THE BOOTLEG FILES: “‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS”

BOOTLEG FILES 161: “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” (1977 TV special starring Paul Lynde and Anson “Potsie” Williams).

LAST SEEN: In a one-time screening at the Two Boots Den of Cin in New York in December 2001.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: It’s one of those things that fell through the cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Probably not.

Last week, we celebrated Christmas with a film where Santa entertains kids with a Punch and Judy show complete with racist stereotypes, animal abuse, and an alligator crunching a man’s head. How could anyone in search of perverse Yuletide joy possibly top that? Easy: with Paul Lynde.

Let’s set the Way-Back Machine to the U.S. of A. on December 7, 1977, circa 8:00pm Eastern Standard Time. Turn on ABC and what do your eyes behold but “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a holiday special starring Paul Lynde…with special guest star Anson Williams (a.k.a. Potsie from “Happy Days”).

Yes, the alligator crunching the man’s head may seem more in keeping with the Christmas season than Paul Lynde and Potsie in their first (and only) Yuletide appearance together.

But if you’re anticipating the over-the-top camp of “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” (detailed in an earlier installment of The Bootleg Files), you’re out of luck. This go-round, Lynde plays the holiday straight (no pun intended). For Paul Lynde addicts expecting supersized swish and bile, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” will disappoint.

The production is set in a small-town American village sometime in the mid-18th century. It’s Christmas and the home of Clark Cosgrove is buzzing with too much activity. The hyper-nervous Clark Cosgrove is Paul Lynde and it’s basically a variation of the part he played in “Bye Bye Birdie”: the harried patriarch who can’t quite connect with the changing world around him.

Of course, there’s plenty for Clark to be jittery about: squealing children who want their presents early, endless frictions between his wife (Anne Meara) and his live-in mother (Alice Ghostley), the visit of his inebriated father (Foster Brooks) and his dotty mother (Martha Raye) with her mangy cat, the visit of a German uncle (Howard Morris), the unexpected arrival of a traveling salesman who stays overnight by sleeping in the kitchen (George Gobel) and the caroling of the pretty boy neighbor next door (Anson Williams).

If anything, it’s certainly a noisy Christmas – and the denizens of the house (except for the cat) inevitably break out into song and dance with very little encouragement. Some of the songs are mildly amusing, particularly a dueling grandmother number with a beaming Martha Raye offering a wealth of benevolence and love and a grimacing Alice Ghostley threatening to box the ears of her unruly grandchildren. There’s also an Anson Williams-encouraged sing-along in which the household has to guess who will be waiting under the mistletoe with them. (And, no, Paul Lynde doesn’t want Anson Williams under the mistletoe – there was just so much you could get on the air in 1977!)

Not surprisingly, given the dubious amusements of the day, the cat jumps out the window. Clark has to chase it across a snowy roof. This creates such a commotion that it wakes everyone up – especially the kids, who imagine the rooftop racket was created by a certain K. Kringle. Once Clark arrives back in the house with the cat, the kids ask where Santa Claus was. Unable to produce Santa, Clark begins to improvise a tale of what transpired – which bears an uncanny resemblance to Clement C. Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which opens with the classic line “’Twas the night before Christmas…”

If none of this sounds particularly amusing, it’s because it isn’t. Given the excess of talent (minus Anson Williams), “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” is a surprisingly enervated affair. Lynde himself is acutely subdued, often acting more as a bewildered observer to the excess holiday merriment than as the comic center of gravity. Anne Meara is wasted, which is a shame since she would seem like a perfect foil (both physically and emotionally) to Lynde’s trademark humor. Foster Brooks’ hilarious drunk act is kept to a bare minimum, and even anarchic reliables like George Gobel and Martha Raye have precious little to do except stand around and spout bits of comic confusion.

So what exactly went wrong? Perhaps in trying to keep “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” as an old-fashioned type of entertainment, the writers mistook the concept of old-fashioned for out-of-fashion. The production wants to be a Currier & Ives print come to life, but instead it remains as flat and faded as a faded Christmas card.

With “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the Christmas spirit never really embraces anyone. In fact, no one truly seems to get it. In fact, the kids remain obnoxious, there is the suggestion the frictions between in-laws will probably remain and the recitation of the Moore poem suggests the best way to explain Christmas to youngsters is to lie about fat men and flying reindeer. It doesn’t bring out the best in anyone – it just reminds us that life sucks and people are stupid, and who wants to turn on the TV to be reminded of that?

“’Twas the Night Before Christmas” was greeted with mixed reviews and poor audience ratings (it came in at #30 for that week’s top-watched shows). The weak response gave no reason for ABC to rebroadcast it and it was promptly forgotten. Years later, when Lynde enjoyed belated beatification as a pioneer in gay humor, bootlegs of the program began circulating among his fans. But outside of a one-time screening in New York at the Two Boots Den of Cin in December 2001, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” has not had any public screening since its 1977 broadcast. Most people are probably unaware it exists (it isn’t even mentioned in the IMDB).

Well, maybe if an alligator came on screen to gnaw Anson Williams’ head, we would’ve had a truly memorable Christmas pageant to celebrate.

Oh, special thanks are in store for the lovely lady who runs the web site PaulLynde.info for providing the publicity still that accompanies this article. If you love Paul Lynde, check out her wonderful online tribute to that campy funnyman – that’s a real Ho Ho Ho!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on December 22, 2006 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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