I saw this delightful 1970 children's special at the Museum of Television & Radio in Los Angeles. Variety-show host Ed Sullivan was one of the early boosters of Jim Henson, inviting Henson and his wonderful Muppets to appear frequently on Sullivan's popular Sunday-night show. In December 1970, Sullivan's usual time-slot on CBS (not NBC) was pre-empted for this musical special, which Sullivan narrated. For legal purposes, 'The Great Santa Claus Switch' was yet one more episode of 'The Ed Sullivan Show' ... consequently, it's been buried in legal red-tape ever since. I hope that interest in this wonderful special will spur somebody to release it onto home video.
In a classic episode of 'The Twilight Zone', Art Carney played a broken-down drunk who could just barely hold onto his job as a department-store Santa: at the end of that episode, Carney's character actually became Santa Claus. Now, a few years later, here's Carney again playing Santa Claus: the genuine article, not a department-store knock-off. Except for Sullivan as narrator, Carney is the only human performer in this special: all the other roles are played by Henson's Muppets. (The actor billed as playing 'Fred' is actually a Muppeteer, doing voicework as well as manipulating the Muppet.)
As the show opens, all is sweetness and light at the North Pole, with Santa and his elves getting ready for another Christmas. ('We're happy little Christmas elves; we never are forlorn...') The elves even recite their roll call: Zippity, Skippity, Hoppity, Bing, Bong and Fred. (There's an amusing doorbell effect when Bing and Bong make their entrances.) Santa genially decides to 'super-vooze' while the elves make the toys.
However, it appears that Santa has an evil twin, or at least an evil lookalike. This is none other than Cosmo the Wizard, also played by Carney. Cosmo has hatched a plan to kidnap Santa and take his place. As part of the plan, Cosmo plans to abduct Santa's elves (one at a time) and replace them with his evil henchbeings, played by hairy Muppet monsters.
The elves continue to recite their roll call ... but each time they do so, another Muppet elf is missing and a hairy Muppet monster (in ill-fitting elf disguise) has taken his place. Santa, of course, is oblivious. One of Art Carney's earliest jobs in show business was playing Red Lantern, a talking fish(!) on the children's radio show 'Land of the Lost'. Carney is in fine form here, playing this material at just the right level for kiddies.
Eventually, Fred is the last elf standing ... and it's up to him to rescue Santa and the other elves. We get plenty of the Muppets' brand of cornball humour here. At one point during his rescue mission, Fred disguises himself as a rock ... prompting him to tell us 'I used to be afraid, but now I'm a little boulder.' Ouch!
The musical numbers in this special are quite pleasant, with amusing lyrics and catchy tunes. Why haven't the Muppets done more musical material?
'The Great Santa Claus Switch' is meant for the kiddywinks, but adults who don't take themselves too seriously will enjoy it too. I hope that somebody untangles the legal rights to this thing, and puts it on video or DVD. Absolutely and eagerly, I rate this show a perfect 10 out of 10. Bah, humbug!
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