Christmas at Walt Disney World (1978)

So far on this blog, I have mostly talked about obscure and charmingly strange Disney comics. However, there is another treasure trove of weirdness out there that is the world of old Disney TV specials. The first one I will cover is a Christmas special that aired in 1978 (the same year as the now-infamous Star Wars Christmas Special).

The show opens with a group of carolers (including a small child in the front who doesn’t really seem to want to be there) singing “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. I never got why that song was considered a Christmas song, personally, but I can’t fault the special for including it since I’ve seen it in numerous Christmas compilations over the years. The camera pulls out to reveal they’re at the Main Street train station as the Walt Disney World Railroad full of Disney characters armed with fake snow passes by.

I love seeing the old costumes in these specials, along with characters who don’t always appear as much anymore. Check out the right side in the picture above–you’ll see King Leonidas from Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Brer Fox from Song of the South.

After the opening credits, we are taken to the Los Angeles International Airport to see “The Clinkers’ Christmas Vacation” starring comedy mime duo Shields and Yarnell. One thing you’ll learn from this special is that although the times we live in now are bizarre, things back in ’78 were pretty odd as well.

The Clinkers are a pair of mechanical characters that the two play, and this sequence in which they navigate their way through the airport is impressive, but unsettling. Their robotic movements are spot-on, and my still frames can’t do the scene justice. However, their permanently befuddled, unblinking faces, coupled with their jerkiness really plummets them into the Uncanny Valley and the whole thing is kind of unintentionally creepy.

After failing to get on the bus to WDW, they somehow manage to drive there by riding on their luggage. Okay, then.

The two stay at the rustic Fort Wilderness, although I’d have pegged a pair of robots for the sleeker Contemporary Resort myself. They continue to wander around, looking confused.

The sequence abruptly ends with them staring at a sign for the then-recently-opened Discovery Island, which serves a segue for the first big musical number.

On a Pirates of the Caribbean-themed set, an enthusiastic pirate chases a screaming woman, because this was before those elements were removed or toned down from the attraction. The band Pablo Cruise performs “Worlds Away” over a montage of fun Discovery Bay activities.

We also get a few shots of a vulture who’s just biding his time until Splash Mountain opens.

We are then treated to the most unintentionally disturbing ninety seconds of anything in a Disney special.

Shields and Yarnell return not as the Clinkers, but as a pair of giant babies, hamming it up in front of a bunch of parked strollers that you can find outside any Disney attraction. Adults playing babies isn’t cute. It was never cute. It’s creepy and off-putting. I can’t be the only person who finds this unnatural.

The two wander around for what seems like much longer than a minute and a half, and the sequence ends with them sucking on each others thumbs and the audience feeling like they need to take a shower.

As a palate cleanser, we are then treated to some great dancing by Yarnell, who looks a lot better here than she did as a giant baby. She is accompanied by the Firehouse Five and Mickey Mouse himself, who (naturally) is a good dancer, too.

“And now for something completely different.”

In his workshop, Gepetto (played by comedian Avery Schreiber) sits with Figaro (played by a real cat) and reads a Christmas card from his now-human (and even grown up) son, Pinocchio. In a genuinely warm scene, he muses about being a father and the memories of his son.

Feeling lonely, he sings to himself and builds a miniature Gepetto. Hey, why not? Then, we have a flashback to when Pinocchio became a living puppet, starting with footage from the 1940 movie, but…

Pinocchio is played by Shields! They’re all over the place in this special!

After getting his bearings, Pinocchio wanders out of Gepetto’s toy shop (which is apparently in the Magic Kingdom) and wanders around Main Street to the appropriate confusion of everyone that sees him.

Just like in the movie, Pinocchio is accosted by Foulfellow and Gideon, who have a moneymaking scheme in mind.

Pinocchio performs “I’ve Got No Strings” (actually lip-synching to the original Dickie Jones recording) for a large crowd, who presumably paid the crafty fox and cat earlier.

A keystone cop chases Pinocchio off (maybe he needed a licence to perform?) which leads to lots of chaos. Pinocchio finally makes it back to Gepetto’s shop and collapses in relief.

Following a funky performance of “O Come All Ye Faithful” set to Magic Kingdom fireworks, we are taken to Cinderella Castle, where the famous pumpkin coach arrives with the Fairy Godmother.

The Fairy Godmother is played by comedian Phyllis Diller (whose other Disney connection is voicing the Ant Queen in A Bug’s Life), accompanied by a sarcastic Danielle Spencer (Dee from What’s Happening!!). The Fairy Godmother wants to seduce Prince Charming herself, and Danielle agrees to help as long as the Godmother pays for all the rides later on (this was back when Disney attractions all had individual tickets).

From one classic Disney movie to another, we fade to the Sleeping Beauty segment, complete with the classic “storybook opening.” Sterling Holloway narrates this one. His unmistakable voice can be heard in nearly a dozen Disney productions, as characters such as the Cheshire Cat, Kaa the python, and Winnie the Pooh.

The Good Fairies bless the baby, but the Maleficent-type evil fairy appears and places her usual curse on the princess. The evil fairy is performed by voice actress Joan Gerber, who had an extensive career, notably playing Mrs. Beakley in the original DuckTales series, among many other characters.

I find it interesting the Good Fairies are younger and more glamorous than their movie counterparts, and Maleficient is not glamorous at all, unlike her own statuesque movie portrayal.

As in the original fairytale, the spell lasts 100 years until a prince happens to pass by, see the seemingly-dead girl, and decides to kiss her. At least in Disney’s Snow White they had previously established a romance.

This is followed by a ballet performance by Yarnell and Alan Kinzie, which I can find no real fault with, but my ignorant, uncultured self is bored and can’t bear to even sit through five minutes of this, so we’ll skip ahead.

The final part of the special is a ten-minute medley, featuring Andrea McArdle, who had originated the Broadway role of Annie a year prior. She walks down a snow-covered corner of Main Street, when suddenly…

Out march Brer Fox, Brer Bear, the Big Bad Wolf, Captain Hook, Gideon, and Foulfellow, all singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”! Apparently, even the classic Disney Villains can’t help but get into the Christmas spirit.

Thumper, Flower, and Brer Rabbit come out next. Bizarrely, Thumper is holding a real-live baby deer. Wonder how Bambi feels about that?

More Disney characters enter, several of whom carry more live animals. After singing more Christmas carols, Andrea sings “Home” from The Wiz, which debuted on Broadway in 1975 and had its feature film version hit theaters a few months before this special aired.

After even more singing (like I said, the medley is ten minutes long), Shields and Yarnell bid us goodbye and Merry Christmas.

Well, it was certainly…interesting. The whole special was mostly a series of vignettes of varying quality, but many of them rather strange.

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Seeing the old costumes is always a plus.
  • As weird as some of their segments could be, Shields and Yarnell are quite talented.
  • It’s nice to hear a song from The Wiz.
  • Avery Schrieber is charming as Gepetto.
  • Sterling Holloway can check off yet another Disney production he’s been involved in.

LOWLIGHTS

  • The adult baby scene, hands down. I didn’t need to see that.
  • The Christmas medley is ten minutes longĀ and really loses steam about halfway through.
  • Phyllis Diller is clearly aware of the cheesiness of the whole affair and is waiting to cash her check, but the much younger Danielle Spencer noticeably seems embarrassed to be there.

Well, that’s the ’78 Christmas special! Hope you all enjoyed it, and happy Life Day!

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