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Band of Brothers: An Oral History of Hanson's 'MMMBop' and Their Debut Album

Something huge was happening at New Jersey's Paramus Park Mall. Police lights flashed, enthusiastic screams punctured the air, and a wave of anticipation swelled like a tsunami.

The day before—May 6, 1997—a band of three young brothers from Tulsa, Oklahoma, had released their debut label album, Middle of Nowhere. Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson were in the middle of doing serious promotional work (they'd appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman the night before), and were set to perform a few acoustic songs at a record store in the mall. Hosted by radio station Z100, the event was expected to draw a few hundred people. But thousands of screaming pre-teen and teen fans—anywhere from 6000 to 10,000 of them—showed up. As the mall was shut down to accommodate the zealous crowd, it became clear that life for the three brothers was about to change.

Middle of Nowhere went on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide, spawn two Billboard Hot 100 singles, and earn Hanson three Grammy nominations. Two decades after the album's release, Mental Floss spoke with middle brother Taylor Hanson, former Mercury Records executives, and Middle of Nowhere’s producers, engineer, and mixer to get a behind-the-scenes view of the band’s rise from obscurity to super stardom. They discuss how "MMMBop" evolved from a melancholy ballad to an upbeat earworm, the challenges of recording vocals as a pubescent boy, and the band’s upcoming world tour, aptly called the Middle of Everywhere tour.


Isaac, Taylor, and Zac started Hanson back in 1992, after they fell in love with classic rock and Motown from the late 1950s and early '60s. Inspired by artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Otis Redding, the brothers sang a cappella, performing tunes like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Rockin' Robin." Although Isaac was 11, Taylor was 9, and Zac was just 6 years old, the homeschooled brothers began appearing around Tulsa, singing covers as well as songs they had written together. One of their original songs was "MMMBop," a melancholy, mid-tempo song that the brothers recorded in 1995 and released independently in 1996.

Taylor Hanson: "MMMBop" started as a background part. We made an [indie] album called Boomerang and we were working on another song and looking for a background part, and that background part later became the chorus for "MMMBop." It was sort of too hook-y to be a background part, so it just kind of sat on the back burner.

Zac Hanson (via Songfacts, 2004): If anything, "MMMBop" was inspired by The Beach Boys and vocal groups of that era—using your voice as almost a doo-wop kind of thing.

Taylor Hanson: The verses were formed after the chorus had existed. Isaac and I would be sitting in the living room—we took over the living room of our house as rehearsal space when we were kids, so we completely dominated the household—playing these very simple chord patterns.

Isaac Hanson (via Noisey, 2013): The song "MMMBop" is actually about holding on to things that really matter to you because there will be few things that last through your whole life. Hold on to the things that are precious to you because life is fleeting. And it happens to have a catchy little chorus, a little nonsensical, scatty thing.

Taylor Hanson: The process of writing the song really came out of a very challenging moment as kids—deciding to play music. It was over the course of several different afternoons in our band setup in the living room. We were reflecting on what was very much happening in our world at the time, which was seeing how even as 12 and 14 year olds, friendships and relationships would come and go. Some people really didn’t get what we were doing … We were facing down the barrel of continuing to pursue a path that was different than most everyone around us.


By performing at hundreds of local art fairs, block parties, and schools across the Midwest, Hanson built a fan base of a few thousand people. The band had a manager and attorney who pitched them to major labels, but nothing was happening—13 labels turned Hanson down, partly because their poppy, Jackson 5-esque sound was dated compared to the darker grunge music that was topping the charts in the early- and mid-'90s. But the rejections ended when Steve Greenberg, an A&R executive at Mercury Records, heard one of the band’s independent albums. Greenberg traveled to Coffeyville, Kansas, to see the brothers perform at a festival, and Mercury Records soon signed the band.

Taylor Hanson: "MMMBop" became a mainstay that we would play in our little sets around Oklahoma and Arkansas and Kansas and wherever people would listen to us. It was definitely one of the songs that was a [crowd] favorite, but it wasn’t the favorite.

Danny Goldberg (former CEO of Mercury Records): Steve Greenberg played [the "MMMBop" demo] for me. Sounded like a hit, but more to the point, I had great faith in Steve's judgment.

Taylor Hanson: "MMMBop" was more of a campfire song in its original version—it had a little bit more of a storyteller arc to it. It’s very "Let me tell you a story, let me give you this parable," which is so interesting because it obviously was interpreted in its final version as being so pop, celebratory, pure sunshine.

Steve Greenberg (former Head of A&R for Mercury Records): I loved the juxtaposition between the extremely joyous music and the dark lyrics. The entire album has dark lyrics, actually. People just didn’t notice because the music was so upbeat. But from the start, I realized this was a band that was addressing serious subjects.

Taylor Hanson: I think the song survives in part because it was saying something real—you get a lot more out of it on the second, third listens when you really dive in.

Margery Greenspan (former VP of Creative Services for Mercury Records): The minute I heard "MMMBop," I knew it was a hit … it was so catchy and fun, and the boys enjoyed performing it. There was a real joy to it.

Taylor Hanson: ["MMMBop"] is really kind of the song that started the theme of Hanson's songwriting, which is songs that make you feel something very uplifting when the story is actually acknowledging the absolute opposite of that. Kind of happiness in spite of what life brings.

Goldberg: To me, the big thing was it sounded like a hit chorus.

Greenspan: What was so unique about this band is that they were kids. And they were the real deal—they wrote and played the music.

Allison Hamamura (former West Coast General Manager for Mercury Records): It was perfectly clear to me that Taylor was a songwriter and a burgeoning talent. I absolutely loved the family dynamic and the boys obviously loved playing together.

Taylor Hanson: You don’t have a band of three brothers playing gigs around town and all over three states without really supportive parents. But it absolutely was them following what they saw in us, and what we thought we could do. We kind of had this pure, unadulterated ambition.


Armed with a record deal, Hanson and their mother, father, and three younger siblings traveled from Tulsa to Los Angeles in the summer of 1996. The brothers first worked with producers John King and Mike Simpson—collectively known as the Dust Brothers—on "MMMBop" and "Thinking Of You." Up until then, Hanson had written, recorded, and produced their songs independently, without outside forces or opinions weighing in. At the Dust Brothers' studio in Silver Lake, Isaac, Taylor, and Zac experienced what it was like to collaborate with producers for the first time.

Greenberg suggested that the band increase the tempo of "MMMBop," and the Dust Brothers convinced the band to try making "MMMBop" a more upbeat song. They started recording, increasing the tempo and using a Jackson 5-like rhythm. Greenberg also connected Hanson with a handful of collaborators, including producers and co-writers such as Desmond Child, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Clif Magness.

Mike Simpson (of the Dust Brothers, via WaxPoetics, 2013): When I first heard the demo tape of Hanson, it took me back to my childhood. I would come home and lip-synch Jackson 5 songs every day after school as a little kid. I heard Hanson and thought, "Oh my God, this sounds like really cool music."

Clif Magness (co-writer and producer of Middle of Nowhere track "Madeline"): My manager at the time put me in touch with Steve Greenberg. He then set up a writing session with myself and the band ... Their father sat in the room with us as we wrote the song, most of the time reading a book. At one point, he stepped out to check up on his wife and three other children who were playing with my two children in the backyard.

Taylor Hanson: The strong thing we took away from walking into the room with other writers was you had to show right out of the gate to these extremely credible and gifted and experienced writers that they would be writing with you. I think it was daunting at first to sit in the room with people who wrote "On Broadway" and other completely epic and legendary songs. But very quickly we earned respect from Barry and Cynthia simply through music, sitting in the room and sharing ideas.

Cynthia Weil (co-writer, with Barry Mann and Hanson, of "I Will Come To You," the third single off the album): Hanson were our youngest and among our coolest collaborators.

Taylor Hanson: It was a huge opportunity to be able to—on our first record—sit with people who crafted songs on a level you aspire to. Always having a learner’s ear, but being gutsy enough to speak up, because ultimately this is going to be our song. Barry and Cynthia are and were brilliant and very generous. It was never intimidating—it was always in the sense that we were being invited in to collaborate.

Hamamura: The band was very involved for their respective ages and experience in the making of Middle of Nowhere.

Magness: Taylor’s voice was so strong and natural that I didn’t have to coach him much at all. They were all that way actually. We even created a high part for Zac because he is the youngest and his voice was quite cherub-like back then.


Ultimately, the Dust Brothers didn’t finish the project they started with Hanson—Greenberg hired Stephen Lironi to finish "MMMBop" and "Thinking Of You" and produce the rest of the album. Working out of Scream Studios in Los Angeles, Lironi, a few engineers, and Hanson spent almost two months recording Middle of Nowhere onto analog tape, polishing the songs and finishing arrangements in the studio.

Doug Trantow (second engineer on Middle of Nowhere): The Dust Brothers came over [to Scream Studios] and we transferred the work they had done onto our tape machines ... and then we never saw them again. I’ve heard people say "MMMBop" was recorded in the Dust Brothers’ living room, and though they did start the song there, I absolutely guarantee every single part of their work was replaced by Stephen [Lironi] at Scream, with the exception of one record scratch on "MMMBop."

Greenberg: The Dust Brothers were very in demand at the time and frankly it wasn’t a great temperamental fit between the band and the Dust Brothers. So the Dust Brothers started working on other things and the two tracks ["MMMBop" and "Thinking Of You"] were unfinished.

Trantow: Things were definitely tense when the Dust Brothers showed up. It was kind of like we were transferring what they already recorded. It wasn’t like they were going out of their way to be helpful or cool about it, so I could tell there was some tension, like maybe they weren’t happy about not being able to finish the songs.

During the recording process, Greenberg hired several vocal coaches to help Taylor hit the higher notes he had sung before his voice began deepening. They were unsuccessful until vocal coach Roger Love began working with the brothers. To speed up the recording, Hanson moved to a nearby studio, LAFX, to finish the vocals with Love and producer Mark Hudson, while Lironi and his engineers worked concurrently at Scream.

Trantow: On the second day in the studio, an impromptu jam session happened between Taylor, Isaac, and Stephen [Lironi] while they were listening to a drum loop and working out the parts for "Where's the Love" [the album's second single]. At that moment I absolutely knew something special was happening.

Roger Love (vocal coach on Middle of Nowhere): I was brought in initially by Steve Greenberg and the record label to finish the lead vocal on "MMMBop." After the first day in the studio, when they heard the song done, Steve and the band asked me to vocal coach most of the remaining songs for the album.

Trantow: The vocals took a long time to record—young boys and long hours in dark studios don’t mix too well—so we started to fall behind schedule. The label knew what they had, and they were desperate to get it out.

Greenberg: I knew the world needed to hear Taylor sing the song in its original key on the record, even if he would have to drop the key for subsequent live performances. So I made sure we got it in that key before it was too late.

Love: Taylor had recorded about half of "MMMBop" before his voice had changed due to puberty. The band and the record company both loved the way the music and vocal sounded, and they didn't want to re-record the tracks in a lower key and potentially lose any of the magic … I worked with Taylor to build a lot more power and freedom in his new high "head voice." Then I used that voice to finish "MMMBop" and whenever I needed higher notes for the other songs we recorded.

Trantow: The kids at that point were much better singers and writers than anyone of that age had any right to be, but their instrumental playing was understandably not up to studio standards. While Isaac did play most of the main guitar parts for the songs, Stephen replayed many of them later. The same goes for Taylor's piano and organ parts. This was done only because of their very young age and lack of studio experience … when possible we used their playing, but mostly it had to be replayed by Stephen or a studio musician afterwards.

Love: The boys were such great kids, and both parents were very loving, involved and present … But there were certainly some challenges other than puberty. Zac was only 10, and a heck of a drummer, but he wasn't always thrilled with stepping up to the mic and singing. And he wasn't used to having anyone, even me, saying things like, "That was good, but now let's try it again, and again, and again to make it perfect." That's a lot of pressure on a little kid, no matter how nicely I said "please."

Trantow: We even recorded Zac playing drums for a couple songs, but in spite of being surprisingly good for a boy who just turned 10 years old, it just wasn’t good enough to be on the record. I should say that now they are so well accomplished that I wouldn’t hesitate to hire them to replace the playing of other less-talented musicians! But in this case we had to bring in studio cats.


After Hanson recorded Middle of Nowhere, the band and their family returned to Tulsa. To replicate the sound of the album on stage, the brothers began searching for a bass player and a secondary person to play guitar and keys. While the album was mixed and mastered, the band did advance press and photo shoots, and executives at Mercury Records prepared marketing and radio campaigns to gear up for the April 15, 1997 release of the "MMMBop" single.

Tom Lord-Alge (mixer on Middle of Nowhere): The two Steves [Greenberg and Lironi] would join me each day while I was mixing in Miami Beach. They allowed me the creative freedom I needed to deliver great mixes but also were key in keeping the album sounding natural and focusing on the vocal performances.

Christopher Sabec (former manager of Hanson): The time between the recording [and the release] was an exciting time. We all knew that the album was special.

Taylor Hanson: That period [before the release] is interesting because you’ve created something but nobody knows it. You're sort of anticipating the big moment—will anyone care when this record is released? It's like you have a secret. You feel like you've got this thing that has all this potential, but you're just sort of waiting and hoping.

Lord-Alge: Middle of Nowhere is a very strong record and all involved were certain it would do well, but I remember that none of us would utter anything about how successful we thought it would be as not to jinx it! We stayed focused on helping the boys make a great record.

Greenspan: It was my job to figure out how to image them … Through the photos, I wanted to showcase that they were fun, great looking, and talented. And I wanted to make sure there was a level of sophistication in the images because their music had this quality, too.

Mmmbop album art

Lord-Alge: I was very impressed with the vocals on Middle of Nowhere and love the way the guys harmonized with each other. Obviously "MMMBop" stuck out as being a very strong song and I can remember doing a couple mixes of it until everyone involved was happy. The main difference was on the last version of "MMMBop" where we created the breakdown chorus. It just felt great.

Greenspan: After meeting with them a few times I thought they needed to be more urban-edgy, style-wise. They were from Oklahoma and they did have their own style, but it was a little suburban. I think we moved the style needle slightly from Gap to Urban Outfitters. Of course there was a little resistance at first but then I think they enjoyed feeling a bit more edgy.

Love: I loved "MMMBop" in particular, but honestly had no clue that the band or album would skyrocket to the levels of success they achieved. When I work on a project, I always hope for the best. But there are so many intertwined factors that lead to super-success or failure. From timing to luck, to management and promotion, to making sure that all of the stars align, it's never a sure thing. When it happens it's like magic.

Ravi Hutheesing (Hanson’s backup guitarist from February '97 to February '98): I realized quickly that this project was different from anything I had previously been a part of. The young age of the Hansons and level of commitment from Mercury Records made it evident that there was going to be a major effort to push this to the top. I also felt from the moment I first met Ike, Tay, and Zac that they were three of the most talented kids I have ever met.

In the spring of '97, Isaac was 16, Taylor was 14, and Zac was 11. To promote "MMMBop" and Middle of Nowhere, the band’s schedule was jam-packed with promo appearances, radio station visits, and short 20-minute acoustic concerts. The strength of the song and the band’s hard work paid off. "MMMBop" reached No. 1 in 27 countries, and Hanson appeared on MTV, performed everywhere from the Grammy Awards to the White House, and became teen heartthrobs in the pages of Tiger Beat and Bop magazines.

Hutheesing: Things were pretty crazy … There were a lot of very early mornings and late nights, but because Ike, Tay, and Zac were all minors, child labor laws gave us every third day off. Sometimes we appeared in multiple cities on the same day.

Taylor Hanson: Steve was very conscious of our age, as our A&R guy, but I didn’t feel any pressure from the label at all [about my changing voice]. I felt pressure from myself.

Hamamura: [His changing voice] was a conversation [at Mercury] but never an issue. I actually felt very strongly that Taylor was such a superstar and that their family values were so strong, there was no doubt in my mind that they would continue making music.

Taylor Hanson: Once we were really touring in late '97 and '98, [my changing voice] was a challenge. Essentially we changed keys and the way you invert things and the keys you pick to make it sound as close to the original recording.

Isaac Hanson (via Vulture, 2016): "MMMBop" was originally in the key of A, and we currently play it in F sharp. Sometimes in F.

Hutheesing: Tay's voice was changing almost weekly, and we had to constantly change the key of the songs to accommodate it. The bigger issue was that Zac was young and his energy would burn out quickly ... but he hit those drums so hard for 20 minutes!

Taylor Hanson: Part of it is the psychological effect of deciding "this has definitely got to change; you can’t sing that note anymore." But it happened so fast—most of the performances people saw of us, it was already underway. I was 13 when we recorded the album and 14 and 15 when we were out pushing it. There weren’t a lot of Peter Brady moments.

Sabec: One of my life’s honors was touring with the band and their family, along with my business partner Stirling McIlwaine. I loved the Hershey, Pennsylvania, show because it was sheer madness in the size of the crowd. The big shows in New York (at Jones Beach) and L.A. (at the Hollywood Bowl) had an energy you only find in those respective cities.

MMM Bop by Hanson lyrics

Capitalizing on Middle of Nowhere's success, Mercury Records also released, in '97 and '98, a Hanson Christmas album, a collection of the band’s independent recordings, and a live album. Despite Hanson’s massive commercial appeal, there were critics who disparaged the band's success at their young age, mocked their long blond hair, and even doubted their ability to play instruments and write songs.

Sabec: My advice to the band, which they actually understood intuitively, was that the crowds and their fans were why they were in this business in the first place. Welcoming your fans and making them feel appreciated is your number one goal and Isaac, Taylor, and Zac always accomplished this effortlessly.

Hutheesing: The most aggressive haters were actually the paparazzi. They often hurled insulting remarks at us in airports as we would try to hide from them. While the Internet and online posting were just beginning to surface, the true fans were much more vocal than the naysayers.

Sabec: As for the haters, life is too short to really worry about them, right?

Goldberg: [Middle Of Nowhere] was a very important record and album for Mercury that year. It was a global hit and was the biggest album by a new signing in commercial terms we had while I was president.

Taylor Hanson: Music gave us a platform to channel that larger-than-life time when you’re seeing the world, you’re feeling what’s going on, and you’re seeing relationships come and go and ebb and flow. And a song gives you a way to crystallize that. I think there was a little bit of magic in the timing [of "MMMBop"]—the right three chords with the right message.

Hamamura: I look back on [that period of time] with gratitude for having been some part of what was a global musical phenomenon. And though some may disagree, the kids bent the culture, even if it was short-lived in the scheme of things.

Greenberg: The period of time was magical because we were—along with the Spice Girls—ushering in a revival of pop after the grunge era. So it was really exciting being at the vanguard of the next era and seeing it develop. And seeing teen audiences respond to music that was uplifting.


Middle of Nowhere is still Hanson’s most commercially successful album to date, but the band never stopped making music. After releasing their second album in 2000, the band founded their own record label, 3CG Records (standing for 3 Car Garage, the name of their 1998 compilation album), and has steadily toured and released new studio albums for the past two decades: Underneath (2004), The Walk (2007), Shout It Out (2010), and Anthem (2013), all of which charted well on the Billboard Top 200 albums. Despite achieving fame and making millions before they were old enough to drive, the brothers didn’t go down the dark path that plagues many who become famous as children.

Lord-Alge: I’ve watched the guys over the years mature musically and they have really become one of the last great rhythm & blues bands. Their sound is very organic.

Weil: Very proud of these talented boys—excuse me, talented men.

Hutheesing: They were very grounded and kind people, so I would never have expected them to drop off the deep end and wind up with addictions and scandals. Certainly that happens to many, and they would have been vulnerable based on their fame and age. However, their parents did a great job of striking a balance between the responsibility and vulnerability of fame and fortune.

Taylor Hanson: The main thing is [our parents] never treated us like we didn’t have to hold our own, and treat people the same as we always had from the very beginning, regardless of success. They were always there saying, "Don’t be afraid to work for it, to try, to strive and push through when things are hard." That work ethic is the mindset we grew up with. That sense that character is more important than whether you’re super successful at this.

Goldberg: The fact that they were such a close family precluded a lot of the problems that sudden fame often engenders.

Taylor Hanson: I remember the feeling that almost to a fault, we wanted to make sure it was about the music. And having discussions with people, to them, it was just a "You guys are young, you have fans, we should merchandise and sell these [items], people will buy them." And thinking to ourselves we're not going to be taken seriously [if we do that]. We really fought for it at every stage. We didn’t do lunch boxes, we didn’t do a lot of things. I remember thinking, "We’re not in it for that, we plan to be here 20 years from now, making music."

Today, the brothers are in their thirties and are all married with children: Isaac has three kids, Taylor has five, and Zac has four. The brothers are also entrepreneurs, running their record label, a beer company (MMMHops, anyone?), and the annual Hop Jam, Oklahoma’s largest craft beer and music festival. Besides gearing up to release new music and a Greatest Hits compilation album, Hanson is also preparing to embark on a world tour to celebrate 25 years as a band. From June to October 2017, the band will play shows throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., and Canada.

Taylor Hanson: The message for us this year has always been about the music, and about how music facilitates the connection with people. It's about the timelessness of hopefully great songs and songs that stand up. We want people to remember the songs.

Sabec: I am very proud of the guys. I think their music continues to resonate and their ability to take their brand into other ventures has been exciting to watch.

Taylor Hanson: We’re still going forward and we’re still hungry and desiring that spirit that got us started … You're proud of where you've been, you have that history, but you build a history based on where you're headed. It's exciting to look back because you were always driving, always pushing, always hungry for the next thing.

Greenberg: Regarding Hanson's music today, I think they've matured into a great rock band, and of course they remain great songwriters. The songs were, and always will be, the key.


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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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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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