Monday, February 27, 2017

Gullah Gullah Island Christmas (1997)

The Nick Jr. program ran from 1994-1998.

Thank you for continuing to support Black History Month.  I enjoy celebrating BHM on my blog because there are so many excellent Christmas episodes, specials, and TV movies with exceptional African-American cast members. There are also loads of outstanding and touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences. During the month of February each year,  I like to highlight just few of my favorites.

Hopefully, you've been following along all month long on social media as I've been sharing special BHM content from the archives. Today, I want to highlight one more significant Christmas program, one that draws upon the cultural heritage of the Gullah, the African-Americans that live along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. Did you grow up watching the Nick Jr. program Gullah Gullah Island?

Because of the warm climate, the Alston family decorate the tree outside their home.

Like many other Nick Jr. programs, the songs are presented in such a way to encourage children to sing along. Here, the music reflects the sounds of the island, often with a Caribbean and African influence.

The fourth season of the children's live action series features the holiday story "Gullah Gullah Christmas." It's Christmas Eve and the Alstons are busy decorating their tree. Caught up in the spirit of the season, they sing "Deck the Halls" as they hang ornaments and wrap the branches in lights. Young Shaina wishes she could visit the North Pole and meet Santa Claus.

Shaina wonders about the distance to the North Pole. about Mrs. Claus, what the elves are doing.

Shaina finds herself with Binyah Binyah at the North Pole.

After drifting off to sleep, Shaina finds herself at the snow-covered North Pole. She meets Mrs. Claus and admires her garden that grows Christmas ornaments. The two sing "Jingle Bells" as they pick ornaments from the garden in order to adorn the reindeer' bridles.

Mrs. Claus sure is friendly, warm and nice. She looks familiar too!

Bossie and Elf-Ves. It's no coincidence that Bossie resembles Shaina's brother James.

Shaina also meets the elves who are busy packing Santa's sleigh with gifts. The head elf's name is Bossie and his assistant is Elf-Ves (yes, an Elvis-inspired elf). The elves take a break from working to sing "Up on the Housetop." Shaina is excited to finally meet Santa Claus! He's so full of holiday cheer that together they sing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

Santa is happy to meet Shaina.

The reindeer are suffering from severe head colds.

Trouble comes when the reindeer--all stricken with head colds--decide they are too sick to pull Santa's sleigh. Shaina has the solution to save Christmas! She suggests that Binyah Binyah can pull the sleigh--and Santa agrees to give it a try. With a little bit of encouragement, Binyah Binyah hops high enough to fly the sleigh across the sky.

The elves chant "Hop to it, you can do it!" to encourage the polliwog.

Shaina wakes up on Christmas morning, happy to share her experiences at the North Pole with everyone. Vanessa is convinced that Shaina was dreaming, but when the little one finds the Christmas tree ornament in her pocket that Mrs. Claus gave her, Shaina knows the truth. As the family celebrates the day together, they sing the original song "Merry Christmas To Ya/It's Gullah Gullah Christmas Time."

Shaina experiences some Christmas magic when she finds the ornament from Mrs. Claus in her pocket.

Did you watch other Nick Jr. programming in the 1990s? What were your favorites--and did they have a Christmas episode?

The simple yet heart-warming story is a charming one for young viewers. One thing about it that resonates with me is that Shaina's experiences at the North Pole resemble her waking life--I love that the North Pole resembles her own residence, Mrs. Claus looks like her mother, Bossie the elf is just like her bossy brother James, and the reindeer are all suffering from head colds this Christmas just like her cousin Vanessa. My dreams typically work like that too. I find that delightful. Of course, I also love how the culture of the Gullah is represented here, and the Christmas music reflects the influence of Caribbean and African sounds. How long has it been since you've seen this Christmas program? Feel free to leave your comments below.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story movie (1983)

This post is part of The Movie of the Week Blogathon going on today, hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café. You can click HERE to read the other pop culture-ific entries.

Directed by Delbert Mann--yes, THAT Delbert Mann--the director from the Golden Age of television who also won an Oscar for directing 1955's "Marty."

For this occasion, I wanted to share my thoughts on the stand-out 1983 TV movie The Gift of Love starring Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury, and Polly Holliday. This one is not to be confused with the 1978 TV movie entitled The Gift of Love which stars Marie Osmond, Timothy Bottoms, and James Woods. Both of these similarly titled stories are exceptional Christmas TV movies. However, the 1978 Gift of Love is an adaptation of O.Henry's short story "The Gift of the Magi"--you can read my review of it here--while the 1983 Gift of Love is adapted from the novella "The Silent Stars Go By" by Bess Streeter Aldrich, written for the screen by the distinguished author and TV writer Earl Hamner Jr.

Look what I found! A 1985 TV Guide ad for a re-airing of The Gift of Love.

Who's Earl Hamner Jr., you ask? The man had a long and successful writing career which deserves more attention than I can dedicate here, but I can easily point to several critically acclaimed Christmas TV programs that he was involved with. He wrote the novel that the 1971 Christmas TV movie The Homecoming was adapted from. I've written about that movie here. The 1971 TV movie was so highly rated that the network spun the characters into their own series called The Waltons. The series produced five Christmas episodes--here's a link to the reviews I've written about each of those. And, Hamner lent his talents to two later Christmas TV movies--1973's A Dream for Christmas, about an African-American family that starts a new life in California (never released on DVD but it has aired on Me-TV during the holiday in recent years). Although you won't find his name in the credits, he was a writer and producer on the 1973 TV film. And, Hamner wrote and co-executive produced 1983's The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story. It too has never been officially released on DVD, but let me share more about it.

Janet is so unsure about what's happening in her life, she doesn't know what she'll do without her mother's guidance.

The story centers on Janet Broderick (played by Lee Remick), a woman enduring tremendous stresses one Christmas. Her family business, Broderick's department store, is failing and her husband decides to finally close its doors. She feels blindsided by the decision, caught unaware of how bad it had become. She feels hurt when her husband Neil finally tells her he must close the store. The painful conversation reminds her how their marriage is also crumbling, due to poor communication and taking each other for granted. Additionally, she feels helpless because her children Dorothy and Michael are frequently in trouble at school for fighting. And, when her mother Amanda (played by Angela Lansbury) collapses in the kitchen and eventually dies, Janet is left feeling afraid, confused, and lost. She takes to her bed, and the rest of the movie's story is Janet's dream.

A winter's fantasy ride for Janet with her two children to join their grandparents for Christmas.

Janet's dream reunites her with her deceased mother, father and Aunt Min (played by Polly Holliday). Janet and her children are picked up by her parents in a two-horse open sleigh and they ride to Vermont and the large farm house where she grew up. Returning home, Janet is comforted by the familiar place and family members that brought her happiness in the past. She enjoys the old-fashioned Christmas they begin to prepare together, one she's excited to share with her daughter and son. Together, the family locates and chops down their own Christmas tree. They make their own Christmas ornaments to decorate with, and her mother and Aunt Min are happily cooking a festive meal in the kitchen.

In her dream, Janet once again finds the guidance and wisdom she needs from her mother.

Janet remembers why she got married in the first place.

Being in Vermont reminds Janet of some of her earlier experiences and we see flashback scenes as she remembers important times in her life. The nearby ice skating pond reminds her of the first time she met Neil, what first attracted her to him, and the risks they took to fall in love. Janet also reflects back to her wedding day and the doubts and fears she felt. She recalls the wisdom and guidance her father passed on to her before the ceremony.

At a time like this, Janet needs her mother--and she finds her, deep inside herself.

As the story continues to unfold, we see what purpose Janet's fantasy trip home for Christmas serves. As she sleeps, she's seeking the lost connection to her parents and their wisdom for all the uncertainty, confusion, and loss in her waking life. Her father expresses it succinctly when they first arrive back at the farm house. He says, "Home's not a bad place to look back over your life, see what went wrong, what went right. Helps to bring everything into focus." She has retreated to a safe, comfortable place to re-evaluate her life and future. Yes, this is a complex emotional journey for Janet and TV viewers, and--when it's done right, like it is here--it is a richly rewarding movie experience. This really isn't the kind of movie to entertain young viewers but there's certainly nothing to offend them (it is probably just over their heads). I think TV movies are best at being able to tell smaller, personal stories and this one captures Janet's inner struggle with fine precision.

Polly Holliday as the spinster Aunt Minerva. (Check out Holliday as Flo in the 1977 Christmas episode of Alice here.)

As the story continues, Janet gains insight from her never married, elderly Aunt Min too. Minerva challenges Janet to appreciate what she's got: a loving husband and two healthy children. Janet's mother even makes her feel better about her children's fighting. Dorothy and Michael are supportive of each other when it matters and they defend each other in crises. But Janet's dream takes a dark turn when her son runs from the house and they believe he's fallen through the ice into the frozen pond out back.

Janet finds her own "secret place" and Neil and Michael are there. Finally, she express her love to her husband--the feelings she's been struggling to express.

The new turmoil leaves Janet questioning her mother about "the secret place"--a location that her mother frequently referred to as her safe, comforting space. Finally, Janet learns that "the secret place" is somewhere deep inside her, a place she must have the strength to discover for herself.

She does NOT look out the window and ask the boy on the street below, "What day is it?" and "Is the prize turkey still in the poulterer's window?"

She finally acknowledges that she's dreaming and expresses her gratitude and love to her mother, father and Aunt Min. When she wakes up, Neil is at her bedside. She's been sleeping for a full day. But Janet is ready to talk with him about her feelings, their marriage, and about the closing of the department store.

Christmas entertainment fans may be amused to see a similarity between this story and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Although this 1983 TV movie makes no reference or allusion to Dickens' tale, in the abstract both stories are about transformational experiences by characters, influenced by the dead, during their sleep, at Christmas time. But what I most admire about this story is its complexity and precision of emotion. There is something more to be revealed and gained by watching this film again and again. It's heartbreaking that this movie hasn't been re-broadcast in years or has never been officially released on DVD for everyone to enjoy. If you can find it, watch it while you can.


Check out this cool trailer Rick made for The Gift of Love.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Family Matters Christmas (1990)

If you grew up in the 90s, then you probably watched TGIF on ABC--a block of sitcoms airing on Friday nights meant to entertain the whole family. If you watched one of the shows, you probably watched them all. When I think of Family Matters, I still connect the experience to Friday nights. Today may not be Friday, but let me remind you about the first Christmas episode from that series--1990's "Have Yourself a Very Winslow Christmas."

The Winslows are looking forward to Christmas. They all confess that they're most looking forward to a two week break from their annoying neighbor Steve Urkel whose family always takes an out-of-town vacation over the holidays. Before too long, Steve comes over and explains that his parents are going to Hawaii without him this year and he'll be staying with his unusual Uncle Cecil.

One reason Laura finds Steve annoying is his unwanted affection. Here, Steve tries to obligate Laura into giving him a kiss under the mistletoe he has rigged to hang above his head. Give it up, Steve!

Carl offers to help Rachel. If she looks familiar to you, it may be because actress Telma Hopkins was not new to television in the 1990s. Earlier, Hopkins was on the 1970s Tony Orlando and Dawn variety show (as one of the two Dawn singers). In the 80s, she played Addy on Gimme a Break! and Isabelle on Bosom Buddies. She's done quite a bit of television and film roles since then as well.

Meanwhile, Aunt Rachel asks Carl for some help. Her young son Richie has his heart set on Santa bringing him a Freddy Teddy--the hottest toy of the season--and she can't find one in any of the stores. Carol promises to help her get a Freddy Teddy to make Richie happy.

Is there anything more Christmas-y than our favorite TV families decorating the Christmas tree?

Later, while decorating the Christmas tree, Eddie and Laura overhear Steve talking to Richie. Steve has promised the little one that Santa will bring him the hard-to-find Freddy Teddy toy. Laura and Eddie confront Steve telling him that he shouldn't make such promises but Steve's faith in Santa is unwavering. The teenagers are shocked to hear that Steve Urkel still believes in St. Nick. Urkel says he can prove Santa exists--he's going to write a secret letter expressing his Christmas wish and mail it to the Winslows. Then on Christmas day, Laura and Eddie can open the sealed envelope and see that he got exactly what he wished for.

Laura and Eddie are angry with Steve for making false promises to their cousin but Steve is frustrated that they don't believe in Santa Claus.

As he leaves their house, Steve accidentally trips and knocks down the Christmas tree breaking Laura's favorite ornament. In a fit of anger, Laura tells Steve to never come over their house again! Apologetic, Steve agrees to her demand and offers his absence as his Christmas gift to her.

"Who's in line for a Freddy Teddy toy?"

Carl drives fifty miles to the nearest store that claims to be selling Freddy Teddy toys. He waits three and half hours in line and is offered the last one in stock! When everyone else in line sees that Carl has the last one, they wrestle it away from him. How will Richie feel on Christmas morning?

Harriette knows when something is wrong with Laura.

Harriette Winslow speaks to her daughter about something that's bothering her. Laura admits she feels guilty for sending Steve away. Harriette reminds Laura that Steve is frequently accident-prone (there's a reason one of his most oft repeated lines is "Did I do that?). Laura knows she must apologize and she goes to look for him.

Steve tries to make the best of a bad situation.

When Laura goes to Steve's home, she finds him alone in the basement. Turns out his Uncle Cecil is in jail, leaving Urkel to spend Christmas alone. Not only does Laura apologize to Steve but she invites him to stay with her family for the holidays. Of course, he accepts her offer.


Will Laura and Eddie change their minds about Santa?

On Christmas morning, the Winslow house is filled with excitement. Richie is thrilled to find his very own Freddy Teddy toy under the tree! Rachel is surprised by this and she begins to thank Carl--but he confesses he didn't get it. Everyone in the room denies getting the toy for Richie but Steve is convinced it came from Santa. Urkel urges Laura and Eddie to open the sealed envelope he sent in the mail days earlier. It turns out, Steve had wished for what then had seemed impossible: to spend Christmas with the Winslow family.

The Winslow family and Urkel sing "Have Yourself a Merry little Christmas."

My favorite part of this episode is the musical moment at the end. Inspired by the spirit of the season, the family sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" around the Christmas tree. Although everyone is singing, you can hear Telma Hopkins above some of the others--she has an unmistakable and amazing voice. The Winslows end up singing in all the rest of the series' holiday episodes. I think it's a wonderful Christmas TV tradition.

Do you remember other TV families that sing in Christmas episodes?

If you're a fan of ABC's TGIF block programming, I've written about several other Christmas episodes from series that ran at one time or another during TGIF. I've previously written here about the 1988 Christmas episode of Perfect Strangers, and the 1988 and the 1994 Christmas episodes of Full House. Click the links to see those discussions again. Which were your favorite series airing on TGIF?

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Real Ghostbusters Christmas (1986)

The animated series ran from 1986-1991.

Last month over the holidays, I found myself re-watching the the movies Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II, and the re-boot released in 2016. Who ever remembers that 1989's Ghostbusters II is set during the Christmas and New Year’s  holidays? Christmas trees, wreaths, lights, and decorations fill the background, and the goodwill from New Yorkers singing “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight on New Year’s Eve help combat the evil slime attacking the art museum. Despite this, the movie doesn't feel like a holiday story.  That's okay because the cartoon series The Real Ghostbusters created its own unforgettable yuletide tale. Let me jog your memory.

No one likes working on the holiday but Peter didn't have happy Christmases as a child so he doesn't mind the distraction of working through Christmas as an adult.

The first season episode "X-mas Marks the Spot" sees the four Ghostbusters driving to upstate New York to work on Christmas Eve. Driving through a snowstorm, the crew inadvertently passes through a portal which transports them to Victorian England! Before they can figure out where they are and how they got there, the four men witness an old man being harassed by several ghosts. The Ghostbusters know what to do and capture the three ghosts.

The crew find these three ghosts haunting an old man!

The Ghostbusters come to the rescue of Ebenezer Scrooge.

No problem! All three ghosts are trapped, contained, and taken back to the firehouse for disposal.

The Ghostbusters are pleased to have offered relief to the old man named Ebenezer Scrooge from the frightening spirits. However, Peter thinks that this situation seems all too familiar to him. Returning to their car, the Ghostbusters drive back to New York City feeling like they've done a good job to help out an old man. But once they are back in the city, everything seems to have changed.

Wait--what? Ebenezer Scrooge wrote a book!?
People on the street aren't filled with the Christmas spirit any longer. The guys notice a best-selling book in a nearby store window. It is "A Christmas Humbug" written by the man they just met on their journey. Back at the firehouse, they notice that Janine has even lost her holiday cheer. What has happened while they were gone?

Slimer and Janine.

The men talk it out and realize that they must have passed through a timeslip earlier in the evening. By capturing the ghosts and altering the past, they have prevented Ebenezer Scrooge from experiencing his moral transformation--which has eliminated the influence of the book "A Christmas Carol" from inspiring future generations! The Ghostbusters have messed up and they have to correct the mistake before it's too late.

The visuals created in this episode of what Egon experiences inside the Ecto-Containment Unit are pretty cool.

Egon must physically enter the Ecto-Containment Unit to retrieve the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future before they are permanently lost. This difficult endeavor requires the assistance of Janine and Slimer. Hopefully, Egon will be able to accomplish this tricky mission and be able to come back out of the containment unit or he may be stuck there forever.

Lucky for them, the Ghostbusters find the time traveling portal again.

Meanwhile, Peter, Ray, and Winston travel back to upstate New York hoping to locate the timeslip once again and meet up with Scrooge. If Egon isn't able to retrieve the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, the Ghostbusters will have to fill-in to help transform Scrooge themselves. You know where this is going, right? The three men take it upon themselves to haunt Scrooge.

Peter takes on the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past using magnesium flares to help create his aura.

This 1986 episode pre-dates VR headsets but the resourceful Ghostbusters cleverly use a 3-D Viewmaster on Scrooge to help simulate his overnight journey to the past, present and future.

Regular readers of the blog know how much I love the TV tradition of characters gaslighting someone into experiencing a Dickens-style conversion. I've written about these holiday episodes several times before, including the 1967's Bewitched, 1976's Six Million Dollar Man, and 1980's Dukes of Hazzard. This story device is a popular one and has been used many times throughout TV's history. Here is just another example.

All's well that ends well. Except....

In the end, the Ghostbusters are able to set the world right again. Peter even discovers his own Christmas spirit after seeing what he lost when the world was without its holiday cheer. With a nod to this episode's storybook character inspirations, Winston remarks "I always thought it [A Christmas Carol] was just a story. Makes you wonder what else might be real?" And the Ghostbusters react to hearing Santa Claus laugh. It's funny to see these fictional characters question the nature of Ebenezer Scrooge and Santa Claus. Why not, right? But what really makes me giggle is how these characters never quite draw the correct distinction between the fictional Ebenezer Scrooge and the real-life writer Charles Dickens. Where exactly did the Ghostbusters travel to when they slipped through the portal in the snow on their way to upstate New York? I guess I won't pull a thread to unravel a story that also contains Ecto-Containment Units, a helpful Slimer, and timeslips.

You can watch this episode on the recently re-released DVD of the series The Real Ghostbusters, Vol. 1. Do you have a favorite Christmas episode, besides the ones listed above, in which a character attempts to gaslight another with a Dickens-style conversion? Feel free to leave your comments below.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Year in Review: 2016

Before I move on to new content in the new year, I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on the previous year.  I collected the top five most popular posts from this website written in 2016. I was a little surprised by a few of them--maybe you will be surprised too. Curious about past Year in Review essays? Check out the 2014 and 2015 Year in Review posts again.

5. The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour Christmas episode from 1969. Classic TV variety shows are a fun nostalgic trip, aren't they? This Christmas episode included special guests Cher, Andy Griffith, and Paul Lynde. I wrote about this program back in April because it is referenced in the 1988 Christmas episode of The Wonder Years. Don't you love it when TV characters can be seen watching TV?

Who are your favorite Rankin/Bass animated elves? Do they match my selections?

4. Last March, I created my favorites list of Top 5 Rankin/Bass Elves. The essay and commentary were created as a part of the Classic Film & TV Café blogathon about TV Sidekicks. And who are Santa's favorite sidekicks but his elves? This one was fun to write so I'm pleased to see that it was a popular one to read as well. Classic Film & TV Café blogathons are can't-miss events and there's a new one coming next month on TV movies! Check it out.

3. Another TV variety Christmas episode cracked the top 5 most popular posts last year. In June, I wrote about the 1968 holiday installment of The Dean Martin Show, with guest stars Dom DeLuise, Bob Newhart, and Dennis Weaver. The classic never go out of style, do they?

2. Not so surprising is the 1960 Christmas episode of The Twilight Zone showing up in this list of last year's most popular essays. The episode "Night of the Meek" starring Art Carney--a disillusioned department store Santa Claus yearns for the ability to offer more to those in his impoverished neighborhood--is a heart warming story that few forget after watching. "Night of the Meek" is not just a memorable Twilight Zone episode but an outstanding example of the best of television too.

1. The most popular post from 2016 was my introduction to our Christmas in July readers' blogathon. For the past three years, this introduction has reached the top 5 most popular posts of the year. The annual post is where I announce the mini-questionnaire and invite everyone to respond with their answers--which I reveal throughout the month of July. Here's the recap of July's responses. Should we do it again this year? What questions do you want to see participants respond to this year? Feel free to leave your comments below.

Do you remember reading each of these most popular entries in 2016? As I plan my upcoming schedule of reviews, do you have any requests?  Let me know in the comments below.  Happy New Year! May the best of life be yours in 2017.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701