentleness fails. (I also maintain that Oscar – at least in my formative years of watching Sesame Street – was written to harbor a forever-unspoken crush on Maria, but that’s neither here nor there.)
The B-plot, featuring Bert, Ernie, and Mr. Hooper, is surprisingly only the second story in our countdown to play with the “Gift of the Magi,” although this is a much more straightforward retelling than Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Bert and Ernie fill the roles nicely, with writer Jon Stone playing on their legendary friendship and slightly childlike outlook to create a story where you can naturally accept them sacrificing for one another. Seeing Mr. Hooper step in to save the day is a lovely moment, and one that still touches the heart all these years after actor Will Lee’s death. (A rare non-Christmas tangent: if you’ve never seen the Sesame Street episode where Big Bird learns that Mr. Hooper has died, watch it on YouTube. And if it doesn’t make you cry, stop reading my blog forever and go back to your day job strangling baby owls and selling their feathers to stuff pillows for Neo-Nazis.) Although this story was once copied almost as often as A Christmas Carol, it’s fallen a bit by the wayside in recent years. That may be a good thing. A child seeing this special now wouldn’t necessarily see the ending coming, and the message of the piece will more likely remain intact.
One thing I didn’t mention much in my synopsis of the episode are the musical numbers peppered throughout. In truth, most of these do little (or nothing) to advance the plot, so they didn’t really belong there, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t memorable in and of themselves. Bob McGrath and Linda Bove (playing Bob and Linda, respectively) lead the children of the cast in the haunting “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year),” and the whole cast joins in for “True Blue Miracle,” another one of those songs that has transcended the special that birthed it and become something you may well hear on the radio or in a shopping mall. It’s nice to have some traditional music in there as well – Bert and Ernie’s duet of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is lovely. Hardcore Muppet fans can probably hear just a bit of Frank and Jim’s friendship in the performance as well. And Oscar’s “I Hate Christmas” is just a joy whether you’re a true believer or an eternal humbug.
There are other moments that don’t actually contribute to either of the two main plots. Grover has a few scenes where he interviews children about Santa’s efforts to enter the chimney, similar to scenes in the regular episodes of the TV show. There’s a running gag about Cookie Monster trying to write a letter to Santa and eating his assorted writing implements as well. It’s a good bit, but there may be no moment of sheer comedy in the special as great as when he realizes the traditional Santa Claus exchange: when he leaves you a present, Gordon tells him, you should leave him a plate of cookies.
But as far as those moments that don’t go with the plot are concerned, the champion is the very first scene in the ice skating rink. As wonderful as the rest of the episode is, this opening scene is still bizarre, with ice skaters wearing full-size costumes of the Muppets skating on the ice. Seeing a six-foot Bert and Ernie or an adult-sized Count is just bizarre. And yes, I know they’ve been doing essentially the same thing with the Sesame Street Live shows for decades. I think it’s weird there, too.
This special won two Emmy awards, ironically beating out A Special Sesame Street Christmas, which aired in prime time on CBS. Both of these shows are now available on DVD, and a quick comparison makes it clear why Christmas Eve walked home with the awards. Out of the two, this special is far more special than Special.
The Christmas Special Day 9: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)
Writer: Jerry Juhl, based on the book by Russell & Lillian Hoban
Cast: Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Marilyn Sokol, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Eren Ozker, Jim Henson
Plot: With three days to Christmas,Alice Otter (Marilyn Sokol) is having trouble getting together the money to give her son Emmet (Jerry Nelson) a happy holiday. Emmet sets his heart on a $40 guitar in a music store window, but their shopping afternoon is disrupted by the appearance of a group of rough animals calling themselves the Riverbottom Boys. As the Otters return home, Alice tries to discourage Emmet from getting too hopeful about Christmas, but the boy continues to dream about the days when his father was alive and money went farther. Alice is practically down to using her washtub as their only means of support, while Emmet uses his father’s tools to do odd jobs. Both Alice and Emmet learn the town’s upcoming Talent Competition has a grand prize of $50. Emmet’s friends form a jug band and ask him to borrow his mother’s washtub to make a bass, but Emmet refuses, knowing you can’t make a washtub base without putting a hole in the washtub. Alice is reluctant to enter either, knowing her only way of having a dress for the competition would be to hock her late husband’s tools. Later, as Emmet and Alice play on the frozen lake, they share memories of Pa Otter, and each becomes convinced that he would have made the sacrifice for the other’s sake. Alice wants to buy her son the guitar he admired, while Emmet wants to use his share of the prize money to put a down payment on a piano to replace the one she sold some time ago. Emmet makes his washtub bass, while Alice sells the tools and buys fabric for a dress.
As Emmet’s band practices, the Riverbottom Boys mock their efforts to win the talent contest. Their nerves are shaken even worse when they arrive at the contest to find the opening act is performing the same song they’ve rehearsed. They rush off to learn a new song, but the stage manager forces them back into the theater, afraid they’ll miss their cue. Alice performs “Our World” to a thunderous round of applause, and Emmet’s Jug Band follows up with “Brothers.” The competition is supposed to be over, but the Riverbottom Boys come on and perform a harsh, angry rock number, “Riverbottom Nightmare Band.” The Nightmare Band wins the competition, and the Otters are despondent. Outside they’re told the judges liked both of their acts, but felt like they were missing a little something extra. Alice realizes what their songs were missing was each other. She begins singing and the jug band joins in, resulting in a beautiful combination of the two pieces, “Brothers in Our World.” As they sing, the townspeople come out to listen. Doc Bullfrog, one of the judges, offers them a job performing at his restaurant – free meals included. As they walk home, Alice and the boys sing Pa Otter’s favorite song in his memory.
Thoughts: The great Jim Henson makes his first (but most assuredly not last) appearance in our countdown with this 1977 TV special, adapting a folksy little tale with a hint of O. Henry and a lot of Henson-style sweetness. Although Henson was a veteran puppeteer at this point, and Sesame Street had been on the air for eight years, this special still shows some of the marks of early work and low budgets. The establishing shot is very obviously a model, control rods and seams are often all too visible, and the car the Riverbottom Boys ride through town looks like a wind-up toy. Amazingly all of these things actually contribute to the charm of the special. It gives it a homey, old-fashioned feeling that suits the characters and the world Henson and company created.
The plot has an interesting dash of “Gift of the Magi” in it, but with a clever twist. Rather than trading their own possessions for gifts (which turn out to be useless, thanks to their partner doing the same thing), in this special both Otters trade something important to the other in the hopes of getting the money for a decent present. I’m not quite sure what the message here is… “If you take away your family’s only means of support, make sure you can use it to get them a musical instrument” seems like kind of a bizarre theme for the Christmas season. What makes it work, however, is how the movie uses the focus of the absent Pa Otter – Henson convinces us that both Otters are doing what they believe their late husband/father would do, which is what makes it not only acceptable, but admirable. It helps, I think, that they don’t actually accomplish their goal. Losing the contest makes for a slightly less sugary climax, and the way they get their happy ending anyway feels more natural, more emotionally honest.
Emmet and Alice themselves are sweet, old-fashioned characters. There’s a bit of saccharine to them, but just a bit – enough for the obnoxiously cynical among us to cling to in an attempt to deride this special, unfortunately. For the rest of us, the Otters are simply a hard-luck family in need of a break at Christmas.
The star of this special, I’d argue, isn’t any of the Otters or even Henson, but songwriter Paul Williams. Williams would go on to have a great history with Henson and the Muppets, and the songs he composed for this special (“There Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub,” and “Bar-B-Que,” for instance) have transcended Christmas and become folksy classics. There’s an interesting phenomenon when you rewatch the special, though… having heard the “Our World”/”Brothers” mashup at the end, when you listen to each song performed on its own it feels oddly incomplete. “Brothers” especially sounds like a backing track, with odd pauses and harmonic notes that don’t seem like a proper melody. It’s been far too long since I first saw the special to remember if I would have noticed such a thing upon first viewing, but it stands out to me now. Also amusing, to a Muppet fan like me at least, is “Riverbottom Nightmare Band,” which has some riffs and beats that seem to echo Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in musical energy, if not in actual tone or message.
A few years ago, Williams wrote a few extra songs to expand the special into a full-length stage play, which ran for two Christmas seasons in Connecticut. Would that I could have seen that one – I’ll bet it was magnificent.
For those of you wondering if the inclusion of this special means you won’t be seeing any other Muppets in the countdown thanks to the “one-per-franchise” rule, the answer is heck no. Using the same logic that allows me to include multiple Rankin and Bass specials, I consider each “family” of Muppets a different franchise. Since this one doesn’t include any of the Muppet Show or Sesame Street Muppets, except Kermit in an intro that is no longer included on the DVD, I hereby declare this a standalone film. You’ll definitely see the Henson company again.