Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus (1974)

My photo of an advertisement from a 1974 TV Guide magazine. Remember watching this classic?


When I was growing up in the 1970s, Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus was must-see TV during the holidays. The half-hour animated special has since fallen from most viewers' favorites list but re-watching it recently reminded me of its strengths and charm. Let's revisit this cartoon classic and see how it fits in with other Christmas entertainment.


Hand drawn images are used throughout this 1974 cartoon.


1974's Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus was produced and directed by Bill Melendez, and produced and written by Mort Green. The following year, it was awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program. Melendez's name may sound familiar because he also produced and directed A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). The animation in Yes, Virginia features an illustrative style (the images are hand drawn), a distinctive style I miss seeing in contemporary animation.


A teacher asking students to write a paper about Christmas--that sounds familiar!? (It's also a major story line in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story).
Virginia is voiced by Courtney Lemmon.


The story is inspired by the real-life Virginia O'Hanlon and a newspaper editorial from 1897 that ran in the New York Sun. This adaptation turns the newspaper's response to the 8-year old's letter to the editor into a more complete story. It begins with Virginia's schoolteacher asking the class to write a composition about Christmas for an upcoming holiday program. Young Virginia decides to write her paper about Santa Claus, confirming her belief in him. After hearing this, the other children in the classroom begin to laugh at her. Most of them confess that they no longer believe in Santa.


Virginia's classroom reflects the popular movement in the 70s to be more inclusive of minorities. Here we see Virginia's friends include Arthur, a Chinese-American, and Amy, an African-American.


Upset by their teasing, Virginia doesn't want to quit believing. She decides to ask some adults about Santa Claus to see what they have to say. After school, the children pass by Officer Reilly and ask him about Santa Claus. They stop by Shulman's candy store and ask Mr. Shulman. And, they ask Arthur's father Mr. Lee Fong, who runs his own Chinese food restaurant. The adults are each wise enough not to discourage the little girl from losing faith.


The Jewish candy store owner encourages Virginia to believe.

Virginia's father explains that we regularly believe in things we can't see.


But Virginia's questions about jolly Ole Saint Nick remain unanswered--has anyone ever seen or met Santa Claus? When Virginia returns home, she asks her father Dr. Philip O'Hanlon about believing in Santa even when no one she knows has seen him. Dr. O'Hanlon shows his daughter images with the stereopticon to make his point. Christopher Columbus sailed west for the New World although no one could see that the Earth was round. Thomas Edison developed the light bulb, Alexander Graham-Bell invented the telephone, and Marconi achieved wireless radio transmissions--although none of them had seen these things before. Virginia is inspired by these words but she is still a little skeptical. The newsboy on the corner selling papers recommends to Virginia that she write a letter to the editor of the New York Sun newspaper, an institution that prides itself on its truthful reputation: "If you see it in the Sun, it's so."


I love the period references in this turn-of-the-twentieth-century story, such as the stereopticon, the clothing, and diversity of residents dwelling in New York City.

Tommy, the newsboy who sells papers on the street corner.

Tommy convinces Mr. Church that it would be wise to respond to Virginia's letter.


Francis Church, the editor at the New York Sun, receives Virginia's letter and he's not sure how to respond. We see the man walking the streets of New York City experiencing holiday cheer from everyone he meets. Church's spirit is even given a nudge from Tommy, the newsboy who is Virginia's friend. Meanwhile, Virginia waits impatiently to see if her letter appears in the newspaper each day.




The teacher reads the editorial for all to hear.

Eventually, the school holiday program is held and the teacher discusses the children's writing assignment. As a surprise to Virginia, her letter appeared in the newspaper that day, and the teacher reads it and Mr. Church's response to the entire audience. For the full text of the original 1897 editorial written by Francis Church, click here. The inspiring words for adults and children alike still warm the heart--even after more than 100 years. Some things don't change.


Don't be surprised if you get a little choked up--just like Virginia!


A few things about this production stand out to me. I love the animation style here--the backgrounds have watercolor textures that are not just visually stimulating but evoke turn-of-the-century images that may have become water stained or faded with time. I also enjoy hearing the voice of Jim Backus as the narrator. Not only is he a familiar actor on television and film. but he voiced the title role in the 1962 animated classic Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. Another interesting voice role is Courtney Lemmon as young Virginia--she's the real-life daughter of Oscar-winning actor Jack Lemmon. And, the closing theme tune is performed by Jimmy Osmond, the youngest sibling of Donny and Marie Osmond. This cartoon is a slice right out of the 1970s.





At the end, this animated special reminds viewers that this story was taken from real-life events.

I also appreciate that this cartoon is inspired a true story. In 1897, an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O'Hanlon did write a letter to the New York Sun newspaper and she received an editorial response from Francis Church--words that are still meaningful and emotionally moving today.

Have you seen the 2009 TV special Yes Virginia?


Did you know that the real Virginia O'Hanlon appeared as a guest in the 1960 Kraft Music Hall/Perry Como Christmas special? And, in addition to the 1974 cartoon, the story has been adapted several more times for television, including the 1991 TV movie version starring Richard Thomas, Ed Asner, and Charles Bronson (yes, THAT Charles Bronson), and the charming 2009 animated TV special with Neil Patrick Harris and Jennifer Love Hewitt using their voices to bring the characters to life. Have you seen any of these adaptions of the story of Yes, Virginia?





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 press.com


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.


video


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 press.com

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.


Wait--what!?

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 press.com