Back in the days when there were fewer channels — and a lot more variety shows — TV was pretty much wall-to-wall Christmas specials in December, from singing and dancing and sketch comedy to animated kids and crickets and long-eared donkeys. Cut to the present day where, apart from a handful of specials centered around pop stars performing at the lighting of one Christmas tree or other, the major networks mostly spotlight the blessed foursome — Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown, and the Grinch — while relegating the TV of yore to DVD or basic cable. Here’s a handful of gems from yesteryear that might make help your season bright:
This special made-for-TV movie event, produced for the United Nations, boasts a once-in-a-lifetime collection of talent, with Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers, Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Shaw, James Shigeta, Peter Fonda, Pat Hingle, and Steve Lawrence in front of the camera, with Rod Serling writing and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) directing.
An odd twist on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, this is the story of a pro-isolationist (played by Hayden) who learns from three ghosts on Christmas Eve that mankind must work together (via, cough, the United Nations) in order to stave off the destruction of civilization. Not the Christmas-iest of fare, perhaps, and the politics are rather on-the-nose (Serling was never at his subtlest when writing about issues), but it’s a compellingly odd bit of pop culture.
How you can see it: Unseen for decades after its December 1964 premiere and still unavailable on DVD, this special has recently resurfaced annually on Turner Classic Movies, with the next broadcast scheduled for December 18, 2014.
If you want evidence of the “Pac-Man Fever” that gripped the nation in the early 1980s, look no further than this Christmas special, a spin-off of the Saturday morning cartoon series about the munching yellow orb and his continuing adventures fighting off a quartet of cranky ghosts. This holiday extravaganza sees Santa Claus crash-landing in PacLand; St. Nick has no idea where he is, and the video game characters (including Mrs. Pac-Man — she must have ditched the “Ms.” along the way — and their offspring Baby-Pac) don’t know Santa, but our heroes nonetheless help the jolly old man repair his sleigh, thus, y’know, saving Christmas.
If you’ve already guessed that this shamelessly commercial piece of Reagan-era TV animation is mostly junk, well, you’ll get no argument here. But there’s something so shameless about it, and so committed to its ridiculous storyline, that makes Christmas Comes to PacLand the kind of car-accident viewing from which you just can’t turn your head. Put it on in the background of your holiday parties and watch the slack-jawed response from friends and family.
How you can see it: Warner Archive’s Pac-Man: The Complete Second Season DVD contains the special as an extra; you might also check the Cartoon Network or Boomerang’s listings, since someone with a sense of humor at those channels will occasionally pop it into the December schedule.
To watch the wholesome, harmonic music of the sprawling King Family from the 1960s is to know that you’re watching the culture that the counter-culture was countering. But I’d rather watch the King Cousins jazz-hand their way through a musical rendition of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” over another viewing of Woodstock any day. What started as the King Sisters, a popular singing act of the 1940s and 1950s, metastasized into the stage-filling King Family of spouses, children, cousins and in-laws by the mid-1960s, when they occupied the hour before Lawrence Welk on ABC.
The Kings’ holiday specials endure, especially this Christmas classic, which gave TV one of the most memorable variety moments ever: King Sister Alyce sings a plaintive “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” to her son Ric, who was serving in the army — only to have Ric surprise her onstage mid-song, joining his flustered and overjoyed mother for the remaining verses. For a country dealing with the deployment of so many of its young men to Vietnam, it was a heartfelt and resonant reunion.
How you can see it: It’s featured on the new two-disc set King Family Christmas: Classic Television Specials, Volume Two (Polly O. Entertainment), along with their Thanksgiving show, a Qiana-licious 1974 Christmas special, two Christmas episodes of their prime-time variety show, and a terrific PBS documentary about the Kings and their contributions to holiday TV.
Actually the 1957 Christmas episode of the The Frank Sinatra Show, this memorable duet has become a free-standing special in its own right in recent years. Long available on VHS only in scratchy black-and-white, the full-color version was released in 2003 after Tina Sinatra found a 35mm print of the episode in the family vaults.
There’s almost no plot tying this all together — Der Bingle drops in on his pal Frank for a holiday dinner (there’s a manservant perpetually in the background doing all the heavy lifting), and they do some singing, together and apart. They also walk outside at one point and find themselves in Dickens-era England, where they do some more singing. In an era where attempts at reviving the variety show can only be done with heavy doses of irony and winking (looking at you, Maya Rudolph), sometimes it’s just enough to spend half an hour with two of the greatest male vocalists of the 20th century as they ply their trade.
How you can see it: Happy Holidays just made its DVD debut as part of Bing Crosby: The Television Specials, Volume 2 – The Christmas Specials (UMe).
The late, great Jim Henson was responsible for scads of holiday programming over the years, from the charming John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together (1979) to Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977) — I’ve always thought of the latter as “A Child’s First Total Bummer,” but it has its partisans. Perhaps the hardest to track down is A Muppet Family Christmas, which marks one of the only occasions in which the casts of Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock all share billing.
The convoluted storyline involves all the Muppets heading to the farm owned by Fozzie’s mom, who has planned to leave town for Christmas and has rented the place to Doc and his dog Sprocket. (The farm is, naturally, host to a number of Fraggle holes.) If you’re a fan of the boisterous humor and musical interludes for which the Muppets are famous, you’ll have a blast with this charming, if slightly overstuffed, special.
How you can see it: Currently out of print on DVD — and home video versions don’t always have all the songs, because of complicated rights issues — the special can be viewed on YouTube.
Ten years ago, TV audiences were assaulted with A Christmas Carol: The Musical, a cable movie that must have seemed like a good idea on paper, what with Kelsey Grammer as a singing and dancing (but still crabby) Scrooge, and musical comedy pros like Jane Krakowski, Jesse L. Martin, and Jason Alexander playing various ghosts. Unfortunately, the songs (by acclaimed tunesmiths Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens) are aggressively unmemorable, and the whole thing is lit so brightly you would think it was Scrooge’s Swinging Christmas in Malibu.
There are other musical options available for fans of the Dickens novella: besides the delightful big-screen Scrooge (1970), starring Albert Finney, there’s also The Stingiest Man in Town, an original musical produced for The Alcoa Hour back in 1956. Basil Rathbone makes a memorably miserly Scrooge, with young Vic Damone playing the younger version of the character. More people are probably familiar with the animated Rankin-Bass remake from 1978, but the live-action original is worth tracking down.
How you can see it: Alas, no Tina Sinatra has come to this show’s rescue: while it originally aired in color, only a black-and-white kinescope version is known to exist, and it can be purchased on DVD from Video Artists International.
One of those Gen X holiday favorites — it even got referenced, reverentially, on a South Park Christmas episode — that used to air on network TV before being sent out to pasture on basic cable, this Rankin-Bass effort focuses on a small town whose citizens all get their letters to Santa returned to them after a letter to the local newspaper says that Saint Nick is a fraud. Can the local clock-maker (and his trusty mouse sidekick) build a giant bell-tower in time for December 24 to win back the favor of Father Christmas?
Of all the Christmas specials that got downgraded to second-tier status, this one’s a personal favorite, from the stellar voice cast — Broadway vets Joel Grey and Tammy Grimes, comedian George Gobel, veteran character actor John McGiver (The Manchurian Candidate) — to its passel of catchy songs (“Christmas Chimes Are Calling,” “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand,” “Give Your Heart a Try”). I never let a December pass without at least one viewing.
How you can see it: Available as a stand-alone Blu-ray and DVD, or sharing a DVD with another charming B-lister, Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (all from Warner Home Video), and also a perennial part of ABC Family’s “25 Days of Christmas.”
Yes, technically, this is the holiday episode from the first season of The Venture Bros., but since it wittily plays off so many conventions of the Christmas-special genre — right down to the spinning “SPECIAL” that used to herald every CBS special in the 1970s — it deserves to be more widely seen. The Venture Bros. itself was always a shrewd parody of vintage Hanna-Barbera adventures of the Jonny Quest ilk, and this episode effectively skewers TV’s holiday perennials.
Not that there aren’t some bonuses thrown in as well — this might be the first mainstream American TV show to include the Krampus (Santa’s monstrous sidekick who punishes evil children), not to mention an evil spy whose specialty is hiding in a crèche as “Tiny Joseph.” Even if you’ve never watched the series, you’ll be able to follow the off-the-wall characters and get the darkly absurd jokes.
How you can see it: “A Very Venture Christmas” is included in The Venture Bros. Season One DVD (Warner Home Video).