Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Scrounger’s Cheapjack Christmas Halftime Show: Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus


See, I told you there was a surprise coming. For our halftime show, a special which I really didn’t expect to find in the Bin of Fallen Grace from a dollar DVD outfit called East West Entertainment (whose website I’ll link to as soon as they have more than a placeholder there…and not a moment sooner).

Just Enough Information: As far as I’m concerned, this is the only information you need: Directed by Bill Melendez. However, some callow youths will need to be reminded that after doing stints with Disney, Warner Brothers, and UPA, Bill Melendez started his own animation production house and, with Lee Mendelson and (of course) Charles Schulz, brought to life around 70 Peanuts TV specials and feature films, including the one we all watch every year around this time. Bill Melendez Productions later extended the same courtesy to the Garfield family of fine literature. He also had a most excellent mustache.

In 1974, Melendez and writer/co-producer Mort Green presented an animated version loosely based on the story behind one of the most famous letters-to-the-editor in publishing history, and they won the 1975 Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Special for their effort.

The Christmas Special: Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus. Original Broadcast: December 6, 1974 on ABC.

You know you’re in good hands the moment you hear Jim Backus narrating the story, taking us back to the New York City of December 1897. Little Virginia O’Hanlon’s teacher is asking the class to write a paper about Christmas, but when Virginia announces her intention to write on the topic “Why I Believe In Santa Claus,” the class bursts out in the type of raucous laughter that any Charlie Brown fan will recognize instantly.

And that goes double for the character design.

Because they’re kids, Virgina’s little friends don’t hesitate to give her a hard time over believing in that “baby stuff”, especially Billy, who has a teenage brother who doesn’t believe in anything. (Yeah, we’ve all been there.) Virginia leads this pack of wolves around the neighborhood trying to find an adult who can give her a straight answer. The best Officer Reilly can tell her is that Santa’s never been arrested in this precinct. Sam Shulman, the candy store owner, never saw the man in person either. Virginia’s father gets closest to the heart of the matter by explaining that a lot of kids—and grownups too, for that matter—don’t believe in things that they can’t see with their own eyes. That doesn’t mean they’re not there, just that they’re harder to find. Unfortunately, Ginny wasn’t looking for a philosophy lesson, just a simple yes or no.

It’s Tommy Keegan, a newsboy for The Sun, who hits on the idea to writing a letter to the editor, which Dr. O’Hanlon thinks is a fine idea, since “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” So Virginia sits down and writes That Letter, then pops it in the mailbox and waits.

And waits.

And gets more miserable with each passing day. Tommy takes it upon himself to visit Sun editor-in-chief Francis Church to put his friend’s case before him, and after a night of soul-searching, Church sits down and writes what he determines is a suitable response...and 110 years later, a lot of people still think so.

This is a perfectly charming special. The kids, as I mentioned, look like Charlie Brown’s lost tribe (but not to the point that it feels like a knock-off), while the grownups have a sort of character design that feels like the 1970s in a way that’s easier to show than explain. Not a criticism, just an observation. Green’s script is as solid as you’d expect from a Bill Melendez production, even if it’s a bit gentler than what you’d usually get from The 500-Pound Beagle In The Room. I wonder why we don’t see it on the air anymore. After all, it did win an Emmy…

Oh.

That’s probably the one major thing you really need to be warned about in advance. One of Ginny’s friends is a Chinese boy and, to put it as diplomatically as possible, is drawn the way Chinese boys used to be drawn. His father? Twice as much. Even though they’re not at the front of the scene for more than a minute, that might be a deal-breaker for some people.

Our Holiday Lesson For Today: Hopefully you’ve figured out by now what Our Holiday Lesson is going to be, but if you haven’t read it already this year you might as well get it from the source. Virginia grew up to be a teacher and a principal, and to her dying day credited the Sun editorial for having a positive influence on her life, which only goes to show you what a little kindness will produce in someone.

Spot ‘Em: I already gave away Jim Backus, but singing the title song over the closing credits is Jimmy Osmond, the youngest of one of the inescapable singing families of the 1970s. Louis Nye also has one line as Lee Fong, Chinese restaurant owner.

But Don’t Take My Word For It: With that type of buildup, now you have to watch it, right? Right? Oh, come on, don’t make me press play for you…

After you do that, make sure you watch this segment of the Antiques Roadshow, where O’Hanlon’s great-grandson shows up with the original letter, apparently just to blow the appraisers’ minds.

Next: Back to the primary mission and a fistful of Ozzie and Harriet! Wait, why am I so excited?

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