Monday, December 23, 2013

Holiday Specials Week: Day One, Pee Wee's Christmas Special (1988)

Good morning!

Well, folks, it's that time of year-- we're almost in the home stretch for Christmas! I have all my gifts wrapped, I have a fridge full of ingredients ready to be cooked for holiday cheer-making...I can't lie, I am super excited for the midweek festivities. What have I been doing over the weekend to get in the right frame of mind for yuletide activities? Oh, just Christmas specials. Youtube, gracious Youtube, has given us the gift this year of user-uploaded xmas specials from my childhood, and from here until Christmas Eve, why not look over a few of the better of the best of them with me?


I'm just going to go over some of the highlights of this experience for you. The program is forty-eight minutes of solid, kitsch holiday joy. Read and watch along, if you want, via this link on Youtube

I have not seen this special since it originally aired, when I was three. THREE! Hard to believe. In a household where my parents, usually completely nonrestrictive of my constant tv viewing habits, refused to let me watch Labyrinth because David Bowie was "too weird" (um, y'all set yourselves up for my lifelong obsession with him, right there), Pee Wee's Big Adventure was rented from Kroger's enough times to warrant extralegally duping it onto a blank VHS tape. "There's no basement at the ALAMOOOO," my dad would boom along with the tour guide in that one crucial scene, literally slapping his knee at the dada-meets-screwball comedy of Mr. Herman's greatest work. Oh, we watched the FOOL out of that tape. Large Marge and all, it was a family classic at our house. Something about the grey-suited, red bow tied child man Paul Reubens presented onscreen was so adorably mad cap that my parents had no problem with leaving their pre-schooler in his capable hands for half hour romps via his weekly tv show. But this! This Christmas special is something ELSE, to be seeing through the lense of 2013! 

The special opens with a panoramic view of the snowy countryside in which Pee Wee's amazing, crazy holiday'd out, Wayne White created playhouse stands, winking its Christmas lights and sphinx-eyes at us. Inside the playhouse, a full chorus of uniformed Marine Corps officers welcomes you, in song, to Pee Wee's xmas special. The traditional choral arrangement breaks down into an Ike Turner Review like frug-dancing theme, and isn't it the better for it! I'd like to ask Santa what I needed to do this year to get a gold sequin shimmy dress and hair like these backup singers, because I sure would like to know.

The special guest star roster from year of the Lord 1988? Charro, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Grace Jones, k.d. lang, Dinah Shore, Little Richard, Cher, the Del Rubio Sisters, Magic Johnson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Joan Rivers. Oh my! Wouldn't you like that to be your dinner guest list at your holiday repast? I think yes.

At the beginning of the show, Pee Wee drafts a mile long xmas list for Santa with the help of Conky the occurs to me, for the first time, that Conky's eyes are made out of a pair of Brownie box cameras from the fiifties, the flash attachment serving as his peepers! All around the playhouse, I'm seeing pieces of the midcentury that wouldn't even have registered on my radar as a baby, but are making my pulse race as an almost thirty year old.

Example, check out that chair next to Chairy! Won't you, and your five brothers and sisters, please come live at my house? A thought that occurred to me while watching and thinking about all the fifties' and sixties' kitsch on display-- 1963 was only twenty five years ago in 1988. Let that concept sink in for a second....1963....was only twenty five years 1988. So as "wow, look, it's the eighties'" as this looks to us now, being as it's 2013 and 1988 was twenty five years ago...people in 1988 would feel that way about 1963. *MIND* *BLOWN*.

Pee Wee mingles with regulars from his weekly show as well as the A list celebrities of the special, the first of which is Miss Yvonne. I can just barely recall a lot of the regulars, but "the most beautiful woman in the puppet land" is definitely one of them. She reminds me of a more glamorous version of Lady Elaine from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, all fifties' chiffon prom dress and hair teased to the heavens in a perfect helmet of a hive. She shows up, back in my life after all these years, and suddenly I know exactly what I'm wearing to my parents' house on Wednesday morning. SERIOUSLY, LOOK AT THIS ENSEMBLE. You've got your Christmas tree inspired beehive, your fifties' crinolined dress decked out in red and green chiffon...I might lose the feathery white trim and the weird snowflake harness, but other than that, we are ready to go! Thanks for being a stylespiration, Miss Yvonne!

Moments later, however, I was so disturbed by Floory's bold pass at my beauty icon (which was EVEN MORE BIZARRELY met with "Coming, Floory, dear!" instead of a "where do you get off, bub!"), that I have made it into a text based card for your viewing pleasure. Are you for real, Floory? Come stand over you? You are creeping me out, dude. Check yourself.

Jambi I had completely forgotten about except for his catchphrase of "Mekka Lekka Hi, Mekka Hi Ni Ho". With Margaret Hamilton level green face paint and sequined eyebrows, he's hands down the most fierce of in-playhouse talent. While this seemed like an innocuous genie back in my childhood, I'm pretty sure present day me reads this character as an Ali Baba inspired drag queen. Who grants wishes. Why do I not have something like this in my life.

Jambi, you bettah WORK.
To continue with the running list of off-the-wall celebrity guests, Grace Jones appears, grace รก a postal mix-up, and sings "The Little Drummer Boy" in an honest to God breastplate (what is real?! What is fantasy?!). She was supposed to be performing at the White House, but instead was accidentally delivered to the Playhouse. I bet Pee Wee got Reagan's mail all the time with postal delivery snafus like this. Does Jones look 100% amazing? She does. It's also funny to see Pee Wee standing next to her-- while the camera is kind in this shot, in wide angle frames, Grace Jones looks about 4x the size of Pee Wee, like something distorted the proportions in post-production. LEMME HAVE THAT FUTURISTIC NUN HAT, GJ. GIVE ME THE HAT AND NO ONE GETS HURT.

Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon are next, force-labored into making 500 xmas cards for Pee Wee using a screen print and potato print technique, respectively. "Can we go out and play in the snow, Pee Wee?" "Are my cards finished? Then no!" It's weird how sincere all the guest stars are-- though I guess if you were Annette and Frankie, nothing would much make you bat an eyelash after the crazy convoluted plot lines of those beach blanket movies.

STOP. THE PRESSES. M'f'n' Cher showin' up in this PIECE, heLLO, my real mom. I forgot she was on the guest roster until she showed up and I started shrieking.

Cher's wearing a kind of mini-dress with bustle and thigh-high slits, and asks about the secret word of the day, which is ((whispers)) "year"...ah! Cher! You look like one million dollars cash! Pee Wee writes a verse poem as Cher takes off for, I don't know, a Vegas date with some underage hunk (God love her) "That was Cher! Cher was right there! In the same room as my chair! I hope I didn't stare! Oh well, I don't care!" I do care, Pee Wee. I do care. I love this woman.

Another segment has a kindly, older gentleman in sable and crown, introducing a cartoon. He's regency in Pee Wee's world, as a Captain Kangaroo like character called "The King of Cartoons". Sooooo, if you were wondering why the King of Cartoons look and sounds so familiar, it could be because HE'S BLACULA OMG WHAT DO YOU MEAN BLACULA IS THE KING OF CARTOONS. William Marshall, ladies and gentlemen, in the two roles in which he found his greatest success, King of Cartoons and the world's first famous undead black vampire (in the throes of an obsession with Pam Grier movies, I have seen Scream, Blacula, Scream! more times than I can comfortably admit):

But the surprises don't stop there. Speaking of people you didn't know were in Pee Wee's Playhouse, how about Cowboy Curtis is Laurence Fishburne? Yeah, Morpheus. Yeah, he was in Apocalypse Now, too. Boyz in tha Hood? Uh-huh, same dude, Cuba Gooding's dad. WHAT IS HE DOING IN AN ALL PASTEL COWBOY OUTFIT, COMPLETE WITH PURPLE CHAPS? S. Epatha Merkleson, from Law and Order, plays Reba the mail lady. How did they get such future-famous people on this show?! Folks, I have questions; I just don't have answers. I think it's so neat to see them at the beginning of their careers, willing to do whatever over-the-top role to get into the business.

After...or maybe a bit ice skating moment with Little Richard (the stuff that dreams are made of), the Del Rubio sisters, who, honestly, I had never heard of before, come and sing "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" in racy holiday mini skirts. Triplets in real life, the three girl singers had been active since the forties' in show business (you can read more about them here, careful though, there's flash video and sound right off the bat). Kitsch queen Allee Willis rediscovered them, performing as you see, in the mid eighties' and helped revive their careers. And shouldn't we be glad! These girls are CRAZY!

Later...ok, check this out-- imagine it's 1988. Pee Wee more famous...than Oprah Winfrey. FOLKS, PEE WEE HERMAN IS MORE FAMOUS THAN OPRAH WINFREY! I understand she had her show in 1988, but it wasn't anywhere near the cultural touchstone it would become a few years later. Here's the big O herself, all teased coiffure and magenta lipstick, talking in the phone booth with Pee Wee with Dinah Shore on the other line (see inset). I love it!

There's a claymation segment by the future creator of Hey Arnold!, a k.d. lang version of "Jingle Bell Rock", the cuchi cuchi girl herself, Charro, performing "Feliz Navidad" as earnestly as anyone ever has, and some other sketches towards the end...all and all, I would say this show is packed with almost a whole hour of meta nostalgia. But don't take my word for it! Grab a candy cane and some hot cocoa, and watch the whole thing yourself on Youtube. You deserve a break from stocking stuffing, right?

So! Do you remember watching this back in the eighties'? Are you a Pee-Wee fan? Re-watched any childhood favorites lately with the critical, discerning eye of a grown person and been surprised at what you didn't remember? Let's swap stories!

That's all for today, but more xmas special merriment tomorrow and Wednesday. Take care! Get those presents wrapped! Talk soon.


  1. Oh my heavens, I haven't thought about this in years but HELL YEAH!!! Paul Reubens must have really endeared himself to Hollywood -- everybody wanted to appear on this thing! Freaking Grace Jones?! What the hell?! So bizarre. So amazing.

    For the record, even as a kid, I found Miss Yvonne equal parts delightful and disturbing. She was a little like a John Waters character. But then, so are all of Pee Wee's friends. :)


    1. GRACE. JONES. My mind is still reeling from that one. Such a cool special!!

  2. I so loved this show! They should bring it back I think! :) Awesomeness at it's best!

    1. You know he did a revival kind of thing on Broadway! Just a little while back, not sure exactly when, but how much fun would this have been to see live?

  3. I own this (and the entire Pee Wee's Playhouse series) on DVD. Love it! So kitschy.
    And I never even caught the part about Floory! Throwing in those adult jokes on us. ;)

    1. I know!!! I am so surprised at what I didn't "get" back then (i.e., my assessment of the va-va-voom Jessica Rabbit as "pretty"...I look back on that now like "WHAT. HOW DID CHILDREN WATCH THIS. HOW DID I WATCH THIS?). I can't wait to see what flies over my kids' heads when I have them and let them watch the same stuff I did!

  4. i LOVE that special! i even have it on DVD! Its so good. grace jones is probably my favorite. it is such a bizarre performance! I LOVED LOVED LOVED Peewee as a kid, and looking back now, I can see how much it influenced me.

    1. Re: Grace Jones: Isn't it weird, but kind of amazing at the same time? I loved it! I just love how she's unique in the one-of-a-kind definition of the word. PEE WEE FOR LIFE.



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