The Bizarre World of Christmas Kiddie Matinees

This post originally appeared as part of the “12 Days of Shitmas” on Shit Movie Fest. I was happy to be included as a contributor! 

In prosperous post-war America, the once-humble European Christmas holiday became a commercially profitable empire. Social norms valued Christianity within a nuclear family structure, meaning that more Americans were now celebrating Christmas while living more comfortable lives in larger homes.  With the accessibility of the automobile, families that once occupied small apartments in the city began spreading out to larger suburban

homes to settle down with a few kids and a rumpus room! Dad might now commute further for better opportunity and the resulting financial boom (along with husbands returning home from the war) led to the American baby boom. Children’s entertainment grew to meet the needs of this new generation of bored kids stuck home all day with mom.

The television became the focal point of the room, with the Christmas tree setup nearby all December. Regional TV hosts became a kid’s best friend and created daily or weekly original content for young viewers.

Many of these regional shows and films were sadly lost to time.

It was around this same time that some of the most beloved and timeless family specials began their annual runs on television; Rankin Bass produced Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1964, Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special first aired in 1965, and we met Dr. Seuss’s most famous villain-turned-good-guy in 1966. By 1970 Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town and Frosty the Snowman were already poised to become new holiday favorites.

However, before we had the classics, we had the little guys; those schlocky producers trying to capture a little bit of that Christmas magic on film (and hopefully earn a quick buck in the process!). Regional filmmakers turned to wholesome subject material to capitalize on the “Kiddie Matinee” trend of the 1950’s and 60’s. On weekend mornings it was not uncommon to drop unsupervised children off at the theater for a few hours to watch a series of cartoons, fairy tale pictures, and Santa Claus movies.  This style of quick & dirty entertainment rarely stood the test of time, typically eliciting laughs from most modern audiences. Cheap puppets, amateur acting, and homemade sets were easily overlooked by kids as long as they were presented by a clown, cowboy, or princess. Many of the surviving films are all but forgotten by even the most discerning cult film fans, but their undeniable charm keeps them in my heart (and on my TV) year after year!

Santa in Animal Land (1949)


In 1949, documentary filmmaker (and friend of Alfred Hitchcock) Stefan Sharff decided to try his hand at producing a children’s short and the resulting product can only be described as…well, creepy! This 9 minute puppet film has become something of a rite of passage in my home at Christmas. If you visit me in December, prepare to be subjected to this one!  A group of surly animal roommates bemoan the fact they never get any presents from Santa, so they send Annie the Bird and Kitty Cat (obviously chosen because she’s “so smart and sooo beautiful”) out to ask him why. Meanwhile, Felix the Frog and Horace the Dog stay home staring out the window worrying while the women search for the jolly old elf.  Cranky puppets snap lines like “Outta My Way, Bird!” and “Don’t rush me, don’t push me!” at one other with raspy voice acting reminiscent of a John Waters movie. Once Kitty Cat finds the big guy (who incidentally wears more eyeliner than Jack Sparrow and Billie Joe Armstrong combined) he gives her a Santa coat and dubs her “Official Santa Claus For Animals Always!” -Further proof that Santa still doesn’t give a crap about about Animal Land Puppets.

Suzy Snowflake (1953)
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What is George Clooney’s connection to Christmas Kitch? Easy! Suzy Snowflake! His aunt, hammy recording artist Rosemary Clooney, recorded “Suzy Snowflake” in 1951. Two years later, Centaur Productions filmed a stop-motion animated short based on the popular song. The short uses sculptures by famous designer Wah Ming Chang, best known for his work on Star Trek, including famous monsters like the Gorn and even the design of the iconic communicator. Chang also worked on sculpture and character design for  Walt Disney, Land of the Lost, The Outer Limits, and Planet of the Apes, so it’s no surprise that his early creations have been firmly embedded in the memories of generations of kids from Chicago and Western PA.  According to the Chicago Museum of Television, the Suzy Snowflake short originally aired in December 1953 on “Garfield Goose and Friends” (then on WBBM, before it moved to WGN). This version doesn’t include Rosemary Clooney’s over-the-top rendition, but instead is scored by an unknown group of female singers. Growing up in Western PA, I knew Christmas had arrived because this spot would run constantly on WJAC Johnstown between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day every time the news ran a few minutes short. Suzy is personified as a graceful ballerina wearing an ice-white taffeta dress with a wand she uses to create snowflakes. She glides and drifts through town tapping on window panes and stopping to play with snowmen. As a small girl living in a snowy Pennsylvania winterscape, nothing was more magical.


The Three Little Dwarfs (Hardrock, Coco, and Joe)  (1956)


In 1956, likely capitalizing on the popularity of Suzy Snowflake, Centaur pictures released a second stop motion animated film for “Garfield Goose and Friends” out of Chicago, utilizing the same formula and animating a holiday children’s song (wisely calling upon Wah Ming Chang for his character design and animation again). The song was composed and sung by Stuart Hamblen, the first “singing cowboy” of early American Radio. A radio man turned musician, Hamblin had several charting hits, but is probably best remembered by pop culture fans for his song “Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sunshine In) which was famously covered in 1965 (10 years after its initial release) by Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm on the Flintstones.  Where Suzy was a delicate, gliding, feminine figure; Hardrock, Coco, and Joe are silly, clumsy dwarfs with deep tenor voices played up for comedy; “I’m JOOOOOE!” bellows the smallest of the three. Something new viewers tend to notice about this film is that Santa Claus appears to be Asian. I’ve read that this is because Chang modeled the sculpt of Old Saint Nick after himself, truly giving it an artist’s personal touch! I should warn you, after watching this one you might be singing it for the rest of your life.

K Gordon Murray’s Christmas Shorts (1964-1966)

Santa Claus and His Helpers(1964)
Santa’s Enchanted Village (1964)
Santa’s Magic Kingdom (1966)

Well known to seasoned fans of weirdo cinema, the 1959 Mexploitation film Santa Claus is an unforgettable experience. Originally directed by Rene Cordona, the US version of the film was re-dubbed by producer K. Gordon Murray.  In it, Santa is portrayed as more of a creepy voyeur than benevolent giver of gifts. Among his high-tech tools are a giant telescope, huge ear lobe, and a massive set of creepy pulsating lips referred to as the “TeleTalker”, all of them for watching your every move!  The plot is beyond bizarre with Santa (who lives in Heaven with groups of children, represented as cultural stereotypes from around the world) facing off against Pitch, (the Devil’s henchman clad in red greasepaint and red short shorts) in a battle for one little girl’s soul. Santa is assisted in this fight by none other than Merlin the Magician (sure, why not?). This weird example of kiddie matinee trash is not soon scrubbed from the viewer’s mind.

Watch Trailer:

It comes as no surprise then that a few years later Murray saw a second opportunity to cash in on this film by editing its scenes into three new short films and interspersing them alongside footage of his own original characters at a chain of Santa Claus themed amusement parks (why build a set when you can borrow a park’s backdrop and its employees for the day?). Stinky the Skunk, Duke the Dog, Puss in Boots, and The Big Bad Wolf all show up (since he already had the costumes for them from his earlier films!)  Many of these plots center on the repetitive arguments between the characters, some holding enormous threatening hunting rifles in their scenes and complaining of their ulcer pain! Add a healthy dose of jokes about how much poor, abused Stinky the Skunk REALLY, REALLY STINKS, throw in a singing princess for good measure, and you’ve got yourself a truly painful viewing experience. Starring alongside the usual cast of K. Gordon Murray favorites are actual employees of Santa’s Village amusement parks, whose acting chops are not good enough to prevent them from smiling directly into the camera wearing”what exactly am I supposed to be doing” expressions. In one seemingly endless scene from Santa Claus and His Helpers, a park employee attempts to put a head on a doll, but it keeps popping off. Rather than spare the audience by doing another take or editing this scene out, Murray uses every excruciating second of it-TWICE (Hey, film stock is expensive, and we are only shooting for one day!).  This agonizing scene is unbelievably re-used later in Santa’s Enchanted Village. These short films are truly among the weirdest of the weird and are a must-see if you are already a fan of Santa Claus and this infamous schlockmeister!

Watch Online:
Santa Claus and his Helpers:

Santa’s Magic Kingdom (in 2 Parts)

Santa’s Enchanted Village (in 2 Parts)

Every year I force friends and family to squirm through these films with me, and I hope some of these become holiday classics in your home. Here’s hoping that you’ll share the joy and discomfort of these wonderful forgotten kiddie classics with your loved ones this year!

Happy Holidays from Enchanted Kiddieland!

A Coach to take you to your Halloween Ball

We’ve talked about Pumpkins before on this site, but they seem to hold a special place in the fairy tale world. Besides being houses, they can also be transportation! Sure we could post lots of scary things during the Halloween season, but in keeping with our fairy tale roots, we’re taking a look at the well known tale of Cinderella; the poor girl whose fairy godmother turned a pumpkin into a golden coach so she could attend a ball at the palace and meet Prince Charming. If you don’t think its a story about Halloween, I’d argue that its a supernatural tale of masquerades, dressing up, villains, and of course- pumpkins, so put up your glass slippers and unwrap that pumpkin spice muffin while we check out a few of the pumpkin coaches we’ve come across in parks around the northeast!

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The Enchanted Forest has an impressive coach that I could  barely fit in my viewfinder.  They have captured the action of the story with a larger than life Fairy Godmother adorned in a lavender dress, pumpkin stems swirling about as she creates a footman from a horse, and a coach from a pumpkin. The movement in this one is really stunning, and I found myself walking around it a few times to take in all the angles and the flowing fabrics. Its just gorgeous in person! Kids (and kids at heart) can climb inside for a photo.

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The Magic Forest’s Cinderella somehow managed to land herself square on top of the palace, but once you enter, it looks like she eventually made her way to the ball. Her ugly stepsisters are the highlight of the display here, with their jealous scowls captured perfectly. Since the piece is primarily indoors, the sculptures here are in very good condition (compared to some of the other spider-webs and dirt we saw on other Magic Forest dioramas!) It looks like it is in a different style than the rest of the park, so these may have been sculpted by a different artist.

StoryBookLand
Meanwhile in New Jersey, a glass slipper guides us to a guarded coach inside a gazebo, locked behind an inaccessible gate. It may be that the park is trying to preserve the vintage coach, as you can see that it does appear to have seats for riders. If anyone has evidence of the Story Book Land coach in Egg Harbor with passengers, please let us know in the comments! We’d love to see it in action!

StoryLand
Story Land in NH had one of the most advanced coaches we’ve ever seen, with two motorized horses pulling a gas powered pumpkin with a full door. You can ride the coach up the hill to the castle and back, but they have preserved their history by displaying an older  pumpkin coach (photo on the lower right). This smaller coach likely pulled Cinderella through the park  before the motorized coach was added.

StorylandVintage

Here is a third coach we found on a 1957 postcard. The curved windows and  arched door is different from both of the above, and we’re not sure what became of this coach. Do any of you helper mice know?

Storytown USA

Finally, at the Great Escape (which stands on the Storytown USA land) a memory from the past has been preserved. A pumpkin coach and footman (with a full pony rig) still stands near the fontain and small castle replica of this Six Flags owned park. The coach has lived through decades at the park and can be seen as a white pumpkin in the 1956 Viewmaster Slide. (Thanks to Chuck Miller for scanning the original slide).

Have you ever ridden in a pumpkin coach? Which one is your favorite?
Happy Halloween!

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Hump-Day Dumpty #13

Unlucky Number 13-It figures that this Humpty comes with a tale of misfortune.

Over the 4th of July weekend word reached Kiddieland that Humpty Dumpty at the Enchanted Forest in Turner, OR actually did have a great fall!  Heartbreaking photos were posted on the park’s facebook page of a shattered Humpty, and the only people that seemed happy about this were smug reporters who got to make jokes on the 6’oclock news about how Humpty “literally” had a great fall! Ok, I realize that I did it here too, but Har Har. Save your puns-There’s more to this tale.

Humpty was created by park founder Roger Tofte in 1968 and was added to the park in when it opened in 1970. Here’s Humpty looking cheerful atop his multicolored brick wall earlier this year.

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(Original photo courtesy of Patrick North)

And here’s Humpty after “the incident”
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(Origial photo courtesy of Enchanted Forest)

Turns out two adult men attempted to climb up on the wall to take photos with the statue. (Stay on the path, kids!) They brought the wall tumbling down along with them and Humpty fell to his death. Before you want to send these 2 to the castle dungeon, please be aware that they did offer to pay for the repairs. In a classy move, however, the park declined payment and stated on their facebook page:

“We were able to speak with the people involved with the incident a little on the day it happened, and they called back as well the next day offering to pay. There’s no monetary value for the sentimental value to our family or for Roger’s time, so we are not looking for that or anything else but rather to move on from this. Great thanks to everyone for the messages and offers to help, we appreciate it!”

All the King’s Men may not be able to help, but lucky for us, Humpty’s creator Roger can!  Two days after Humpty fell, the park announced that he was making plans to rebuild him. The 84 year old artist quickly went to work building the new Humpty. Roger can still be found around around the park on the land he purchased over 50 years ago, or selling his paintings in town at a local gallery. He admitted that it would take quite a few hours to start from scratch and duplicate what he had buit in the late 60s, and joked that he hoped he still had “some creative juices left”. Based on what we’ve seen, we’re not worried about that!RogerTofterepairs

Roger is seen left taking photos of the area on July 6th after the damaged statue had been removed, and by July 11th (just under a week from his fall) Humpty already  has a brand new wall! (Photos courtesy of Enchanted Forest)

We’ll continue to follow the progress online at the Enchanted Forest’s Facebook page. In the meantime, from all of us in kiddieland, thank goodness for you, and your creative juices, Roger! We wish you all the luck in the world, and can’t wait to see Humpty come back home!ThanksRoger

Spring Cleaning! (Time to put your mittens away)

The harsh winter snow has finally melted here in the northeast, and since the sun is shining, and the birds are singing, it’s probably time for a little bit of spring cleaning. I think it’s safe to put away your mittens, kittens.

Storytown USA Cat

This mother kitten from Storytown USA is finishing up her sweeping, and has a pie cooling just for you. Sadly, when I met up with mama, It appeared that her 3 little kittens no longer live with her, as evidenced in this photo. Maybe they were just out looking for their lost mittens?

However, while she was cleaning up, mama kitten found this old slide from 1967. (credit: Flickr user chuckthewriter)

The house is much more demure today, don’t you think? (Though I tend to like the older garish one much better!)

 

A Horse is a Horse, Of course, Of course.

Ok, I want to preface this post by saying that I have been vegetarian for over 30 years. I love animals. I never want to see one harmed, but I have to share this fact with you. The year is 2014…and you can still see a Diving Horse show in the United States! WHOA.

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Surprised? I was too. Our friends at the Magic Forest continue to keep things bizarre with this throwback attraction that I sincerely thought died in the 1920s.  Apparently not. File this under  “Things you just don’t see anymore”. These are the kinds of attractions we imagine only existed when our great grandmother was alive. We remember seeing them in black and white news reel footage, or photographs in an old book about Steel Pier. In fact, plans to bring a diving horse back to the Jersey Shore were unsurprisingly scrapped in 2012!

Still, I assure you, I’ve seen a diving horse with my own eyes.
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For 37 years, The Magic Forest has had a diving horse show to entertain guests. First there was Rex, who dove for 18 years before going into retirement in the 1990s and living out the rest of his life at the park. Rex was followed by Thunder who has retired but still lives in the park, and now her companion Lightning takes the jump.

Twice a day for 2 months out of the year Lightning is lead up a 60 foot ramp, where he dives 9 feet into a 117,000 gallon pool before his crowd of stunned fans. Lightning then swims to the other side of the pool and gets a well deserved bucket of oats. The show only lasts 2 minutes, but I promise, it is 2 minutes you will never forget.

The park assures visitors that Lightning always jumps on his own, and is never forced to dive. Instead, he’s given positive reinforcement and is treated humanely. From my observation, I believe this to be completely true. Watch this video if you don’t believe me!He almost seems to enjoy the attention. Lightning is something of a celebrity at the park, and aside from the oats, he gets a heaping helping of fanfare from stunned kids and parents alike. He is a real showman and seems to pause and look at his audience before each jump building anticipation, and letting them know “yep, you’re really about to see this go down.”

The first diving horse took flight sometime in the late 1800s and to find one today almost unchanged is a remarkable throwback to a much simpler time in American amusements. Although I was conflicted about the show at first, I am thrilled to have had an opportunity to experience it first hand. So kids, now you know- the last diving horse show is alive in 2014 and if I were you, I’d get yourself to the Adirondack Mountains- and quick- to see it as soon as you can!