Remember that great Sesame Street Christmas special from 1978? The one with Leslie Uggams thinking that lemonade is hot cocoa? The one with Anne Murray and the magic eggnog container? The one where Oscar adopts a kitten with a broken leg, and Ethel Merman calls Imogene Coca an idiot?
No, no, no — NOT the one where Big Bird worries about Santa Claus coming down the chimney, and Bert and Ernie sacrifice to buy each other Christmas presents. I’m talking about the OTHER Sesame Street Christmas special from 1978.
Yup, I’m not kidding. Nobody remembers it anymore, but there were actually two hour-long Sesame Street Christmas specials produced in the same year. The one you remember is Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, produced by Children’s Television Workshop for public broadcasting stations. That’s the one that everybody loves, and that’s the one you can still buy on video.
The other one is A Special Sesame Street Christmas, produced on a shoestring for CBS by Bob Banner Associates. Bob Banner was the ambitious TV producer responsible for The Carol Burnett Show, The Don Ho Show, Candid Camera, Solid Gold, Star Search, Perry Como in Mexico, Perry Como in New Orleans, Perry Como in Austria, and Perry Como: Easter in Guadalajara. (Apparently, Banner spent most of the late 70’s sending Perry Como places.)
But for Christmas 1978, Bob Banner was a man with a dream — to make a low-budget Sesame Street special for a major network. He rented the Sesame Street studio, hired a skeleton crew from the Sesame Street cast, added a dollop of guest stars, Broadway production numbers and injured kittens, filmed the darn thing and created 70’s Christmas magic the likes of which have never been seen. Have you heard of the Star Wars Christmas Special, famous around the world for being a dreadful mess? A Special Sesame Street Christmas is kind of like that — except instead of Boba Fett, it had Leslie Uggams.
One of Banner’s big cost-saving ideas was not to hire anybody from Children’s Television Workshop to make the special. Jim Henson, Jon Stone and Frank Oz were busy working on Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. Instead of them, Banner hired director Russ Petranto, who had previously directed Sanford and Son, and would later go on to direct episodes of the smash hits Too Close for Comfort, Out of This World and The Munsters Today. The script was written by Tom Dunsmuir, who also wrote episodes of Three’s Company and Good Times. I think you can see where this is headed.
And, most importantly, Banner only paid out for four Sesame cast members, one puppeteer and three puppets. Forget about Bert and Ernie, Gordon and Susan — A Special Sesame Street Christmas had Bob, David, Mr. Hooper and Maria. Carroll Spinney was the lucky puppeteer who got to perform Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, and gymnast Toby Towson was hired to perform Barkley the Dog. All the rest of the money was spent on guest star cameos and the rights to Broadway songs.
So what was the show about? Well, here’s a synopsis, with my Christmas blessings. Before I begin, let me assure you: Everything in this article is 100% true. Sometimes I write satirical hoaxes for this site. This is not one of those times. I swear to you on my honor as a Muppet journalist that this special really exists.
So let’s deck those halls. We open with a shot of Mr. Hooper and a little girl trimming a Christmas tree, and we hear: “Merry Christmas, everybody! This is Leslie Uggams. You’re lookin’ at Sesame Street — and yes, it’s the Christmas season.” Then: “Hello, this is Oscar the Grouch speaking. I can’t STAND Christmas! Anyway, I do have orders to say: Welcome to A Special Sesame Street Christmas!”
Bob, David, Mr. Hooper and Maria are happily trimming a Christmas tree that they’ve set up, somewhat mysteriously, out on the street next to the familiar stoop of 123 Sesame Street. They invite Oscar to participate in the festivities, so he gives them a dirty old sneaker to hang on the tree. “Bah humbug!” he snarls. Mr. Hooper makes the best of it: “We mustn’t let Oscar get our spirits down!” Big Bird shows up with the present he got for Leslie Uggams. The others want to see the present — they chipped in for it too — but Big Bird wants it to be a surprise.
“HERE’s the STAR!” screams Leslie Uggams as she enters with a decoration for the top of the tree. (I’m not kidding; that’s her very first line of dialogue.) The star is an ugly handmade thing, but everyone coos over it like it’s made of platinum. Oscar joins in as they fawn over her: “I just want to tell you, Miss Uggams, that I’ve never missed any of your shows!” Leslie is pleased. “Oh, thank you, Oscar!” Can you wait till the hilarious punchline? Here goes: “I never SEE any of your shows, so I never MISS them!” Everyone chuckles as if that’s a joke, rather than an unfortunate incident.
Leslie opens Big Bird’s present, and finds an ugly hat with earflaps. Big Bird is disappointed — everyone trusted him to pick out a present for Leslie, and he failed. This, obviously, is a cue for Leslie to sing a big Broadway-style show-stopper production number about how it’s the thought that counts at Christmas. “Isn’t the gift the least important pawwt,” she belts, “If what you get comes from the hawwwt?” She’s got a good point. Everyone joins in and dances around a bit.
It starts to snow, and the snowplow (represented by a yellow flashing light) dumps all the snow in front of the stoop. Leslie takes charge and enlists Bob, David and Barkley the Dog to sweep the snow away. All of a sudden, Leslie Uggams is the Supreme Commander of Sesame Street; as soon as she gets the slightest whim, everyone else around her follows her every command. As they shovel the snow, Leslie orders them to think of warm things. Oscar brings them cups, which they naively assume are full of hot cocoa. They’re all so amazingly unobservant that they don’t realize it’s really ice cold lemonade until they’ve all brought it to their lips to take a big sip. Like shooting fish in a barrel, really. David and Bob are so offended by this devious scheme that they leave, but Leslie stays behind for a little Star-to-Grouch talk.
Oscar pops up from his can. “Look, Leslie, I’m glad that somebody agrees with me about all this Christmas nonsense.” Leslie shakes her head: “I don’t agree with you, Oscar.” Oscar is startled: “You don’t? You mean, you’re with… THEM?” “Yes. And you should be with them!” Leslie Uggams, Chief of the Sesame Street Thought Police, informs Oscar through song about how much fun Christmas is, but it has no effect. She’s completely frustrated. How is it possible for anyone not to agree with Leslie Uggams on any given subject? It’s maddening.
Maria emerges from the brownstone holding a hurt kitten. But enough about her problems. What’s eating Leslie? “It’s just Oscar, with his whole dog-gone Christmas attitude!” Maria tries to take her mind off it by showing her the injured kitten she found. She’s dressed the poor thing up with a red ribbon, and put a cast on its broken leg. Leslie determines that the kitten needs a name. Then Leslie and Maria shout in unison: “TINY TIM!” Maria laughs: “I can’t BELIEVE we came up with the same name!” You’ll notice from here on in that poor Maria gets saddled with the absolute worst dialogue of the hour. Here’s another example. Leslie: “Oscar certainly does remind you of another Christmas grouch, doesn’t he.” Maria: “You mean Scrooge.” The word “Scrooge” gives Leslie an idea to teach Oscar a lesson. Maria trails after her: “What are we going to do, Leslie? What’s the plan?” Poor Sonia Manzano. So smart, so cool, so contractually obligated to speak these dimwit lines.
They go to Mr. Hooper’s store, where they make a Ghost of Christmas Past costume out of trash. “If THAT doesn’t shake Oscar up enough to get him into the Christmas spirit, NOTHING will!” That was another Maria line. I can only imagine how drunk she had to get before doing this. Anyway, nobody wants to volunteer to dress up as the ghost, but then who should walk in but Anne Murray! Anne lip-synchs a song to Big Bird — a completely inappropriate love song called “You Needed Me,” by the way — as everyone looks on, completely still. Then Anne agrees, apropos of nothing, to be the Ghost.
Bob, David, Maria and Leslie hide around the corner and make an “Ooooo-oooo” ghost sound to surprise Oscar. Then Anne appears with a nasty green felt Christmas-tree cloak and matching top hat, adorned with trash accessories. She tells Oscar that she’s the Ghost of Christmas Past — and, of course, Oscar instantly believes her, because the only other option would be that she’s Anne Murray dressed up in green felt and garbage, and let’s face it, which option would be more likely? Anne gives Oscar a magic eggnog container, and tells him, “You look into it, and you’ll see the wonders of a Christmas when you were young!” (Once again: I swear this is real.)
As Oscar looks through the tube formed by the eggnog container, the others all act out a little scene in front of him. Leslie is dressed up as Oscar’s nurse, and she’s pushing a baby carriage holding a little trash can. Leslie sings:
You were a happy tyke
We couldn’t help but like
You were what Christmas should be
Try to remember when
Everyone was your friend
You filled the whole world with glee
When people looked at you
They would say, Coochy-coo!
You were the best baby yet
Then you grew up, you see
Big, green and grouchily
Look at how fast we forget!
By the way, the music for this special was written by Billy Joel. I’m kidding, of course. Anyway, all of this somehow doesn’t make Oscar feel nicer. Instead, he grabs an electric guitar and sings “Yakety Yak.” For real. He really does. It’s like this special was written by someone with Attention Deficit Disorder. The guitar blows up at the end, and we go to commercial.
The next morning, Oscar gets up early to read the grouch newspaper. Leslie Uggams sits at an upstairs window, staring dreamily at Oscar and singing another inappropriate love song about his lyrical smile. There’s some major chemistry going on between Leslie Uggams and Oscar. I can’t really explain it. Then: “Ooooo-oooo!” Here comes Imogene Coca dressed up in red with alarm clocks strapped all over her body! She’s the Ghost of Christmas Present, and she informs Oscar that he’s now completely invisible. The street fills with adults and kids wishing each other Merry Christmas and singing about how they don’t care whether Oscar celebrates Christmas with them or not. In the middle of the song, Henry Fonda appears on a fire escape holding a bulldozer toy, and announces: “Christmas is still being in my bathrobe at 11:00 in the morning sitting in my easy chair! Attach Part C to Part B, being sure to use the 3/4″ wingnut… What 3/4″ wingnut?” Then Henry disappears through a door and is never seen again.
This ghostly visitation doesn’t work either, so everyone’s depressed. Maria, Bob, Leslie and Imogene are all staring hopelessly into space — and for once I actually believe in what I’m seeing on the screen. Then Ethel Merman walks by, and gives them a hearty greeting: “Hi, Leslie! Merry Christmas! IMOGENE — what’s the matter? You look like an IDIOT!” Without being given any information, the omniscient Ethel Merman instantly knows that they’re down because Oscar the Grouch isn’t in the Christmas spirit. You gotta hand it to Ethel to be able to read people like that. She says they shouldn’t be depressed — “You gotta do what ETHEL does! You gotta out-LAST him!” She plants her feet on the ground and sticks her arms out. “Cause… thaaaaa… SUN’ll come OUUUUT… toMORRoww! Betcher bottom DOLLahhh that toMORRowww… there’ll be SUNNNN!” She delivers the entire song standing in the same spot with her arms in the same position. No choreography for our Ethel! They’re paying her to stand there and sing the song, and she’s gonna stand there and sing the damn song. ToMORRow! ToMORRow! I LOVE ya! TomORRow! You’re ONLY a DAAAAAAYYYY a-WAAAAAAAYYYYY! They all hug: “You’re right, Ethel! You’re right!” Ethel goes off to buy some more presents, but they follow her with another chorus: ToMORRow! ToMORRow! I LOVE ya! TomORRow! Ya know, tomorrow may only be a day away, but this scene feels like it drags on for weeks.
We come back from another commercial break — and who’s this walking down the street? It’s a be-Afroed Michael Jackson, reading a book about ghosts! Oscar asks him for the book, and Michael gives it to him. Then he leaves. Thus ends Michael Jackson’s appearance on this special. Thank you, Michael. But who’s this? It’s Dick Smothers dressed as the Ghost of Christmas Future! At this point, the celebrity cameos are coming fast and furious. Dick tells Oscar that everybody moved out of Sesame Street — “You were such a grouch at Christmas, they couldn’t take it any longer!” The only one who didn’t move away — bing! — is Tiny Tim, the crippled kitten.
Dick leaves the kitten with Oscar, who suddenly turns protective and loving. “How’s your leg, there?” asks Oscar. “I’d be happy to autograph your cast. I know just what I’d write on it: Merry Christmas, Tiny. Love, Oscar.” Then Oscar starts. “Did I say THAT?” Apparently even the scriptwriter can’t believe this junk anymore. Leslie bursts through the door of 123 Sesame Street and sings “Just One Person” to Oscar, joined by the rest of the cast. When they’re done, Oscar snarls: “Are you people gonna stand around singing while that poor cat freezes? Hand him up here.” They all wish him a Merry Christmas, and Oscar ducks down into the trash can with the cat. “Merry Christmas, everybody!” he shouts, and then pops back up: “Did you hear that? This cat talks! He just wished everybody a Merry Christmas!” Leslie gushes: “Oh, OSCAR. You are too MUCH!”
Ahem. Well, after all that, there’s nothing left to do but gather everyone in a big crowd for a Christmas medley. The whole cast sings Jingle Bells. Leslie sings a verse of Sleigh Ride. Ethel Merman sings a chorus of Winter WonderLAAAANNND. They all yell “Merry Christmas!” And then it’s off to the bar for a stiff drink.