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A Few Facts about 4 More Classic Holiday TV Specials

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How many of these shows do you remember, or maybe still watch every year?

1. The Year without a Santa Claus

This 1974 Rankin-Bass favorite was based on a short story by the same name written by Phyllis McGinley that was published in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1956. The piece received such a positive reaction that it was released in book form the following year. In 1968, Capitol Records hired Boris Karloff (who’d had success with his voice work in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas two years earlier) to narrate the story on an album. The LP featured McGinley’s story on the A-side, and a collection of Christmas songs from Capitol’s library on the B-side.

Academy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner Shirley Booth provided the voice of Mrs. Claus in the special and served as the show’s narrator. Press releases at the time stated that Booth had agreed to the project because of her longtime admiration for McGinley’s work, but in truth Booth was smarting from the recent and abrupt cancellation of her new ABC sitcom, A Touch of Grace. Her return to network TV had been ballyhooed in the press, and its getting axed after just 13 episodes was a major blow. Booth was amused by the fact that even though she sings a duet with Mickey Rooney (Santa Claus) in the special, she had never met the actor in person. She’d recorded her portion of the song in New York, he did his in Chicago, and the producers melded the two parts together.

The stand-out “stars” of The Year Without a Santa Claus were, without question, the Heat Miser and Snow Miser, voiced by George S. Irving and Dick Shawn respectively. Despite a long career as a film actor and stand-up comedian, Shawn might well have been remembered most for his voice work as the frosty Snow Miser had it not been for his most unusual death. Shawn was performing a one-man show at U.C. San Diego in April 1987 and had just launched into a routine about politicians and their clichés and campaign promises. Shortly after uttering the line “If elected, I will not lie down on the job” he fell face down on the stage. It was almost a full five minutes before members of the stage crew realized that this was not part of his act; Shawn had suffered a fatal heart attack onstage.

2. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey

If you cried when Bambi was orphaned or when Old Yeller contracted rabies, then avoid Nestor at all costs. There is a scene where Nestor’s mama protects him during a blizzard that puts a complete damper on any feel-goodness that shows up later when the floppy-eared little guy helps a couple find their way to Bethlehem.

Anyway, Nestor started out as a holiday record by Gene Autry, who was hoping to duplicate the success he’d had with “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The record flopped, but Rankin-Bass turned it into one of their Animagic specials. Nestor is a bit of a departure for R-B not only because it features the Nativity scene, but also because the villain isn’t an obvious make-believe monster (like the Abominable Snowman) but scary Roman soldiers.

3. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

This charming special from Jim Henson and his Muppet crew first aired on HBO in 1977, shortly before the Muppets hit the real-big time in their first feature film. The story is somewhat based on O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, with the very poor Otter family (minus Pa, who has gone on to that big river in the sky) wanting to enter a local Christmas talent show. But Ma has to hock Pa’s tool chest in order to buy a dress for the competition, and Emmet has to cut a hole in Ma’s washtub to make an upright bass … Luckily, the up-tempo songs and delightful production design keep the story from drowning in pathos.

Emmet was one of the most ambitious productions Jim Henson’s company had undertaken to date. This was long before CGI was at every animator’s fingertips, so the crew actually constructed a 55-foot-long river that was 10 feet wide across the stage they’d built in a Toronto studio. Emmet’s rowboat was radio-controlled, and some of the Muppets were operated via a brand new contraption Henson’s engineers had devised called a “Waldo.” The Waldo is an electronic telemetric device that the Muppeteer wears like a mitten. Shaped like the character’s head, it allows the wearer to control the puppet’s mouth remotely via radio signals.

4. The Little Drummer Boy

Based on the Katherine Kennicott Davis song by the same name, Rankin-Bass obviously had to flesh out the story to fill up 30 minutes of airtime. So they gave Aaron (the Drummer Boy) a back story: orphaned when his parents were killed by thieves, he was forced to join a circus because his drumming made his animal friends dance. He eventually escapes with his friends—a camel, a sheep and a donkey—and joins up with the Three Wise Men’s caravan to Bethlehem. The sheep is injured along the way, and Aaron asks the newborn baby Jesus to heal him. When the Infant Savior grants his request, appreciative Aaron gives the only gift he has to offer, that of music.

Actress Greer Garson, who’d won an Academy Award for Mrs. Miniver in 1942, narrated this special. The Little Drummer Boy was sponsored by the American Gas Association when it debuted in 1968, so all the bumpers featured “Holiday Wishes from Your Local Gas Company!”

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A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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13 Great Jack Nicholson Quotes
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

Jack Nicholson turns 81 today. Let's celebrate with some of the actor's wit and wisdom.

1. ON ADVICE

"I hate advice unless I'm giving it. I hate giving advice, because people won't take it."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

2. ON REGRETS

"Not that I can think of. I’m sure there are some, but my mind doesn’t go there. When you look at life retrospectively you rarely regret anything that you did, but you might regret things that you didn’t do."

From an interview with The Talks

3. ON DEATH

"I'm Irish. I think about death all the time. Back in the days when I thought of myself as a serious academic writer, I used to think that the only real theme was a fear of death, and that all the other themes were just that same fear, translated into fear of closeness, fear of loneliness, fear of dissolving values. Then I heard old John Huston talking about death. Somebody was quizzing him about the subject, you know, and here he is with the open-heart surgery a few years ago, and the emphysema, but he's bounced back fit as a fiddle, and he's talking about theories of death, and the other fella says, 'Well, great, John, that's great ... but how am I supposed to feel about it when you pass on?' And John says, 'Just treat it as your own.' As for me, I like that line I wrote that, we used in The Border, where I said, 'I just want to do something good before I die.' Isn't that what we all want?"

From an interview with Roger Ebert

4. ON NERVES

''There's a period of time just before you start a movie when you start thinking, I don't know what in the world I'm going to do. It's free-floating anxiety. In my case, though, this is over by lunch the first day of shooting.''

From an interview with The New York Times

5. ON ACTING

"Almost anyone can give a good representative performance when you're unknown. It's just easier. The real pro game of acting is after you're known—to 'un-Jack' that character, in my case, and get the audience to reinvest in a new and specific, fictional person."

From an interview with The Age

6. ON MARRIAGE

"I never had a policy about marriage. I got married very young in life and I always think in all relationships, I've always thought that it's counterproductive to have a theory on that. It's hard enough to get to know yourself and as most of you have probably found, once you get to know two people in tandem it's even more difficult. If it's going to be successful, it's going to have to be very specific and real and immediate so the more ideas you have about it before you start, it seems to me the less likely you are to be successful."

From an interview with About.com

7. ON LYING

“You only lie to two people in your life: your girlfriend and the police. Everybody else you tell the truth to.”

From a 1994 interview with Vanity Fair

8. ON HIS SUNGLASSES

"They're prescription. That's why I wear them. A long time ago, the Middle American in me may have thought it was a bit affected maybe. But the light is very strong in southern California. And once you've experienced negative territory in public life, you begin to accept the notion of shields. I am a person who is trained to look other people in the eye. But I can't look into the eyes of everyone who wants to look into mine; I can't emotionally cope with that kind of volume. Sunglasses are part of my armor."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

9. ON MISCONCEPTIONS

"I think people think I'm more physical than I am, I suppose. I'm not really confrontational. Of course, I have a temper, but that's sort of blown out of proportion."

From an interview with ESPN

10. ON DIRECTING

"I'm a different person when suddenly it's my responsibility. I'm not very inhibited in that way. I would show up [on the set of The Two Jakes] one day, and we'd scouted an orange grove and it had been cut down. You're out in the middle of nowhere and they forget to cast an actor. These are the sort of things I kind of like about directing. Of course, at the time you blow your stack a little bit. ... I'm a Roger Corman baby. Just keep rolling, baby. You've got to get something on there. Maybe it's right. Maybe it's wrong. Maybe you can fix it later. Maybe you can't. You can't imagine the things that come up when you're making a movie where you've got to adjust on the spot."

From an interview with MTV

11. ON ROGER CORMAN

"There's nobody in there, that he didn't, in the most important way support. He was my life blood to whatever I thought I was going to be as a person. And I hope he knows that this is not all hot air. I'm going to cry now."

From the documentary Corman's World

12. ON PLAYING THE JOKER

"This would be the character, whose core—while totally determinate of the part—was the least limiting of any I would ever encounter. This is a more literary way of approaching than I might have had as a kid reading the comics, but you have to get specific. ... He's not wired up the same way. This guy has survived nuclear waste immersion here. Even in my own life, people have said, 'There's nothing sacred to you in the area of humor, Jack. Sometimes, Jack, relax with the humor.' This does not apply to the Joker, in fact, just the opposite. Things even the wildest comics might be afraid to find funny: burning somebody's face into oblivion, destroying a masterpiece in a museum—a subject as an art person even made me a little scared. Not this character. And I love that."

From The Making of Batman

13. ON BASKETBALL

"I've always thought basketball was the best sport, although it wasn't the sport I was best at. It was just the most fun to watch. ... Even as a kid it appealed to me. The basketball players were out at night. They had great overcoats. There was this certain nighttime juvenile-delinquent thing about it that got your blood going."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

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