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Oral History: Punky Brewster's Refrigerator Danger

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Like a pint-sized version of the search to find Scarlett O’Hara for 1939’s Gone with the Wind, they came by the hundreds—a steady stream of little girls flooding casting calls in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Be elfin, precocious, hit your cues, and you might wind up the star of a new primetime kids’ show on NBC titled Punky Brewster.

The story of an 8-year-old orphan abandoned by her mother and found by a cantankerous old apartment manager, Punky Brewster was not conventional network television fare. Paired with Silver Spoons in the fall of 1984, it was created to help satisfy a Federal Communications Commission mandate that early-evening programming be either news-oriented (60 Minutes) or somewhat educational. As a result, Punky’s adventures often involved the perils of sleeping pill addiction, missing kids on milk cartons, child molestation, or a rampaging serial killer. Barney this was not. 

Of Punky’s several run-ins with mortality, it was a second-season episode that aired on January 19, 1986 that stands as her most memorable. Titled “Cherie Lifesaver,” it involved a small child nearly suffocating to death in an abandoned refrigerator.

Laced with the show's surprising morbidity, it stands as a near-perfect example of the producers' ambition to inform their viewers—in this case, the rules of proper CPR technique—while disguising itself as a Grimm's Fairy Tale for a 1980s audience.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Punky’s infamous fridge incident, mental_floss asked some of the show's cast and crew to reminisce about what some fans came to view as a 24-minute mini-horror film about a dangerous antique appliance. Unlike most Internet references-to-be, this one was responsible for saving a life. 

I. PUNKY POWER

NBC

During the 1980s, NBC President Brandon Tartikoff had assembled a primetime schedule that had taken the network from last place to first: Cheers, Family Ties, Knight Rider, and Miami Vice had all been championed by the executive. Appointed at 32, he was the youngest network head in history.

Realizing that CBS’s long-running 60 Minutes was going to dominate ratings among adults in its 7 p.m. Sunday slot, Tartikoff decided to pursue another demographic: young children who had no interest in Andy Rooney. He approached Silver Spoons executive producer David Duclon and asked him to create a show that could be paired with the Ricky Schroder comedy. Tartikoff’s only suggestion was that the lead character be named after a teacher’s daughter, Peyton “Punky” Brewster, that he once knew in prep school. The rest was up to Duclon.

Rick Hawkins (Producer): It was really one of the first primetime shows geared especially toward children, and revolutionary for its time. This was the Reagan era of glamour, and David was a little like Charles Dickens, trying to show a different side of America from a kid’s point of view. From NBC’s perspective, dealing with the idea of an abandoned child—you know, that’s not a barrel of laughs.

Art Dielhenn (Director): I was an associate director on the pilot, which was directed by Jack Shea. He was busy with Silver Spoons. When it got picked up, David asked me to stay on. You’ve got one adult, a bunch of kids, and a dog. That’s challenging.

Hawkins: I think the premise came out of an actual story David read about a child who had been abandoned and left in the parking lot of a grocery store or mall. I think that kids have a primal fear of being left alone or losing their parents, but at the same time, it’s also what they long for. It’s why so many fairy tales are about being lost in the woods, and it’s why every Disney Channel show has kids missing parents or raising themselves.

Gene Doucette (Costume Designer): Punky, she was supposed to be a ray of sunshine. The main concept I got right off the bat, being as childlike as I was and am, is that grown-ups say “Why?” and kids say “Why not?” Where grown-ups wouldn’t put purple next to gold, kids use all of the colors in a 100-crayon box. A perfect example of that was [in the script] when someone asked her why she was wearing two different shoes, and she said “Why not? I have two different feet.”

Hawkins: Tartikoff said, “I want to do the kind of show I remember from my childhood.”

Cheryl Alu (Staff Writer): I remember early on TV Guide did a cover of Punky Brewster. It showed Punky reaching over Henry's shoulders and putting her fingers at the edges of his mouth, as if to make him smile. David Duclon felt this was, in a nutshell, the essence of the show. A little girl showing an old grouch how to find joy in life.

Dielhenn: When we started the casting process, it was very challenging. The character was written as so vibrant, so spunky, that you started to doubt the notion we could find an 8-year-old to pull it off. When Soleil came in, we realized we had found the impossible.

“Soleil” was Soleil Moon Frye, a 7-year-old neophyte actress who had been spotted by a casting director while visiting her older brother, Meeno Peluce, on the set of his NBC series Voyagers!. Frye was selected out of 1000 girls who auditioned for the title role.

Cherie Johnson (“Cherie Johnson”): Soleil and I actually went in together. I guess it was a chemistry read. I met her in the waiting room for the first audition. Being 6 years old, you meet a girl, and you’re friends already. To me, the show was just playing with my friend.

Dielhenn: Jack Shea and I were in the control booth when Soleil was testing. We both looked at each other and said, “Uh-huh.”

Soleil Moon Frye (via E!, 2000): Coming up in the elevator [to the audition], another little girl gets in and says “Don’t bother, I already got it.” I said, “No way, I’m going up there.”

Hawkins: Soleil was really gifted and had a great parental support system. They weren’t interested in her being a celebrity. They wanted her to have a normal life, and she was really grounded as a result.

Johnson: There was none of the child stigma stuff. Our stage manager would give money to whoever could stay on a Pogo stick the longest. We drove carts over to Johnny Carson’s studio. That was the hottest show. Cyndi Lauper let us on her bus. I think Johnny hated us.

Doucette: Before we shot the pilot, I was shown pictures of Soleil. What I did was go out and shop for some things, had sleeves cut off, dyed different colors, bought pins, came up with how she would wear her jeans, then presented it to producers. “This is where I want to go with Punky,” and they said yes to everything.

Johnson: David Duclon is my uncle. He was a lot like my father growing up. He created the show, but not for me to have a job. He just thought he’d use my name and that I’d be thrilled. I had a different idea. “Cool, my name is in it. When do we go to work?” He said he needed a real actress. After seven auditions, NBC finally said, “Give your niece the job.”

Hawkins: One of the interesting aspects of the series was that Punky’s best friend, Cherie, was African American, and no big deal was made about it. It wasn’t an issue. In the '80s, you had black shows or white shows or Spanish shows. I can’t think of another series where the lead and lead’s best friend were different ethnicities and it wasn’t addressed.

Doucette: We were about to go on camera. I don’t know what caused me to do [the bandana on the knee], I just did it. Or maybe what made me do that was that I think I was listening to the radio, one of Willie Nelson's songs came on ... And I thought, “I have to get a bandana on her.” It was one more little statement, living her life basically on the road.

Dielhenn: We were going to air starting Sunday night after football, which was interesting. For the first six episodes, we did two-part segments, each 12 minutes long. If football ran long, they could start with a shorter episode.

Hawkins: That way, the kids could still see an entire episode and the network could continue the rest of the night’s programming. It was pretty unusual.

Doucette: When we shot the pilot, they were about to trim her bangs. I said, “No, no, you can’t give her perfect little bangs.” The character had to do her hair by herself. She hadn’t been adopted yet.

Hawkins: I remember we got the real Punky Brewster to do a walk-on. I don’t know where her nickname came from. I think our Punky’s first name was Penelope, and if that’s your name, you’d welcome a change. It sounds like an aunt with stockings rolled up to her knees.

Doucette: Each time we got a script, I was there all night at NBC ordering pizza, sitting in the office and hand-painting [mismatched] shoes. Casey [Ellison], the boy [who played Allen Anderson], used to hide in my wardrobe room and play with cars and robots because he was surrounded by girls all the time.

Johnson: We ganged up on Casey. We picked on him.

Punky Brewster premiered on September 16, 1984, with a three-part story that saw the character squatting in an empty apartment with her dog, Brandon, before being discovered by Henry Warnimont (George Gaynes), the building’s superintendent. Eventually, Punky is adopted by the curmudgeonly Henry and proceeds to use her Technicolor charm to navigate some distressing subject matter. Quickly, Punky Brewster became synonymous with “Very Special Episode.”

Hawkins: All of this color and childlike humor was to balance out some of the darker aspects of the storytelling.

Dielhenn: I won the Scott Newman [anti-drug foundation] Award for the “Just Say No” drug episode with Nancy Reagan. A lot of those choices were made in the writing room. In directing, it was about, "How do you play against this intensity so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming?"

Hawkins: We did an episode where she gets lost in a cave, some scary supernatural stuff, and we found early on it didn’t work for the world of the series. It was grounded in reality. She didn’t have superpowers. She talked about Punky Power, but that was the positive energy she had, a belief in herself and her abilities.

Johnson: Soleil and I were watching when the [Space Shuttle Challenger] exploded [in 1986]. Soleil really wanted to be an astronaut. I remember they got Buzz Aldrin to be on the show.

Hawkins: The drug episode, the child molester—there was nothing going on in the world we didn’t address.

Johnson: Shooting it, we were never upset. Even the episode where my [on-screen] mom died, David was like, “I’ll give you $20 and take you to 7-11 if you cry.”

II. A CHILLY RECEPTION

By the end of its freshman season, Punky Brewster had finished in 64th place in the Nielsen ratings. It wasn’t a spectacular debut, but the show still managed to captivate kids ages 2 through 11. If they were tuned into television at 7:30 p.m. on Sundays, they were almost certainly watching Punky. If not, they were busy writing to her: The show received up to 10,000 letters a week.

Hawkins: We would get tons of fan mail, tons of kids writing to Punky asking for her advice or sending pictures.

Johnson: We’d get letters from jail. Those would get confiscated.

Doucette: Every letter was looked at and talked about. Kids came to trust Punky. They learned they could confide in her. Fortunately, but also unfortunately, we had hundreds of letters from kids who had no one else to tell they were being abused, hurt, sexually assaulted. So they wrote to Punky. All of those letters were turned over to the proper authorities, all taken care of by the main production office, so authorities could possibly investigate and find a way to help kids.

Hawkins: A lot of times, kids would talk about what they wanted to see Punky do. I’m pretty sure the idea came from David to have a contest and get kids to submit an idea. We’d pick one and build a story around it.

To engage viewers and promote the second season, the series aired a call for story submissions in September 1985. Kids had until October 20 to submit a premise for an episode, with the winner being flown out with their family on an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood. It was this appeal to viewers that would eventually lead to the show’s famous encounter with a refrigerator.

Hawkins: That turned out to be one of our most memorable episodes, yes.

Jeremy Reams (Contest Winner): There was an ad on the show. “Hey, send us your ideas!” That kind of thing. I was 7, and my sister was a couple of years older, and we watched the show religiously. She wanted to do it, and I’m the little brother, so I wanted to do it, too. So we sat at the kitchen table and thought about it.

Hawkins: It got kids into the process of finding ways to be creative themselves. It was about child empowerment in a world where, when you’re a kid, you have no control whatsoever.

Reams: My idea was, they learned about CPR in school. Then they’d get off the bus, and they’d see an elderly woman or someone who needed it. The fridge was just how they presented it.

Hawkins: That came out of research we had done where we learned an alarming number of kids had suffocated in an old fridge or freezer. The government had passed laws as early as the late 1950s to ban manufacturing a fridge you couldn’t open from the inside. But in low economic neighborhoods, the old ones were being tossed out in vacant lots. They lasted forever.

Reams: It was a long time before we heard anything, maybe a few months. I remember my dad answered the phone. It was like, “Remember that contest? Well, you won. We’re going to California.”

Dielhenn: I only vaguely recall the refrigerator. I don’t know whose idea it was.

Hawkins: You were just putting two and two together. If you’re going to teach CPR, where’s the story? Who’s going to need CPR? We didn’t want it to be Henry or Brandon.

Johnson: I don’t think there was anyone else. From the time I got the script, it was, “Hop in the fridge.”

Writer Stephanie Mathison is credited for “Cherie Lifesaver,” which involves Punky and friend Margaux (Ami Foster-DeFries) taking a hands-on CPR class from teacher Mr. Fulton (T.K. Carter). It’s a lesson that proves invaluable after Henry throws away his ancient refrigerator, which Cherie climbs into during a potentially deadly game of hide-and-seek. 

Hawkins: You want a fun fact? When we were looking to cast the teacher, we wanted someone dynamic and fun, a strong male influence for Punky. Jim Carrey auditioned. But it was almost a comic mania. It wasn’t quite suited for children.

Dielhenn: I remember, from a production standpoint, having to figure out how to make sure she was safe inside the fridge while still making it seem real.  

Johnson: The first time we tried it, we were using an oxygen mask and I had only so much time I could stay in there. Everyone was so afraid, but I loved it. It was like doing my own stunt.

Reams: When we went to watch the shoot, I remember seeing the fridge and going, “Wait, that wasn’t my idea. That’s not how I saw it going down."

Johnson: Eventually, David couldn’t take it. I was like, “No, I’m cool, I’m okay.” They wound up taking the back of the fridge off.

Doucette: We did approach major problems throughout the series that kids face, the dangers out in the world. 

Johnson: We had rehearsal and then we taped in front of a live audience. Kids were screaming, “Oh, no! Get her out!”

Hawkins: That show aired and the best reward I ever got was a phone call we got the next Monday afternoon. A woman from the Midwest called to say her husband worked for the power company, had been electrocuted on the line, and had fallen to the ground just as some kids were getting off the bus. They had seen the episode, ran over, gave him CPR, and saved his life.

Doucette: The fridge was handled delicately. Instead of kids living in fear, it was more about teaching kids to be careful what you do.

Reams: I had a little part at the beginning of the show. They had me sitting on the couch introducing it. “This is Jeremy Reams, he’s our contest winner.” Then the dog came over for 15 seconds or whatever.

Johnson: That dog was more professional than some veteran actors I’ve worked with.

Dielhenn: The dog was great. The trainers were great. He was named Brandon after Brandon Tartikoff.

Johnson: The dog had one double, a female named Brandy. I thought it was just those two, but later on someone told me there was one who passed away and they didn’t tell us so we wouldn’t get upset. Like how you’d replace a fish.

Reams: My class knew I was going to be on the show, but I moved away later on and no one knew about it until we took a spring break trip. Someone was in another hotel room. I guess they were watching a rerun. They said, “Is that you?” It’s never really come up since. It’s not really how you impress people.

III. PUNKY POWERS DOWN

By the end of its second season, Punky Brewster had failed to improve its standing in the ratings. While it was well-received by its juvenile audience, that wasn’t enough to sustain the expense of a primetime series.   

Hawkins: The expectation was never for us to beat 60 Minutes in the ratings. Everyone was really realistic. We had a lot of episodes planned.

Dielhenn: NBC liked us, the audience liked us. It seemed like we were positioned accordingly.

Hawkins: Brandon [Tartikoff] came to speak to David personally. It was a difficult decision for him, but he was running a network. It’s about ad dollars. He had to make a tough decision, and he did. No one took it personally.

What NBC lacked in ad revenue it made up for in merchandising: Punky prompted over 30 separate licensing deals and an animated series.

Hawkins: There was such a demand for merchandise, for mismatched shoes, for the Punky doll.

Doucette: Another reason they wanted to keep the character the same for a while was the doll and everything else. The company they hired to do the shoes totally blew the concept because what they did was, they wanted to sell multi-colored sneakers in pairs, which is not what Punky was doing. My concept, when I was asked, was to sell individual shoes—sell lefts and rights—and let kids pick what ones they want to match up. The apparel company, nobody got it.

Frye: It was a little bizarre going to the Toys"R"Us and right next to the Cabbage Patch doll would be my face looking at me.

Galoob

After 44 episodes on NBC, Punky Brewster moved to syndication, where it aired for another 44 episodes and two years before signing off in 1988. In the finale, Brandon and his girlfriend celebrate their canine nuptials. In the course of the show’s run, it was never explained why Punky’s mother had chosen to abandon her.

Hawkins: We tried to wrap our brains around what kind of parent can leave their kid. I know we talked about the idea of a mental illness involved with the mother, not being able to take care of herself or her child. I know Punky remembered things her mom told her, a song her mom would sing to her. But I don’t think there was ever any good time to bring her mother back.

Johnson: The last episode came during a writer’s strike. The dog wedding wasn’t intended to be a final episode.

Alu: I think we didn't find out we were canceled until after the final episode was shot. In other words, we didn't know that the final show of the fourth season was the final show of the series. But then, who’s to say a dog wedding isn't a fitting exit? 

Hawkins: For a certain age group, Punky was a formative role model. I was at the eye doctor the other day and she was asking what shows I’ve done. Out of Carol Burnett, Welcome Back, Kotter, and everything else, it was, “Oh, my God! Punky Brewster!” She got teary-eyed about it.

Doucette: I’ve never been involved with a bunch of people who tried so hard to look at things from a kid’s point of view, teach them values, try to teach them lessons, and get them to be excited to be kids. There was a lot of care involved.

Dielhenn: She was a little like Annie and kind of an extension of Our Gang. It was great to have a female lead. There was one boy, three girls, and that was a great role model for girls at that time.

Johnson: I’m 40 years old and people are still tweeting me about it all the time. “If Punky Brewster taught me nothing else, it kept me out of a fridge.”

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Oral History
Oral History: The Strangest Super Bowl Halftime Show Ever
Dan Witkowski
Dan Witkowski

January 22, 1989: The San Francisco 49ers edge out the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 to become the National Football League champions at Super Bowl XXIII at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Florida. It was a thrilling game, tied at the half—a Super Bowl first—and decided only in the closing moments with a successful pass from 49ers star quarterback Joe Montana. There was enough action to keep any football fan’s mind occupied for days.

But the next morning, all anyone wanted to talk about was Elvis Presto.

In one of the most unusual halftime presentations in the 50-year history of the event, the NFL commissioned a 1950s musical revue, led by a magician dressed as Elvis Presley who performed “the world’s largest card trick.” It was also, by the estimate of at least one soda company, the world’s largest eye exam: Coca-Cola and NBC presented the entire spectacle in 3-D, urging the show’s 54 million households to pick up a pair of disposable glasses at their local distributor. (They also cautioned that if the effect didn’t work, your lack of eye coordination meant you might need to see an optometrist.) The end result was a curious blend of retro-kitsch performance and a 1980s version of interactive television.

To understand how this uneven mix of magic, music, and carbonation came together, mental_floss spoke with several of the producers and creative partners behind “BeBop Bamboozled,” including the magician who created it, the man whose Elvis was heard but not seen, and the soda marketing genius who turned a 3-D glasses shortage into priceless publicity. As it turns out, Katy Perry's Left Shark has nothing on fire-eaters in poodle skirts.

I. OUT OF THIN AIR


The story of 1989’s Super Bowl begins in 1986, when the NFL started soliciting proposals from entertainment production companies to plan for halftime shows in the years ahead. In addition to fielding presentations from Disney, Paramount, and other massive entities, the league heard from a man in Minnesota named Dan Witkowski. A veteran stage illusionist, Witkowski owned MagicCom, a small business focused on increasing revenue for companies by being “disruptive" and encouraging them to think outside the box.  

Dan Witkowski (Founder, MagicCom): I was looking to sell some network specials, but I would get laughed off. I thought, “Well, what’s bigger than a special? What has a built-in audience?” By going after something big, it would put us on the map. So I went after the Super Bowl.

Jim Steeg (Senior Vice President of Special Events, NFL, 1979 to 2005): Basically, we had the same people producing the halftime show over the years. By the time we did Up with People for a second time in 1986, we decided we wanted to bring in different producers with ideas for the halftime show.

Witkowski: I have something I call the Pretty Girl Theory: Everybody thinks somebody else is calling the pretty blonde to go out on a Saturday night, yet there she sits at home. People are just intimidated to make calls. I wasn’t.

Steeg: We were looking to book people for the 1988, 1989, and 1990 shows. We brought in probably six or seven different producers, and Dan was one of them. He called us.

Witkowski: Obviously, he got a lot of calls. But what I did was put the problem ahead of the pitch. And the problem I presented to the NFL was this: How do they take something big and make it even bigger by attracting more people? Historically, the halftime show meant it was time to get up and get a sandwich.

Steeg: I agreed to meet him in New York and hear him out.

Witkowski: I think he was intrigued about the magic idea. I didn’t give him an idea for a specific type of show, but I told him we’d welcome the opportunity to give an official presentation.

Steeg: [NFL Commissioner] Pete Rozelle only sat through a couple of them. He sat through Dan’s.

Witkowski: What the NFL did that tripped us up was when they requested a written outline sent in advance. It’s like trying to describe a cartoon. You can’t do it. You need visuals and sound. I had one of those projectors for a slide show. But it was in their rules, so I sent everyone there a leather-bound folder with a padlock on it. I had the key. They couldn’t open it until I arrived. I got calls from secretaries saying, “They’re going nuts. They’re trying to pick the locks.” It caused a big stir.

Steeg: Dan kind of wowed everybody at the meeting. He made a bowling ball appear out of a suitcase. It got things rolling.

Witkowski: He remembered that? The funny thing is, I had to do a performance in Nebraska that same night. I couldn’t get out of it, so I had to carry the bowling ball and the suitcase through Kennedy Airport. I got in line at security, put the ball on the conveyor belt, and was immediately surrounded by guards who wanted to know where it had come from.

Steeg: What we decided to do was have him co-produce the 1988 pre-game show so he could get some experience and learn the math. It was important for him to understand the logistics and the magnitude of the Super Bowl.

Witkowski: What I basically presented was the idea of hooking the audience through their involvement. At the time, we had developed a technique that would have allowed us to distribute millions of game cards through McDonald’s with a mechanism that could be triggered by holding them up to the TV screen at a certain point. It would reveal an image. I can’t go into details on how it works, but that was the essence of it.

John Gonzalez (Director, NBC): I recall going to the NFL offices in Manhattan for the first presentation about the magic show. I was excited about it, realizing it would be a challenge in the middle of a huge football production to shoot live magic and not give any of the tricks away. To figure out the correct angles, we were going to have to do it in a very controlled, very planned-out manner.

That planning would eventually grow complicated by another influence over the halftime proceedings. With Witkowski pitching Steeg and the NFL on a magic-themed, participatory show for the 1989 game, the league was also being courted by a more established partner: Coca-Cola, who would wind up becoming the Super Bowl’s first sole sponsor that same year. The company had been working on a promotion involving 3-D glasses with a twist: a California company, Nuoptix, had developed a process where an image would be clear (not distorted or blurry) to a viewer not wearing the cellophane lenses.

Michael Beindorff (Vice President of Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1978-1992): Steve Koonin, who runs the Atlanta Hawks now but worked for Coke back then, came to me with the idea for 3-D glasses. He brought the whole Moonlighting idea to me.

Steve Koonin (Vice President of Sports and Entertainment Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1986-2000): I met Terry Beard from Nuoptix on an airplane. He was a sound guy, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and had invented what was called stereoscopic 3-D. He sent me a demo of it. Basically [by covering one eye with a dark lens, which you can do using sunglasses with the video below], it slows down one eye and tricks the brain. It’s the Pulfrich Effect. At the time, Moonlighting was the hottest show on TV, and I called the producer, Glenn Caron, and sold him on the idea of doing the season finale in 3-D. He loved it. We made 26 million pairs of glasses and wound up on the front page of over 200 newspapers.

Beindorff: They had actually written a script, but then the writer’s strike happened, and the whole deal fell apart.

Koonin: We’re sitting there paying rent on warehouses across the country full of glasses. We had taken over a Kleenex factory in Mexico to make them.

Beindorff: We were still excited by the idea of the 3-D. For its time, it was very well-done. We went to the NFL and NBC with the concept of doing the halftime show in 3-D.

Steeg: Coke was our partner at the time. We were always in constant communication.  

Beindorff: Really, the whole strategy behind the Super Bowl partnership was to launch a campaign around the fact that people were switching from sugary drinks like Pepsi to Diet Coke. It was intended for Diet Coke to surpass Pepsi as the number two drink.

Gonzalez: I first heard it as a rumor: “We might do it in 3-D.” I was excited about the idea, but wondered, “How would we do that?”

II. ELVIS PRESTO


In the summer of 1988, Witkowski had no idea Coca-Cola would come in at virtually the last minute with their 3-D promotion. Instead, he and Steeg tried to hammer out what his stadium-sized magic show was going to look like.

Jack Barkla (Production Designer): I think Dan initially had the idea of a 1950s retro drive-in theater, with dancers carrying picnic baskets onto the field. They’d sit down and pull a ripcord in the basket that would turn them into inflatable cars.

Witkowski: We knew we were going to have a magic theme. Whether it was contemporary or Medieval was all flexible during the presentation. The whole 1950s thing was pretty big at the time. Baby Boomers were trying to relive their youth, so we hooked on that.

Steeg: These things evolve on a daily basis. Whatever we discussed at the pitch meeting wasn’t what wound up happening. There is no, “This is what it is.”

Barkla: There was also something to do with pizza, large colorful slices of pizza being moved around by various people.

Witkowski: There was another illusion where the concept was, as everyone came into the stadium, we were going to take a Polaroid picture that would be developed by the time they got to their seats. At random, one was going to be selected, brought down to the field, and asked to hold up their photo. Everyone else held up a card under their seat, and the whole audience would form a pictogram of the audience member selected. But we realized we didn’t have time to bring people down to the stadium floor for the pictures.    

Steeg: Everything about it was big. I remember we had a press conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York to announce it, which was unusual. No one had ever announced a halftime show before.  


Coca-Cola

Witkowski: For some reason, we had Oscar-Mayer around. They came forward and wanted to supply lunch for all of the dancers. As a kind of joke, I said, “Okay, but I want to ride shotgun in the Wienermobile.” Sure enough, it showed up.

Witkowski would eventually settle on a trick that involved the audience using an “Applause-o-Meter” to pick one of four giant cards in the stadium, with the selected card's edges made up of held-up seat cushions. What he needed now was a master of ceremonies—someone to guide the audience and lead the melody of classic pop songs.

Steeg: Elvis Presto, yes. We felt it was a novel thing that got a lot of play. Who is he? What is he?

Witkowski: It was divine inspiration. [Laughs] I think once we settled on the 1950s music, it was natural to make Elvis Presley the lead magician. It was a nice play on words. We also had the Magic Wandas, who were his back-up singers.

Barkla: I had nothing to do with that.

Witkowski: We cast a guy who had played Elvis on Broadway. He had a very good look and had the moves down. Alex Cole, who had been a back-up dancer on Solid Gold, was his choreographer. And he wouldn’t have to sing. That was all prerecorded in New York.

Jody LoMedico (Vocal Performer, “Elvis Presto”): I had been performing since the 1970s, singing and doing commercial jingles. Someone once told me I sounded like Elvis, and it devastated me. I was never an impersonator.

Witkowski: We went to the Elvis estate. I felt that rather than it be a surprise for them, they would want the courtesy and an opportunity to respond. They couldn’t have been nicer and did it for minimal consideration.

LoMedico: A vocal contractor I knew said she had heard I did a pretty good Elvis. I had been trying to destroy any kind of resemblance to him. You want to be your own person. But it was the Super Bowl, so I was all in. We went in there and sang and sang and sang this seven-minute piece. "Devil in a Blue Dress," "Rock This Town," Stray Cats stuff, everything. I was there probably seven hours. When we were done, I couldn’t talk.

Witkowski: We had Donald Pippin, a Broadway legend, doing all the music.

LoMedico: When they saw me sing, they liked me so much they asked if I wanted to come to Florida and lip-sync my own voice. But I couldn’t be out of town for three weeks for rehearsal and everything else for $1500. They said, “Most people do this for free.” Well, your dancers, these kids from universities, they live to be on television. Great for them. No disrespect. Not for me.

While Witkowski tried to assemble a complete Elvis, Barkla and choreographers were thinking of how best to stage a production on something as volatile as a football field. Only cars made of plywood would be allowed on the grass.

Barkla: The grass in Florida is very different from the grass in Minnesota. It’s like moss. It doesn’t take much to destroy the surface.

Steeg: It’s about protecting the field, and also about what you can move on 100 yards of grass.

Barkla: They’d bring truckloads of dirt and grass seed on the field and dump it. I remember asking one of the NFL guys, “Doesn’t that change the height of the goalposts?” Because you keep raising the ground. He looked at me like no one had ever considered the question before.

III. SHOWTIME


As the clock wound down to perfect an elaborate show full of visual effects, dancers, and a stadium-sized card trick, Witkowski was dealt two of the worst hands possible: His in-person Elvis was about to split, and Coca-Cola was about to introduce a new dimension in frustration.

Witkowski: The guy playing Elvis suddenly had an opportunity to go shoot a commercial in Japan that was going to be very lucrative. We made a mutual decision to recast. My first thought was Alex, since he was essentially the other Elvis’s choreographer and knew a lot of the moves.

LoMedico: The guy who did Elvis—whoever you are, I wasn’t a fan, man. Doing Elvis at that time with anything was just hokey. Maybe in Middle America, but the East and West Coasts were done. It was Elvis and The National Enquirer. It was corny.

Alex Cole had roughly 10 days to learn a complex routine involving dancers and illusions with a hollowed-out jukebox and an electric guitar that materialized out of thin air. At the same time, NBC and Witkowski were struggling to cope with the late addition of 3-D.

Gonzalez: We both understood the sudden importance of the 3-D overlay and all the money it represented. The NFL and the executives at NBC didn’t interfere, but they did say, “This represents a whole lot of valuable promotion, so we need to make it work.” In the final week, the focus largely went away from the magic and onto re-blocking for 3-D.

Witkowski: We recorded the audio track before the 3-D element came into play, so we decided that because of time, we would edit what we had and work with it from that standpoint. We knew the magic would suffer, knew the event would be a bit corny, but felt people would watch.

Barkla: The input we got was way late in the game. That was very frustrating. If it hadn’t been so late, things would’ve been better than they were. It’s typical corporate stuff. The people making decisions didn’t have a clue as to how the whole thing worked.

Gonzalez: The choreographers had been planning their part of the show for months. To tell them two weeks before, “Throw it out, make everything counterclockwise rotational,” was not what they wanted to hear.

Witkowski: We thought of some effects where girls would appear to float outside the image of your TV set and had some other levitating effects. But with the 3-D process, things had to be in constant motion left to right to separate the field of vision for the effect to work. In many ways, the 3-D fought with the way to present magic, which was to keep a continuous camera on something so you’re not cutting away.

Steeg: To do the 3-D, everything had to move left to right. It was basically a mind trick.

Gonzalez: Fearing that the 3-D on the field would be less than what was expected, I went to my bosses at NBC with a request to spend additional funds on some animations. There are three or four spots in the show where we independently developed some effective use of the 3-D apart from the action on the field.

Koonin: Kevin Costner came up to me at a [pre-game] party in Miami. He said, “Hey, I hear you’re the 3-D glasses guy. Want to comp me a pair?”

With a pre-taped introduction by a wry Bob Costas (“This is the single proudest moment of my life”) and a 3-D Diet Coke commercial, “BeBop Bamboozled” got underway. Elvis Presto appears to materialize out of a jukebox; dancers defy gravity by leaning against parking meters horizontally; 102 custom-made Harley-Davidson bikes engulfed the margins of the field.

Gonzalez: Bob Costas was hesitant about pre-recording the opening. “Trust me,” I told him. “I need to do this to guarantee some effective 3-D effects.” We watched it together in the controlled environment of the studio and it looked quite good.

Barkla: Of course, we didn’t wind up using the inflatable cars. Those might have cost $3000 to $4000 each.

Witkowski: I remember in the planning stage, we had some early computer effects that showed how 2000 people would be moving on the field. That was unheard of back then. You could have 200 people fall over and it wouldn’t even be noticed.

Barkla: The question was, how do you get things on and off the field? You have to be able to set it up and dismantle it very quickly.

Presto's inciting of the crowd to "pick a card, concentrate real hard" left most viewers befuddled: the Applause-o-Meter led to the King of Hearts, one of four giant cards on the field and a choice Presto predicted. Because of the camera movements, it was also one of the few illusions actually picked up by the broadcast. 

Witkowski: I will say the card trick is not nearly as effective as what we had anticipated.

Steeg: I don’t think everyone got the card trick. You had to think about it.

Barkla: There was one master box for power, and it was at the 50-yard line. All the skyboxes would need wires running out of it. The place where we stored all the sets underneath wasn’t wired and it wasn’t lit at all. I found that really strange. We were running electric lines all over the place to get power.

Witkowski: We didn’t have theatrical lighting. In magic, you adjust it depending on how the performers are moving. Here, the lights were either on or off. We couldn’t rely on that. Everything was out in the open.

LoMedico: I think I made the right choice [not appearing on camera]. When I saw it, I thought, “Mmm. This isn’t working.”

Witkowski: I would say that Alex, as Elvis, didn’t have the right look. But he didn’t have the opportunity to practice, either. With magic and its complexities, it’s hard to just drop someone in.

LoMedico: The stuff sounded good in the studio. Everyone was really happy. But when it got on the air, whatever they did with the sound processing, somebody mixed that improperly.

Gonzalez: You get one rehearsal Friday night to try to put it all together, and the crew, the best in the business, was excited and cooperative. The next time the camera crew saw it was live at halftime.

IV. OVERTIME


With an estimated 120 million people tuning in, Super Bowl XXIII was a resounding success. Despite some complaints that the card trick made little sense, news media responded favorably to the 3-D effects. This was presuming the viewer had the glasses: Because Coke had only made 26 million pairs, many had to share or go without.

Koonin: There wasn’t time to make more. If it had cost the consumer money, yes, they probably would have been disappointed. But this was about getting past Pepsi. It was just a fun stunt.

Barkla: It was the beginning of a time when the shows got more inflated and slicker.

Witkowski: I remember being interviewed after. Apparently, I was dancing in the stands with the dancers.

Steeg: I think it was a good show. It was just so hyped. People were expecting this Pixar 3-D animation thing. It was just a halftime show.

Beindorff: We got a huge uptick in sales that month. And that went on for some period of time, though you can’t attribute it all to the Super Bowl. We also had George Michael.

Witkowski: Coke was kind enough to send us binders of all the press after the game. I think it was $60 million worth of promotion. It was confirmation that we were successful in creating something people were going to talk about.

Beindorff: I got a call a year or two ago that Diet Coke finally surpassed Pepsi as the number two drink. It took a while.

Steeg: The only one you’re concerned with is the Commissioner, and he [Rozelle] was happy.

Witkowski: Jim said to me, “You’ll reap the benefits of this for years.” And we have. MagicCom has been very successful. I appreciate that the NFL took a chance on the little guy.

Steeg: The next year was the 40th anniversary of Peanuts. They approached us and wanted to get involved, and we liked that.

Gonzalez: If you were to pick a halftime show that would be designed for the rotational 3-D effect, I don’t think it would be something that demands the precision and accuracy of a magic show.

Steeg: We experimented. We took chances. With the Super Bowl, it’s very easy to just say no. We rolled the dice.

LoMedico: At the time, I lived in the Poconos with no cable and had to watch it with rabbit ears. The whole thing was kind of a letdown.

Barkla: I didn’t watch it. I don’t like football.

All images courtesy of Dan Witkowski.

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Larry Heider
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Oral History
The Dark Side: An Oral History of The Star Wars Holiday Special
Larry Heider
Larry Heider

Summer 1978: Over a year after its debut, Star Wars wasn’t through smashing box office records. Ushered back into theaters for a return engagement that July, it made $10 million in just three days. George Lucas had welded mythological structure, pioneering special effects, and a spectacular production design to create a cinematic phenomenon that redefined how studios selected and marketed big-budget spectacles. Movies would never be the same again.

Neither would television. That same month, filming began on The Star Wars Holiday Special, a 97-minute musical-variety show that featured Bea Arthur serenading a giant rat and Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, being seduced by a virtual reality image of Diahann Carroll. Originally, the show was intended to keep the property viable and licensed merchandise moving off shelves until the inevitable sequel. But with Lucas’s focus on The Empire Strikes Back and producers shrinking his galaxy for a television budget, the Holiday Special suffered. So did viewers.

Mental Floss spoke with many of the principal production team members to find out exactly how Lucas’s original intentions—a sentimental look at Chewbacca’s family during a galactic holiday celebration—turned to the Dark Side.

I. A VERY WOOKIEE CHRISTMAS


Thomas Searle via YouTube

According to onetime Lucasfilm marketing director Charles Lippincott, CBS approached Star Wars distributor 20th Century Fox in 1978 to propose a television special. Fox had seen a boost in box office returns after several aliens from the Cantina scene appeared on Donny and Marie Osmond’s variety show; CBS figured the success of the film would translate into a ratings win; Lucasfilm and Lippincott though it would be a good vehicle to push toys.

With all parties motivated to move forward, two writers—Leonard “Lenny” Ripps and Pat Proft—were brought on to write a script based on an original story by Lucas.

Leonard Ripps (Co-Writer): Pat and I spent the entire day with Lucas. He took out a legal pad and asked how many minutes were in a TV special. He wrote down numbers from one to 90. He was very methodical about it. He had at least a dozen stories he had already written, so we were just helping to fill in a world he knew everything about. His idea was basically for a Wookiee Rosh Hashanah. A furry Earth Day.

Pat Proft (Co-Writer): Wookiees played a big part of it. Stormtroopers were harassing them. I don't have the script. It sure as [hell] wasn't what it ended up being.

Ripps: Pat and I had written for mimes Shields and Yarnell, which is why we were brought on. We had written lots of non-verbal stuff. The challenge was how to get things across. Wookiees aren’t articulate. Even in silent movies, you had subtitles. Whatever we wrote, it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Proft and Ripps delivered their script several weeks after the meeting. It focused on a galactic holiday celebrated by all species, with the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk selected to host the festivities that year. Chewbacca’s family—father Itchy, wife Malla, and son Lumpy—were introduced, with the writers leaving gaps for executive producers Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith to insert celebrity guest stars and musical acts. For the latter, Hemion and Smith turned to producers Ken and Mitzie Welch to arrange original songs and enlist talent.

Elle Puritz (Assistant to the Producer): I was working for the Welches at the time. I remember hearing, “OK, we’re going to do a Star Wars holiday special,” and everyone laughing about it. I thought it was a terrible idea.

Miki Herman (Lucasfilm Consultant): Lippincott requested I be involved with the special. I did a lot of ancillary projects. I knew all the props, all the actors. I hired Stan Winston to create the Wookiee family. [Sound effects artist] Ben Burtt and I were there to basically provide authenticity, to make sure everything was kept in context.

George Lucas (via Empire, 2009): Fox said, "You can promote the film by doing the TV special." So I kind of got talked into doing the special.

Ripps: Lucas told us Han Solo was married to a Wookiee but that we couldn’t mention that because it would be controversial.

Herman: I do remember Gary Smith saying they wanted to have Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ann-Margret involved, high-caliber people that were popular.

Puritz: Ken and Mitzie called Bea Arthur. They wrote a song with her in mind.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Ripps: It never occurred to us to get Bea Arthur. We spent just that one day with Lucas, then got put in touch with [director] David Acomba. Our notion was Acomba was very much Lucas’s guy, so he spoke for Lucas.

Acomba was a Canadian filmmaker who had coincidentally gone to the University of Southern California around the same time as Lucas, though the two never crossed paths at the time. Lippincott knew him, however, and hired him to direct the special in keeping with Lucas’s spirit of finding talent outside the Hollywood system.

Larry Heider (Camera Operator): David came out of a rock 'n' roll world, a documentary world. Smith and Hemion had three different projects going on at the same time, so I think they felt they wouldn’t have time to direct just this one thing.

Puritz: David wasn’t used to shooting television. Using five cameras, everything shooting at the same time. He was very indignant about his own lack of knowledge, and he did not get along with the Welches.

Ripps: I got the impression it was not what he wanted, and had turned into something he didn’t want to do. I don’t want to say he was overwhelmed, but it would’ve been overwhelming for anyone.

II. FORCING IT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

With a budget of roughly $1 million—the 1977 film cost $11 millionThe Star Wars Holiday Special began filming in Burbank, California in the summer of 1978 with a script that had been heavily revised by variety show veterans Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch to reflect the Smith-Hemion style of bombastic musical numbers and kitsch. Chewbacca was now trying to race home in time for “Life Day,” with his family watching interstellar musical interludes and comedic sketches—like a four-armed Julia Child parody—on a video screen. 

Ripps: Lucas wanted a show about the holiday. Vilanch and everyone, they were wonderful writers, but they were Carol Burnett writers. In the litany of George’s work, there was never kitsch. Star Wars was always very sincere about Star Wars.

Herman: Personally, I was not a fan of Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, or Art Carney. That wasn’t my generation. But they had relationships with Dwight Hemion and the Welches.

Heider: Bea Arthur was known for being a little cold and demanding. When she was asked to do something a second time, she wanted someone to explain what was wrong. When the script wasn’t making sense for her to say something, she had a hard time translating all of that. She was pretty much [her television character] Maude.

Bea Arthur [via The Portland Mercury, 2005]: I didn't know what that was about at all. I was asked to be in it by the composer of that song I sang—"Goodnight, But Not Goodbye." It was a wonderful time, but I had no idea it was even a part of the whole Star Wars thing … I just remember singing to a bunch of people with funny heads.

After shooting the Cantina scene, it became apparent that Acomba was an ill fit for the constraints of a television schedule.

Heider: David was used to a single camera—run and gun, keep it moving, a real rock 'n' roll pace. This show was anything but. There were huge sets, make-up, costumes. It was slow-paced, and it got to him.

Ripps: I didn’t go down for the filming, but Pat went down. He has a story.

Proft: Took my kid for the Cantina scene. All the characters from the bar were there. However, they forgot [to pump] oxygen into the masks. Characters were fainting left and right.

Heider: Characters would walk around onstage with just their shirts on to stay cool. We were shooting in a very warm part of the year in Los Angeles, and it was difficult, especially with the Wookiees. They took a lot more breaks than they had calculated.

Ripps: I knew how frustrated David was. It wasn’t his vision. He phoned me up and said, “I’m not going to be working on this anymore.”

Acomba left after only shooting a handful of scenes. A frantic Smith phoned Steve Binder, a director with extensive experience in television—he had overseen the famous Elvis ’68 Comeback Special—and told him he needed someone to report to the set the following Monday morning.

Steve Binder (Director): I was between projects and got a call from Gary basically saying they had completely shut down in Burbank and there was talk of shutting it down for good. The first thing I realized was, they had built this phenomenal Chewbacca home on a huge film stage, but it was a 360-degree set. There was no fourth wall to remove to bring multiple cameras into the home. I would think it would be impossible for a crew to even get into the set to shoot anything.

Puritz: I think David was part of that plan.

Heider: I remember when that happened. I don’t think it was David’s idea. It was the way it was conceived by producers on how to make this look really cool, but it didn’t work. You have no lighting control. Steve got it. He’s really a pro. There’s no ego.

Binder: They FedExed me the script. The first thing I looked at was, the first 10 minutes was done with basically no dialogue from the actors. It was strictly Chewbacca sounds. The sound effects people would use bear sounds for the voicing. It concerned me, but there was no time to start changing the script.

Ripps: We had concerns about that. But George said, "This is the story I want to tell."

Binder: The Chewbacca family could only be in the costumes for 45 minutes. Then they’d have the heads taken off, and be given oxygen. It slowed everything down. The suits were so physically cumbersome and heavy. The actress playing Lumpy [Patty Maloney], when she came in, I don’t think she was more than 80 or 90 pounds and she a lost tremendous amount of weight while filming.

In addition to guest stars Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, and Art Carney, Lucasfilm approached most of the principals from the feature for cameo appearances. Feeling indebted to Lucas, they agreed to participate—reluctantly.

Puritz: They had made this big movie, and now they’re doing a TV special. Carrie Fisher did not want to be there.

Herman: They didn’t love doing TV. At that time, movie actors didn’t do TV. There was a stigma against it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Heider: Harrison Ford was not happy to be there at all. Carrie Fisher, I think part of her deal was she got to sing a song, and that was her draw to it. Because Lucas was involved, and if another movie is coming out in two years, there’s pressure to keep going. So they showed up, on time. Mostly.

Binder: My recall with the whole cast was that there was a little mumbling going on with a few of the actors who felt they should’ve been compensated more for the movie. I think Lucas did do that after the special, giving them small percentages.

Heider: We were doing a scene where Ford was sitting in the Millennium Falcon and he just wanted to get his lines done and he made that very clear. “Can we just do this? How long is this going to take?”

Harrison Ford (via press tour, 2011): It was in my contract. There was no known way to get out of it.

Heider: Mark Hamill was a good guy. He just had that normal-guy-trying-to-work vibe.

Mark Hamill (via Reddit, 2014): I thought it was a mistake from the beginning. It was just unlike anything else in the Star Wars universe. And I initially said that I didn't want to do it, but George said it would help keep Star Wars in the consciousness and I wanted to be a team player, so I did it. And I also said that I didn't think Luke should sing, so they cut that number.

Herman: I worked with the actors on a lot of the ancillary stuff. Honestly, they were just all so dopey.

III. BUILDING BOBA FETT


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

 

Before Acomba departed the production, he and Lucas reached out to a Canadian animation company, Nelvana, to prepare a nine-minute cartoon that would formally introduce one of the characters from The Empire Strikes Back: Boba Fett. The bounty hunter originated from a design for an unused Stormtrooper by production designers Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie; he was intended to make public appearances in the interim between films, initially popping up at the San Anselmo County Fair parade in September of 1978.

Michael Hirsh (Nelvana Co-Founder): David knew me personally. Lucas watched a special of ours, A Cosmic Christmas, that was just coming on air at the time. He asked people on his crew, including David, who we were. David said, "Oh, I know these guys." We were not a well-known company at time.

Clive Smith (Nelvana Co-Founder, Animation Director): Lucas supplied a script that he wrote. I think I probably had about two weeks to storyboard, then start character designs.

Hirsh: Frankly, I think the cartoon was more along the lines of what Lucas wanted to do in the first place—if he did the special, there was a possibility Fox and CBS would fund Star Wars cartoons. The variety show itself wasn’t something he was particularly interested in.

Smith: We ended up shooting slides of each storyboard frame. There must’ve been 300 to 400 frames. I loaded them up, put myself on a plane, and went down to San Francisco and did a presentation with a slide projector. I was in this room of people who were absolutely silent. Things that were funny, not a whimper or murmur. But at the end, George clapped.

Hirsh: CBS wanted him to use one of the L.A. studios, like Hanna-Barbera, who did most of the Saturday morning cartoons. But Lucas, from the beginning of his career, had a thing for independent companies, people who weren’t in L.A. The style of animation was modeled after [French artist] Jean “Moebius” Geraud, at Lucas’s request.


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

Smith: A lot of the designs and characters were inspired by Moebius, who did a lot of work for Heavy Metal magazine. We thought it was a good direction to point ourselves in. At the time, there was no Star Wars animation to follow.

Hirsh: There was a big deal made about the introduction of Boba Fett.

Smith: We needed to design Boba Fett, and all we had was some black and white footage of a costumed actor who had been photographed in someone’s backyard moving around. We took what was there and turned it into a graphic idea.

Hirsh: I directed the voice sessions. Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) had the most dialogue, and the other actors came in for short sessions. Harrison Ford and the other performers generally came in and nailed lines, whereas Mark Hamill was anxious to try different things. [Hamill would go on to a successful career in voiceover work.]

Herman: Michael got upset when I told him Princess Leia wore a belt. It was part of her costume, and they didn’t have it. Redoing it was going to cost them a lot of money.

Hirsh: That’s possible. Lucas was happy with how it turned out. After the special, we stayed in touch and we were developing a project with Lucasfilm and the Bee Gees. Nothing ever came of it.

IV. SPACING OUT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Nelvana had a relatively smooth journey to the finish line compared to the live-action production team. By the time Binder was prepared to shoot the climactic “Life Day” celebration with the entire cast and a group of robed Wookiees, there was virtually no money in the budget left for a large-scale spectacle.

Binder: No one ever mentioned there was no set for the closing. I was told by the art director we had no money for it in the budget. So I said, "No problem, just go out and buy every candle you can find in the store." We filled an empty stage with candles. I had experimented with this on another special, maybe a Victor Borge ice skating show. Candles in a dark environment give off an incredibly creative effect.

Herman: The sad truth is, everyone was so overwhelmed. Ken and Mitzie knew that last scene was a disaster. They came to me saying, "Help us." But George was out of the picture. It was a runaway production.

Ripps: Acomba and Lucas had walked away from it. They weren’t there to fight for anything.

Lucas: It just kept getting reworked and reworked, moving away into this bizarre land. They were trying to make one kind of thing and I was trying to make another, and it ended up being a weird hybrid between the two.

Heider: They were spending a lot of money for stage rental, lighting, a TV truck, and everyone was putting in really long hours. It translated into a big below-line budget problem. 

Herman: Honestly, a set wasn’t going to save that scene. All the Wookiees were wearing [consumer licensee] Don Post masks.

Premiering November 17, 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special was seen by 13 million viewers, a significant but not overly impressive audience for the three-network television landscape of the era. It came in second to The Love Boat on ABC for its first hour, with a marked drop-off following the conclusion of the cartoon at the halfway point. Gurgling, apron-clad Wookiees, low-budget Imperial threats—they do nothing more sinister than trash Lumpy’s room—and an appearance by Jefferson Starship proved too bizarre for viewers.

Binder: I felt you have to open with a bang, really grab the audience, make it worth their time to sit and watch. The opening scene going on as long as it did was a killer for the TV audience.

Ripps: I had no idea what had happened to it. When it was broadcast, I had a party at my house and ordered catering. After the first commercial, I turned it off and said, "Let’s eat."

Binder: The day I finished shooting, I was on to other projects. It’s the only show I never edited or supervised the editing of. The Welches had the whole weight of the unedited special in their hands, and I questioned how much experience they had at that given they were songwriters.

Heider: Somebody made choices in terms of how long each scene would be on TV, and it's really painful.

Herman: I remember I was moving to Marin County the next day. I was staying at a friend’s house, and their son was a Star Wars fan. I had given him all the toys. Watching him watch it, he was really bored.

Binder: What I realized was, the public was not told this wasn’t going to be Star Wars. It was not the second movie. It was going to be a TV show to sell toys to kids. That was the real purpose of the show. It had nowhere near the budget of a feature film. [Lucasfilm and Kenner produced prototype action figures of Chewbacca’s family; they were never released.]

Heider: I didn’t watch it when it was on, but I do have a copy I bought several years ago on eBay. It’s not a great copy, but it’s enough to show how it was cut together. I haven’t been able to sit through whole thing at one time.

Herman: George hated it, but he knew there was nothing he could do about it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Binder: I never met Lucas, never got a phone call, anything. Which was disappointing to me. It was his show, he developed it. To totally walk away from it and critique it negatively was, I felt, not cool.

Ripps: One of the reasons I took the job was I thought it would be an annuity. Every year, I’d get a check for Star Wars.

Hirsh: I did watch it. I was happy with our contribution. It was a phenomenal opportunity for our little company. We got to work on the Droids and Ewoks animated shows later on.

Ripps: I still go out to dinners on the stories. Once, at a dinner party, one of the waiters had Star Wars tattoos up and down both of his arms. When he found out I wrote the special, we got better service than anyone in the restaurant.

Lucas: I’m sort of amused by it, because it is so bizarre. It's definitely avant garde television. It's definitely bad enough to be a classic.

Herman: The interesting thing is, the day after the special aired was the day of the Jonestown Massacre. It was just a bad time for everyone.

Dwight Hemion (via NPR, 2002): It was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever done.

This article originally ran in 2015.

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