About Christmas TV History

Friday, February 28, 2014

Good Times Christmas (1977)

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 many outstanding or touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences.  All month long I've been highlighting just few of my favorites.

Good Times originally aired on TV from 1974-1979, and was developed by Norman Lear.

The fifth season Christmas episode of Good Times is the third of four holiday episodes produced for the series.  1977's "Penny's Christmas" is worth recalling because it is the first holiday storyline with the young actress Janet Jackson--yes, THAT Janet Jackson--who joined the Good Times regular cast starting in the fifth season.  And, this holiday episode centers around her character, Penny.

Don't call her baby--it's Janet, or Miss Jackson if you're nasty!

In "Penny's Christmas," the Evans family--father James and mother Florida are gone--are looking forward to spending their first Christmas with young Penny, the upstairs neighbor Willona's adopted daughter.

Everyone cracks wise on JJ's skinny Christmas tree. 

Willona answers the door, sarcastically remarking, "It's Tiny Tim!"

Michael and Thelma have been busy wrapping gifts, JJ has gone out and bought a tree, and the building superintendent Bookman is hoping to get invited to the family's party.  However, Penny and Willona are on their way to the department store to do some last minute shopping.  Penny is very excited about the money she has saved in order to buy her new mother a Christmas gift.

It's Santa Claus Lenny--pimped out for the holidays in a rabbit fur-lined Santa coat.

How well do you know your 70s culture?  That urban Santa is played by Dap Sugar Willie, a Philadelphia comedian who made appearances on a bunch of 70s sitcoms.

At the department store, Willona and Penny greet the street-wise, bell-ringing Santa Claus near the entrance.  Then Willona leaves Penny to do her own shopping alone.  Penny finds the perfect necklace at the right price at the jewelry counter--but her wallet has gone missing!  She's the victim of a sneaky pickpocket.

The creep bumps into Penny as he lifts her wallet.  You gotta love the live audience during the taping of this episode--you can hear them sympathetically yelling out to warn Penny about her wallet!

Penny panics while in the store and she doesn't know what to do if she can't give Willona a Christmas gift.  Unfortunately, the young girl decides to shoplift the pretty necklace and the theft is caught by the store's security cameras.  Back at the Evans' apartment, Mrs. Dobbs--the woman from the Department of Family Services in charge of finalizing Penny's adoption--has arrived to meet with Willona for the last of the adoption process.  When Penny is escorted home by the store security, Mrs. Dobbs is no longer sure Willona has created the right environment for the young girl.

The social worker Mrs. Dobbs is played by actress Alice Ghostley.

You may remember Alice Ghostley from her TV roles as Esmeralda on Bewitched and Bernice Clifton on Designing Women, among many others.

Willona is crushed that Penny's crisis has taken place in front of Mrs. Dobbs and promises the girl will be punished.  Willona also begs Mrs. Dobbs to return for the family's Christmas party for the opportunity to show her that Penny does live in a stable, loving environment, surrounded by adults who care for her.  Sure enough, the Evans family Christmas party is filled with love--both JJ and Bookman show up dressed as Santa Claus, looking to make the young girl's Christmas bright.

I think we can all agree that JJ is TV's skinniest Santa.

Mrs. Dobbs seems to be enjoying herself at the party--and drinking round after round of the eggnog.

Willona is on edge all night, hoping to convince Mrs. Dobbs to change her mind about the adoption.  Desperate, Willona considers blackmailing Mrs. Dobbs over her obvious drunkenness at the party in order to leverage her approval.  But Willona gives up on the dishonest plot--and apologizes to Mrs. Dobbs for even thinking it.  All of Willona's worry is for nothing when Mrs. Dobbs explains that she has every intention of finalizing Penny's adoption--the young girl is obviously loved and cared for by everyone at the party.  The good news causes the party-goers to erupt into song as everyone claps and sings a funky version of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

The party erupts into celebration.

If you haven't seen it yet--or haven't seen it in a long while--I encourage you to seek out the sixth season, 1978 holiday episode "The Traveling Christmas."  That episode includes a variety show-within-a-show which includes music and dancing with the cast of Good Times--which includes a young Janet Jackson.  Her talent and abilities have come a long way since 1978.  Haven't we all?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The PJs Christmas (2000)

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 many outstanding or touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences.  Throughout the month of February, I'll highlight a few of my favorites.

The PJs originally ran for three seasons (1999-2001)

The animated series with an attitude, The PJs, seems to be another one of those shows that is too often overlooked.  Were you aware it's currently airing on MTV2?  The writing on this show was quick, sharp and filled with pop culture references.  No wonder it still stands up.  Are you familiar with the 2000 yuletide episode "How the Super Stoled Christmas?"

The voice work on this series is star-studded.  Thurgood is voiced by Eddie Murphy and Muriel by Loretta Devine.

Our main character Thurgood Stubbs, the superintendent of the Hilton-Jacobs projects, is counting on using his holiday tips from the tenants to buy his wife Muriel a computer for her Christmas gift.

Thurgood's response when he finds only empty envelopes where he expects his holiday tips, "Don't these people know I work 24 hours a week, 7 days a month for them?"

Desperate to buy a computer for Muriel, Thurgood takes on a second job for the holidays.

When Thurgood doesn't receive any tips, he takes on a job working for the owner of the local pawn shop.  Knowing the tenants and his friends will despise him, Stubbs wants to keep his new job, working as a repo man, secret from the others.  As the superintendent of the building, he possesses the passkeys to every apartment in the building and repossessing items turns out to be fairly easy.

Thurgood is playing Santa in the local Christmas pageant entitled Toyz n the Hood.  During the performance, he slips out and repossesses the last of the items on behalf of the pawn shop.

This is, until he's asked to repossess items from his friends.  Thurgood attempts to resign from his job but Muriel is excited to discover that he has already purchased her new computer.  Poor Thurgood can't break his wife's heart at Christmas.  Still trying to keep his second job a secret, the Super decides to repossess his friends' items while they are all attending the neighborhood Christmas pageant.

In reference to the familiar image from the original Grinch, here Thurgood slithers across the floor under the Christmas tree on his belly like a snake.

Recreating the scene with Cindy Lou Who, here Stubbs is caught stealing items by another adorable young girl.

While Thurgood is entering peoples' homes and taking their stuff, we can see many clear references to the 1966 animated TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  Not only is the sequence accompanied by the song "You're a B*stard, Mr. Stubbs"--a funny re-write of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch"--but we see familiar shots of a toy train rolling into his bag, Thurgood--like the Grinch--slithering across the floor on his belly, and getting caught by an adorable young girl that questions what he's doing.  Don't you just love when a Christmas episode references popular Christmas TV specials from the past?  I know I do.

Stubbs is racked with even more guilt after his friends admit they have been saving their money for his Christmas gift.

Though he regrets being the local repo man, Thurgood returns to the Christmas pageant to be with his friends.  There he finds his friends have surprised him with a gift--the item at the top of his own Christmas wish list--an expensive massage chair.  Turns out his tenants and friends have been scrimping and saving to pay for the chair.  Some of his friends admit they didn't make their usual timely payments to the local pawn shop in order to save to afford this gift to Stubbs!

Thurgood is caught in a car's headlights trying to return his friends' repossessed items.  Notice that Smokey is tied by a rope to the sled (shopping cart) attempting to pull it--much like the Grinch's dog Max. 

Feeling more guilty than ever, Thurgood decides to sell his new chair and use the money to pay off his friends' debts at the pawn shop.  In a continuation of the references to The Grinch, we now see Stubbs packing all his friends' repossessed items back up in order to return them.  The oversized sack sitting atop the shopping cart should remind you of the familiar images of the Grinch on Christmas morning with his large bounty on the sleigh returning to Whoville.

Returning to the Hilton-Jacobs projects, Stubbs rides atop the large sack of items he is giving back to his friends--much like the Grinch sitting atop his sleigh traveling back to Whoville.

In addition to How the Grinch Stole Christmas, this episode's story and dialogue also makes brief references to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Miracle on 34th Street.  I absolutely love it when Christmas episodes make reference to popular Christmas culture.  Are you good at spotting these type of references?

Another detail that makes this Christmas episode a special experience is that this stop motion animated series was produced by Vinton Studios--the animation company behind the unforgettable A Claymation Christmas Celebration from 1987.  Though The PJs was, I believe, made with foam figures and the 1987 Christmas TV special was made entirely with clay, Will Vinton and his team have always been at the top of the list of stop motion animators.  How long has it been since you've watched A Claymation Christmas Celebration?

Among the many musical segments in A Claymation Christmas Celebration, most people instantly recall the California Raisins singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."  Enjoy.

Monday, February 24, 2014

What's Happening!! Christmas (1976)

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 many outstanding or touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences.  Throughout the month of February, I'll highlight a few of my favorites.

The series was loosely based on the 1975 movie Cooley High.

 The 70s sitcom What's Happening!! was initially appealing to TV audiences because it was a then-rare glimpse into the lives of African-American teenagers.  Who is your favorite character in this series--is it the ever-hungry Rerun?  Raj's sassy little sister Dee? or the waitress Shirley? 

In the 1976 episode "Christmas," the friends exchange gifts.  Left to right; Rerun, Raj, Dee, and Dwayne.

The first season brought the episode "Christmas."  Much like the title, it is a simple holiday story but one that continues to be meaningful for TV audiences.  The episode begins on Christmas Eve with Raj and his friends exchanging Christmas gifts.  Raj explains to Rerun and Dwayne that he and his sister Dee will be alone, like they are every year on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, because their mother works.  As a maid, Mrs. Thomas is able to make a lot of money on those two days because her employers host annual holiday parties. 

Dee to Dwayne while he hands out gifts, “If that one isn’t for me, I’m gonna deck your halls!"

Both Dwayne and Rerun extend invitations to Raj and Dee to spend Christmas with their families, but Raj assures them that they like staying home and waiting for their mother to return late in the evening.  When Raj and Dee's father Bill stops over to drop off Christmas presents, he too learns that his children are spending Christmas alone.

Because their parents are divorced, Raj and Dee are used to spending Christmas with their mother.

Though Raj and Dee would rather stay at home and wait for Mama, their father demands that his children spend their first Christmas with him.  Bill Thomas (played by actor Thalmus Rasulala) begins to plan for a special Christmas dinner to share with his children and Raj shares the news with his mother.  Of course, Mabel Thomas (played by actress Mabel King) is supportive and understanding--and she makes sure that Raj knows she wants him to have a good time with his father.

Mabel is happy that her children will spend time with their father on Christmas.

What Raj doesn't know is that his mother had been able to ask off from work on Christmas.  This year, Mabel made the financial sacrifice to not work in order to spend time with her family. Now her children are spending the day with their father--and his girlfriend--and she will spend Christmas day alone.

With their turkey dinner ruined, Raj suggests they eat dinner at the Thomas home.

A twist of fate causes Bill's girlfriend (played by Rosalind Cash) to accidentally burn the turkey of their holiday dinner.  Raj suggests a solution: they can all go to the Thomas home to eat.  He knows Mama has left a complete dinner at home and his friends have dropped off enough food for a feast.  Sure enough, when Raj, Dee, and their father arrive back home, they find Mabel home alone.  But Mama welcomes everyone--including Bill's girlfriend--to share the holiday meal with her. 

On Christmas, the family overeats to the point of turning up their noses at Shirley's homemade pumpkin pie!

This story may be a simple one but stories about families coming together at Christmas time remain popular ones every year throughout TV.  It's a traditional story that never goes out of style.  While the heartwarming story may be familiar, the continuing appeal here is the funny cast of characters.  How long has it been since you watched an episode of What's Happening!!?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Christmas (1993)

It's Black History Month again.  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 many outstanding or touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences.  In the upcoming month, I'll highlight a few of my favorites.

There are a total of four Christmas episodes on the series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Last week, I wrote about the 1990 episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air entitled "Deck the Halls."  Click HERE to see that essay again.   Another Christmas episode of The Fresh Prince included musical guests Boyz II Men who can be heard in this episode performing two holiday songs.  I wrote about this particular episode in my latest book Merry Musical Christmas Vol. 1: The Best Christmas Music in TV Sitcoms and Dramas.  The review below is an excerpt from the book.

At the episode's beginning, we see that this Christmas story is told five years in the future (1998)--as Uncle Phil explains to a five year-old Nicky why he has four middle names (the same names as the members of Boyz II Men).  Uncle Phil's story reflects back to the day of Nicky's christening.
"In the 1993 holiday episode, “Twas the Night Before Christening,” Will is intimidated by the gifts offered to his infant cousin Nicky in celebration of his christening on Christmas Eve.  In order to appear just as loving and doting as the other family members, Will makes the outlandish promise to get chart-topping R&B super group Boyz II Men--who, like him, are also from Philadelphia--to perform at the christening party.  Only a Christmas miracle can provide such an impossible event.

Aunt Vivian overhears Will's lie to Jazz that he is getting Boyz II Men to perform at Nicky's christening. 

Boyz II Men performing "Let It Snow" in the recording studio.

It turns out Boyz II Men DO KNOW Will from Philadelphia--that's why they throw him out of their studio!

Grammy winners, Boyz II Men guest star in this holiday episode and they can be seen singing “Let It Snow” while in the recording studio when Will first approaches them about making an appearance at little Nicky’s christening. Don’t think too hard about the improbability of a band recording a Christmas song on December 24th for a holiday album!

Just as Will stands up in front of everyone gathered at the church for Nicky's christening, to explain how he lied about Boyz II Men...

...the super group show up and perform a beautiful acapella rendition of "Silent Night."

Later in the episode, Boyz II Men perform “Silent Night” in the church, interrupting Will as he explains how he lied.  The harmonizing quartet perform this acappella song with all the beauty and reverence it deserves.

Did you have this album?  Are you a Boyz II Men fan?

Both of these Christmas songs appeared on the Boyz II Men holiday album, Christmas Interpretations, first released in 1993."

What guest stars have appeared in your favorite musical Christmas TV episodes?  Below are audio clips (from Youtube) of both of these holiday songs from Boyz II Men.  Enjoy.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air Christmas (1990)

It's Black History Month again.  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 many outstanding or touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences.  In the upcoming month, I'll highlight a few of my favorites.

The first season Christmas episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air touches on a common theme --how does one find the holiday spirit?  In "Deck the Halls" from 1990, Will is frustrated by how his wealthy cousins celebrate the holiday.  Will sees that Carlton is concerned only with his glee club's ski trip, Hilary is busy sending gifts to celebrities, Uncle Phil and Aunt Vivian are occupied with the office Christmas party, and young Ashley has no holiday traditions that she's looking forward to at all.

Will and Ashley (left) are not impressed with the trendy decorations--a Caribbean Christmas Tree--as envisioned by the expensive Beverly Hills decorators.

Will takes it upon himself to help bring the Christmas spirit to the Banks family.  Aunt Vivian suggests that Will can help the company hired to decorate the Banks' home for them.  But at the shop in Beverly Hills, Will decides to abandon those plans all together--and take over all the decorating of the Banks' home.

What will the neighbors think?

Back in Philadelphia, Will is used to lots of bright, flashing lights, plastic blow-mold figures in the yard, and displays with Santa and his reindeer.  Indoors, the living room and hallways are strung up with tinsel, multi-colored lights, and more plastic decorations and ornaments.  While Will, Ashley, and their accomplice, the butler Geoffrey, are proud of their holiday handiwork, the others are surprised by the garish display.

Will was just trying to bring a little of the holiday spirit that he knows from Philly to his young cousin Ashley.

Immediately, the phone begins to ring with complaints from their Bel-Air neighbors.  Soon, the snobby neighbors are in living room demanding that the decorations be taken down. 

The condescending residents gather at the Banks home to explain that this holiday display is unwelcome in their neighborhood.

The Banks' Bel-Air neighbor, the World Heavy-Weight Champion boxer Evander Holyfield (right), comes over to voice his misgivings about the excessive Christmas decorations.

Uncle Phil eventually understands that Will's heart was in the right place and is hoping to negotiate a compromise with all the angry neighbors.  However, when a group of children carolers come to the door, drawn to this particular house because of the festive decorations--everyone agrees that maybe they've taken stylish decorating too seriously. 

The strangers at the door remind everyone that the Christmas is for children--and the child in all of us.

Finding the Christmas spirit, everyone gathers around the TV to watch their favorite Christmas commercials!  I guess the moral of this story is that we should look for the Christmas spirit wherever we can find it.  I agree. 

The Bel-Air residents gather around the TV to watch their favorite Christmas commercials.

Excessive or tasteless Christmas decorations have become a popular topic within sitcom Christmas episodes.  Off the top of my head, I know Roseanne and Home Improvement have also touched on a similar story line.  Can you think of others?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sanford & Son Christmas (1975)

It's Black History Month again.  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 many outstanding or touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences.  In the upcoming month, I'll highlight a few of my favorites.  If you follow my blog on Facebook (here's the link if you're looking for it), you'll also see me posting a few BHM favorites from the archives.  You can always go into the archives here as well--click on the month of February during any of the past years I've been keeping this blog.

Sanford and Son ran from 1972-77.

Who doesn't love the fifth season Christmas episode of Sanford and Son?  This exceptional episode of the series packs a lot of wallop.  Not only is it an adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic literary tale A Christmas Carol--but it also features Redd Foxx singing a holiday tune.  Who better to transform his bad attitude at Christmas than Fred Sanford?  How much of this classic Christmas episode do you remember?

Aunt Esther comes to the house bearing gifts but Fred's lack of Christmas spirit proves he better...watch it sucker!

In 1975's "Ebenezer Sanford," Fred is in his typical bad mood.  Fred is short-tempered with his son Lamont and says that he doesn’t have enough time or money for Christmas this year.  Fred is also critical of gifts given to him by Aunt Esther and Rolo--before he even opens them!  It's not a far stretch when Lamont accuses Fred of being like Scrooge.

Ronnie Small is played by actor Eric Laneuville.

But Fred's worst transgression this Christmas is taking advantage of a teenager that comes to the door asking for work.  Ronny asks Fred for an opportunity to earn $10 to buy gifts for his parents.  Fred puts the boy to work for two days helping him complete the inventory, cleaning up the yard, painting the house and fixing the fence--all for only $10.  Lamont is disgusted with his father but Fred insists on taking a nap in his armchair.

My favorite punchline of this episode:  After Lamont accuses his father of being very much like Scrooge, Fred replies, "What the dickens you talkin' about?"  It's funny every time.

Draped in chains, Fred receives a ghostly visitor.  Although it's traditional for the ghost of Jacob Marley to appear to be carrying chains about his person, this Spirit of Christmas Past carries the burden.  I suppose this is an attempt at efficient storytelling for a half-hour sitcom adaptation.

Sure enough, Fred awakens from his nap with a visit from The Spirit of Christmas Past.  The ghost takes Fred back to his childhood in St. Louis where we see a scene of young Fredsy lying to his mother about money she gave him.  He expresses regrets about lying to her and not using the money he stole to buy her a Christmas present.

Young Fredsy, as his mother called him, took money from his mother and spent it on himself rather than buying her a gift.

The Spirit of Christmas Present

Next, Fred is visited by the Spirit of Christmas Present who escorts him to Aunt Esther's home.  There Fred sees his friends celebrating Christmas without him.  They didn't want to invite him to the party because he doesn't have any yuletide spirit, yet his friends wish the best for him.

Why not?  The Spirit of Christmas Future wears a spacesuit.

Fred's last visitor is the Spirit of Christmas Future who shows him a future that is filled with isolation and loneliness.  Fred awakens from his Christmas nightmare a changed man.  We see that the junkman is not only generous with the teenager Ronny, giving him $20 and telling him not to return for a second day of work-- but Fred is generous with Lamont on Christmas morning as well.  Later, we also see Ronny with his parents drop by to visit Fred on Christmas day.  The Small family have received generous gifts from Fred--each containing the monogram 'LS'.  Fred explains the monogram refers to his life philosophy: 'love somebody.'  However, Lamont recognizes his own initials and is touched by his father's generous spirit.

Lamont is pleased that his father did right by Ronny--even if it meant giving away his gifts.

Will Fred be forever transformed into a good guy?  TV viewers really don't want that--but it is satisfying to see Fred receive his Christmas come-uppance.  Just when you think this episode is over, the last scene sees Fred and Lamont dropping in on Aunt Esther's Christmas party.  Not only is Fred on his best behavior but he offers to join them in singing Christmas carols.  What follows next is a holiday treat for TV viewers.

Fred sings "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" for his friends.

Fred Sanford sings the feel-good holiday classic "The Christmas Song" in its entirety.  Actor Redd Foxx has a way of focusing attention on himself, and it is true of this scene as well. Fred performs the song with the utmost sincerity and it exudes a tender spirit of Christmas for all who hear it.  Despite his scratchy, thin voice, Foxx’s performance is filled with confidence--he clearly knows how to sing--as well as a bit of a swingin’ jazz style.  Curious to know who is Fred’s accompaniment on the guitar?  Though he’s credited as the landlord in the episode’s credits, that’s Herb Ellis, the renowned jazz guitarist and studio musician.

This is such a wonderful musical moment that I included it in my latest book Merry Musical Christmas Vol. 1: The Best Christmas Music in TV Sitcoms and Dramas which came out last year.  Click on the book's title to read more about the book. 

Recognize the actor who plays Ron Small in this episode?  That's Eric Laneuville.  I remember him for his role as the ambitious orderly Luther, on the 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere.  However, you may recognize his name from his more contemporary work--Laneuville is very successful TV director these days.  Isn't that awesome?