Happy Life Day – The Agony and the Infamy

Star-Wars-Holiday-SpecialIf you are a Star Wars fan who is active on social media, odds are someone in your timeline wished you a “Happy Life Day” yesterday.  Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) many fans have never experienced the “joy” and “wonder” of The Star Wars Holiday Special where that Wookiee seasonal greeting found its origins.  However, say the words “Star Wars Holiday Special” to a fan who has actually seen this obscure piece of Star Wars and television history and reactions will run the gamut of dread, embarrassment, nostalgia, or bewilderment… or a mix of all four.

The Holiday Special only aired once on November 19th, 1978, never to be seen again, forcing fans to track down this little piece of Star Wars curiosity through VHS dupes, DVD copies, or on the internet.  For those of us around in 1978, there was a growing anticipation of the show.  STAR WARS WAS GOING TO BE ON TV!!!!  Commercials announced the air date, and showed brief glimpses of our heroes in a brand new adventure.  I was primed and ready to be whisked away to that galaxy far away… I only wish the show had been able to live up to the hype.

Memories, like the corners of my mind… make it stop

I still remember watching the show back in 1978 at my friend Tim’s house.  Tim’s dad was an audio and videophile who had this ridiculously massive stereo setup along with a projection screen TV, pirated HBO, and professional radio broadcast equipment in the house.  He also had the only VCR in the neighborhood, which at the time was nearly a $1000 investment, something my dad had no interest in.  We popped some popcorn, got our sodas and watched…  It was Star Warsish; Han Luke, Leia and the gang were all there, but there was just something off about the show.  Even at 11 I found The Holiday Special to be less than special… but hey, the Kenner toy commercials were cool.

The Star Wars Holiday Special is one part variety show, one part TV sitcom, on part Christmas special, all dressed up with Star Wars trappings.  If this sounds like a mess of an idea to you, you’re right.  The premise of the show is simple, Han is trying to get his pal Chewbacca home in time for Christmas… errr… the Wookiee holiday, Life Day.  Unfortunately the Imperials stand in the way of Chewie reuniting with his family.  Now that could have worked as a general premise if we followed Han and Chewie on their misadventures across the galaxy as they try to beat the clock and make it to the Wookiee homeworld, Kashyyyk, for the traditional Life Day church service.  But this show was made on the cheap, and instead of following our heroes in an action packed Star Wars adventure we are stuck on Kashyyk with Chewie’s family while they anxiously await Chewie’s arrival… and wait…. and wait… and wait.

LumpyWe are introduced to Malla, Chewie’s wife, their son Lumpy, and that irascible old timer, Itchy, Chewie’s father.  For nearly 15 minutes we witness Wookiee family drama unfold, all without the benefit of subtitles.  Malla cooks dinner, Lumpy is bored, and Itchy is annoyed.  It’s fairly easy stuff to follow but ultimately we are left to wonder what the point of this special is; after all, anyone watching the show could find the same gripping drama in their home every Thanksgiving.  And ultimately that’s the biggest downfall of the Holiday Special; it’s simply boring.

Tripping… 70s style

Their are certain points in the show where one has to wonder what narcotics or hallucinogens the show’s writers were taking when they wrote this special.  In one scene, Itchy is trying to amuse his bored grandson by showing the little Wookiee a video program with some sort of bizarre, Cirque du Soleil show complete with alien dancers and trippy dance numbers.  Later we watch a psychedelic performance by Jefferson Starship (minus Grace Slick) in hologram form.  But the piece de resistance is an extremely uncomfortable, hyper-sexualized scene involving Itchy watching singer/actress Diahann Carroll singing on a virtual reality device (this family watches an awful lot of TV).  The lyric are fairly suggestive for a children’s program, and there is a disturbing “dirty old man” vibe in the sequence.  For all intents and purposes Itchy is watching intergalactic porn.

BobaOne aspect of the show I’ve never understood fan fascination with is the 10 minute animated segment of the show which introduces the bounty hunter Boba Fett.  The Star Wars cartoon is broadcast on a channel that Chewie’s son, Lumpy begins to watch on his portable video screen.  The cartoon, like the rest of the special is a hot mess with a mix of highly stylized animation, outlandish story elements, and a very meandering story.  Boba Fett is cool, but its really hard to get past the ridiculous plot which requires our heroes to be hung upside down in order to counteract the effects of a sleeping virus.  I was already filled with a sleeping virus by the midway point of this “Special,” and no amount of hanging upside down was going to alleviate that.

There are some moments that are fun, or at least mildly entertaining.  Most of the laughs are provided by TV funnyman Harvey Korman as a video repairman and as a four armed Juila Child-like alien chef.  The Carrol Burnett Show star makes the most out of some fairly painful material.  TV’s Maude, Bea Arthur, has a great little guest stint as Ackmena, a bartender at a Cantina.  Arthur sings a charming little tune about “last call” at the bar, sung to the tune of the Cantina Band song from A New Hope.  These sporadic moments at least keep the show barely watchable, but even their performances can’t save this turkey.

Cantina

So, if you have managed to make it this far into the show you might as well strap yourself in for the rest of the uneventful ride… because it goes out with a … well, it goes out with something.

Princess Leia didn’t just do that?!?!?!
LukeFinally Han and Chewie show up just in time for Life Day, while thwarting the forces of the Empire who were holding Chewie’s family hostage.  Unfortunately, we’ve had to slog through over an hour of bad jokes, lousy songs, scenes only played out with Wookiee grunts and growls, and 70s drug trips before we get to the finale.  Luke, Leia, R2-D2, and C-3PO arrive just as the Wookiees gather around the Tree of Life, wearing their “Sunday best” for their traditional Life Day services (looking suspiciously like the Heaven’s Gate cultists minus the Nikes).  As a tribute to this moment, Princess Leia sings a Life Day carol, to the strains of the Star Wars Theme.  It’s a cringe worthy moment, not because Fisher can’t sing (this is the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher after all), but simply because listening to the Star Wars theme reduced do a little ditty imploring the viewer to, “live, to laugh, to dream, to grow, to trust, to love, to be!” is painfully bad, and a fitting conclusion to the show.

To be fair, there is a certain quaint charm and nostalgia factor revisiting the Star Wars Holiday Special from time to time, especially if you have a copy which still has the commercials.  Watching the old International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union commercial with the Look For the Union Label song is a hoot, as is watching the promo clips from CBS’ TV lineup.  There are also plenty of great toy commercials from the era, as well ad ads for Hungry Man and MC Donalds.  The actors try to make a go of it, and even Harrison Ford appears to be putting in effort on the show, which is surprising considering his disinterested performance in Return of the Jedi.  Mark Hammil gives his usual buoyant performance as Luke, and Carrie Fisher tries her best to come across as regal, and commanding.

Most of the blame for this mess of a show is often placed on George Lucas’ shoulders, but there is no evidence he was ever involved in the project beyond approving some of the production artwork created by artists Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie.  The Holiday Special was all about promoting the Star Wars band and certainly Lucas deserves some criticism for allowing this project to see the light of day, but the lions share of blame should be squarely placed at the feet of the Fox and CBS executives who actually thought this project was a good idea to begin with.  If any Star Wars production or merchandise ever screamed “Cash Grab!” the Star Wars Holiday Special is it.

I showed the special to my kids once… once; just so they can say they saw it.  Someone probably should have called Child Protection Services on me… I’m not sure if that was the act of a loving father who wanted to pass on his childhood memories to his kids, or the act of a vengeful man who wanted his kids to endure the same pain he had as a child.

NOTE:  One dedicated fan created a two disc DVD set complete with bonus features and with an outstanding dupe of the Special including versions with, and without the commercials.  Also included is probably the finest version of the Holiday Special available… the Rifftrax version, complete with classic commentary by MST3K alum, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett.  They at least make the show watchable.

Gang

May the Force Be With You

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Star Wars Fandom: The Dark Times – How It Changed My Fandom

To most Star Wars fans, the Dark Times refers to the years between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope when the Empire was ascendant and strengthened its grip on the universe, and powerul Sith like Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader hunted down the last of the Jedi.  It was a period of hopelessness when the balance of the Force tipped toward the Dark Side and the fire of the Jedi was snuffed out… or so many thought.

However, to older fans the Dark Times also refers to those lean years of fandom between 1984 and 1991 when there was little in the way of Star Wars merchandise, and almost no hope of any more Star Wars films.  It appeared that Star Wars had run its course and creator George Lucas was satisfied in pursuing other interests.  The general public appeared to have moved on to other film and TV franchises, but comic, book, and toy sales suggested that Star Wars was simply a slumbering giant that just needed a jolt to awaken.

The fine folks at Full of Sith released the latest episode of their podcast featuring guest Pablo Hidalgo, Star Wars superfan and member of the Lucasfilm Star Wars Story Group.  Pablo and the gang talked about their own experiences during the Dark Times, and what got them through those lean years and how their fandom was affected.  One common thread that emerged was this sense of being an outsider during that time; that society had some how “forgotten” Star Wars and was beginning to view loyal fans as strange, somewhat eccentric oddballs.  Show host Bryan Young even recounted his days in high school being teased for his fandom.

It was a great show, and a fantastic conversation, but something just didn’t click with me.  I’d never experienced anything like that.  Most of my friends still threw out an obscure Star Wars reference here or there, and many of us still engaged in intense geek conversations.  Even in my days in college I was still meeting a lot of fans my age who were more than happy to talk about Star Wars, and I never really experienced any mocking or derision from people who were not fans.  Sure, Star Wars was out of the mainstream, and most of my fandom was relegated to countless session of West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game, but my experiences during the Dark Times certainly weren’t negative.

I thought about it for a while.  Why were my experiences different than the hosts of the show, or Pablo’s?  Then it dawned on me; it was my age, and the era of the Star Wars phenomenon I grew up in.

I was nine in Summer 1977.  I was there when America went Star Wars mad for a good two years from 1977-1978.  Star Wars was everywhere.. It was regularly referenced on weekly variety shows like Donnie and Marie and Hee Haw, and other TV shows. You could find kids wearing buttons emblazoned with the words “May the Force Be With You,” on school playgrounds without fear of them being labelled as nerds.  Meco Star Wars was a hit on radio and a regular feature of “fast skate” sessions at Skateland and other roller rinks across the country.  Star Wars even became a part of my Sunday school teacher’s lesson plan as he looked for thematic ties between Star Wars and the Bible.

Certainly you still find many of these things today, but it is nowhere near as pervasive and all consuming in the culture.  The nation was gripped by a mania that did not relent.  However,by the time The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were released most of that mania was already petering out.  Star Wars was no longer this cultural touchstone that the entire country shared for a brief moment like Star Wars.  It was now a part of pop culture; the Star Wars fever broke.  While the movie lines were still long and the toys still sold well, Star Wars was all but a memory for the average movie goer only a year after Jedi’s premiere.  Star Wars had officially passed from pop culture phenomenon to a passing fad, and like most fads (e.g., Hula Hoop, Pet Rock, etc.) there’s a certain amount of derision from people who were caught up in it after it fades.

However, for those Younglings who first experienced Star Wars in Summer of ’77, Star Wars was something much more than a fad, or passing pop culture fancy.  For us, Star Wars was as much a part of myth as were stories of Hercules’ labors, or the adventures of Sinbad, Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Superman.  We shared a common bond and language that was not broken with the passage of time.  I could still talk Star Wars with the friends I grew up with even into the late 80s, and even people in my generation who were only casual fans would smile when I would make the occasional obscure Star Wars reference.  For us, Star Wars was not dead, it was simply on hold.

A change is coming…

Summer of 1983 was over, and the Star Wars Trilogy had concluded.  There were rumors that George Lucas would eventually tell Episodes I-III, or that he would return to the adventures of Luke Skywalker some time in the future.  But for now Star Wars fans would have to content themselves with episodes of the Ewoks and Droids cartoons.  Thanksgiving of 1984 also saw the release of the first Ewok movie, The Caravan of Courage… and that’s when the naysayers, and Lucas critics started coming out of the woodwork…

Suddenly, Star Wars was being criticized for being “too kiddie” and that Lucas was “only interested in selling toys.”  Fans were now suggesting that Lucas was a sellout and only interested in money to further his filmmaking ambitions.  Target number one was the Ewoks, those loveable, but vicious little furballs from Jedi.  Ewoks were equated to stuffed teddy bears, and were now a symbol that somehow Lucas had “lost it” and had ruined Star Wars.

Let me take a quick step back for a minute and recount my first experiences with Ewoks, and Return of the Jedi.

It was May 1983, and I had a big problem.  Gerard Catholic High School had the temerity to actually schedule final exams the week of Jedi’s release!  There was simply no way my parents were going to allow me to go to the big midnight showing at the Kachina Theater in Scottsdale; I would need to come up with an alternate plan.

A group of us decided we would try to make the noon showing at Fiesta Mall’s AMC theater in Mesa.  While the plan worked for most of my friends who only had a single exam that day, it created a logistical issue for me as I had a second exam at 10.  So I did what any other dedicated Star Wars fan would do… I crammed like mad.  Fortunately the exam was in US/Arizona History, a class I was already acing.  I took my seat promptly at 10, and furiously worked my way through the 100 multiple choice questions and minimum 3 paragraph essay on the Cold War… I completed the test in record time (25 minutes), quickly scurried out the exit, got in my buddy’s car and we drove like furies to the theater.

I absolutely loved Return of the Jedi.  I hissed that vile gangster, Jabba the Hutt, thrilled to the speeder bike chase and the fight at the Pit of Carkoon, mourned the loss of Yoda, and cheered Luke’s triumph over the Emperor. It was a big, bold, adventure with dramatic themes and terrific action… and I loved, yes loved, those fierce little furball warriors, the Ewoks.

So color me surprised when not more than a year or two later I’m listening to “fans” hammer the movie, and claim that Lucas was nothing more than a hack director who got lucky with the first film, and his absence was the real reason that Empire was so good. The only good films were the first two “mature” films and Jedi was nothing more than kids stuff.  Even more shocking, I suddenly found myself agreeing with these people, and dismissing Jedi as a bad film that was not worthy of the name Star Wars… As I worked my way through college getting a little bit older, and a little more cynical along the way, I found that I was becoming that most loathsome of creatures… a hipster.

Despite this new found attitude I was still “into” Star Wars to a degree.  I still kept up with the latest Star Wars news through the Official Star Wars Fan Club, which I was a member of; anxiously awaiting each new issue of Bantha Tracks, and later the Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine, for even a whisper of Star Wars rumors. I even secretly watched and recorded Ewoks: The Battle For Endor, and found myself enjoying it. I played and GM’d in weekly Star Wars Roleplaying Game sessions, creating new stories and new characters to adventure with across the galaxy, fighting the forces of the dreaded Empire.  There was a battle going on inside of me between the innocent, young fan I was in 1977, and the new, cynical hipster fan I was becoming, and that innocent fan was slowly losing the battle.

Fortunately something stopped me…

Redemption and Enlightenment…

I’ll never forget the moment that my fandom was saved and I stopped being that angry, bitter fan, and rekindled that youthful passion I had for Star Wars .  It was 1989, and I was getting ready to finish moving out of my Mom’s home.  I needed to move a number of things into storage, including my Star Wars toy collection I kept at my Grandmother’s house.  I had begun packing up some of my loose figures and play sets when I picked up my Landspeeder, that I would keep in its box for safekeeping.  I looked at the box, fondly recalling the first time I opened it, took the speeder out, and scooted it on the floor of my kitchen. Then I looked at the words printed on the right corner of the box:

“Ages 5 and up”

What?!?!? Wait, Star Wars is for kids?

I had kept Star Wars locked away in a time capsule in my mind.  Star Wars was preserved for me in some cynical twisted sense of nostalgia that was married with my evolving tastes as an adult. Somehow I had lost sight that while I was getting older, Star Wars was not. I was changing, and had lost a lot much of the innocence of that 9 year old boy who had first discovered this universe.  I had forgotten that it was THAT kid that fell in love with Star Wars.  George Lucas made Star Wars for THAT nine year old kid, not for the 22 year old who was clutching this box wondering how he had gotten to this point in his life, still contemplating his future.

GeorgeI realized that Star Wars wasn’t the problem, George Lucas wasn’t the problem; my cynicism and my inability to to separate my worldview as a nine year old and as a twenty-two year old were the problem.  I needed to let go and just enjoy the ride.  Stop over analyzing things and just approach the films with a youthful exuberance… find that inner child that still longed to escape to that far away galaxy and embrace it.

I have carried that attitude since that day I rediscovered my fandom, and what’s even better is that for the past 15 years or so I’ve been able to enjoy my kids’ experience with Star Wars, and have gotten to see the Saga in a whole new light as I watched it through their eyes.  So I don’t get worked up about the comic antics of Jar Jar Binks; my kids loved him.  He was no more silly than some of C-3POs prissy histrionics, or R2s prat falls, or the belch jokes from Empire and Jedi.  I take it all in stride now…

Star Wars is epic story telling with weighty themes, but it is also filled with moments of whimsy.  While there are certainly darker moments that may appeal to older audiences those same moments speak to the fears and concerns of children.  What if I make a bad decision? How do I know good from bad? What is my destiny?  While I may be an older fan now, when I finally came to the realization that I was a fan of a series of children’s movies I became a much happier fan.

So, I’d like to thank the crew at Full of Sith for their thoughtful discussion.  It really brought back a lot of memories, and rekindled memories about what made me the fan I am today.  Hopefully this entry gives my readers a better understanding of how I approach Star Wars as a fan.  There’s a reason I decided to call my blog One Saga, and that was to cement the idea that I view all of Star Wars as one giant tapestry that is part of George’s universe, but he has allowed fans and professionals to add to that tapestry and expand the richness of the Star Wars experience.  Call it the optimist in me, but I hope one day we can move beyond the labels of OT-fan, PT-fan, or EU-fan, and can simply be known as Star Wars fans.

May the Force Be With You

The Star Wars Radio Drama – Stephanie Brown, I owe you an apology

I want to start off this entry with an apology to my grade school friend, Stephanie Brown and any other members of the Phoenix Christian Grade School graduating class of 1981 who attended our graduation party in 1981.  I didn’t realize how much of a totally obsessed nut I was back then; a nut who sequestered himself for 30 minutes during the party just to listen to a silly Making of Star Wars For Radio broadcast. It was rude, and disrespectful, but I was a 13 year old Star Wars junkie… I’m truly sorry.  Star Wars Radio Drama

The Star Wars Radio Drama had just wrapped up its 13 episode run the week before with the epic conclusion, Force and Counter Force.  Normally the episodes aired locally, Sunday at 12PM on our National Public Radio affiliate, KMCR (now KJZZ).  I would get home from church just in time to turn on my dad’s stereo receiver, tune in the station, and get a blank cassette tape ready to record.  However, for some reason this special was going to air Friday evening, the night of the graduation party.  What was I going to do?

Fortunately my parents had bought me a portable Sanyo radio/cassette player for Christmas (I think the reason I got that present in the first place was my dad was tired of me always using his stereo).  I figured I could just take the player with me, tune in like I always do and record the special. No problem…

What I didn’t realize was I was about to do something incredibly stupid.  When people saw me walk in with the stereo I think the natural assumption was I was going to be using my stereo to provide music… and I did.  I brought my little tan cassette case which held some 30 tapes or so.  Now I have to say my musical tastes have always been a bit eclectic, so my selection of music at the time included:  Jim Croce, The Doobie Brothers, Christopher Cross, Chicago, Juice Newton, The Oak Ridge Boys (remember… eclectic tastes), Kim Carnes (yeah it was the album with Bette Davis Eyes), a couple of K-Tel albums I had recorded on cassette, and of course my trusty copy of Meco Star Wars.  For the first hour or two we played music in the background while people went swimming and ate, but then it was show time…Meco Star Wars

Looking back on this some 34 years later, I really have to wonder what in the world I was thinking.  I announced that I had a show to record; so I switched off the music, turned on KMCR, and subjected my friends, and Stephanie’s family, to 30 minutes of my obsession (I think Stephanie eventually brought out her own stereo, so maybe it wasn’t so bad). Now mind you, this is a show I’m recording, I can listen to it later.  But of course being an idiot 13 year old boy I sat transfixed listening to The Making of Star Wars For Radio: A Fable For the Mind’s Eye at a low murmur while my friends continued to have fun.  So, to the PCGS Class of 81 I offer this profound apology.

Some of you reading are probably asking themselves, there was a Star Wars Radio Drama?  How did I miss this? Where can I hear it?

Radio 2Simply put, the original Star Wars Radio Drama is nothing short of nearly 6 hours of storytelling perfection.  Over the course of 13 episodes Brian Daley, the author of a trio of Han Solo novels from the late 70s, retells the original story of A New Hope, expanding on ideas in the movie and giving the audience a glimpse into the events leading up to the movie.

We are introduced to Luke Skywalker (voiced by Mark Hamill), on Tatooine in the premiere episode, A Wind to Shake the Stars. Through Hamill’s performance and stellar writing we come to understand just how badly Luke wants to escape to the stars.  He is surround by friends who really don’t like him, and his future appears to be permanently tied to his uncle’s struggling farm.  His one hope for getting off Tatooine is his friend Biggs who is leaving to join up with the Rebellion.

In the outstanding second episode, Points of Origin, we follow Princess Leia Organa on an adventure to deliver medical supplies to Rebels on a planet under siege by the Empire.  She is nearly foiled by the evil Lord Darth Vader (voiced brilliantly by actor Brock Peters of To Kill a Mockingbird fame).  Over the course of the story we learn about the Organa family’s involvement in the Alliance and their efforts to keep that secret.Radio 1  Leia’s backstory is explored in this episode and in the next installment we learn how Leia got here hands on the Death Star plans.  Moments like these give Leia a chance to shine making her a much richer character

Even though the show clocks in at almost six hours, it is never boring and is always engaging.  The sound editing is outstanding, and the performances are brilliant.  I especially loved Perry King’s (of the 80s show Riptide) performance as Han Solo, a role he was up for in the original film. Also on board is Anthony Daniels reprising his role as C-3PO , and veteran actor, Keene Curtis, as the evil Grand Moff Tarkin.

The Star Wars Radio Drama is engaging theater for the mind and draws the audience into a story that is both familiar and new.  That’s what attracted me to the show so much; it was an inventive way to retell a story that was dear to me.  It gave me a better sense of who Luke, Han, and Leia were, and a greater appreciation for the story George Lucas had crafted.  The show gets my highest recommendation

In closing, to coin a term used by the show’s director: “You may think you’ve seen the movie, wait til you hear it.”

You can buy the original Star Wars Radio Drama (including that Making of special I just HAD to record) here:

Radio Drama

May the Force Be With You!