Hey Cassettes and welcome back to The Christmas Case Diaries 😉 Today is an extra exciting episode because not only are we continuing with our theme or Christmas TV specials, we are also joined by a VERY special guest: Brett Wilson!
(The beautiful art done by none other than Brett Wilson for this episode!)
Brett is an incredibly talented artist, and somewhat of an expert on classic Nickelodeon. So, we called him in to help us this week as we discuss the 1996 Hey Arnold holiday special: Arnold’s Christmas!
Tune in as we talk the brief history of Hey Arnold and why this special still brings tears to our eyes every Christmas.
Hey Arnold History
- The character Arnold was created by Craig Bartlett in the late 1980’s, first as a stop-motion character made from Plasticine (a clay-like material)
- He and his wife Lisa Groening came up with the name together, and Lisa helped with other concepts of the show as well.
- If the name Groening sounds familiar, Lisa’s brother is Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons.
- Bartlett created three shorts in this medium, one was called, “Arnold Rides a Chair” which aired on Sesame Street!
- After these shorts and a run of comics in Simpson’s Illustrated magazine, Bartlett was able to sell the idea of an animated TV show about Arnold and his friends to Nickelodeon.
- In October of 1996, Hey Arnold premiered on Nickelodeon.
- The original pilot was a short that aired in theaters before the movie, “Harriet the Spy” and was later reworked into an episode called “24 Hours to Live”
- The show focused on Arnold, a 9-year-old boy growing up in the city of Hillwood, a nondescript urban setting that was a conglomerate of Seattle, Portland, and Brooklyn.
- Arnold lives in a boarding house filled with unique and hilarious tenants, including his two loving grandparents Phil and Gertie. Arnold is a loving soul who sees the best in everyone, even his constant bully Helga Pataki. He navigates problems of everyday life with his best friend Gerald at his side, along with a cast of wonderfully strange characters.
- The show was a perfect blend of the relatable and the surreal; with realistic issues and settings mixed with cartoonish action and characters.
- Later that year, the first half hour episode of the show came in the form of a holiday special called, “Arnold’s Christmas.”
- Before the special aired, the show tended to be more light-hearted. This episode covered serious concepts that brought a new level of emotion for the show.
- Lane Toran (credited as Toran Caudell) as Arnold
- He is an actor and musician who also voiced King Bob in the TV show “Recess”
- He returned for the Hey Arnold Jungle movie as Che, a handsome young man that falls for Olga (Helga’s older sister).
- He is also directing and starring in an upcoming film called “Getaway Girls”
- Francesca Marie Smith as Helga
- She also voiced characters in “Recess” including Ashley B, and did various voices for the VeggieTales TV series.
- Francesca voiced Helga all the way through Hey Arnold’s initial run and even reprises her role in 2017 for The Jungle Movie.
- Jamil Walker Smith as Gerald
- After playing Gerald for the run of the show, he went on to have a recurring role in Stargate Universe. He has found steady work as an actor and will also be in the movie “Getaway Girls”
- Tress MacNeille as Grandma Gertie
- An incredibly talented voice actor, Tress MacNeille is known for playing Dot in the animaniacs, and has provided voices for The Simpsons and Futurama. She has a recurring role as Daisy Duck in many Disney projects.
- Dan Castellaneta as Grandpa Phil
- Hey Arnold has a lot of ties to the Simpsons, and Dan Castellaneta is one of them. He has been voicing Homer Simpson since 1989
- Baoan Coleman as Mr. Hyunh
- He played Mr. Hyunh for 28 episodes of the show
- He also had a supporting role in Rambo: First Blood Part II, but Hey Arnold was his last acting credit
- According to IMDB, Baoan Coleman was at the actual fall of Saigon, which is depicted in the episode when Mr. Hyunh hands Mai to a soldier on a helicopter. I can’t find other sources to back this up, but I thought it was interesting to mention
- Hiep Thi Le as Mai
- She acted in a few things since Hey Arnold, including the TV movie “Cruel Intentions”
- She was born in Vietnam and was separated from her family during the war, similar to her character Mai in the show.
- Vincent Schiavelli as Mr. Bailey
- A well-known and respected character actor, he also voiced Pigeon Man in another popular episode of Hey Arnold.
- He played Lazarus in “Bride of Boogedy” which we talked about earlier this year, he was a teacher in the John Cusack movie, “Better of Dead”
Arnold’s Christmas: The Story
- The story for Arnold’s Christmas was created by Craig Bartlett, Steve Viksten, and Joe Ansolabehere. Steve Viksten wrote the episode.
- After names have been drawn for the boarding house Secret Santa, Arnold is distraught to find that he has been given Mr. Hyunh, a member of the boarding house that he knows very little about
- In this scene, Grandma wishes everyone a happy Thanksgiving. This started the gag in the show that Grandma always mixes up the holidays. Watching this with Marci, it confused her about the timeline and made her think that the episode jumped ahead to Christmas shortly after.
- Desperate to figure out the right gift, Arnold visits Mr. Hyunh and asks him about his life. Mr. Hyunh tells Arnold a harrowing tale about his life in another country, and a war that separated him and his infant daughter. Mr. Hyunh came to the US in search of her, but has yet to find her.
- This episode was the first of the show to feature a real life event: the Vietnam. They never explicitly say which war or Mr Hyunh is referring to, but images and key phrases would indicate Vietnam. For example, Mr Hyunh says, “there was a war in the north,” and we see images of him running past a ripped American flag. The war was between North and South Vietnam, and involved the US as we were a principal ally of south Vietnam.
- When Saigon fell, helicopters did in fact take refugees out of the city, just like in the show. The government wasn’t liberated until 1995, about 20 years later and Mr Hyunh says it took him 20 years to get out of the country.
- This episode is often lauded for “giving kids credit” and focusing on serious subject matter in a children’s TV show, and later on the show mentions Vietnam again when we find out that Gerald’s dad fought in the war as well.
- Arnold is now inspired to make Mr. Hyunh’s dream of seeing his daughter a reality, and springs into action. Arnold heads to the federal office of information, and he and Gerald beg a man named Mr. Bailey to locate Mr Hyunh’s daughter. Mr. Bailey tells the boys that he would do so, if they finish his Christmas Eve shopping. So, the boys set out to get everything on the list.
- Mr. Bailey is very likely a reference to George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the famous character played by Jimmy Stewart
- Somewhere else in Hillwood, we see Helga trying to find a gift for her secret crush: Arnold. She eavesdrops on the boys and discovers what they are trying to do. The last item on their list is a pair of incredibly rare Nancy Spumoni snow boots that Helga also wants for Christmas.
- In the Hey Arnold universe, there’s a character named Dino Spumoni who is their version of Frank Sinatra. In real life, Frank Sinatra had a daughter named Nancy who sang the song, “These Boots are Made for Walking.” The snow boots are an obvious reference to Nancy Sinatra.
- After Arnold and Gerald return to Mr. Bailey with all the items except the snow boots, Mr. Bailey refuses to help them (what a terrible person). The boys walk away, feeling dejected.
- Helga heads home to her own family’s Christmas, and her mother gives her a Christmas gift. They are the Nancy Spumoni snow boots! Helga thanks her mom and runs out into the snow with joy and excitement. She dances around in happiness until she remembers that Arnold needs the snow boots as well.
- Up until this point in the episode, Helga has repeatedly said that Christmas is all about presents and that she hopes her parents “didn’t screw up” her gift. When her mom hands her the boots, she tells her that she stood in line for hours to get them. This is especially poignant because Helga has a troubled home life, with parents that are somewhat neglectful and much more caring toward her sister.
- Helga brings Mr. Bailey the boots and begs him to stay and find Mai. She gives a speech about the true meaning of Christmas, and points out that not only would Mr Hyunh and his daughter not be reunited, but his actions would destroy Arnold’s faith in miracles.
- On Christmas morning, Arnold is about to apologize to Mr Hyunh for not having a gift, when the doorbell rings and Grandpa lets in Mai. Arnold is blown away, confused as to how this happened and Gerald tells him it must’ve been a Christmas angel.
- The episode ends with Helga, standing alone in the snow after leading Mai to the boarding house. The image drives home the concept of giving for the sake of giving, and the audience could never question how much Helga cares for Arnold. Never once in the show does she ever mention what she did for Arnold, Mr. Hyunh, and Mai. She thought Arnold was naive to believe in miracles, until she became the miracle herself.
- Even though the subject matter is intense, the episode still makes room for laughs. What’s your favorite part of the special?
- This special deals with very serious subject matter for a children’s TV show. Do we think that a show today would cover something so intense?
- What do we think was the benefit of talking about these issues?
- This is an emotional episode for a lot of people! What part hits you in the feels the most?
Thank you Brett Wilson for joining us! You can see some of his work here; https://www.instagram.com/brettwilsonart/?hl=en