Culture

Forgotten Christmas: Five Lesser-Known Holiday Specials

Earlier this week I shared with you ten essential Christmas specials and movies. Those were beloved classics that viewers can find on television year after year. They’re traditions and institutions for so many families during the holidays, and they’re easy to come across on broadcast television or video.

Today I’m going to dig a little deeper. There are a few Christmas shows that I like to call “forgotten specials.” They’re lesser known to the general public, though each one has its own fans. Sometimes you can find these specials on video, but often these forgotten specials are lost to the past when it comes to television broadcasting.

Here’s a list of five lesser known holiday programs. Four of them are legitimate classics, while the fifth is a notorious flop. Three of them are available on official video releases, while the other two take some effort to find.

We’ll start with a group of beloved characters who make two appearances on this list…

5. A Muppet Family Christmas

There aren’t many characters who debuted in the ‘50s and ‘60s, had their heyday in the ‘70s and ‘80s and still inspire enough love to make a comeback in 2011. Jim Henson’s Muppets are among the few characters to have had that kind of staying power. Just a few years after The Muppet Show ended its run, the Muppets were back on television with A Muppet Family Christmas, an hour-long special that originally ran on ABC in 1987.

Fozzie Bear and his Muppet Show friends decide to surprise his mother Emily for Christmas by visiting her at her farmhouse. She has to cancel her holiday vacation plans because of the unexpected guests, and Doc (Gerard Parkes) from Fraggle Rock, who intends to rent the house for Christmas, joins all the guests staying there. Kermit and his nephew Robin find a portal to Fraggle Rock in the basement, and carolers from Sesame Street pay a visit. A snowstorm rolls in, stranding everyone at the farmhouse, except for Miss Piggy, who arrives just in time for Christmas.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9lfadpP5C8

Like any other Muppet program, A Muppet Family Christmas is full of musical numbers. In the opening sequence The Muppet Show gang sings a version of “We Need a Little Christmas.” The Swedish Chef performs “The Christmas Song” with Big Bird, while Fozzie duets with a snowman on “Sleigh Ride.” When Miss Piggy arrives at the farmhouse, the entire cast joins in a medley of Christmas carols, and there are plenty of other musical moments in the special.

One of the most interesting bits of trivia about A Muppet Family Christmas is that it features characters from all four major Muppet series: The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and Muppet Babies. The special was the first Henson production to use Muppets from all four shows. Henson himself makes a cameo appearance washing dishes in the kitchen.

A Muppet Family Christmas saw VHS releases in 1994 and 1998, and debuted on DVD in 2001. American and Canadian video releases had to be edited severely due to U.S. copyright laws, but European versions were unedited. Nickelodeon has broadcast the special occasionally, but the show remains among the more obscure holiday specials. It’s a shame, especially with this year’s Muppet renaissance, for this cute program to languish in semi-obscurity.

4. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Growing up, most of us had to perform in Christmas plays at school or church. It was usually the same story every year — kids scrambling for roles, bathrobes transformed into costumes, makeshift sets, some kind of comical disaster. It’s the universality of the holiday pageant experience that make stories with that setting so resonant. Barbara Robinson’s 1972 novel The Best Christmas Pageant Ever told the story of one town’s truly memorable Christmas play. Robinson herself adapted the book into a television movie starring Loretta Swit, and the special originally aired on ABC in 1983.

The Herdman children are the worst kids in town. They smoke, lie, steal, and cause trouble wherever they go. When they find out that they can score free snacks in Sunday school, the Herdman kids visit the church on the day when Grace Bradley (Swit) is casting the church Christmas play. The rest of the kids, stunned that the Herdmans have shown up, are reluctant to volunteer, so the Herdmans sign up for the best roles. It’s up to first-time pageant director Grace to rein the kids in, prevent a disaster, and put on the best Christmas pageant ever. In time, the Herdman kids grasp the true meaning of Christmas.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psd2_eEVxzE

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is a cute story with a nice message about giving others the benefit of the doubt. It’s a sweet movie without being too saccharine. Swit’s performance as the longsuffering Grace is nearly perfect, and the child actors generally aren’t overly precious or annoying. Robinson’s script is faithful to her novel and blends gentle comedy with sincerity and warmth.

Once in a while, if you’re lucky, you’ll come across The Best Christmas Pageant Ever on television. It’s also available on DVD.

Next: familiar friends team up with a renowned singer-songwriter…
3. John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together

By 1979, John Denver had become an old hand at television. He starred in several award-winning specials and hosted the Grammy Awards. So he teamed up with Jim Henson and the Muppets for a Christmas special. John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together is essentially a companion piece to the Christmas album of the same name.

The record of John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together was a regular on my family’s turntable growing up, and I named it as one of the ten best Christmas albums of all time a couple of years ago on my website. The album consists of John Denver and the most famous Muppets performing classic Christmas carols, along with some originals and more obscure songs. The special basically covers the same territory as the album, with a few of the songs from the record replaced by a handful of original material.

Highlights of the special include the Muppets’ rousing rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a stripped-down version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Denver and Rowlf the Dog, and a sing-along of “Silent Night” in English and German. Kermit the Frog and Denver share their favorite Christmas memories, and Denver recites the story of the birth of Christ. Two segments allude to a mutual attraction between Miss Piggy and Denver: in one, Miss Piggy barges into Denver’s dressing room, while in another, Miss Piggy, in costume as a doll, sings a romantic song to Denver, who is dressed as a toy soldier.

Sadly, ABC only broadcast John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together a handful of times, and the Henson Company has never released it in any home video format. Perhaps with the Muppets’ renewed popularity, Disney and the Henson Company should consider a rebroadcast or home video release to show this holiday gem to a whole new generation of Muppet fans.

Up next is a poignant Disney Christmas cartoon…
2. The Small One

One of the sweetest holiday moments in the Disney canon is the 1978 animated short The Small One. Legendary animator Don Bluth, who left Disney in the 1980s and later produced An American Tail and All Dogs Go to Heaven, produced and directed the cartoon. Bluth also wrote two of the cartoon’s three songs.

In The Small One  a little boy in Judea (voiced by Pete’s Dragon’s Sean Marshall) must sell his beloved pet donkey, who the family cannot afford. He doesn’t want to sell Small One to just anybody, but an owner who will love and take care of him. Just when the boy is about to give up hope and sell the donkey to the tanner, a young man offers to buy Small One for his wife. The donkey then transports Mary to Bethlehem.

Unfortunately, The Small One came out at a time when Disney’s animation department was at its lowest point. Disney languished under the leadership of Walt Disney’s son-in-law Ron Miller and by 1978 rumors circulated that the company might shutter the animation division.

The Small One did see a DVD release in 2005 and again in 2009, both on compilations. Sadly, most people don’t remember it as a Disney classic, but it deserves that label. Find it on DVD and see for yourself.

Finally, the most infamous holiday special of all time…
1. The Star Wars Holiday Special

No Christmas show possesses more legend and myth surrounding it than The Star Wars Holiday Special. Although only broadcast once and never officially released on video, the two-hour special has achieved infamy among rabid Star Wars fans and television aficionados alike.

Produced and broadcast on CBS the week of Thanksgiving in 1978, the special had great expectations and a top-drawer cast and crew. The one thing it didn’t have going was the direct involvement of George Lucas. Respected director/producer Steve Binder directed the show, and its writing team included Pat Proft (Airplane!) and Bruce Vilanch. Nearly all the principal actors from Star Wars made an appearance in the show, and the roster of guest stars included Harvey Korman, Art Carney, Diahann Carroll, Bea Arthur, and Jefferson Starship.

The plot of the program is actually pretty thin: it centers around Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) efforts to get to the Wookiee planet Kashyyyk in time for the annual Life Day celebration. Chewbacca’s family — wife Malla, son Lumpy, and father Itchy — anxiously await Chewbacca’s return, and while they wait they are forced to deal with imperial stormtroopers searching for evidence of the rebellion. A local shopkeeper (Carney) intervenes to protect them from the stormtroopers. Finally, Han and Chewbacca arrive, along with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), R2D2, and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels).

Much of the The Star Wars Holiday Special consists of musical numbers and other specialty material. Jefferson Starship appear as a holographic band performing their single “Light the Sky on Fire.” Carroll shows up in a bizarre sequence as a virtual reality fantasy for Itchy, while Arthur portrays the owner of the Mos Eisley cantina and sings a poignant song entitled “Goodnight, But Not Goodbye” to her patrons when the Empire shuts down the bar. Princess Leia warbles a special Life Day song that is basically a countermelody to John Williams’ Star Wars score. Carroll & Arthur’s songs were written my Ken and Mitzie Welch, best known for writing specialty material for Carol Burnett.

Critics and viewers alike panned the special. Lucas distanced himself, and refuses an official DVD release. Though Lucas and most of the cast have derided and disowned the special, the new characters and situations have become part of the Star Wars canon. It’s available on YouTube, and there’s a fan site dedicated to the show. The Star Wars Holiday Special is the stuff of legend for a good reason, and it’s worth watching for its notoriously terrible quality.

Maybe reading about these specials triggered a wave of nostalgia for you. Or maybe you’re hearing about them for the first time. Either way, I hope you’ll check these programs out and give them the chance they deserve.