About Christmas TV History

Friday, February 26, 2016

Good Times New Year's Eve (1975)

Thank you for continuing to support Black History Month. I enjoy celebrating BHM on my blog because there are so many excellent holiday 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. During the month of February each year, I like to highlight just few of my favorites.

Do you remember that Good Times was a spin-off from the TV sitcom Maude? The character Florida Evans originally worked as a maid in Maude Findley's home.

During its third season, Good Times put out a most unusual New Year's Eve episode. While most of us think of fresh starts at the beginning of the new year, we often overlook the complementary meaning of the ending or the death of the old year. In the 1975 holiday episode "A Place to Die," TV audiences are challenged to consider death and dignity. Here, let me remind you about this special Good Times episode.

The Evans family has a visitor for the new year.

A few days before New Year's Eve, an elderly man named Hubert Johnson shows up on the doorstep of the Evans family. Johnson is Michael's friend--it is explained that young Michael frequently says hello to Mr. Johnson each day on his walk past the rest home after school. Mr. Johnson has enjoyed listening to Michael's stories about his family and now he's come to ask a favor.

Johnson explains that he doesn't have close friends or family anymore--and he doesn't want to die alone.

Hubert is convinced that he's going to die soon and he'd like to pass on in the Evans family apartment rather than his rest home! The shocking (and awkward) request seems foolish to Florida. She points out her most obvious concern--no one really knows when they are going to die. However, Hubert is very persuasive about staying in the apartment, and the more he speaks, the more everyone else in the room feels compassion for him.

Neighbor and family friend Willona joins the family meeting.

Florida, Thelma, J.J., Michael, and Willona hold a family meeting and discuss Hubert's awkward request. Everyone agrees that Mr.Johnson is being foolish about knowing he's going to die soon but they want to let him stay because it will make the lonely old man happy.  Mr. Johnson doesn't want to overburden the family with his outrageous request so he rents a bed for himself and promises to leave if he doesn't die by the new year. Florida finally agrees with the group and consents to let Mr. Johnson stay.

"Let's throw a New Year's Eve party!"

On the morning of New Year's Eve, Florida receives a telephone call from James--he's been out of town picking up extra work.  His trip home has been cancelled due to a snowstorm and it looks like Florida's plans to see her husband this evening are off. The children each have plans to go out on New Year's Eve but they offer to bring their dates to the apartment so their mother won't be alone this evening. Over the last several days, the family has enjoyed the time they have spent with Mr. Johnson so everyone feels like celebrating together. Of course, Willona is bringing her date to the party too.

Michael has been practicing his dance steps to "The Hustle."

The Evans family's New Year's Eve party is filled with music, dancing, and good food. The apartment is brightly decorated with paper streamers and everyone is decked out in their best clothes. Even Mr. Johnson is having a lively good time. As midnight grows nearer, Hubert remarks how odd he feels--he was so sure it was his time to die. He was convinced that the preacher would be eulogizing him by now. With that mention, Willona decides to cheer up the old man by giving him a proper eulogy herself!

With tremendous effort, Willona begins her eulogy in the spirit of an old-time gospel minister--stomping her feet, clapping her hands, singing and calling out to the congregation as she praises the good Hubert Johnson for his long life and decent character. The spirit moves those at the party and they join in the fun, clapping and celebrating life as they form a line and march around the apartment. Hubert is excited to celebrate too and he joins the train of marchers as they file past.

Florida reminds everyone to not be sad--he died just as he wanted.

At first, no one notices when Hubert drops off the back of the train of revelers. When he's found slumped in the chair, it's clear that Mr. Johnson has suddenly passed. The popular New Year's Eve song "Auld Lang Syne" can be heard playing on the nearby television as Florida confirms to everyone that indeed Mr. Johnson has died. The poignant scene is made less so when Florida remarks that Hubert died while enjoying a happy moment surrounded by family. The message is clear: we should all be so lucky to die with such dignity.

Actor Arnold Johnson in a 1978 Christmas episode of The Jeffersons.

While this episode seems pretty hard hitting, it should be noted that the sitcom Good Times made itself a reputation for telling just this type of story. Good Times and several other notable series of the 1970s including All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, and One Day at a Time--all produced by the great Norman Lear--worked to tell stories that challenged TV audiences.  In fact, the actor Arnold Johnson who plays Hubert Johnson in this episode also appeared in another hard-hitting Christmas episode--1978's "George Finds a Father" on The Jeffersons. Click HERE to see my review of that episode again.

A similar story popped up on King of the Hill.

If you're a Christmas TV watcher like I am, you'll know that a similar story line was used again in 2004 for a Christmas episode of the animated series King of the Hill. In the episode "Ms. Wakefield," an elderly woman (voiced by Marion Ross) invades the house of Hank Hill and his family so she can die in the home she once owned. King of the Hill's version of the story turns into a nightmare situation for Hank with some dark comedy moments but the similarities remain.

Have you seen the musical show-within-a-show episode "The Traveling Christmas?"

If you'd like to read what else I've written about Good Times, feel free to check out my reviews of the 1977 episode "Penny's Christmas" and the 1978 episode "The Traveling Christmas." Do you have a favorite Good Times holiday episode?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Different World Christmas (1990)

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.  During the month of February each year,  I like to highlight just few of my favorites.

This Cosby Show spin-off follows daughter Denise Huxtable to school at Hillman College where the TV comedy continued despite Denise eventually leaving the school and the series.

In my last review--the one about the 1978 musical Christmas episode of Good Times--I mentioned  my book Merry Musical Christmas Vol. 1.  That book includes a discussion of the 1990 Christmas episode of A Different World too because it includes a significant musical moment. Let me remind you about that episode.

Hoping to impress Dwayne's mother, Whitley buys her an expensive collectible as a gift.

In the fourth season episode “I’m Dreaming of a Dwayne Christmas,” it is Whitley and Dwayne’s first Christmas together as a couple and they set off to spend it with his parents in New York City. After they arrive, it seems no matter what Whitley tries to do or say, it comes out the wrong way.

Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison as Whitley and Dwayne. I liked it when they got together on the show as a couple. I think it gave the character of Whitley a chance to expand and grow.

Dwayne's mother is played by the R&B superstar Patti LaBelle. There's a great deal of comedy here in Labelle playing off her reputation as a diva to portray a mother figure with impossible standards.

Whitley is very anxious about making a good impression on the difficult-to-please Mrs. Wayne.  Worrying that her Christmas present is inadequate, Whitley excuses herself from the family celebration to go out and buy another gift.  But Whitley's actions are misunderstood and Mrs. Wayne thinks she's abandoned the family on the holiday.

Mrs. Wayne mistakes Whitley as someone who is spoiled and inconsiderate.
Hit recording artist, Patti LaBelle stars as the intimidating and impossible-to-please Mrs. Wayne.  You may remember that LaBelle portrays Dwayne's mother in several episodes of A Different World besides this one.

Who can you trust if you can't trust Santa?
When Whitley finally returns, the young woman reveals that she was mugged in the subway by a man dressed as Santa Claus, and then a dishonest cabbie drove her all over town in order to raise the fare and overcharge her.

When Whitley finally returns to the Wayne home with a new gift, it hardly seems worth the effort.

With a little help from Dwayne, Mrs. Wayne finally sees the great lengths Whitley is willing to go in order to please her. Assuring Whitley that she need not risk her life during a mugging, Mrs. Wayne accepts the generous gift--even if it's broken.

There's no one like Miss Patti LaBelle.

The highlight of this episode arrives near the end.  At the Wayne family’s Christmas party, Mrs. Wayne favors the gathering with a modern R&B Christmas song, “Nothing Could Be Better,” accompanied with back-up vocals by the rest of the Wayne clan gathered around the piano.  Belting it out like only Patti LaBelle can, this original song was first released on LaBelle’s Christmas album This Christmas in 1990.

Recorded version of "Nothing Could Be Better" from the 1990 album This Christmas.

Casting Patti LaBelle as Dwayne Wayne's mother is a fun bit for the series but having her sing a festive song for the Christmas episode is phenomenal. She knows how to bring the house down!

LaBelle voices Melody, a cartoon version of a partridge in a pear tree in 2001's Santa, Baby!

Fans of LaBelle and her music know that she voiced a delightful character in the 2001 Rankin/Bass animated Christmas TV special Santa, Baby! as well. Click HERE to see my review of that animated favorite again.

Another mention about the music in this 1990 episode of A Different World--the series' theme tune is sung by Aretha Franklin! Although several different vocalists performed the theme over the course of the series, Franklin's version was used when this fourth season Christmas episode first aired.  Give it a listen one more time. Enjoy.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Good Times Christmas (1978)

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 was a family sitcom spun off from Maude--which originally spun off from All in the FamilyGood Times concerned itself with the struggles of the Evans family, a strong but poor African-American family living in the projects in Chicago.

The sixth season Christmas episode of Good Times is a favorite because it features a show-within-a-show, a format in sitcoms that is popular at Christmas time as a way to incorporate music into an episode. You have probably seen them before--remember the Christmas episode of Car 54 Where Are You?, the 1963 holiday episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show, the 1976 Christmas episode of Laverne & Shirley, the 1982 Christmas episode of Benson, and more? I wrote about the best of these musical, Christmas show-within-a-show episodes in my book Merry Musical Christmas Vol. 1.  That book includes a discussion of the 1978 episode of Good Times too. Do you remember watching this musical TV episode?

The Evans family decide to move their Christmas party to Keith's place of work so he won't miss out on celebrating with the family.

In 1978’s “The Traveling Christmas,” daughter Thelma is looking forward to spending her first Christmas with her new husband Keith.  When it turns out Keith has to work on Christmas Eve, the Evans family comes up with a solution.  The family and their friends organize a holiday party to entertain at the taxi garage so they can all be together on Christmas and bring some Christmas cheer to the others working on the holiday.

In this musical revue within the show, we see just how talented the cast of this sitcom really is.  It’s also fascinating to see Penny, played by a very young Janet Jackson--yes, THAT Janet Jackson--singing and dancing.  Although twelve year-old Janet holds her own, her skills have clearly come a long way since this 1978 episode.

Jimmy J.J. Walker takes the stage.

Down at the garage, on a little stage built just for the show, J.J. opens the show performing a stand-up comedy routine and serving as the show’s emcee.  If J.J. seems at home on the stage, it’s because he is played by Jimmy J.J. Walker, who cut his teeth doing stand-up comedy, headlining top comedy clubs before landing the role of the wise-cracking teenager on this 1970s sitcom.

I love seeing Ralph Carter and the rest of the Good Times cast showing off their talents.

Younger brother Michael takes the stage singing the rock song “Rock You to Your Socks.” Ralph Carter who plays Michael is the Tony-nominated actor/singer from the 1973 Broadway show Raisin, the musical adaptation of the play A Raisin in the Sun, which was still playing when Carter joined the cast of Good Times.  Clearly Carter has an abundance of musical talent.  You can also see Carter singing in the Good Times sixth season episode “Florida’s Homecoming: The Wedding” during Thelma’s wedding ceremony.

The next performance during the holiday musical revue is by building superintendent Nat Bookman who disco dances costumed in a Santa suit to an instrumental, funky disco song performed by an unseen band off-stage. The family always likes to tease Bookman and there's often tension between the building's super and its tenants, however I like seeing Bookman here in the full spirit of the season.

Keith is played by actor/comedian Ben Powers.

Next up is Thelma's husband Keith performing celebrity impressions including Robert Goulet singing “On A Clear Day,” and an impression of Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Jerry Lewis, and then Bill Cosby singing the jazz standard “Misty.”

left to right: Florida, Penny, Thelma, and Willona.

This is followed by a quartet calling themselves The Pointless Sisters (a parody of the very popular Pointer Sisters).  The group, consisting of mother Florida, sexy daughter Thelma, young Penny, and outspoken neighbor Willona, sing and dance to the show tune “Steam Heat” made popular from the Broadway musical The Pajama Game. This song was also covered by the Pointer Sisters on their 1974 album That’s A Plenty

Talk about a talented family, in December 1978, Janet's real-life big brother Michael was busy recording his 1st solo album Off the Wall.

As I said before, Janet Jackson holds her own in this song-and-dance routine, however she’s not yet showing off the dance skills for which she would later be well known. Ja’Net DuBois who plays family friend and upstairs neighbor Willona has a powerful voice and co-wrote and sang the classic theme song of the TV series The Jeffersons, another important series of the 1970s with an African-American cast. DuBois also stars in the unforgettable 1969 Christmas TV special J.T. with Kevin Hooks.

The holiday musical revue closes with all the entertainers returning to the stage to sing “Silent Night” for the cabbies in the audience on Christmas Eve.  Their poignant song even softens the heart of the tough, business-minded boss of the taxi garage, Mr. Clements, who had earlier insisted his cabbies all work on Christmas Eve.

This episode showcases the incredible talent of this series’ cast.  Although not all of the production numbers are holiday themed, the show-within-a-show does exude the holiday spirit and tradition of a musical revue as holiday entertainment.

Do you have a favorite music Christmas show-within-a-show episode?