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The Island of Misfit Christmas Specials

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Holiday TV specials creep into the viewing schedule earlier and earlier each year. My Dad swears that he saw a back-to-back presentation of Yankee Doodle Dandy and A Charlie Brown Christmas last July 4th, but he may have been exaggerating. By cracky, when I was a youngin', Christmas specials never aired before Thanksgiving, and that always made the holiday season seem more special, more"¦.Christmas-y. Some of the stalwarts from my childhood, like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, are still aired today, so let's not dwell on those. But what about those shows that have since been banished to the Island of Misfit Christmas Specials?

1. The House Without a Christmas Tree

treeThe year is 1946 and the setting is the tiny town of Clear River, Nebraska. Addie Mills (Lisa Lucas) is a very bright 10-year-old being raised by her grandmother and father, since her mom died shortly after giving birth to her. Addie's father, James (Jason Robards), is not particularly warm, but he enjoys playing logic games and puzzles with his precocious daughter. Come Christmas time each year, he becomes even more withdrawn and curmudgeonly and refuses (without explanation) to allow a Christmas tree in his home. When Addie wins her classroom's Christmas tree in a "choose a number from"¦" contest, instead of being proud of his daughter's analytical skills, he is furious—not only because he seemingly hates Christmas, but also because of the perceived "charity" aspect of the situation. Even the Grinchiest viewer misted up when tiny Addie dragged the tree to a local orphanage and left it on the front steps with a note from "Santa." The House without a Christmas Tree was filmed like a play on videotape and the overall "look" added to the poignancy of the production.

Let's quickly lighten the mood with a word from our sponsor. We never gave our Dad a Norelco three-headed electric shaver (he was strictly a Schick safety razor man), but this jovial commercial was always a family favorite:

2. Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

One of many embarrassing reminders of what a large part television played in my early development is that day when my fourth grade teacher asked our class during a Christmas-related lesson who said "Bah, humbug!" My hand shot up and I proudly answered "Mr. Magoo!"

United Productions of America (UPA) had been producing Mr. Magoo shorts for several years and was looking to expand into feature-length productions. Christmas TV specials were rare at the time, so the studio pitched the idea of a myopic Magoo reenacting Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Timex came on board as a sponsor, and Broadway veterans Jule Styne and Bob Merrill were tapped to provide the score and lyrics. The result was a hit that was re-aired every holiday season for"¦a few years, until slicker, more elaborate animated specials entered the market, and it became un-PC to find humor in disabilities like Mr. Magoo's near-sightedness.

Time for another commercial break"¦this time featuring a three-year-old Corey Feldman in his very first role. By the way, a 50-cent McDonald's gift certificate may not seem like much now, but back in 1975 it could buy you a hamburger and a small pop (soda to some of you).

3. Amahl and the Night Visitors

No one knew it at the time, but the December 25, 1966, airing on NBC of Amahl and the Night Visitors was the last time Gian Carlo Menotti's made-for-TV opera would ever be broadcast on network television. And, thanks to my second grade music teacher, I was one of those in the viewing audience that night.

amahlJust prior to Christmas break, she instructed us to watch Amahl and the Night Visitors because she would give us a test on it once school resumed. I was banished to the basement to watch it on our old blurry Zenith TV set because my Dad wasn't going to sit through some (profane adjective) opera. All these years later I can still remember specific scenes, like the Three Wise Men knocking at the door of Amahl's house, and he and his mother singing about it for half an hour before finally opening the darned door. Obviously I was too young to appreciate the historical perspective of the show—it was specially commissioned in 1950 by NBC to appeal to their then-target audience. When Amahl first aired in 1951, TV sets were an expensive luxury item, and those who had the disposable income to purchase one were most likely the type to have advanced degrees and who would appreciate "prestige" programming.

Time for another quick break—contrary to urban legend, Coca-Cola didn't invent the present-day image of Santa Claus. They did, however, invent some very catchy tunes.

4. Star Wars Holiday Special

The original Star Wars film was actually an unexpected hit, so in retrospect, it's no surprise that some enterprising TV network would win a bidding war to host a Christmas TV special. Of course, after the show laid a massive ratings goose egg, everyone from George Lucas to Carrie Fisher would first deny the show's existence, then later make elaborate excuses for its suckage.

The Star Wars Holiday Special aired only once in its entirety, on November 17, 1978. Among the many unfortunate choices made by the producers, the storyline focused on Chewbacca and his Wookie family, who could only communicate via weird whiny noises that sounded like an arctic wolf being shot from a helicopter. Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur and Diahann Carroll were the special guest stars. The actual stars of the film made what could best be described as a cameo appearance, during which Carrie Fisher sang a heartfelt "Happy Life Day" to the tune of the Star Wars theme song.

Before we depart, let's transport to a happier time, when you could purchase a Michael Jackson talking ViewMaster thingie for just under $30.

Happy holidays to all, and all please chime in with your Christmas TV memories!


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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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