The Great Santa Claus Switch introduced Jim Henson’s obsessions

The Great Santa Claus Switch introduced Jim Henson’s obsessions

Reading the new book Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal, a scrapbook of Henson’s works with his personal notes used as a spine and a timeline, it’s easy to see the first few decades of his career as a simultaneous exercise in elation and frustration. His love of puppeteering quickly blossomed into his own mini-show, Sam And Friends, and into a successful commercial career. His Muppets were regularly on TV in the 1950s, hawking products like RC Cola and Wilkins Coffee; Rowlf the Dog was already a fully realized character and a spokesdog for Purina Dog Chow, among other products. But time and time again, Henson tried to move away from commercials and into entertainment, with projects that never got funded, or never came to fruition. And time and time again, he cannibalized those projects, repurposed the puppets, the characters, and the ideas, and tried again.

The 1970 TV special The Great Santa Claus Switch had deep roots in past projects. In the early ’60s, Henson and writing partner Jerry Juhl shot a series pilot, Tales Of The Tinkerdee, which Imagination Illustrated describes as a complicated fairy tale full of rapid-fire twists and turns. When it wasn’t picked up to series, Henson and Juhl started planning a holiday special called The Witch Who Stole Santa Claus, which brought in Tinkerdee’s villainous mistress-of-disguise, witch Taminella Grinderfall, as an evil Santa impersonator. When they couldn’t find a producer for that project upon completion of the script in 1963, they recycled it again, this time into a simpler 1964 pilot called The Land Of Tinkerdee, aimed at younger children than the first Tinkerdee. And when that project didn’t make it to series, they moved on yet again. But they retained the puppets and the ideas. The Land Of Tinkerdee’s characters eventually turned up on a 1969 Canadian TV special called Hey Cinderella! And the Witch Who Stole Santa Claus script hung around as a loose thread, which Henson and Juhl periodically pulled on again and again. 

By the time the story became The Great Santa Claus Switch in early 1970, Henson and his business were in a significantly stronger position than they’d been in the early ’60s. Sesame Street launched in late 1969, and the Muppets, originally intended as a relatively small part of the show, instantly became its most popular element, pulling in such a growing, enthusiastic fan base that Big Bird made the cover of Time in November 1970. Henson, meanwhile, spent years bringing the Muppets to TV variety shows for innovative, often deeply weird little sketches, and he became a regular on The Ed Sullivan Show. By that point, he’d won supporters both in children’s entertainment and on primetime. So in the summer of 1970, Sullivan himself agreed to produce the hourlong TV special The Great Santa Claus Switch, and air it in his show’s primetime slot on December 20.

The Great Santa Claus Switch isn’t actually all that great. It centers on what was already a hoary old trope back in 1970: the idea of Santa being captured or replaced, such that Christmas might not happen—or at least, to the presumed horror of the intended kid audience, presents on Christmas morning might not happen. Wizard Of Oz author L. Frank Baum may have pioneered the thriving subgenre of prisoner-Claus tales with the 1904 short story “A Kidnapped Santa Claus,” and it continued through stories from 1964’s famously terrible film Santa Conquers The Martians to 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. In a lot of these stories, the core problem is just that Santa is too nice, too accommodating; he isn’t the fighting-back type, and when the bad guys come to stuff him into a bag or a spaceship, they easily get away with it.

But while the idea is old hat, and the execution is occasionally limp, Santa Claus Switch is a treasure trove of images, ideas, and characters that would remain in the Henson stable, repurposed again to new ends.

Sullivan himself opens the special, sitting in an over-decorated fake den decked out for Christmas, complete with artificial tree and cozy fireplace. He introduces the story as a holiday fable he’s reading to “the children of some of the guys and gals on our production staff,” a bunch of kids who look like they were herded onto the set en masse by a wrangler who’s about to try dangling a cupcake over Sullivan’s head in a vain attempt to at least get them looking in the same direction.

The actual story finds Santa (played by Honeymooners vet Art Carney) finding his happy little worker elves hard at work on Christmas Eve—particularly newbie elf Fred (voiced by Henson, using his Ernie voice back before the character became so iconic that his voice couldn’t be repurposed), who’s experiencing his first Christmas with Santa, and is bowled over by the excitement and responsibility. He’s so excited, in fact, that he sings a tremendously Henson Productions song about how he just wants to help, help, help—and gets so into it that he doesn’t even notice two giant monsters kidnapping Santa right in front of him. He even takes Santa’s cries for help as a counterpoint to his song.

Santa gets hauled to a nearby cavern, where nogoodnik magician Cosmo Scam (also played by Carney) plans to hold him hostage, impersonate him, and “burglarize everybody in the world.” Which makes not a lick of sense—if Scam already had the Santa-like power to sneak into every house in the world in one night and somehow transport their valuables back to the North Pole, he’d clearly be powerful enough to not have to worry about anything as banal as a disguise. But by his logic, while people don’t like thieves turning up in their homes at night, they don’t mind Santa Claus coming to visit, so a red coat and a white beard gives him the equivalent of an all-access behind-the-scenes pass. (Hey, it worked for the Grinch.)

When Scam returns to the elves’ workshop, Fred quickly notices something’s wrong and confronts him, so one by one, he and the other elves wind up imprisoned in Scam’s cavern as well. It’s up to them to escape, free Santa, foil Scam, and restore Christmas. It’s a fairly simple story, spaced out at some length with songs and awkward comedy that sometimes feels like improv, or like under-rehearsed Saturday Night Live bits.

The most enjoyable parts of Santa Claus Switch, though—beyond Carney, who preens and prances and sings with just enough hamminess to be funny in a Muppet-friendly, kid-appropriate way without overdoing it—come from all the jolts of recognition. For instance, there’s the moment when the puppet that would later become Gonzo The Great pops out of Cosmo Scam’s cigar box, where he’s apparently been consigned as punishment. Here, he has a different voice and a different personality, as a generic gruff baddie with no purpose but dispensing cigars. But the later use of the puppet as what became a beloved character is yet another example of Henson Productions recycling and exploring material over time, looking for a sweet spot of success.

Similarly, the two goons who muscle Santa out the door—“full-bodied Muppets” invented for Santa Claus Switch—are quickly identified as Thig and Thog, and they become key to the story’s resolution, when Santa wins them over with toys and emotional appeals about the spirit and importance of Christmas. Thog, the big-nosed, round, blue mega-Muppet whose floppy ears pop upright when he’s surprised, went on to a long Muppet career; that’s him in the center in the Muppet Show opening song, dancing out through the arches and popping his ears up just before the lyrics begin. He frequently appeared on The Muppet Show, and even turned up in the 2011 Jason Segel revival The Muppets.

And Cosmo Scam has an entire cave full of cackling, largely useless henchmen who strongly recall David Bowie’s cohort of gabbling goblins in Labyrinth, both in their variety of design and in the way they only seem to exist to add energy to the big musical sequence where Scam sings about how much he enjoys his evil plots. Those minions are called Frackles, and their collective name persisted behind the scenes for decades, as Henson Productions shows reused the primary Frackle puppets over and over to various ends, particularly on The Muppet Show. In cases where the actual puppets weren’t reused, Henson’s design sensibility is still familiar; the long-beaked bird Frackles look like proto-versions of The Dark Crystal’s Skeksis, and the various weird nesting and bouncing critters look like creatures that eventually show up in that film’s swamps. Even the Frackles’ name got recycled eventually: According to the Muppets coffee-table book Jim Henson: The Works, Jerry Juhl himself eventually softened it to “Fraggles” for Fraggle Rock

But while it’s entertaining for Muppets fans to see the origins of so many characters in one place, The Great Santa Claus Switch is even more telling in the way it showcases the early forms of Henson’s lifelong obsessions. Even at these earliest stages, his fascination with fairy tales and myths was fully formed. So was his love of catchy musical numbers, his vaudeville-inspired sense of bantery give-and-take humor, and his taste for clean, family-friendly camp and absurdism. The rhythms and themes of The Muppet Show are visibly planted here. Just a few examples: the ultra-vaudevillian sequence where Fred and his fellow elves dress up as rocks to escape Scam’s cavern, and end up doing a little marionette soft-shoe number, punctuated by Fred’s horrible puns. (e.g. “That Frackle took us for granite!” and “I used to be scared, but this costume has made me a little boulder!”) Or Scam’s alarm bell, which is simply a Muppet who recites, in a semi-bored voice, “Alarm, alarm, emergency, help help, ding ding ding ding.” Or that sequence where Fred sings so energetically about wanting to help that he doesn’t realize his help is needed. This is prime Henson/Juhl humor, where virtuous enthusiasm becomes complete, ironic obliviousness.

For that matter, the dynamic at work here is pure Muppet Show, with a single human—an entertainment veteran with his own well-established identity and humor—surrounded by puppet foils. Carney isn’t fully playing a Muppet Show host role here. For one thing, he’s playing a dual character rather than a put-upon version of himself. For another, he never acknowledges that he’s surrounded by puppets, and he never decries his fuzzy-beast partners as weird or disturbing, which was a reliable go-to gag for Muppet Show guests. But he stands out as the show’s star, the swirling center of Muppet chaos, in a way Muppet Show stars would recognized further down the line.

Henson’s lifelong fascination with innovative puppetry and unusual movement methods is also recognizably on display in Switch. So many of those Frackles have no conceivable purpose as minions, but they’re clearly experiments in puppetry. Like the owl-headed octopus that undulates eerily across the cavern floor, or the long-necked nesting Frackles who pop their heads up and down to spin and twirl during Scam’s big song. Or Thog, with his pop-up ears and big, bouncy body. Or Fred and his buddies in their rock costumes, with their legs that pop in and out to make them look like hatching baby birds. This was Henson playing with the form, as he did for the rest of his life; making-of specials on Dark Crystal in particular have discussed how one of the fastest ways to Henson’s heart was for a puppeteer to introduce him to a new movement method, a new way to create puppets that didn’t obviously look like they contained human operators or danced on strings.

It isn’t easy to see The Great Santa Claus Switch these days. It’s never been released for home viewing. It’s available for viewing in some broadcast museums, and in its entirety on YouTube, but only in a fuzzy, damaged form. And even the people who doggedly track it down anyway are likely to find it a little disappointing, given its lumpy pacing, its occasionally cheap or obvious puppet effects, and especially its ending, which pretty much has Santa Claus waving a hand and fixing everything with the kind of “Christmas magic” that produces decorated trees and an automatic sense of mutual respect and love among everyone around him. But for all its flaws, it’s instantly recognizable as a Henson Productions throat-clearer. It’s worth seeking out as archeology, a missing link between the Henson who peddled snack crackers and toilet paper on TV, and the Henson whose name became a worldwide synonym for whimsy and brilliant children’s entertainment.

Tomorrow: A modern holiday literary classic.

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