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10 Festive Facts About Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

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An abducted St. Nick spreads holiday cheer all over the Red Planet in this weird sci-fi comedy from 1964. Here’s an earthling’s guide to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

1. IT HAS AN ODD CONNECTION TO CHARLES LINDBERGH.

Everything started out innocently enough. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was the brainchild of producer Paul L. Jacobson. Incidentally, this was the first—and only—movie that he ever produced. In the 1950s, Jacobson had worked as a unit manager on NBC’s iconic puppet show Howdy Doody. This experience gave him an insider’s look at the children’s entertainment industry. Confident that he could make a hit kiddie film, Jacobson started developing what he referred to as an original “Yuletide science fiction fantasy.”

Once he raised $200,000, production on the movie began in earnest. Shooting took place at Michael Myerberg Studios on Long Island—an abandoned aircraft hangar that had been repurposed as a film studio in 1964. Thirty-seven years earlier, Charles Lindbergh stored The Spirit of St. Louis here on the night before his epic, transatlantic flight.

2. IT WAS THE FILM DEBUT OF PIA ZADORA.

Long before making it big as a professional singer, Pia Zadora entered the world of film in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Here, her character is Girmar, a typical red planet girl who likes watching “Earth programs” with her brother on the family television set. This was just the beginning of Zadora’s cult movie career, as she’d also turn up in John Waters's Hairspray (1988) and Naked Gun 33⅓ (1994). In 1982, she starred in Butterfly, an R-rated incest drama. Though critics trashed the flick, Zadora’s performance did win her a Golden Globe—albeit, an extremely controversial one.

3. THE ALIEN STUN GUNS WERE NAME BRAND TOYS.

Halfway through the movie, a troop of unitard-wearing spacemen break into Santa’s workshop. Once there, the invaders freeze some innocent elves (and poor Mrs. Claus) in their tracks with special guns. Any kid growing up in the 1960s would have easily recognized these weapons as plastic “ray guns” that Marx Toy Co. mass produced throughout the decade.

4. A TONIGHT SHOW BAND LEADER WROTE THE CATCHY THEME SONG.

It’s tough to get the very catchy “Hooray for Santy Claus!” out of your head within four hours of watching this movie. A joyous, jazzy number, it was penned by the late composer Milton Delugg. In 1963, NBC hired him as the music director for their annual telecasts of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Delugg would retain this high-profile gig until he stepped down in 2013. On the same network, Delugg led The Tonight Show orchestra for a year and a half during Johnny Carson’s early tenure. The musician passed away in his Los Angeles home last year at the age of 96.

5. SANTA WAS PLUCKED FROM A HIT BROADWAY MUSICAL.

During the original 1963 to 1964 run of Oliver!, John Call played the eccentric Dr. Grimwig. Born in 1908, he enjoyed a long career on "The Great White Way," joining such productions as Bloomer Girl (1944-1947) and Pickwick (1965). Immediately after leaving Oliver!, Call took on the role that he’s best remembered for today—namely, Kris Kringle in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

By the way, he isn’t the only Broadway veteran in the cast of this sci-fi comedy. Earth kids Betty and Billy are portrayed by Donna Conforti and Victor Stiles, respectively. Both might’ve looked a little familiar to theatergoers at the time: Stiles had previously acted in Oliver! as a pickpocket, while Conforti was a bit player in 1963’s Here’s Love—a musical adaptation of Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

6. THAT GUY IN THE POLAR BEAR SUIT LATER APPEARED IN ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

“We weren’t about to get a real bear!” director Nicholas Webster said in retrospect. En route to warning Santa about the Martians, Billy and Betty encounter a huge polar bear, who briefly corners them. You needn’t be a genius to deduce that the beast is really a man in a cheap costume. Watch this clip closely and you may also notice that the person inside is crawling around on his knees—hardly ursine behavior. Anyway, the Arctic predator was played by stage actor Gene Lindsey. Years later, Lindsey joined the cast of All the President’s Men as Alfred D. Baldwin, a participant in the Watergate Scandal.

7. IT WAS THE FIRST MOTION PICTURE TO EVER DEPICT MRS. CLAUS.

The Mrs. Claus character has been around for a while: James Rees’s 1849 story A Christmas Legend features the earliest known reference to St. Nick’s wife. Mrs. Claus would go on to become a household name after the poem Goody Santa on a Sleigh Ride came along in 1889. But despite this newfound publicity, her husband beat her to the silver screen by more than six decades. Old Kris Kringle has been starring in films and shorts since the late 1890s, whereas the missus wouldn’t make her cinematic debut until Doris Rich played her in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

8. IT SHARES A BIT OF FOOTAGE WITH DR. STRANGELOVE.

As the opening credits roll in Stanley Kubrick’s biting cold war comedy, we’re treated to some military stock footage of a plane refueling in midair. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians incorporates this exact same snippet at the 24:40 mark.

9. THERE’S A SPELLING ERROR IN THE OPENING CREDITS.

Ramsey Mostoller is listed as the picture’s “Custume Designer.” Naturally, this little typo did not go unnoticed when Santa Claus Conquers the Martians got the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment in 1991.

10. MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 WASN’T THE FIRST TV SHOW TO LAMPOON THE MOVIE.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians will always be associated with MST3K thanks to a 1991 Christmas special in which Joel Hodgson and his puppet pals used it as heckling fodder. But before Mystery Science Theater 3000, there was The Canned Film Festival. A one-season wonder, it takes place at a run-down cinema that tries to draw in new customers by screening some of the strangest films ever made. Our leading lady is Laraine, an usherette played by SNL alumnus Laraine Newman. Along with a handful of regular patrons, she watches and pokes fun at such masterpieces as Robot Monster (1953) and They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968). The show ran on CBS for just 13 episodes in the summer of 1986 before it was ultimately replaced with M*A*S*H reruns. Still, at least it managed to feature/make fun of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians before going under.
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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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17 Things to Know About René Descartes
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iStock

The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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