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Sunday, December 19, 2021, 1:00 p.m. 

Program Note From “Jim’s Red Book” blog courtesy of The Jim Henson Company Archives


The Great Santa Claus Switch

In 1963, Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl came up with an idea for a Christmas special originally titled The Witch Who Stole Santa Claus or The Sinister Santa Claus Switch. The story revolved around a failed plot to kidnap and impersonate Santa Claus in order to rob every home in the world. Taminella Grinderfall, the witch from the unsold Tales of The Tinkerdee pilot was to play a starring role. The villains, working for a wizard named Cosmo alongside his giant henchmen Thig and Thog, were bird-like creatures called Frackles. The heroes, working for Santa, were elves. They, of course, saved the day.

Jim and Jerry reworked the script numerous times, and the title changed as well. In order to sell the idea to television executives, Jim created watercolor illustrations to accompany a written proposal. He circulated the concept for several years before Ed Sullivan, on the strength of the Muppets’ frequent appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, agreed to produce the hour-long musical special and air it in his regular Sunday evening time slot on December 20, 1970. The final script was written by Jerry Juhl, and it featured music by Joe Raposo, the first musical director of Sesame Street.  Ed Sullivan served as narrator, and the cast, a combination of live roles and Muppets, included Art Carney.

To cast such a big production, Jim had to go outside his small group of puppeteers for the first time.  He was delighted to discover the talents of Richard Hunt, a young man who would become an integral part of Jim’s team.  After performing background characters in The Great Santa Claus Switch and The Frog Prince, Richard was hired for Sesame Street in 1972.  He went on to perform major characters on The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock including Scooter, Statler, Beaker, and Junior Gorg. Fran Brill, Sesame Street’s Prairie Dawn and Zoe (and first female puppeteer), also started with Jim on The Great Santa Claus Switch.


The Christmas Toy

Inspired by the success of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and earlier attempts to create Muppet holiday specials (like a Halloween special or even an “Income Tax Day” special,) Jim produced two charming shows in 1986: The Tale of The Bunny Picnic and The Christmas Toy. During a period when Jim was actively pursuing projects that could utilize the latest in computer graphics and digital technologies, these two specials were purposefully old fashioned puppet productions (although Henson puppets are never as simple as they might look).

The Tale of The Bunny Picnic, combining elements of Beatrix Potter and the can-do spirit of Fraggle Rock, was populated by cute bunnies and the requisite Muppet dog. Capturing the joy of Henson picnics on the Hampstead Heath, Jocelyn Stevenson’s story coupled with Diane Dawson-Hearn’s visuals was well received on television and translated into an appealing picture book. The interminably cute star, Bean Bunny, became a regular Muppet ensemble player.

The Christmas Toy, written by Labyrinth contributor Laura Phillips, also featured a new group of characters—an array of toys that come to life in a playroom when the household’s children, Jamie and Jesse Jones, are not around. The classic tale (almost a decade before Pixar’s Toy Story release) focused on friendship, the meaning of Christmas and how new toys would impact the group dynamic. Rugby the Tiger (performed by Dave Goelz) sets things in motion with a misguided plan that required the intervention of the other toys to make things right. The core Fraggle crew, Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Kathy Mullen, Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson performed with younger puppeteers, Camille Bonora, Brian Henson, Rob Mills and Nikki Tilroe, and Jim performed Kermit to introduce the story.

Airing on ABC on December 6, 1986, The Christmas Toy got generally good reviews. Variety described the new characters as, “…refreshingly varied and sophisticated,” and the story as, “…surprisingly effective.” In USA Today, Matt Roush called the show, “…an inventive and engaging treat.” Given the abundance of holiday specials on TV (Newsweek listed almost 50 programs airing that season,) just getting reviewed was an impressive feat. In interviews, Jim noted that he was inspired by The Velveteen Rabbit and The Nutcracker to try to create a whole new group of characters based on toys that come to life. He would have been pleased that a variation on this group formed the core cast of a new series produced by Brian Henson in 1994, The Secret Life of Toys.


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