Monday, February 26, 2018

Diff'rent Strokes Christmas (1982)

Happy February! It's Black History Month again. I enjoy honoring BHM each year on my blog because there are many noteworthy Christmas episodes, specials, and TV movies with exceptional African-American cast members. There are also numerous outstanding or touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences. Please indulge me while I highlight another of my favorites.

Kimberly and Willis need their money to buy gifts too.
The sitcom Diff'rent Strokes produced two Christmas installments, a clip show in 1978 and this second one in 1982. The fifth season episode "Santa's Helper" sees young Arnold in need of money to buy Christmas presents. Rather than ask his father for money, Arnold looks for a way he can earn it.

When Arnold gives a few coins, he's told "You can rest assured it will go to someone needy."

On the street, Arnold meets Mr. Jones, a bell-ringing Santa Claus collecting money for an orphaned children's fund. Mr. Jones is sympathetic to Arnold's need for money and once he learns that Arnold lives on Park Avenue, he invites the boy to join him in his charity drive. Jones promises Arnold a small percentage of the charity money collected by Christmas.

"Give 'til it hurts for the homeless squirts." Arnold draws awareness for an orphaned children's fund.
Happy to raise awareness for a good cause, Arnold eagerly applies himself to the task. Jones and Arnold sing Christmas carols and ring bells for the people on the sidewalk.

Hey--that's ARNOLD!?

When Mr. Drummond walks past the street corner Santas, he recognizes his son behind the beard. Young Arnold is pleased to show his father that he's working for his Christmas money.

Drummond has hired Jones to work as Santa on Christmas Eve for his family.

On Christmas Eve, the family gathers around the Christmas tree excited to see the brightly decorated packages underneath. A surprise guest arrives and it's Mr. Jones as Santa Claus delivering Mr. Drummond's gifts for Willis, Kimberly, Arnold, and the housekeeper Pearl. Despite being paid well for his appearance, Jones returns in the middle of the night to rob the Drummond home of its gifts and valuables. When the family awakens early Christmas morning, they are shocked and saddened by the theft. Mr. Drummond explains that they have insurance to cover the missing valuables but Kimberly, Willis and Arnold feel let down by the thieves' lack of holiday spirit.

One thing that wasn't stolen: Arnold's gift for Mr. Jones.

In the afternoon, Arnold reports to work for the last day to collect for the orphans' fund. Mr. Jones listens as Arnold explains what has happened to his family and how they feel about missing out on exchanging gifts. Mr. Jones remarks that whoever stole from the Drummond family must be someone who has great needs. Yet Arnold won't accept this justification--he explains he has known poverty himself and knows the ethical difference between stealing and living without. Despite his frustration, Arnold carries on with his last day at work.

The thief can't steal their holiday spirit.

As Christmas day continues, the family gathers for the holiday meal. They decide to cheer themselves up by discussing what gifts they intended to exchange. Feeling better, they hear the door bell ring to find the Christmas tree, their gifts and valuables being returned to them. This surprise is welcomed by everyone but the robber's behavior is mysterious--who would do this and then change their mind?

The note reveals the location of the household valuables that were taken.

Drummond tells Jones he knows he's a compassionate man.

Not a mystery to Mr. Drummond, we see him take one more visit to see Mr. Jones on Christmas day. Drummond thanks Jones for returning the stolen items and explains that he's offering him a second chance at life to change his ways. He reveals that he won't share his name with the police. A grateful Jones gladly returns to his charity work for the rest of the day.

This yuletide episode offers Arnold a chance to utter a variation on his catchphrase, this time declaring, "Wha-choo talkin' 'bout Santa?"

I remember this uncomplicated holiday story felt satisfying when I was a young viewer. For those not old enough to remember the original run of this sitcom, the series was a TV phenomenon beyond explanation. Young Gary Coleman was a charming, larger-than-life actor that helped popularize this family show, and many other TV projects including TV movies and a Saturday morning cartoon series. I still see t-shirts for sale emblazoned with the Diff'rent Strokes catchphrase "Wha-choo talkin' 'bout Willis?"

Looking back on this series from a 21st century perspective, a wealthy white family adopting two poor black kids from Harlem seems like an incredibly patronizing scenario to base a show upon. I think we can still honor the series for bringing young African-American characters into America's living room each week at a time when it was still all too rare.

Garrett Morris as the down-on-his-luck Santa Claus.

Another reason to remember this episode is the appearance of comedian/actor Garrett Morris as Mr. Jones. His Santa Claus convinces us that Mr. Drummond was right to offer him mercy. You know Morris--he's been on TV and in film quite a bit. Not only has he regularly appeared on Martin, The Jamie Foxx Show, and more recently on 2 Broke Girls, but he was one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live. His outstanding performance of the song "Winter Wonderland" on the 1975 SNL Christmas show is one of the classic sketches that is often repeated each year in their holiday clip show collections. (I wish I could share the video but it's not available.)

Left to right: Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi and Garrett Morris. The "Winter Wonderland" song and dance performance also includes Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Candice Bergen, and Laraine Newman.

How do feel about the fifth season Christmas episode of Diff'rent Strokes?  Got a favorite early 80s sitcom holiday episode? Feel free to share your comments below.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the TV programs mentioned here can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." 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 18, 2018

Top 5 Rankin/Bass Christmas Villains

This essay is a part of the Classic TV Villain Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click HERE to view the complete blogathon schedule. Read the other essays too--they're good!

We just love to hate our favorite villains, don't we? Christmas entertainment is no different. I thought it would be fun to rank everyone's favorite evildoers in Rankin/Bass holiday animation. You know Rankin/Bass--they're the producer/directors of 20 animated Christmas and New Year's classics, among their many projects. They created both cel animation (the traditional style that Saturday morning cartoons were created in) and stop motion animation (the technique they charmingly referred to as "Animagic"). Some of these TV characters are well-known, but I'm hoping I surprise you and stimulate your childhood memories for a couple of these. Is there a Rankin/Bass animated Christmas villain you would add to this list?

Both sing about themselves, "I'm too much!"

#5. The brothers Heat Miser and Snow Miser, from The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

The personification of the natural forces of cold and warmth, the delinquent brothers Heat Miser and Snow Miser are trouble for Mrs. Claus and the elves Jingle and Jangle. The argumentative, name-calling siblings are territorial, petty, jealous, irrational, and uncompromising. When they refuse to cooperate, Mrs. Claus goes straight to their mother--Mother Nature, that is--and tattles on them! These TV villains overshadow the plot of this Christmas special, which concerns itself with the two elves and Mrs. Claus finding someone with enough Christmas spirit that Santa won't cancel Christmas. Who cares, right? TV viewers just want to see more of the crazy, misbehaving Miser brothers.

These two villains are prominent because they are featured in an extremely catchy tune--you know you want to sing along...."I'm Mr. Green Christmas, I'm Mr. Sun..." They also earned their own spin-off animated special, 2008's A Miser Brothers' Christmas. To be fair, you can't really call yourself a fan of these villains until you've seen Harvey Fierstein and Michael McKean play the brothers in the 2006 live-action movie adaption of The Year Without a Santa Claus.

"If that hat is magic, I want it BACK!"

#4. Professor Hinkle, from Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Professor Hinkle is not mentioned in the original lyrics of the song, however this villain was created for the animated TV special as explanation for the snowman's magic hat. If you'll remember, Hinkle is the entertainment for the class Christmas party, described as "the worst magician in the world." When he fails at his magic performance, he throws away his hat which brings Frosty to life--only for Hinkle to re-claim ownership of the hat regardless of the consequences. When the children plead with him to let Frosty live, he refuses and calls them silly. Professor Hinkle's villainy also includes being mean, nasty, and greedy (he sees himself becoming a millionaire magician with the magic hat). He's also relentless in his pursuit of Frosty and Karen on their journey up north for the snowman's comfort and survival.

Villainy, thy name is Hinkle!

Professor Hinkle's most villainous act: he's the one who shuts the greenhouse nursery door on Karen and the snowman, trapping them inside and causing Frosty to melt! Don't worry--Santa Claus comes to the rescue and helps re-freeze Frosty. When Hinkle still wants to claim his hat, taking the life from the snowman, Santa threatens the magician telling him he'll never receive another Christmas present as long as he lives! Whoa. No one wants to be on Santa's naughty list.

NOT Henry Kissinger--it's the Burgermeister Meisterburger.

#3. Burgermeister Meisterburger, from Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970)

The Rankin/Bass Christmas villain with the name most fun to pronounce, the Burgermeister Meisterburger is the mayor of Sombertown who hates toys. Not only is he mean and grouchy, he refuses to help the orphaned baby Claus. When he trips on a rubber duckie on the steps, he breaks his funny bone and outlaws toys for everyone. The Burgermeister Meisterburger is a tyrant, and an abuser of power. His extreme behavior leads him to light a bonfire of a pile of confiscated toys. His villainy is so ruthless, he turns the rebel toymaker Kris Kringle into a local hero.

The despot is palatable in this Christmas special because he's also portrayed as foolish--he keeps stabbing his own broken foot with his cane, and he's ultimately ineffective at his job. His unreasonable hatred for toys also makes this villain seem ridiculous. Has modern medicine figured out how to repair broken funny bones yet?

King of the Kossacks Kubla Kraus.

Rankin/Bass created another tyrant in 1979's Jack Frost.  Kubla Kraus is the nasty, greedy tyrant of January Junction where Jack Frost wants to live. Kraus owns every house, the only horse, all the gold, and he wants Elisa to be his wife--the same woman that inspires Jack Frost to become human. One thing I love about Kubla Kraus is his steampunk styling--he has an iron-works horse and an iron ventriloquist dummy friend. This villain shares much in common with the Burgermeister Meisterburger, including an Eastern European accent and despotism. His name is also fun to repeat over and over.

Yikes! The terrifying Winter Warlock

#2. Winter Warlock, from Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970)

The Winter Warlock is described as a strange hermit of the North who lives alone in his ghostly palace of ice where he practices his spells and incantations. He threatens those who pass through his snowy territory, frightening the Kringle elves from delivering their toys. Years later, when Kris Kringle finally musters his courage to pass through, a wicked tree under Winter's power comes to life and grabs Kris. I still remember how scary the Winter Warlock was when I was a child. If you peek though your fingers while watching, you'll see Kris befriends the warlock, offering his a choo-choo train he's made, melting the evildoer's frozen heart. To cement the warlock's transformation from bad to good, Kris teaches him the song "Put One Foot in Front of the Other" to instruct him to take small steps toward his goals. It's a lesson we can all sing along with.

The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold draws upon Irish folklore to tell its Christmas story.

Rankin/Bass knew a good villain when they created one. You can see echos of the Winter Warlock in the banshee Old Mag the Hag in 1981's The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold. She's an evil fairy in search of gold for Christmas however, she's not as easily put off as Winter. She can only be tamed by failing to acquire the gold by Christmas Eve, or by Saint Patrick himself.

King Winterbolt is part magical being and part tyrant, but ALL villain.
TV viewers can see the influence of the Winter Warlock in the character of King Winterbolt from Rankin/Bass' 1979 theatrical release animated movie Rudolph & Frosty's Christmas in July too. Again, the appearance is similar. King Winterbolt is a tyrannical ruler of the North who destroys or drives away anyone who defies him, by using the magic in his ice scepter. He wants the love children have of Santa Claus for himself, so he sets out to replace Santa on his annual toy delivery. King Winterbolt's sleigh is pulled by a team of snakes. You read that right--snakes! What some villains will do for power!

King Winterbolt also has two dragons under his power to help him create a storm of snow and fog. How cool is that?

Gggrrrhhh! He's kind of like a white, furry King Kong with blue skin.

#1. The Abominable Snow Monster, from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

This may come as no surprise, but Rankin/Bass' number one villain of course, appears in their most popular TV special--and arguably, the most important Christmas TV special of all time. Not only has this TV special aired in prime time on a major network every year since it was created, but it still earns significant ratings each year too. We love to fear the Abominable Snow Monster, or the Bumble as Yukon Cornelius calls him.

What do we know about the Bumble? Nearly all of our information about him comes from the prospector. The Bumble is mean, nasty, and hates everything that has to do with Christmas. He has one weakness: he sinks (or doesn't like to swim). The Bumble prefers pork to deer meat (remember Hermey's lure of oinking like a pig?) And, in the end, we learn that Bumbles bounce.

The strongest of villains require an extraordinary hero to bring them under control.

Twice we see the narrator Sam the Snowman shake in fright from telling the story of the Abominable Snow Monster. Not only is this Christmas villain a scary creature, but he's only overcome once his teeth are removed! I remember this frightened me quite a bit as a child. Are there any other TV villains who are conquered by a wannabe dentist? I'm doubtful.

King Awgwa looks like he could stand to have a few teeth pulled.

Rankin/Bass created a a couple more Christmas villains worth mentioning even if they failed to make the top five list. In 1985's The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus, the Awgwas are described as a villainous group that live in the Rocky Mountains and influence children to do bad things. They can also make themselves invisible. King Awgwa throws a rock through Santa's window with the message "no more toys." Later they use their invisibility to steal toys from Santa, preventing him for delivering them to children.

Christmas monster? yup.

Winter is Here--in 1985 too.

My favorite is the three-eyed one!

As scary and intimidating as they look, these foes are easily defeated when the Immortals battle them on behalf of Santa Claus. To be considered serious villains, the Awgwas need to wage better defenses. Just saying.

Aeon the giant vulture has potential as a TV villain.

And, 1975's Rudolph's Shiny New Year includes the malevolent Aeon the Terrible, a giant vulture that "terrorizes the sands of time." Rudolph is helping Father Time find the baby Happy New Year who has run away because he's hurt by everyone laughing at his protruding ears. But Aeon knows that keeping Happy from ringing in the new year on Dec. 31st will stop time and allow the vulture to live--not just a thousand years--but forever.

He even captures the baby new year twice--but ultimately fails as a convincing Christmas/New Year's villain.

Aeon doesn't make the top five villain list either because he "laughs himself silly," and falls out of his nest and down the cliff when he sees the baby Happy New Year's ears. Rendered helpless, Rudolph is able to rescue the baby and get him to Father Time before midnight. Successful TV villains need to keep their giggling better under control.

Do you have a favorite Rankin/Bass Christmas villain I didn't mention? Be sure to check out the other essays on TV villains in the Classic TV Blog Association blogathon.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the TV programs mentioned here can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." 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

Friday, February 16, 2018

Colorado Christmas: John Denver

You know me. I love visiting Christmas pop culture landmarks and statues. Two weeks ago I traveled to Denver, Colorado to visit a friend and couldn't resist looking for a Christmas pop culture detour. Look what I found!

This sculptural tribute to the memory of singer/songwriter John Denver was easy to find. It stands beside the Colorado Music Hall of Fame museum, just outside Denver.

I can't help but hear "Rocky Mountain High" when looking at this.

accompanying signage.

Make your own "I didn't know he trained eagles!?" joke here.

If you're not quite sure why the Christmas entertainment writer would go out of her way to see a John Denver statue, let me take you to school. The 1979 TV special John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together casts a long shadow.

This TV special debuted on ABC on Dec. 05, 1979. Photo is soundtrack album cover.

Even if it has never been officially released on home video, the soundtrack is easily available and I still hear their version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" on the radio each holiday season. However, there's more: John Denver had three other outstanding holiday TV specials too, including 1975's John Denver's Rocky Mountain Christmas, 1988's John Denver's Christmas in Aspen, and 1991's John Denver: Montana Christmas Skies. He guest starred on other Christmas variety specials too--and he even played the lead in the 1986 TV movie The Christmas Gift. For many fans, John Denver is closely connected to Christmas entertainment.

 The Christmas Gift starring John Denver, Jane Kaczmarek, and young Gennie James.

I decided to step into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame too. Jackpot! They have a large collection of John Denver items on display.

Aaahhh....the 1970s fashions.

John Denver on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine!? Yup.

There was a bust of the artist inside the Hall of Fame too! Colorado likes John Denver.

On display are gold records, personal clothing items, movie memorabilia, one of his guitars, and more. There's even a display about the singer's admiration for the conservationist and explorer Jacques Cousteau. It was pretty cool. And, admission to the museum was free.

Red Rocks Ampitheatre--a favorite music venue of many musicians, including John Denver.
Friends told me to check out Red Rocks Ampitheatre while I was out that way and I was a little worried about finding a second location. What my GPS didn't communicate clearly was that Red Rocks is literally across the street from the museum. I couldn't have missed it.

The list of musicians and bands that have performed here is the history of 20th century popular music. Have YOU seen a performance here before?

My favorite album as a teen: U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky.

As long as they aren't setting up for a concert, the gorgeous outdoor facility is open to the public. So I walked across the road and entered the grounds. There's a fascinating museum with displays on the history of the unique natural ampitheatre too. This place is a must-see destination for music lovers.

Screenshot from the intro to Mork & Mindy.

As I was posting photos of my trip to Colorado on Instagram, friend Big Mike (from Discovery Family's Lost & Found with Mike and Jesse) told me to go find Mork & Mindy's house in Boulder, about 30 miles outside Denver. Uhm...okay! So I did. I placed the street address in my GPS but driving down the road I spotted it immediately. It looks pretty much the same as it did in the late 1970s. It's located in a residential neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado.

Mork & Mindy house--February 2018.

I've written about the two holiday episodes of Mork & Mindy for this website already. Click HERE to see my discussion of the 1978 Christmas episode, and click HERE to see the 1979 Mork & Mindy adaptation of the movie It's a Wonderful Life. Nanu-nanu!

If you'd like to return to any of my previous Christmas pop culture landmark visits, click on the following links:

Perry Como's statue in Canonsburg, PA
Dean Martin's hometown of Steubenville, OH
Rosemary Clooney's home in Augusta, KY
The Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, PA
It's a Wonderful Life Museum in Seneca Falls, NY
Lucille Ball's birthday celebration in Jamestown, NY
A Christmas Story House & Museum in Cleveland, OH

If you've ever visited a Christmas pop culture landmark that you would recommend, let me know. I love to travel. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the TV programs mentioned here can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." 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