While out on a bargain bin hunt during the recent Halloween season I uncovered a DVD of an old personal favorite of the holiday. “Witch’s Night Out” features Gilda Radner voicing a melodramatic, Norma Desmond-esque old hag that throws a spooky party for an entire town of monochromatic people, turning them all into the gruesome, moaning and big-titted monsters of their dreams for one night. This bizarre little Canadian Halloween special from the 1970’s (featuring a disco-flavored theme song during the credit roll) used to play on cable every year when I was a kid, and it’s been more than 20 years since I’d last seen it.
When you sit down to watch something you remember from childhood but haven’t seen in decades, the feeling it gives you is about as close to time travel as we will probably ever know. Some stuff isn’t as good as you remember, and sometimes you notice things you never did as a child. After making this find, I began reflecting back on other favorite holiday programming from childhood, most of it Christmas-oriented, but every now and then you would come across the rare “Thanksgiving Special”.
The first that probably comes to most minds is “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”, but that was basic, elementary viewing-everyone remembers it. And good god, Peppermint Patty was such a bitch about everything. At some point in my life, a “sequel” of sorts was produced in which the Peanuts gang were all pilgrims and Lucy made implications of an inappropriate relationship with Mayflower Captain Miles Standish.
Last year at this time on MBIP, I covered how I spend the day after Thanksgiving, but this year it’s all about how I spent the day of Thanksgiving growing up, in which I took all of my favorite holiday programming and watched most (if not all) of it in one day, years before binge-watching was such a “thing”. Much like the way people get their holiday shopping done early in the season was how I liked to approach holiday viewing—get it all out of the way so it frees up my schedule for other fun and festivities.
I had free reign of the television all Thanksgiving day, because my parents and grandparents were all busy. As an adult, Thanksgiving becomes a responsibility—you are expected to cook, make things, or even, God forbid, host the whole damn thing….but as a child, Thanksgiving is one of the best, most carefree days of your life where you have nothing to do.
No other holiday can boast such conceit—with Halloween comes costume and door-to-door efforts, Christmas brings gift anxiety, but Thanksgiving is a complete physical and mental break with little to no stakes. Your only obligation on Thanksgiving is to stuff your face with food, and in my case, stuff my mind with bizarre cartoons and silly little specials, mostly created in the 70’s and revived via cable in the 80’s and 90’s. It was wonderful.
Let’s give thanks and dig in.
Thanksgiving Day always started early for me, even before daybreak. I’d channel surf until finding the annual early morning broadcast of “Mouse on the Mayflower”, the token Thanksgiving special from the Rankin-Bass company. “Told and sung” (as they all were by some celebrity of the era) in this instance by Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Mouse” was all about the First Thanksgiving, seen from the point of view of a rodent.
These days, it’s nearly impossible to find this special, I suspect due to its horribly racist depiction of Native Americans. Even when I watched this decades ago, I assumed someone in programming picked up on this too, thus playing it at an hour so early that I was the only one watching.
Digging even deeper into the relatively narrow “Thanksgiving Special” niche you can also find such gems as “Thanksgiving in the Land of Oz”, a return trip to Oz for Dorothy that’s all vaguely centered around Thanksgiving for some reason, primarily in that the Wizard’s balloon is shaped like a giant turkey.
It starred Sid Caesar in the dual narrating role of the Wizard of Oz and as a talking pie (you read right) that took the place of Toto as Dorothy’s sidekick on this journey. This whole marvelously wacky premise was crafted by writer Romeo Muller, who also wrote “Mouse on the Mayflower” and was a veteran of many other equally loveable and totally bananas holiday specials created by Rankin-Bass. More on them to come...
“Oz” played annually for quite a while on Disney Channel, which was also the spot for many years to catch “The Hoboken Chicken Emergency”, an adaptation of a Daniel Pinkwater short story I read in third grade that starred Peter “Ralphie in ‘A Christmas Story’” Billingsley as a kid that brings home a six foot chicken for Thanksgiving dinner. I almost accidentally took a train to the real Hoboken once, and was warned that “you don’t want to go to Hoboken. There’s nothing there”. And that’s all I really know about the place, aside from this story.
And speaking of “A Christmas Story”, don’t think that movie didn’t also spend several years on the Thanksgiving Day playlist back when it was a still a cult film, before it was overly merchandized and played to death for 24 hours at a time.
Once 9am rolled around Thanksgiving morning, it was all about Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, hosted in most years by Willard Scott and Katie Couric, usually in some ridiculous hat.
The balloons, the Rockettes, and the rest of its pomp announced the arrival of Christmas with a flourish that nothing else does. Most years, the parade was followed on NBC by either the original “Miracle on 34th St.” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”, both of which at one time suffered the same overplaying we see these days of “A Christmas Story” but are now treated with a certain preciousness that with it comes a more limited airplay schedule.
My first exposure to the acid trip known as Sid and Marty Krofft entertainment came on a Thanksgiving Day around 1989 or so when WGN programmed a block of “Krofft Klassics” for the holiday, featuring a custom-made, cornucopia-themed bumper to introduce the psychedelic adventures of HR Pufnstuf, the “hat people” of Lidsville, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and others, the likes of which could only be conceived by someone with as tripped out a mind as the young Marty Wombacher. I watched this marathon at my grandma’s (which became my house many years later) until I was pulled away for Thanksgiving dinner.
In other years, WGN usually had a great movie lineup for the day, and after the cancellation of Bozo they produced and began airing a special called “Bozo, Gar and Ray”, a look back at Bozo and other WGN Kids shows that I covered in a previous post about my visit to the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago. I still enjoy watching this special, whose airings bounce around every year between Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, etc.
Ultimately however, the bulk of my Thanksgivings were spent watching every holiday special in the Rankin-Bass anthology (or as close to all as I could get, as they total about 15 hours of programming). Santas, snowmen, drummer boys and even “weather misers” filled our television for most Thanksgivings growing up and I’ll even admit, well into my 20s. From secular to religious, hand drawn to stop-motion, these specials ran the gamut of the season and the animated form and all at 24 frames per second (give or take, as some of the animation is a bit crude).
The more conventional specials still get annual network airings, which show why Rudolph got his job or how Frosty came to life, but if you took the time to watch the more bizarre specials, most of which have been damned for all time to limited viewings on ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas, you could learn about the blind kid who gets to see again, all thanks to snow (yes, snow) in “The First Christmas Snow” or how the Puppet-Who-Would-Be-a-Boy Pinocchio celebrates Christmas in, you guessed it, “Pinocchio’s Christmas”.
Rankin-Bass also enlightened us with tales full of strange creatures and bizarre myths, like an Irish banshee that threatened to destroy Christmas for the leprechauns in “The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold”. “Jack Frost” told an unrequited love story and was narrated by Buddy Hackett as a groundhog. Then there was “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus”, one that I still don’t quite get. There was even a Rudolph/Frosty crossover feature film, set at a circus with an evil Ice Wizard as its main villain. And Ethel Merman as a rodeo star. I’m not making this up.
For the religious minded, there’s also “Nestor, the Long Eared Christmas Donkey”, a sort of Rudolph meets Bambi tale of the donkey that took Mary to the stable in Bethlehem. Told and sung by country singer Roger Miller (makes perfect sense, right?). This one is widely regarded as possibly the most depressing holiday special ever created.
Cricket on the Hearth is an adaptation of a Charles Dickens story told and sung by Danny Thomas. I singled this one out because I just learned what “Eggs Danny Thomas style” is, and now I’ll never look at my glass coffee table the same way again. If you don’t know what that is, Google it. And have a Merry Christmas.
I haven’t held my marathon for a few years since becoming an “adult” and now spending my turkey days bouncing around to several family Thanksgivings. I miss the simpler days, but can’t complain too much since I can re-visit them anytime I wish—several years ago, I acquired copies of pretty much everything I talked about today through thrift stores and Amazon Marketplace, a great place to find used copies of obscure CDs books, movies, and other weird stuff that only you care about.
And the prices reflect the demand, usually costing mere pennies plus shipping! You almost have to do it this way, since broadcast holiday programming seems to get lazier and lazier every year-these days, it’s television reruns and the same movies played over and over, so it’s better to take a do it yourself approach like I always did.
As a child on Thanksgiving, I fed my mind with these stories and took them as gospel—I truly believed Kris Kringle became Santa with the help of his wacky penguin sidekick and a Winter Warlock, and that somewhere out there was a real “Island of Misfit Toys”.
As wacked out as some of these holiday specials are, the fact that people are still watching them and networks are still broadcasting them (albeit limited in some cases) proves that they hold up and aren’t a bad way to get in the holiday mood. So in addition to filling your Thanksgiving with turkey, cranberries and stuffing this year, try adding a dash of Snoopy, a pinch of Heat or Snow Miser, or while you’re at it, pepper in some Red Ryder for good measure.
Bonus Thanksgiving/Eraserhead Art By Jaws the Cabbie!
Jaws the Cabbie sent in this Thanksgiving/Eraserhead art to accompany his comment. Suddenly I’m not hungry for turkey anymore! Thanks, Jaws!