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A Special Sesame Street Christmas DVD Review

A Special Sesame Street Christmas DVD cover art -- click to buy DVD from Amazon.com A Special Sesame Street Christmas
Special & DVD Details

Director: Russ Petrano / Writer: Tom Dunsmuir / Producers: Bob Banner (executive), Stephen Pouliot

Cast: Caroll Spinney (Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird), Northern Calloway (David), Will Lee (Mr. Hooper), Bob McGrath (Bob), Sonia Manzano (Maria), Toby Towson (Barkley Dog) / As Themselves: Leslie Uggams, Ethel Merman, Anne Murray, Imogene Coca, Dick Smothers, Michael Jackson, Henry Fonda

Songs: Cast - "It's the Thought That Counts", Oscar the Grouch - "Christmas Blech", Oscar the Grouch - "The Six Days of Christmas", Anne Murray - "You Needed Me", Oscar the Grouch - "Yakety Yak", Leslie Uggams - "Look at That Face", Cast - "Christmas Morning", Ethel Merman - "Tomorrow", Leslie Uggams - "Just One Person", Cast - "Christmas Medley"

Original Air Date: December 8, 1978 / Running Time: 48 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Broadcast Ratio) / Dolby Mono 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: November 6, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $12.99
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5) / Black Keepcase
Also available in DVD + CD Combo ($19.98 SRP); Soundtrack also available as MP3 CD

Buy A Special Sesame Street Christmas from Amazon.com: DVD DVD + CD Soundtrack MP3 Soundtrack CD

The first full week of December 1978 was a jolly and exciting time on Sesame Street. On Sunday, December 3rd, PBS stations premiered Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. Just five days later, on Friday, December 8th, CBS pre-empted "The New Adventures of Wonder Woman" to debut A Special Sesame Street Christmas, a star-studded different holiday special.
It is odd for two specials to emerge from the same franchise on two different networks at opposite ends of the same week. Even odder, the hour-long programs found themselves in competition with each other the following September for the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program. Christmas Eve would win, defeating its cousin production as well as the ABC special Benji's Very Own Christmas Story and the Bill Bixby-hosted PBS anthology series "Once Upon a Classic."

Fairly well-known and loved, Christmas Eve on Sesame Street was formative television for me, recorded off the air sometime in the 1980s, regularly revisited thereafter on that VHS and in book form, and more recently enjoyed in soundtrack MP3s. It was released on DVD ten years ago by Sony Wonder and has remained in print even as the Sesame Street video distribution rights have repeatedly changed hands.

A Special Sesame Street Christmas, on the other hand, made its home video debut earlier this month on a DVD from Legendary Entertainment Alliance, the video division of a company called Legend Group Studios. Founded at the beginning of this year, Legendary claims it has the largest independently owned library of classic television content. Between this special and concurrent releases of holiday fare featuring Carol Burnett and Perry Como, Legendary gives us a good idea of what to expect from them: rare, vintage television programming previously unavailable on DVD that you won't find on the airwaves anytime soon. It's the kind of content you could easily see Shout! Factory licensing. Legendary seems to be aiming for the same model of respectable presentations, complete with bonus features, but there are some problems I'll get to.

The human cast of "A Special Sesame Street Christmas" decorates the neighborhood tree behind the title logo. Oddly, Anne Murray sings a non-seasonal love song to Big Bird.

Sesame Street Christmas lacks the polish and sturdy foundation of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. It relies heavily on musical numbers that are statically staged and, apart from the opening number about lousy gifts appreciated for the thought, not very creative or exciting. Leslie Uggams, a Tony-winning veteran of Broadway musicals (among them, the star-making Hallelujah, Baby!) who had acted in "Roots" the year before, is considered the star of the special. She is joined by a number of guest stars whom you are just as likely not to know nowadays.

They all join the real stars of the special: the human and Muppet residents of Sesame Street. Nine years into the show's interminable run, most of the featured characters and live actors are ones that remain familiar even to the kids of today. There's Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and Barkley the dog (at his all-time biggest). Among the human cast members, the still active Bob (Bob McGrath) and Maria (Sonia Manzano) appear, as do two characters retired in tandem with their actors' deaths, Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) and Maria's boyfriend David (Northern Calloway).

Who knows where the other regular characters like Luis, Gordon, Olivia, Susan, and Linda are? Such integral personalities as Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, Grover, Count, Kermit the Frog, and Mr. Snuffleupagus are also no-shows, because apparently there wasn't room in the low budget for performers Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Jerry Nelson. All of them were featured on Christmas Eve, which gives this program, made not by Children's Television Workshop but by independent producer Bob Banner ("The Carol Burnett Show", Perry Como's worldly specials), the feel of a red-headed stepchild.

The mostly meaningless guest stars do not draw much notice from the absences. These forgotten talents generally turn up for a song and a bit of unconvincing acting, then disappear. Canadian pop singer Anne Murray sings the romantic "You Needed Me" to Bob and Big Bird. The boisterous Ethel Merman performs "Tomorrow" from the then-new Broadway musical Annie. Uggams gets multiple opportunities to sing. She looks downright disinterested when someone else gets the spotlight or she has to share with an ensemble.

Star Leslie Uggams is happy when she's singing alone and bored when she's not. Injured alley cat Tiny Tim does not look very comfortable next to Oscar the Grouch.

Not every guest gets to belt out a tune, however. Imogene Coca plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, while Dickie Smothers of the Smothers Brothers portrays the Ghost of Christmas Future. That's right;
the whole special very loosely resembles Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol with Oscar the Grouch in the redemption-needing role of Scrooge. Near-future Oscar winner Henry Fonda drops by very briefly and disjointedly. And despite his prominent cover placement, Michael Jackson gets a grand total of 42 seconds' screentime and no song in a brief appearance across from Oscar. Now by far the most recognizable celebrity guest, Jackson was in between his Jackson 5 heyday and his soon to be considerable solo success, having appeared in The Wiz earlier that year.

The special feels a little sloppy. Original and still cast member Carol Spinney stumbles through a number of his lines as Oscar. You'll also easily spot restless children and one visibly terrified cat. A found alley cat "with a broken leg", Tiny Tim does not seem to enjoy sharing the screen with Oscar. The production had no patience for getting a less frightened performance from this feline. That's not surprising considering the other imperfections not bothered to be fixed, like Merman missing lines in her song. One gets the impression that this was not made with the expectation that people would be watching it closely and critiquing it over thirty years later. It was made to give CBS viewers something different to watch on a Friday night when ABC had Ruth Buzzi, Gavin MacLeod, and Raquel Welch appearing on "Donny & Marie", and NBC had new episodes of rookie sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes" and Garry Marshall's soon-cancelled "Who's Watching the Kids?"

VIDEO and AUDIO

The show is presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen and Dolby 2.0 monaural sound. Given the age, modest production values, and unproven studio, one doesn't expect much in the way of picture quality. But this DVD delivers a very strong presentation that seems about as sharp and clean as a 1970s television special could be.

Clearly a product of its time, the soundtrack is simple and limited, but always intelligible, which makes it easy to overlook the unfortunate but not unexpected lack of both subtitles and closed captioning. You're immediately able to identify this as an old television program, but, ignoring the fashions (e.g. David's pimp suit for Christmas Past), it looks around ten years younger than it really is, which is impressive considering the often garish nature of '70s TV.

Two of Michael Jackson's few lines from his 42 seconds of screentime get extended in this new Auto-Tune remix. While the Merry Mistletoes' "We Three Kings" play, we see snowflakes fall against an electric blue backdrop.

BONUS FEATURES

Legendary is to be commended for making an effort to include some bonus features. They do not provide what would top a fan's wish list for this special: original promos, behind-the-scenes footage, or a new retrospective with cast and crew. For something this obscure, it's not realistic to expect any of that. But the studio doesn't leave us empty-handed in the way of extras.

First and most notable is "Hoiday [sic] Groove Moves w/Michael & DJ Oscar" (2:11), a new song formed out of two of Michael Jackson's few lines exchanged with Oscar the Grouch.

Composed and arranged by Matt Piper, it employs Auto-Tune while colorful music notes dance behind barely moving stills of Oscar and Michael. There is little doubt that this short was inspired by PBS' recent viral songs and music videos featuring Mr. Rogers and Bob Ross. This just doesn't have anywhere near the same effect.

Next, we get three tracks from something called "Merry Missletoes [sic]", which sounds like a band you might find on a children's music CD. They perform "Angels We Have Heard on High" (1:39), "We Three Kings" (3:42), and "Jingle Bells" (2:36) while snowflakes fall against animated blue backgrounds. Your guess is just as good as mine as to what these are and why the studio chose to include them here (other than the obvious holiday connection and the value of adding to the case's bonus feature list).

"Song Mode" treats us to an all-musical version of the special, which runs 32 minutes and 9 seconds, or just sixteen minutes shorter than the special on its own. I would have had more interest in a dedicated song access menu and a music-free 16-minute version of the special.

Sneak Previews holds trailers for Legendary's first four DVD titles: the made-for-TV biopic Bud & Lou, A Special Sesame Street Christmas (which I'm glad they included), Christmas Around the World with Perry Como, and A Carol Burnett Christmas. The studio is currently taking a lot of flak (complete with a lowly 2 customer star rating, even with the help of a couple of employees posing as delighted customers) on Amazon for the last of those being deceptively titled and marketed, because it consists of episodes from "The Garry Moore Show" and not Burnett's own signature Christmas specials.

The DVD's animated main menu keeps the cover's Big Bird pose and loses MJ and Oscar. Typos mar the DVD's bonus menu, which is less abundant than it looks.

MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

You can make a similar case for deceptive advertising against A Special Sesame Street Christmas, for its amateurish cover art grossly overstates the involvement of Michael Jackson, the only human featured and whose name appears first as "starring." How disappointed MJ fans will be when they discover he's in it for less than a minute. In addition, three rear cover pull quotes recommending the special are 100% made-up, attributed to domains that Legend Group registered over the summer and has not yet used. Have they forgotten that Sony paid $1.5 million last decade to settle a class action lawsuit over the fake blurbs from fictitious Connecticut critic David Manning they used to advertise movies like The Animal and A Knight's Tale? The cover's Chicago Tribune quote seems dubious as well and turns up no results online. Betraying customer trust, especially in such a tacky, overt, and easily debunked fashion, is a rookie mistake that Legendary needs to avoid in the future, if they intend to have a future.

The black keepcase, which has the pungent aroma of a Warner Archive Collection DVD, includes an insert that supplies secret passcodes for accessing videos on Legendary's websites for this, the Carol Burnett, and Perry Como DVDs. The Jackson thing is the same song from the DVD only with plainer animation visuals... but at least it's also offered as free MP3 download.

Snow falls, bells jingle, and music plays on the menus, colorful variations on the cover art.

"A Special Sesame Street Christmas" closes with the limited human and Muppet cast (including Ethel Merman) performing a medley of Christmas songs.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Despite its clearly modest effort and limited star power, A Special Sesame Street Christmas remains a charming product
of a bygone era when variety shows and holiday specials were everywhere. Stacked up against the Muppets' numerous much better holiday celebrations (especially Christmas Eve and the all-inclusive A Muppet Family Christmas), this CBS special is far from spectacular. Still, not nearly as bad as its humorously disparaging Wikipedia entry suggests, it is easy to appreciate at face value and to enjoy for its unique standing within the Sesame Street universe. It's also fascinating to discover as an alternate special made concurrent to the magical Christmas Eve.

Overlooking the menu's typos, the random extras, the deceptive Michael Jackson-touting cover art and its made-up quotes, Legendary's DVD is satisfactory, offering a surprisingly good presentation of this forgotten special at a reasonable price.

Buy A Special Sesame Street Christmas from Amazon: DVD DVD + CD / Soundtrack: MP3 CD

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Related Reviews:
New: The Muppet Christmas Carol Prep & Landing DreamWorks Holiday Classics Arthur Christmas The Santa Clause Annie
Sesame Street: 20 Years...and Still Counting Follow That Bird Jim Henson's Dog City: The Movie Henson's Place: The Man Behind the Muppets
1970s Television: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas Jack Frost The Muppet Show: Season One Schoolhouse Rock! The House Without a Christmas Tree
More '70s TV: An American Christmas Carol Steve Martin: The Television Stuff Happy Days: Season 3 All in the Family: The Complete Series
Christmas: A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa Scrooged It's a Wonderful Life White Christmas A Chipmunk Christmas

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Reviewed November 20, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1978 Bob Banner Associates and 2012 Legend Group Studios, Legendary Entertainment Alliance.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.