Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Christmas Toy

Premiered December 6, 1986.

On Christmas Eve, a toy tiger named Rugby (Dave Goelz) remembers last Christmas.

He was the favorite toy of a little girl named Jamie (Marsha Moreau).  He recalls how excited she was when she opened a present to find Rugby inside.  He presumes that will happen again and tries to get from the playroom down to the living room, aided by Mew (Steve Whitmire) the catnip mouse, who belongs to the family cat.

Jamie meets Rugby for the first time the preceding Christmas
The other toys excitedly prepare to receive new members into their little community and want to make the incoming toys feel welcome.

Belmot the Rocking Horse (Richard Hunt),  Balthazar the Teddy Bear (Jerry Nelson) and Apple the Doll get ready to welcome new toys to the playroom. 
A doll named Apple (Kathryn Mullen) tries to explain to Rugby that he is confused about Christmas.  Jamie will open up a new toy on Christmas morning that will likely take Rugby's place as her favorite.  Rugby doesn't believe her and leaves the playroom, determined to take what he sees as his rightful place under the family Christmas tree.  Mew follows him to try to help.

When toys are caught out of place, they are "frozen forever".
The problem is, if toys are ever found out of position by humans, they will be "frozen" and no longer able to talk to other toys or move on their own volition.  Rugby and Mew have some close encounters with humans en route to the Christmas tree in the living room.

Rugby hides in some laundry so he isn't found out of place
Rugby finds a big box and prepares to get inside.  He opens the lid and finds that the box contains a doll --  Meteora, Queen of the Asteroids (Camille Bonora)!  She does not realize she is a toy and believes she's arrived on a new planet, seeing the other toys as aliens.
Meteora, Queen of the Asteroids!   Conqueror of the living room. 
She also seems unwilling to get back into her box!

Apple and a couple of the other toys from the playroom decide to mount a rescue mission for their missing comrades.

Did someone wake up and hear them? 
Will all the toys make it back to the playroom?   Will Meteora usurp Rugby as the new favorite Christmas toy?

RigbyMel says:

This under-appreciated special features cute, beautiful puppets from the Henson workshop and an entertaining storyline.   The plot bears a similarity to a certain Pixar movie that was made a few years later,  but  the two are not carbon copies and there is certainly room for both stories!

I first discovered The Christmas Toy on VHS in the late 1980s and it quickly became regular viewing for my family around the holidays.    I think that Rugby and Mew are utterly adorable without being cloying.   I particularly enjoy some of the small touches that the Muppeteers include in this special - such as Rugby's mild vanity and cat like grooming and the fact that Mew uses some tricks he learned from the family cat to help them out of a jam or two.   (Also, the fact that the mouse is named "Mew" makes perfect sense as he is a cat's toy!)

Rugby and Apple underneath the Christmas tree trying to figure out how to return Meteora to her gift box.
There's also a nice little lesson about tolerance (cat toy vs. people toys) and love embedded in this special without it clonking people over the head with The Message.

If there is anything to criticize, I think it is Meteora herself -- we are not really given much of a chance to get to know her, but then again, it isn't really her story.  There is also an element of darkness to the tale what with the impiled "death" of toys who are caught out of place, but without tension, we do not have much plot and there is a happy ending (of course) which keeps this from being too scary.

This is a charming special from the Henson workshop and is definitely well worth seeking out.   There is a version of it that is available on DVD, but be aware that it is a bit edited.

RigbyMel's rating:

3 and a half candy canes.

J.A. Morris says:

The Christmas Toy is another good holiday special from Henson's crew.

Baltazar tells the toys that more toys will joining them at Christmas.
Rugby is a very cute and likable protagonist (even when he's acting self-centered in the beginning) and his relationship with Mew is endearing.  The scene where Jamie opens the box containing Rugby brought back my own memories of one or two extra special toys I received as a child.

Dave Goelz (best known for performing Gonzo) does a nice job as the "lead" Muppet in this special.  Other regular Muppet performers like Nelson, Mullen, Whitmire and Hunt are good as usual.

RigbyMel mentioned the acceptance subplot.  We also get a good scene where Rugby mourns a friend who has been frozen.  Rugby regrets that he never told his friend how much he loved him.  This can serve as a lesson to viewers of all ages to make sure that we tell people how we feel about them.

Mew convincingly imitates the cat's meow!
The Christmas Toy features several new songs, written by Jeff Moss.  His name might not be familiar, but Moss wrote many songs featured on Sesame Street, including "Rubber Duckie", "I Love Trash" and "The People In Your Neighborhood."  Moss also served as the show's head writer and helped create Cookie Monster.  Moss' best song here is "Together At Christmas".   It's a touching Christmas song that expresses the joy of being with loved ones during the holiday season.  It's a shame it was never recorded by a famous singer, because it deserves to be better known.  The song pops up a year later in A Muppet Family Christmas, so I get the feeling Henson liked it.  

The DVD that's currently available is different than the version that aired on TV and VHS.  In its original form, The Christmas Toy was introduced by Kermit the frog (Henson) and Kermit made an appearance at the end where he joined the toys to sing "Together At Christmas."  Kermit is currently owned by Disney, while the rest of the characters in the special are still owned by the Henson company.

Kermit sings & dances with Rugby & friends.
The Christmas Toy isn't the best Muppets Christmas special, but it's touching, funny and features a memorable holiday song.  Maybe someday Kermit will be freed from the corporate tentacles and the special will once again be available intact as Henson intended.

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 and a half candy canes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Shirley Temple Show-"Babes In Toyland"

Thanks to Joanna Wilson of Christmas TV History for today's guest review.  Joanna has written multiple books about Christmas television and film. Any of her books would make a nice Christmas gift for holiday TV fans.  Her most recent book is called A  Is For Akron, an A to Z list of things to see & do in Akron, OH.  Joanna has been a friend and inspiration to this blog for years.

Yes - THAT Shirley Temple had a TV show! 
Christmas is certainly a time of nostalgia.  Most of us reflect back to simpler times, especially to our childhoods, when Christmas was still filled with fantasy, magic, and life lived at a slower pace.  With this in mind, I'd like to share about an often overlooked Christmas episode of the TV anthology series Shirley Temple's Storybook.  The 1960 episode "Babes in Toyland" was created during the second season after the series had changed its name to The Shirley Temple Show--but it's the same series.  Most installments of the family-friendly series were a re-telling of popular fairy tales or children's literary classics. "Babes in Toyland" however is an hour-long adaptation of the 1903 operetta by Victor Herbert.

In this 1960 episode, a now grown Shirley Temple introduces and narrates the story accompanied by her own children.
Left to right:  Charlie Black, Jr., Lori, and Linda Susan.
The 1960 TV adaptation is a comedy version of Babes in Toyland and is loaded with music and dancing.  The story is a familiar one--youngsters Alan and Jane are being looked after by their mean and nasty Uncle Barnaby who wants to cash-in on the children's generous inheritance.  Barnaby decides he desires their money sooner, rather than later, and hires three cutthroat thieves to set the innocent children adrift in a leaky boat.

Uncle Barnaby (Jonathan Winters) is a greedy, nasty man.  However, Winters' comedy style of mugging for the camera deflects a great deal of  what could potentially be a frightening story. 
The adventure story continues when the children survive the open seas and wash up on nearby shores.  Alan and Jane are discovered by the gypsy witch Floretta and find themselves among friends with the band of dancing gypsies. That is, until Floretta sells knowledge of the children's whereabouts to Uncle Barnaby.  Alan and Jane escape and run into the frightening Spider Forest, eventually entering Meantown.

Jane and Alan (foreground) arrive at the gypsy camp where there is much dancing and merrymaking.
Jane and Alan are jailed in Meantown, accused of the crimes of smiling, niceness, and kindness!
The nasty residents of Meantown find a way to jail the youngsters in the center of town.  Once again, Alan and Jane escape just one step ahead of Floretta, Uncle Barnaby, and his three bumbling henchmen.  The next stop on Alan and Jane's flight is the kingdom of Toyland, where all the toys for Christmas are made.  The children feel happy and safe amongst the land of the dancing toys and ask the royal Master Toymaker if they can stay forever.

To avoid being recognized by Uncle Barnaby, the children hide in plain sight as a dancing ballerina and wooden toy soldier during the Toyland Parade. 
The king likes the children, however Floretta, Uncle Barnaby, and his minions arrive in Toyland to take Alan and Jane back home.  In the end, the Master Toymaker and the gypsy witch stand up for the children and Uncle Barnaby's evil scheme is thwarted.

In the end, the cast gathers to sing "Toyland," the most recognizable and still popular song from the original operetta. 
You may already be familiar with other filmed adaptations of the operetta Babes in Toyland.  The most noteworthy include the 1934 movie starring comedians Laurel & Hardy which has since been re-issued under the title March of the Wooden Soldiers. Walt Disney created his own version in 1961 starring Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands. Let's not forget the surreal 1986 TV movie version starring Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves. And, in 1997 an animated version was created featuring the voice talents of Jim Belushi, Lacey Chabert, Christopher Plummer, and Charles Nelson Reilly.  Most of the adaptations alter the story quite a bit from the original plot.  However, I think the best adaptations are the ones that feature the original music by Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough.

While imprisoned in Meantown, Jane sings "Go To Sleep, Slumber Deep,"  to her brother Alan,  another song from the operetta. 
Shirley Temple's "Babes in Toyland" features the best of the original Herbert compositions including "Toyland," "Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep," "I Can't Do the Sum," and "March of the Toys."  In addition to these familiar Babes in Toyland tunes, the 1960 episode features numerous shorter musical performances.  This is an asset in an hour long program which allows for more performances to be included while preventing slow, drawn out segments.  The program also squeezes in two major dance sequences--the gypsy camp scene and the Toyland parade at the end--which makes this Christmas TV variety program even more entertaining. 

Can you recognize Shirley Temple under the fake nose and chin, gray wig and kercheif, and long pointy finger nails?  She's Floretta, the gypsy witch.
Recognize these comedic actors' faces?  Left to right:Joe Besser, Jerry Colonna, Carle Ballantine.  Center is Jonathan Winters, of course.
Even if you're not already familiar with the music from Babes in Toyland, you will be impressed with the stellar ensemble cast in this 1960 musical comedy.  Not only does Hollywood icon Shirley Temple introduce and narrate this adventure story, but she also stars in it as Floretta, the fortune-telling gypsy witch.  The evil Uncle Barnaby is played by Jonathan Winters.  The three bumbling cutthroats--Gonzales, Gonzorgo, and Rodrigo--are played by Jerry Colonna, Carl Ballantine, and Joe Besser, respectively.  And, the children, Alan and Jane, are played by Michel Petit and Angela Cartwright.

Jane and Alan lost in the Spider Forest.  Jane is played by actress Angela Cartwright, who was also on The Danny Thomas Show in 1960.  Later, she would appear in the TV series Lost In Space--and sing in the movie musical The Sound Of Music.
An added bonus--keen viewers may be able to spot animatronic fantasy figures--just like the kind that used to fill department store window displays at Christmas time--in the background of the Toyland scenes.
In addition to the music, dancing, and amazing cast, I think 1960's Babes in Toyland has something else going for it. The production was staged live which means the camera captures the authentic performances as they occur--and a few unpredictable moments as well. For example, the boat scene includes Petit nearly knocking over the ship's mast to which he is bound.  You can also see the boom microphone above the actors' heads in several shots. Although the camera moves a bit more slowly than we are used to, and the sets are often flat backdrops, I'm still caught up in the fantasy and adventure of the storytelling and music.  I love the more simple production values of this 1960 TV episode.  The lack of CGI elements isn't a weakness but rather its strength--a reminder of simpler times when entertainment included the viewers' imagination.  At Christmas time when I want to feel nostalgic, it's comforting to watch a program that also makes me feel nostalgic for quality Christmas entertainment.

Yes--Babes in Toyland is available for viewing on DVD.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Announcing Christmas Muppetfest 2014!

We've mentioned before that we grew up the 1970s and early 80s.

Emmet Otter shows off his new Christmas Branch.
This means that the Muppets were a major part of our childhood.  Sesame Street, The  Muppet Show, various movies and tv specials of that era featured Jim Henson's wonderful creations.
Mr. Hooper brings Christmas gifts for Ernie & Bert.
The Muppets also appeared in quite a few Christmas specials and movies as well.  We've reviewed some Muppet programming, but haven't featured any of their Yule-themed offerings...until now!

The cast of Sesame Street at the time of Christmas Eve On Sesame Street
During the past two Decembers, we focused on adaptations of A Christmas Carol.  This holiday season we will feature reviews of several of the Muppets' holiday film and tv appearances.

Michael Caine as Scrooge with the Muppets in A Muppet Christmas Carol.
We will start our Muppets Christmas tribute at the beginning...or at least the earliest that's readily available.

The Muppets first came to fame through appearances on variety shows in the 1960s.  They were featured frequently the Ed Sullivan Show appearing more than 20 times, including two of Sullivan's Christmas episodes.

December 24 1967:

Santa, played by Arthur Godfrey, is at the North Pole, getting ready to deliver toys.  He's singing a song called "It's Christmas Tomorrow" when several monsters show up.  Their leader Thudge (Jim Henson) tells Santa they are "a bunch of thugs, crooks and burglers."  They tell Santa they've come to steal toys.

Santa says they can't do that, because he is giving these toys to the monsters.  The would-be thieves are moved to tears by Santa's generosity.  The sketch ends with the monsters joining Mr. Claus for a song.

It's interesting to note that the Muppet monster Gleep would later change color and morph into Grover.

Santa with Gleep
A year later, the Muppets returned for another Christmas musical number.
"Christmas Reindeer" premiered Dec 22 1968.

Dasher (Henson), the boss reindeer says they have a problem -- it's 3 days before Christmas and it hasn't snowed yet.

The other reindeer respond with bad jokes and worse puns about snow and references to Christmas songs.  Finally, one of the reindeer mentions that Indians perform rain dances and suggests they should do a snow dance...

...which makes it rain!

Eventually, we get a happy ending.  The Christmas snow arrives and the reindeer sing a happy song called "It's Christmas Time And We Need Snow." One of the reindeer has a voice that sounds very similar to that of Fozzie Bear, right down to telling silly jokes.  Of course the reindeer is voiced by the great Frank Oz, who would later perform Fozzie.

Immediately after the sketch, Henson makes a rare on-screen appearance.

These sketches can be found two dvds:  one titled A Classic Christmas-The Ed Sullivan Show, and another DVD called Muppets Magic from the Ed Sullivan Show, which is out of print (and VERY expensive).

These two sketches are less than five minutes each, so we won't apply our usual "Candy Cane" ratings in this case.  However, both are well worth seeking out if you're a fan of Henson and the Muppets.

We be back soon with more Muppet-themed reviews!

J.A. and RigbyMel

Monday, December 8, 2014

A tribute to Jan Hooks and how she made the Holiday Season more enjoyable

Jan Hooks passed away in October of this year.  I was sad when I heard about this, she was part of one of the strongest eras of Saturday Night Live.  Hooks was rarely the star of the sketches, but she always made an impression.

When I heard about her death, the first thing I thought of was Hooks' role as Candy Sweeney, one half of the Sweeney Sisters lounge singing duo.  The equally funny Nora Dunn played Candy's sister Liz.
L-R:Nora Dunn and Hooks as the Sweeney Sisters.
The Sweeneys were featured in 10 sketches over the years.  But for me, their best performance aired on December 20, 1986.  

A still from the Sweeney Sisters Christmas sketch.
Candy is hosting a Christmas party, when Liz walks in with a man named Roger (played by host William Shatner).  They announce their engagement.  Everyone offers congratulatory applause, then one of the party guests yells out "how 'bout a medley?"  Liz and Candy indulge them with a medley of Christmas songs.  The highpoint comes when they segue from their signature number "The Trolley Song" into "The Carol Of The Bells."   Here's the Christmas party sketch, sorry it's a bit grainy:


I taped this episode back when it first aired 28 Christmases ago.  I played it every Holiday season for years after that (I think my family had their fill after a few years!).  Sadly, probably due to song copyright issues, this sketch has never been released on home video.  But I stumbled on that old tape a few Christmases back and it's still makes me laugh.

And as a "bonus" clip, here's Hooks and other cast members singing in another holiday-themed sketch (from December 15, 1990), a commercial for the 'Dysfunctional Family Christmas' album:

Saturday Night Live: "Dysfunctional Family... by felipekusnitzki

For me, it's not really the Christmas season until I hear the Sweeney's Christmas Medley!  R.I.P. Jan Hooks, thanks for making Christmas a little more fun every year since '86.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Some trivia about A Charlie Brown Christmas

Premiered December 9, 1965.

We haven't reviewed A Charlie Brown Christmas because we didn't know if there was much else to be said about it.  It's a wonderful story with classic music from the Vince Guaraldi Trio, the animation still looks great and and the voice actors are all perfectly cast.  You know the story, so what's the point in summarizing it.  

This is the 50th Christmas season that A Charlie Brown Christmas will be shown on tv.  

But here's something you may not have noticed before.  I didn't notice it until last year and I've watched it more than 30 times and owned the special on vhs and dvd for years.  

At the end of the A Charlie Brown Christmas, all the kids gather around the decorated tree.  

From left to right, you'll see 3 and 4 (the twin girls in purple), Sally, Snoopy, Lucy, Freida, Linus, Pigpen and Schroeder.  In the back row, 5 is the kid in a blue coat, followed by Violet, Shermy and Patty (who should not be confused with Peppermint Patty, she hadn't been introduced yet).  5 is wearing a blue coat, Shermy is in orange. 

Fast-forwarding a few seconds, the kids start singing 'Hark, The Herald Angels Sing':

Now we've got two kids in blue!  What happened?  Now there are two 5s.  Or are there two Shermys?  Or Shermy is wearing a magic coat that changes colors?  Looks like somebody goofed. 

Since we're discussing 5:

5 first appeared in the Peanuts comic strip in Septmber of 1963.  His full name is 555 95472.  The last five digits are his last name, and that was also Charles Schulz' zip code at the time.  5 says that his father was "disturbed by all the numbers being put on us these days, so he changed our name to numbers."

His sisters 3 and 4 were introduced two weeks later.  These characters are relatively obscure, but they were immortalized in this special's dance scene.

5 and 4 (or is it 3?) show off their dance moves.
You may have noticed that A Charlie Brown Christmas ends somewhat abruptly.  The kids don't even get to finish their song.  That's because an ad for Coca-Cola originally ran during the closing credits.  This was edited out of later telecasts when Coke was no long the sponsor.  Here's the way it ended when it aired back in 1965:


A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the best Christmas specials of all time and it's a good today as it was when it premiered decades ago. 
J.A. Morris and RigbyMel's rating:

4 candy canes.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Classic Christmas movies on the big screen!

Miracle On 34th Street screens today at Richmond's Byrd Theatre!

This is the time of year when many of the classic Christmas films show up on tv.  It's A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol (various adaptations), A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation and modern classics like Elf are all over the cable schedules and dvd/blu-ray release calendar.  Of course holiday fanatics like us can't get enough of these movies.

But as much as we enjoy watching at home, nothing compares to seeing these films in a theater with an adoring crowd.  Here in Richmond, we're lucky to have several opportunities this holiday season to do this.

Last year, the historic Byrd Theatre hosted a charity screening of White Christmas.  It was exciting and touching to hear the multi-generational crowd singing along with the film and clapping at the end.

Interior of the Byrd Theatre.  Richmond's movie palace opened on Christmas Eve, 1928.
Today, we're getting another classic Christmas movie at the Byrd!  Miracle On 34th Street will be shown at 1:30, proceeds will benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, with Natalie Wood and Maureen O'Hara.

The Byrd will also continue its tradition of showing It's A Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

But these holiday movie events aren't just limited to our city.

On December 7, select theaters nationwide will be showing a Double Feature of Christmas In Connecticut and the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol.  Check here to see if this event will be showing in your area.

And a week later, White Christmas celebrates its 60th anniversary by returning to theaters!  It will be shown on December 14th and 15th, look for tickets here!

So if you've always wanted to see these classic movies in the theater, we recommend you take advantage of this opportunity.