The Case of Christmas Movie Carols

Happy Anniversary, Cassettes! Two years ago today, we released our first episode about the various versions of “A Christmas Carol.” Things were different back then, in podcasting and in life. Our only goal back then, was to make each episode better than the last. We still strive for that, putting as much work into the show as our schedules will allow. We love podcasting, and we’re incredibly blessed to have listeners like you. We’re gonna start this episode by thanking our patrons: Joel, Anthony, Jacklyn, Shelly, Linda, John, Jacob, and our newest patron: Jingleheimer Schmidt! Just kidding, it’s our long-time listener and pal, JD! You guys have given us so much, thank you! 

So, we’re closing out the month with an exciting episode about one of the biggest pieces of the Christmas season: Christmas Music! It’s no secret that we’re big fans of music (go ahead and listen to our movie score episodes) and Christmas is a season with it’s own soundtrack. 

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Yule-tide carols being sung by a choir–and Bing Crosby–and Mariah Carey–and literally every artist ever–yes, these are the signs that it’s Christmas! There are thousands of Christmas songs, but every year we tend to hear the same few, covered by different artists. Some of these compositions were written specifically for the screen, and made such an impact on audiences, that they became instant Christmas classics. So today, we are taking a look at the film and TV origins of popular Christmas songs! 

We will also refrain from talking about “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and any song from “The Muppet Christmas Carol” since we’ve already talked about their origins this season.


  • Christmas carols have always been about the people singing them. Although Christmas-themed music dates back to the fourth century, Christmas songs were often considered inappropriate within the walls of churches and cathedrals, and were a tradition of the streets
    • When Oliver Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector of England, Ireland, and Scotland, he banned Christmas carols.
    • Even today, many Christmas carols are not performed during Christian services, but it’s generally up to the leader of each church in terms of which songs may be sung. Growing up, pretty much any song that was old and religious enough to be in the hymnal was fair game (Hark, The Herald Angels Sing; Go, Tell it on the Mountain, etc.) 
  • It’s tough to determine the first Christmas carol. One of the oldest still sung today, is “The Friendly Beasts,” a French song that dates back to the 12th century. The oldest, most popular English song is likely, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” from the 16th century–though, as it seems to go, the lyrics came almost 200 years later.

But today, we’re not going that far back! We made a list of some of the songs we hear the most around the holidays, some suggested to us by friends and listeners, and some we just can’t get out of our heads. We’re talking about them in age order, and if we forgot one you love, let us know! We’d love to do this again! 


The first song on our list is “White Christmas”, first featured in the film Holiday Inn (1942.)

  • On December 25, 1941, just weeks after the attack at Pearl Harbor, Bing Crosby debuted the song, “White Christmas” during the Kraft Music Hall radio show. 
  • The song was written by Irving Berlin, originally for a musical that became the movie, “Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. This film also featured very popular songs like, “Happy Holiday” and “Easter Parade,” but no songs compared to the sheer popularity of “White Christmas.” 
    • The film follows two men (a dancer and a singer), trying to win the affections of a beautiful woman. It takes place at an Inn that’s only open on holidays.
  • The song, like many Christmas songs on this list, has a certain melancholy nature. Christmas is not a happy time for everyone. Irving Berlin didn’t actually celebrate Christmas, as he was Jewish. But on Christmas day in 1928, he and his wife lost their three-week-old son. Every year, they would visit their son’s grave on Christmas day. 
    • In 1941, just as America was entering WWII, this song was exactly what the nation needed to hear. It was sad, and longing, with hints of the wonder and magic that makes Christmas special. 
    • White Christmas is not only the won an oscar, it’s the best-selling single ever, with over 50 million copies sold!


Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

  • This Christmas classic was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, a songwriting team for MGM, that had written for other Broadway musicals and films.
  • “Meet Me in St Louis” is a musical drama that follows a family at the turn of the century. It was a nostalgic film, like many at the time (1940’s), looking back before there were world wars. The main conflict of the film, is that the family must move away from their beloved city, and miss the St Louis Fair.
    • In an interview Martin explained that he found the melody first which was a madrigal style, meaning that it would benefit from using multiple voices and few to no instruments. After trying to make the melody work for a while, he ended up throwing it out. Luckily, Blaine had heard it and said it was too good to give up. So, they fished it out of the trash and wrote something magical together! 
    • The first draft however was too sad and Judy Garland had asked for a rewrite which became the song we all know!
      • Some of the original lyrics were: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas; it may be your last; Next year we may all be living in the past” and, “Faithful friends who are dear to us, will be near to us no more.” 
      • The scene in the film is sad, and a sad song would have been effective, but not as effective as a happy one. This way, the character is singing through the tears, the way many of us often do.
      • When Judy refused to sing the original, Hugh Martin just told her that he was sorry, but that it was what it was. It was another actor, named Tom Drake, that pulled him aside and convinced Martin to rewrite the lyrics.
  • The song owes its popularity to the everlasting appeal of Judy Garland, as well as its relatability. In a world of songs that tell us that Christmas will make us happy, this song tells us that we need to allow ourselves to be happy at Christmas–that it won’t just happen for us. And even though the song is a pep talk, telling us that we can make it through, no matter how bad things get, it’s still sad. And in that way, it reminds us that it’s okay to not be happy at Christmas, no matter how you think you have to feel. The melancholy tune has been covered by countless artists, like Bing Crosby, Bob Dylan, and Sam Smith.
    • If you listen closely, you’ll notice that some versions have changed lyrics. Frank Sinatra asked for a rewrite when he covered the song, and his version has now become the standard “cover” version of the song. Originally, the song has the line, “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Thanks to Frank, today’s versions replace that line with, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”


Baby, It’s Cold Outside – Neptune’s Daughter (1949)

  • This song was written by Frank Lousser and his wife Lynn Garland. They created it in 1944 as a fun number to say goodbye to their party guests. So in a way it was not to ask those to stay but to kick them out… 
  • Loesser himself was known for his song-writing abilities, writing over 700 song lyrics, including the songs for “Guys and Dolls” and the classic, “Heart and Soul.”
    • When Lousser sold the song to MGM, his wife felt betrayed, because it was their song. The tune was featured in the film, “Neptune’s Daughter” and won an oscar.
    • Neptune’s Daughter follows a fashion designer that steps in to stop a man from breaking her sister’s heart. Things get complicated when the man mistakes her for her sister.
  • The song was always controversial, as some stations didn’t want to air it, citing the lyrics as too risque, but ultimately it climbed the charts and was a huge hit.
  • Of course, it’s impossible to talk about this song without mentioning the controversy surrounding it. It’s important to understand that this controversy isn’t new, and absolutely no one is allowed to tell someone else how a song makes them feel–that is for certain.
    • At the time this song came out a woman had to be the one to keep a man from getting very far. Her reputation was at stake, she was essentially not allowed to want sex. Some believe the song was actually liberating for women, depicting an unmarried woman who has gone home with a man for the evening. Every time he asks her to stay, she doesn’t explicitly say that she doesn’t want to, just that other people will gossip about it.
    • The most infamous line, “What’s in this drink?” was meant to be a joke at the time (one that was used fairly often), essentially making an excuse to do something that they want to, but really shouldn’t do.
  • In the original notes for the song, the woman was labeled as “the mouse” and the man as, “the wolf,” which indicates a certain predatory nature, that can be upsetting to think about. The choreography of the scene may also be troubling to modern viewers, as the female puts on her hat and coat, and the man takes them off.
  • Although the song was certainly not intended to be about date rape, many listeners find the lyrics to be too lighthearted toward lack of consent between sexual partners. It doesn’t matter what the intent of the song was, if it upsets you, it upsets you. Your feelings are valid. And, no matter how you feel about the song, it’s important to have these discussions about it!


Silver Bells – The Lemondrop Kid (1951)

  • Silver Bells was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, two songwriters that were coming to the end of their contracts with Paramount. They knew that another flop would be the end of their careers, and they were reluctant to write a Christmas song for this reason. Livingston has said that the inspiration was the bells rung by the Salvation Army in New York, but Evans has said that it was because of a bell that sat upon a desk that the two had shared. In the context of the movie, it’s about the salvation Army bells.
    • The Lemondrop Kid stars Bob Hope as the title character, as he tries to rapidly make $10,000 to appease an angry gangster.
  • The original name of the song was to be “Tinkle Bells” but luckily Livingston’s wife heard the name and informed them what comes to everyone’s mind when they hear the word, “tinkle.” 
  • The song was written specifically for the movie The Lemondrop Kid but when Bing Crosby heard about it he managed to release the hit a year before the movie. Since Crosby managed to make the song popular, Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell had to reshoot this number to make it more central to the movie.
    • Bing’s version secured Livingston’s and Evans’ jobs as songwriters, since his version topped the charts and gave them a successful new Christmas song.


Winter Was Warm – Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)

  • Produced by UPA in the early 1960’s, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is the oldest animated Christmas TV special. It’s a musical, filled with some wonderful Christmas tunes, but one of the most memorable was, “Winter Was Warm,” sung by Belle (played by Jane Kean) as she parts ways with Scrooge.
  • Lyrics were written by Bob Merrill and composed by Jule Styne, and although the song is not very well-known today, we thought it was worth looking at for this episode. 
  • Similar to how “The Love is Gone” was cut from the theatrical release of “The Muppet Christmas Carol” “Winter Was Warm,” was often cut from the television run of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. 
    • This scene is the emotional anchor of the special, as much of it is light-hearted and comical, except for this sweetly sad song. The melody plays throughout the score as well.
    • The lyrics are short, but poignant 
      • It seems as I recall
      • No blossoms fell that fall
      • May didn’t leave at all
      • Or did love paint an illusion?
      • Now trees with a sigh
      • Stand and shiver
      • while their dreams fall and die
      • And all my dreams are there
      • Wrapped up somewhere in summer leaves
      • Oh, what I’d give to be
      • To be in love again
  • In this animated adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Mr. Magoo is an actor playing the part of Ebenezer Scrooge in a Broadway musical production of the novel. Later, Mr Magoo played other famous literary characters, but this was the first.


Christmastime is Here – A Charlie Brown Christmas

  • The opening number for A Charlie Brown Christmas has become somewhat of a Christmas staple. Vince Guaraldi composed the somber Jazz melody, and producer Lee Mendelson decided it needed some lyrics. He wrote the joyful words in only a few minutes, creating a sort-of bittersweet and contradictory song, perfect for Charlie Brown. 
    • It was specifically composed to open the movie and is sung by a group of children from a Bay area church choir.
      • In last year’s episode about this special, we said it was Mendelson’s son’s 6th grade class. That information is apparently incorrect! 
    • The vocal version is just under three minutes while the instrumental version is about 6 minutes.


You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch – How The Grinch Stole Christmas

  • The lyrics to this absolute classic were written by Theodore Geisel (Dr Suess), with music done by Albert Hague.
    • Suess wasn’t thrilled with the idea of songs in a special that he was already reluctant to do–He only said yes because he was war buddies with Chuck Jones.
    • Composer Albert Hague invited Suess over, and played him the music he had written for the special already, and Suess was sold on the idea.
  • Although the special was narrated by Boris Carloff, the song itself was sung by the incomparable Thurl Ravenscroft. Ravenscroft was a classic voice actor that also played Tony the Tiger! 
  • The song pops up three times within the TV Holiday Special. The song that we currently hear on the radio is a mashup of the three sections within the special.
  • The song has been covered many times, but most notably for the two subsequent versions of the story in 2000, and 2018–by Jim Carey and Tyler, the Creator respectively.


We Need a Little Christmas – Mame (1974)

  • Technically, this song is from Broadway, but we’re including it because of how relatable it is to 2020, and it did appear in the 1974 film adaptation of the musical, “Mame.”
    • The film follows a young orphan who is sent to live with his closest relative: a free-wheeling New York socialite named Mame (played by Lucille Ball.) 
  • Written by Jerry Herman, Angela Lansbury originally sang the song on Broadway. The musical takes place at the very beginning of the depression, when Mame loses all her money in the stock market crash. Although it isn’t customary to celebrate Christmas as early as they do, she decides they need Christmas to cheer up their spirits.
  • The sentiment seemed to apply to 2020 as well, with Christmas lights and trees being set up before Thanksgiving, with much less push-back than usual. Sometimes we need Christmas. 


Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy – Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas (1977)

  • Every year, you will find a Christmas special hosted by some celebrity. This is a tradition that dates back to the beginning of TV, and will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Back in 1977, Bing Crosby, the king of Christmas, recorded his last holiday special.
    • Bing was in the twilight of his life, a living piece of music and film history. So it was strange for viewers, when David Bowie, a hugely popular rock artist, joined him on screen. Bing was classic, and Bowie was new-age. When Bowie had arrived, he reportedly had to tone-down his look in order to appear next to Bing, so that the scene wouldn’t be too jarring.
    • The song they were meant to sing was, “Little Drummer Boy,” and Bowie did not approve of it. He asked if he could sing something else, so three men that worked on the special, Ian Frasier, Buz Cohen, and Larry Grossman, wrote another song in a little over an hour. The song was, “Peace on Earth,” and the two performers perfected the performance before recording.
    • Although producers were worried that the pairing wouldn’t work out, the song is a perfect example of two worlds colliding. These two men couldn’t be any more different, but if they could sing together, maybe anything is possible at Christmas.
    • Bing Crosby passed away a month after recording. When audiences saw the special in November of that year, he was already gone.


Walking in the Air – The Snowman (1982) 

  • Premiering December 26th, 1982 “The Snowman” is an animated short, based on the wordless picture book by Raymond Briggs. It follows a young boy named James who builds a man in the Christmas snow. The snowman comes to life, and takes James on an adventure around the world.
  • Composed and written by Howard Blake, “Walking in the Air,” is a hauntingly beautiful song from the animated short. It was originally performed by a 13-year-old choirboy named Peter Autry. 
  • The song is so central to the half-hour special, I (Robin) used to think the short was only the length of the song! I remember watching this with my mom, thinking it was too short. It perfectly captures the wonder of childhood, the magic of Christmas, and the sweeping sadness of growing up.


Christmas Vacation – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) 

  • National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is one of those classic Christmas movies that we all have fond memories of seeing, even when we were children and it was inappropriate. Each of the vacation films opens with the song, “Holiday Road,” but this one had a specific song created just for the movie–with some fun late-80’s animation to go with it! 
  • Written and composed by husband and wife Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the song was simply called, “Christmas Vacation.” 
  • It was performed by R&B legend Mavis Staples.


Somewhere in my Memory – Home Alone (1990)

  • In 1990, John Williams scored the massively successful film, “Home Alone.” The entire soundtrack is a masterpiece of Christmas warmth and nostalgia, with some exciting themes, like the one that plays while 8-year-old Kevin sets the traps.
  • Possibly the most memorable song from the soundtrack, is the beautiful piece, “Somewhere in My Memory,” with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse. Bricusse is an Oscar and Grammy winning lyricist, who has written songs for over 40 musicals, including the songs for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)! 
    • Williams and Bricusse worked together again on “Hook,” writing songs like, “When You’re Alone” and “We Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” 
  • This song isn’t very old, but since it was released, it wouldn’t be Christmas without it. From the opening bells to the soft choral performance, to the lyrics calling us back to our favorite Christmas memories–this song isn’t just about Christmas, it is Christmas.


All Alone on Christmas – Home Alone 2 (1992) 

  • Two years after the first Home Alone, Kevin got lost in New York. This sequel came with many nods to the original, including “Somewhere in My Memory,” but it also had its fair share of new content.  
  • Written and composed by Steven Van Zandt this song was performed by not only Darlene Love but with her The E Street Band and The Miami Horns.
    • Love’s most famous song is, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home.)”
      • Many consider this song to be a spiritual sequel to that song.


*Our discussion on this song is in the extended version of the episode, on Patreon.

What’s This – The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) 

  • We just did an episode on this Halloween AND Christmas movie, but we would be remiss not to mention this Christmas tune written and composed by Danny Elfman.
  • In the context of the film, Jack Skellington has fallen into Christmastown, and is confused by the things he finds there. It’s an upbeat, joyous song, and for Elfman it represented his feelings about leaving rock music to be a film composer. 
  • This scene was the first musical number filmed for the movie!


*Our discussion on this song is in the extended version of the episode, on Patreon

As Long as There’s Christmas – Belle’s Enchanted Christmas (1997) 

  • Seven years after the groundbreaking “Beauty and the Beast,” there was a less-impressive straight-to-video sequel about Christmas. But hey, it’s still entertaining, with some surprisingly delightful music!
  • Composed by Oscar-winner Rachel Portman with lyrics written by Don Black, “As Long As There’s Christmas,” was written for, “Belle’s Enchanted Christmas.” You know, the sequel where Tim Curry plays a pipe organ, and Disney confirms that Beast was actually an 11-year-old boy when the enchantress cursed him? (It’s true, watch it.) 
  • This sequel takes place at Christmas, before the final act of the original film, as Belle tries to cure Beast’s hatred for Christmas.


Where Are You, Christmas? – How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

  • Although a lot of people may recall Faith Hill’s rendition, this song was created by Mariah Carey, Will Jennings, and James Horner for the 2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
    • The three reportedly wrote a longer version of the song, and Mariah Carey was supposed to record it. But (according to People magazine) Carey’s ex-husband at Sony, wouldn’t allow her to sing a song for MCA/Universal. Carey’s official statement was that she didn’t have time to record the song.
    • Faith Hill was a hugely popular country star, coming off a big hit just a year before, so it made sense for her to perform the song.
  • Seven-year-old Taylor Momsen, as Cindy Lou Who, performs the song in the film.


Grinch feat Jim Carey – How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

  • Using the original song written by Dr. Seuss and composed by Albert Hague, Jim Carey and Busta Rhymes elaborated on and remixed this absolute banger for our enjoyment.
  • We admit, this isn’t one you might hear on the radio very often, but it’s one of our favorites. If fact, Jim Carey’s Grinch was filled with a lot of interesting original Christmas songs and covers, and we suggest you check them all out! More than anything, the album is a nice blast from the past, a snapshot of music from 2000.


Christmas is All Around – Love Actually (2003)

  • The original song was of course called Love Is All Around and was released by the UK band The Troggs in 1967. 
  • For the 1994 movie Four Weddings and a Funeral screenwriter Richard Curtis asked the Scottish band Wet Wet Wet to record a version of the song. This version would become incredibly popular and hit the top of the musical charts in the UK.
  • When Richard Curtis went on to direct, “Love Actually,” he decided to bring back this song that so many people in 1994 had grown sick of (for its pure popularity and how often it was played) and make a funny version sung by Bill Nighy’s washed up rockstar character Billy Mack.


  • Before we finish up our list, we wanted to highlight the holiday Zombie musical, “Anna and the Apocalypse”! Though only a couple songs on the soundtrack are explicitly Christmas-themed, songs featured in a holiday movie certainly count as Christmas songs to us! 
    • We asked our friend and patron JD for his favorite songs from the film, and he suggested the songs, “Turning My Life Around” and “Hollywood Ending.” 
  • The songs were written by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, as the film’s teenage characters face a zombie apocalypse at Christmas.
    • This film is streaming on Hulu and Prime Video, and we suggest you check it out! 

So, Cassettes, thanks again for joining us this Christmas season, and for our two year anniversary! Be on the lookout for the first episode of our new monthly show, premiering on December 24th!


The Case of Rankin(g) and Bass

Well, Christmas is a-coming and bells begin to ring! Wreaths are on front doors, stores are crowded (though they really shouldn’t be) and Christmas music is assaulting our eardrums once more (just kidding…but am I?) But most of all, it’s that time again to watch the Rankin and Bass Christmas specials! 

Back in the 1960’s, the concept of a holiday TV special was brand new. It started with Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol in 1962. The idea was well-received, with advertisers jumping at the opportunity to profit on the undivided attention of families gathered for the holidays. In 1964, an animation studio known as Videocraft International created a Christmas special about a reindeer with a bright red nose. Although previous holiday specials were generally successful, this quirky stop-motion classic changed the game. 

The success of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was undeniable. The off-beat animation perfectly matched the eccentric, yet lovable characters. So, the animators went to work and produced more holiday specials for years to come. Soon Rankin and Bass, as the company was later known, was a fixture of the holiday season. Their work has become a holiday tradition, and some wouldn’t consider it Christmas without it. 

There are so many specials, we couldn’t possibly talk about all of them. So, we have picked our top 5 favorites! It’s time, cassettes, for Rankin(g) and Bass! 


Before we get into our favorite specials, let’s talk about the history of Rankin and Bass! 

  • In the early 1950’s, Arthur Rankin was an art director for ABC. Eventually he left the network to start his own business, making commercials for ad agencies. Through this experience, he met Jules Bass, when he would deliver materials from Gardner Advertising to Rankin’s studio.
    • The two decided to go into business together, combining Rankin’s experience in Art Direction and Bass’s advertising knowledge. Although it was a no-brainer for the two to create TV commercials, Rankin has always wanted to animate. So, the two men decided to create an animation studio called VideoCraft International (and later, Rankin/Bass.)
    • In the late 1950’s, a Japanese Delegation came to New York, and spoke with people in the entertainment business. One of them was Rankin, who decided to travel to the country in 1958. While he was there, he toured various studios, and fell in love with the animation techniques they employed, which he later called “animagic.” He was also impressed by the speed and quantity of animation that came through the studios; and ultimately, Rankin recognized the immense talent of these animators. Therefore, Rankin and Bass outsourced all the animation for their first series to studios in Japan.
    • Rankin and Bass chose Pinocchio first because he was a well-known character, and they wanted to draw in audiences. Their next series was cell animation, based on characters from The Wizard of Oz (since it had lapsed into the public domain.)
    • One company that was impressed by their work, was General Electric. They commissioned some TV commercial work from Rankin and Bass.
      • Due to the success of the advertisements, the men started planning something bigger for GE: an animated Christmas special!
      • Of course, this special would become the holiday staple known as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer–and as they say, the rest is history.
    • For the next 30 years, Rankin and Bass produced stop-motion and cell-animated holiday specials, TV shows, and live-action films. Their careers were so vast, they can be found all throughout American pop-culture, even in places you might not expect. From the 1980’s series Thundercats, to shows about The Osmonds and the Jackson 5, to specials about Easter, Thanksgiving, and Smokey the Bear–Rankin and Bass did so much more than Christmas specials. They were a full-fledged animation studio that influenced and entertained millions. 
  • But of course, it is Christmastime, so today we are talking about their contribution to the holiday. Let’s start Rankin’ our favorite Rankin and Bass Christmas specials! 


  • The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow was the 8th Christmas special by Rankin and Bass, and first aired December 19th, 1975 on NBC. 
    • Video Link
    • Plot
      • After a young shepherd is left blind from a lightning strike, the nuns of a nearby abbey take him and his animals in. The priest insists that the nuns send the boy, named Lukas, to an orphanage after Christmas. Sister Theresa, the head nun, tells Lukas about the white Christmases she saw growing up. Lukas is fascinated by the idea of snow, since he has never seen it. His one wish for Christmas is for it to snow, and he asks a friend to describe it to him if it comes. 
      • While the abbey performs their nativity play, snow miraculously begins to fall (since they never have snow in their climate.) Lukas suddenly can see again, as the snow has seemed to cure his blindness. The priest and nuns decide to let Lukas stay with them at the abbey.
    • Making of
      • The special was written by Julian P Gardner, which was a pseudonym for Jules Bass! 
      • The music was done by Maury Laws with lyrics by Jules Bass, just like previous Rankin and Bass specials, but with a special appearance of “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin.
      • This special was made with “animagic,” the term coined by Arthur Rankin to describe the stop-motion process used by the studios in Japan.
        • Ichiro Komuro and Akakazu Kono were the production supervisors for the animagic process, which of course included characters made of foam and latex, with ball-in-socket joints. Animagic also used projected imagery on its miniature sets and characters to add a kind of visual magic to some scenes–like the scene where it snows.
    • Starring 
      • Angela Lansbury stars as Sister Theresa, and also narrates the special. This was of course before she was known as the gentle Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast, but after starring as Miss Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
        • Lansbury is a big name actress, but Rankin and Bass had already been known for introducing young audiences to legendary actors like Fred Astaire, and Mickey Rooney.
      • Cyril Ritchard plays Father Thomas, the priest that wants Lukas placed in an orphanage. Ritchard was a seasoned stage actor, well known for his version of Captain Hook in Mary Martin’s Peter Pan! (You know, the version of Peter Pan that every school library had on VHS in the 90s?) 
        • Ritchard appeared in other Rankin and Bass productions, including the animated Hobbit.
      • David Kelley only gave his voice to a couple other TV shorts in his career, but he is most well-known for the role of Lukas the shepherd boy.
      • Dina Lynn as Louisa
      • Iris Rainer as Sister Catherine
      • Joan Gardner as Sister Jean 
      • Sean Manning, Don Messick, Greg Thomas, and Hilary Momberger provided additional voices.
    • Impact/Why we chose it
      • After watching a lot of Rankin and Bass (and we do mean A LOT,) we decided to include this sweet little special as our number 5 choice. When we think of Rankin and Bass, we imagine classic characters like Santa Claus and Frosty, a brightly-colored and non-religious representation of Christmas. But, Rankin and Bass also created specials based on Christian stories, with passages from the bible and the birth of Christ. 
        • Back in the 1960’s, it was frowned upon to use religious messaging in specials, and A Charlie Brown Christmas really paved the way for more religious subject matter in TV entertainment. This is likely why Rankin and Bass’ first special was secular.
      • The most notable of these is possibly The Little Drummer Boy, which takes place in Bethlehem and features biblical characters. But if you’re looking for a special with religious themes that doesn’t also include murder and brief animal violence, The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow is a great choice.
      • This special is short, and features the comforting voice of Angela Lansbury. For any kids that were raised in Christian households, it features familiar components like the annual nativity play, where the main character plays an angel (a rite of passage for every christian child.)
      • But, more than anything, this special isn’t as heavy-handed as other religious material. The story of Christ isn’t the focus, and there is no hard-learned lesson about believing in God. Instead, the focus is on the simple joy of snow on Christmas.


  • Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town first aired on December 14th, 1970 on ABC.
    • If you’ll notice, these specials appeared on all different networks, and this was because Rankin and Bass created them specifically for brands and companies, while the network then aired it as an ad for that brand. That’s right, your favorite Christmas specials are just very intricate commercials! 
    • Back in the 60’s and 70’s, there were fewer commercials on TV, so the special is often edited for modern TV viewing, to keep the full runtime under an hour. Sometimes songs are removed, or more troubling scenes will be omitted. 
  • Plot
    • Santa Claus is coming to Town follows the origin story of Kris Kingle, a toymaker who eventually becomes Santa Claus. It starts with a train conductor, reading children’s questions about Santa, which then leads into the story. The special explains where Santa comes from, why he brings toys to children, how he met Mrs. Claus, and why he lives at the North Pole.
    • This framing device is similar to the one Rankin and Bass used for Rudolph, with an outside character addressing the audience and narrating the story. It was a popular style for many live-action specials, giving these programs a feeling of legitimacy–they were like any other Christmas specials, but animated.
  • Making of
    • Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is their fifth Christmas special made, and unlike the first special on our list, it was one hour long
    • Written by Romeo Muller, the movie was based around the Christmas song with the same name, with music and lyrics by Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, and  originally sung by the American comedian and singer Eddie Cantor in 1934.
      • While the film featured the famous song, it was in amongst original songs by Maury Laws who did the music and lyrics by Jules Bass.
        • This team created most of the Rankin and Bass musical catalog, but they counted this soundtrack among their absolute favorites!
          • Maury Laws later said that this was a very enjoyable project for him because the animation and music gelled so nicely. He said that Mickey Rooney, who played Santa, had the perfect voice to animate to.
      • The script was also slightly influenced by the book by L. Frank Baum entitled The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. While they would later adapt this book into a more faithful adaptation in 1985, some details were used for this film.
    • The story is set in Germany, with the name Kris Kringle coming from German folklore. Many people have noted that most of the characters with German accents are villainous, except for Santa’s mother. Because of this, some have made the connection that the German mayor burning the toys of children is a metaphor for the Nazis burning literature and art during WWII.
  • Starring
    • Fred Astaire as the Postman Narrator, SD Kluger
      • Astaire added some star power to the special, as someone who often hosted his own holiday and TV specials.
        • Kluger was a character of Fred Astair himself, bearing a remarkable resemblance to the performer.
      • The character was so popular, Rankin and Bass brought him back for another special: “The Easter Bunny is Comin to Town.”
    • Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle/ Santa Claus
      • Rooney had a long and legendary career in show business before playing Kris Kringle at age 50, and continued working long after until his death.
      • He reprised his role as Santa Claus in a later Rankin and Bass special that we will talk about here shortly! 
    • Keenan Wynn plays the Winter Warlock
      • Keenan Wynn was the son of famous character actor Ed Wynn, and he had a career of his own as a character actor.
      • He played live-action Disney villains in “The Absent-Minded Professor,” “Son of Flubber,” and “Herbie Rides Again.”
      • His full name was Francis Xavier Aloysius James Jeremiah Keenan Wynn.
    • Paul Frees makes several appearances as Burgermeister Meisterburger, Grimsley, Soldiers, Townsmen, and the Doctor.
      • Frees was a legendary comedian and voice actor, who would often provide voices for the Rankin and Bass specials, even after his retirement.
      • The Burgermeister was one of his most well-known roles, and Frees personally loved voicing him. In case anyone was wondering, a Burgermeister is a German mayor–a “City Master.” 
      • Frees was also known for providing the voice of Professor Ludwig Von Drake, Donald Duck’s paternal uncle. This character hosted episodes on the Wonderful World of Disney, as well as the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea sing-along tape.
    • Joan Gardner as Tanta Kringle the Matriarch of the Kringle family and Kris’ adoptive mother. 
      • Gardner was a voice actress that lent her voice to many characters, including Tiny Tim in “Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol” and Bonnie in “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.”
      • She also played Sister Joan in our number 5 pick! 
    • Robie Lester as Miss Jessica/ Mrs. Claus
      • Lester was a voice actor and musician that often provided singing voices for characters.
      • She was the singing voice of Bianca in The Rescuers, and Duchess in The Aristocats.
  • Impact/Why we chose it
    • There is no doubt that Santa Claus is Coming to Town is one of the most famous of the Rankin and Bass specials. It still airs every year on regular cable, and is included in holiday special collections. But why did we choose it? This special certainly has star power, with Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney, but it also is one of the most consistent in terms of its music. Sure, there are a couple strange-ish songs, like when Mrs. Claus realizes her love for Kris, or when Kris sings about how each child must kiss him to get a gift–but those cannot undo “One Foot in Front of the Other” and “First toy-maker to the king.” 
    • For many children, this was their first exposure to the lore behind Santa Claus. And although some explanations for Santa were written specifically for this special, there is something to be said for introducing children to the more mythical side of the man that brings them presents every Christmas. There are different Santa origin stories from all over the world, and this shows children that he doesn’t belong to one just one culture, but to everyone. 


    • Rankin and Bass’s most popular cell-animated Christmas special aired on December 7, 1969 on CBS.
    • It was based on the song, “Frosty the Snowman,” written by Jack Rollins and Steve Nelson.
      • The song was originally performed by Gene Autry, but has since been covered by countless artists. Autry and the songwriters were hoping for a hit as big as “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but the song unfortunately didn’t achieve the same level of popularity.
      • We covered the history of the song in last year’s episode, “A Brief Case in the Snow, man!” So please give that a listen if you would like to hear more about how the song came to be. 
      • Just as a refresher, some believe the song was based on a snowman character created by author Ruth Burman. Songwriter Jack Rollins said it was inspired by his step-granddaughter, who cried after her snowman melted overnight.
    • The special follows Frosty, a snowman brought to life by the magical hat of a failing magician named Professor Hinkle. After seeing what the hat is capable of, Hinkle tries to steal it back and pursues Frosty and a young girl named Karen as they attempt to travel to the North Pole, in search of a place where Frosty will never melt.
      • This was not the first time someone animated Frosty, as United Productions of America made a 5 minute animated short to the song 15 years earlier!
    • Making of
      • Rankin and Bass wanted the special to look like a greeting card, so the characters were designed by Paul Coker Jr, an incredibly talented artist whose illustrations appeared in Mad Magazine, and on Hallmark cards. After Frosty, Coker continued to work with Rankin and Bass for years, often designing cover art and promotional material.
        • The animation supervisor was Steve Nakagawa, who had the same role for “The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians” and “The Smokey the Bear Show,” two more Rankin and Bass productions.
      • This was not Rankin and Bass’ first cell-animated special, as they produced Cricket on the Hearth and Mouse on the Mayflower years earlier. Like all their other animation, however, it was produced in Japan.
      • Romeo Muller, the writer known for Rudolph, Santa Claus is coming to town, and many other Rankin and Bass specials and shows, adapted the story from the popular song.
    • Starring
      • This special was narrated and sung by Jimmy Durante, a well-known musician and actor, and this was reportedly his last performance.
        • Durante had covered the song years earlier, but had to re-record it specifically for the special. The original song didn’t mention anything about Christmas, but since this needed to be specifically a Christmas special, the lyrics were changed to say, “He waved Good-bye saying, ‘don’t you cry, I’ll be back on Christmas day.” 
      • Comedian Jackie Vernon voiced Frosty
        • Although Frosty was well-known before the special, Jackie Vernon really gave Frosty his warm and loving personality. Now it’s impossible to think of the character without imagining his jolly voice exclaiming, “Happy Birthday!” 
        • Vernon’s portrayal of Frosty is iconic, and the special would likely not have been nearly as popular without it.
      • Veteran character actor Billy D. Wolfe played Professor Hinkle.
        • Wolfe was a regular on the Doris Day show.
        • Rankin said that his vocal performance was one of the best they ever had, and his vocal patterns were perfect for animation.
      • Additional voices of Paul Frees and June Foray
        • Of course Paul Frees was part of the fun, bringing the voices of the traffic cop and ticket clerk.
        • June Foray played the children’s school teacher, but she also recorded all of Karen’s lines as well. Karen was re-cast and a different voice actress plays her in the special. Foray later said that this disappointed her, but she still loved the special anyway. There is no known reason for the casting change, though perhaps some executive wanted a child to play the role? 
    • Impact/Why we chose it
      • Much of the Charm of Rankin and Bass specials comes from the animation. They are so well-known for stop-motion, audiences often forget that Frosty is one of their creations. Frosty was able to capture the charm of a Christmas card, and the sweet innocence of playing in the snow. It has a killer cast, all delivering incredible performances. The special reminded viewers of their childhood, bringing back a popular Christmas song, sung by a familiar voice. 
      • Frosty’s story is fun, but also succinct and complete. No time is wasted with extra songs, and it leaves viewers satisfied with a happy conclusion.
      • Frosty still airs every Christmas and it deserves a top spot among all Christmas specials, not just those of Rankin and Bass.


    • This special aired on December 10, 1974 on ABC. 
    • Plot
      • Santa has a cold, and doesn’t want to deliver the Christmas presents this year. This attitude is made worse by a grouchy doctor who tells Santa that no one cares about Christmas anyway. Mrs. Claus, concerned for her husband and the fate of Christmas, sends two elves and the baby reindeer Vixen out into the world to find Christmas cheer. The three of them ultimately land in some trouble, after getting caught in the crossfire between the heat and snow misers, two brothers responsible for cold and hot weather. Afraid for their safety, Santa goes out looking for them, and ends up discovering that the world does still care about Christmas.
    • Making of
      • It’s important to note that this is one of the only two specials on this list that wasn’t created around an existing Christmas carol–yet we heavily considered it for our number one spot. 
      • William J Keenan wrote the special, which was based on a book by Phylis McGinley.
      • This was a one-hour animagic special, featuring songs by Jules Bass and Maury Laws.
        • Although there are several songs throughout the special, none of them compare to the sheer greatness of the heat miser and snow miser songs. In fact, no other Rankin and Bass original song is as memorable.
        • Maury Laws said years later, “People knock on my door and ring me up about that song.”
      • Although the animation was done in Japan, storyboard artist Don Duga was responsible for giving animators a mood to follow. He had worked on several Rankin and Bass productions before this one, like Frosty the Snowman, and was often credited as a continuity artist.
      • Ichiro Komuro and Akakazu Kono were the production managers for the project (they lead many of the Rankin and Bass productions) while the production design was done by Paul Coker Jr.
    • Starring
      • Shirley Booth as both the singing narrator and Mrs. Claus
        • Shirley Booth is best known as the title character in the tv show Hazel, a sitcom about the misadventures of a live-in maid.
        • This was her last role before retiring from acting, so she went out on a good one!
      • Mickey Rooney (once again) as Santa Claus
        • A few years after starring in Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Mickey Rooney returned to play Santa, cementing his place in the Rankin and Bass Christmas universe. 
      • Dick Shawn as Snow Miser
        • Shawn was an off-the-wall comedian, often described as a counterculture favorite, as he was bit of an acquired taste.
        • He appeared on shows like “The Love Boat” and “Captain Kangaroo” as well as many films like, “The Producers” and “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” 
      • George S. Irving as Heat Miser
        • Irving was an actor that appeared in many projects. Besides this special, he was most well-known as the narrator in Underdog! 
      • Colin Duffy as the little boy Ignatius Thistlewhite or Iggy for short
      • Ron Marshall as Mr Thistlewhite
      • If you look closely, you can see that Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character appears as a citizen of Southtown USA in the Mayor’s song “It’s Going to Snow Right Here in Dixie.”
    • Impact/Why we chose it
      • Why did we choose this special as our number 2? Honestly? The songs. I mean, there are other great aspects to this special, like the unique story and the message that no one is too old to believe in the magic of Christmas, but the songs really seal the deal. Is there anything funnier than the mini heat misers hopping around on pogo sticks as their leader sings about himself? It really is too much. 
      • Rankin and Bass were well-known for the iconic characters they created in their specials, and their depictions of Christmas have had a major impact on the aesthetic of the holiday, and this special was no exception. 


    • The crowned jewel of Rankin and Bass aired December 6, 1964 on NBC, as part of General Electric’s Fantasy Hour. For a few years, Rankin and Bass had been creating commercials for GE, and since they had been well-received, they decided to make a Christmas special as well.
    • Back in the 1930’s, Montgomery Ward would give out free storybooks to children. One of their catalog writers, Robert L May, created the perfect story to include, about an outcast reindeer named Rudolph.  The store printed 2 million copies that Christmas, and they received letters from children and parents all over the country. Rudolph was a hit! Two years later, the store gave the rights to the story to May, who then teamed up with his brother-in-law  to make it into a song. 
    • In 1948, that song was covered by famous country singer Gene Autry, and a Christmas tradition was born. “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” became one of the most played Christmas songs. 
    • So, in the early 1960’s, Arthur Rankin turned his attention to the story for a Christmas special. Johnny Marks, the songwriter and May’s brother-in-law, was very protective of the property. But, it just so happened that Rankin was his next-door neighbor! Rankin finally convinced his neighbor to let him make the special, and the rest was history.
    • Plot
      • Narrated by Sam the snowman, this special follows the life of Rudolph, a reindeer born with a strange nose that glows red. After being made fun of by the other reindeer, he teams up with Hermey the elf. Together they run into characters like Yukon Cornelius and the abominable snowman, and end up on the island of misfit toys.
    • Making of
      • Rankin wanted a particular look to his specials, and he hired talented artists that weren’t well-known. His goal overall was none of his specials to look the same, so that every story had its own feeling. That’s why Rudolph felt so unique, because no one ever made anything like it before or since.
      • This special was written for the screen by Romeo Muller, and this started a long career partnership between him and Rankin and Bass. It was also directed by Larry Roemer, with assistant director Kizo Nagashima.
      • The songs were written, as usual, by Jules Bass and Maury Laws, with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Holly Jolly Christmas” both written by Johnny Marks.
        • The song ‘Fame and Fortune’ was not featured in the special until the next year, 1965.
      • The special had about $500,000 in production costs, which was immediately covered by the GE when they purchased the rights to the property for two airings.
        • Because of this, during the first airings, the title page said, “GE presents” while on the DVD versions, it says, “Rankin/Bass Present.”
      • This was the biggest premier of stop-motion television so far, with “animagic” created in Japan.
        • Ichiro Komuro created the puppets, while Tadahito (Tad) Mochinaga was the animation supervisor. 
          • The 22 room sized sets which took a year to complete.
          • The figures had ball joints and each one cost $5000 which included multiple lip and eyepieces. 
      • In later years, the special has been released on DVD with minor changes from the original. The biggest change is the ending. The original airing had the end credits immediately after Santa flies to the island of misfit toys. The credits appear on packages being thrown by an elf from the sleigh. 
        • In the later version of the credits, names are spelled incorrectly.
        • They also shortened one scene from the special to make room for a few moments of the misfit toys getting on to Santa’s sleigh. 
    • Starring
      • Narrated by Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman who was recognized for this role for many years afterwards. He even noted that this role overshadowed even his Oscar win in 1958’s The Big Country.
      • Larry D. Mann as Yukon Cornelius the loveable arctic prospector aiding Rudolph and Hermey on their journey.
        • Larry D. Mann was in several things but most notably as the train conductor in “The Sting”and Watkins in “The Heat of the Night.”
      • Billie Mae Richards as Rudolph (you know him.)
        • She is not only known for being the voice of Rudolph but also Tender Heart Bear in the first and second Care Bear Movies.
      • Paul Soles as Hermey the elf that does not want to make toys but be a Dentist!
        • Paul Soles has made appearances in many things but some of his most notable are when he played Danny in the movie “The Score” and Stanley in “The Incredible Hulk.” (The Hulk with Edward Norton in it.) 
      • Stan Francis as Santa Claus
        • Stan Francis only acted in a few things like “Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans” and “The New Adventures of Pinocchio.”
      • Alfie Scopp as Charlie in the Box, Fireball, and some of the Reindeer.
        • Alfie Scopp was Avram the bookseller in “The Fiddler on the Roof” and has also done voice work for several other projects.
      • Janet Orenstein as Clarice, the little doe that fancies Rudolph before he was cool.
      • Paul Kligman as Donner, Clarice’s Father, and Comet the Coach.
        • Paul Kligman is known for the 1955 musical drama series “Folio” and as General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross in the 1966 “Hulk” series.
      • Carl Banas as the Head Elf, Spotted Elephant, and some of the Other Toys.
        • Carl Banas has done voice work on several things, one being the character Sweetums in the 1971 “Tales from Muppetland: The Frog Prince.”
      • Corine Conley as the Doll and others.
        • Corine Conley has many credits. She has been in a range of movies and tv shows including “Days of Our Lives”, the 2019 “Anne With an ‘E,’” and the 2018 movie “A Simple Favor.”
      • Peg Dixon as Mrs. Donner, Mrs. Claus, and other voices.
        • Peg Dixon was in the 1956 tv movie “Anne of Green Gables,” the 1967 “Spider-Man” tv series, and several characters in the 1972 “Festival of Family Classics” tv series.
    • Impact/Why we chose it
      • When Rudolph first aired, it captured 55% of viewers, and those numbers didn’t decrease for over 30 years. It remains to be the longest-running animated Christmas special, and its popularity has never declined. In 1995 it was the highest rated animated program for the entire year. Rudolph wasn’t just a big deal for Rankin and Bass, but for TV in general. It paved the way for more specials. If not for Rudolph, would we have How the Grinch Stole Christmas? Or A Charlie Brown Christmas? This special also highlighted an unpopular type of animation style, and inspired creators like Tim Burton and other stop-motion artists. 
      • Rudolph not only had incredible songs, but it also yielded colorful characters that audiences would not soon forget. 
      • But most of all, Rudolph is about intolerance. It’s the story of a young reindeer whose father is ashamed of him, of an elf ostracized by his coworkers. It’s a timeless story about people in search of acceptance, and that the parts of us that seem to be our weaknesses may be our best qualities 


So on Twitter, we asked you guys for your favorite Rankin and Bass Christmas specials, and your ranking was: 

4. Frosty the Snowman

3. Santa Claus is Coming to Town

2. Year Without a Santa Claus

  1. Rudolph 

We used your ranking to decide our number one! We had one comment that we would like to read as well, from Andrew Boynton @guthbrand: “The Hobbit! Before you say that’s not a Christmas special, remember the elves. Also Gandolf is basically a low-carb Santa” So The Hobbit is officially an honorable mention. Thank you Andrew!

Our other honorable mentions are: 

  • The Stingiest Man in Town(1978)
  • Rudolph’s Shiny New Year
  • Twas’ the Night Before Christmas
  • Nestor, the Long-eared Christmas Donkey
  • Jack Frost
  • The Leprechaun’s Christmas gold

Rankin and Bass wasn’t just a Christmas special machine, they were a full-fledged animation studio that heavily influenced animation for years to come. But, their contribution to Christmas is incalculable. We encourage everyone to go and watch all the Rankin and Bass specials, and make a ranking of your own–you won’t regret it!


The Muppet Christmas Case

Hello Cassettes and welcome to season 5 of the Black Case Diaries! Did you miss us? We missed you.

This week we are kicking off the Christmas season with a special look at one of our all-time favorites! 

After the premiere of The Muppet Show in the 1970’s, Kermit and his gang cemented their status as pop culture icons. After the show’s conclusion, the Muppets starred in three successful movies, with more seemingly on the way. By the late 1980’s, Walt Disney Studios was even discussing the possibility of purchasing the muppet franchise from Jim Henson.

Then, the unthinkable happened. In May of 1990, Jim Henson came down with a rare pneumonia caused by the same bacteria as strep throat. By the time he was admitted to the hospital, the infection had spread to his blood. The beloved father, husband, friend, and creator was dead within 24 hours. 

Not only did this loss devastate his family, it sent shockwaves through Jim Henson Productions (now known as The Jim Henson Company.) Disney no longer pursued The Muppets, due to the uncertain climate of their parent company. The future of the beloved Muppet franchise suddenly came into question, and when it was time to decide its fate, everyone turned to Henson’s children; specifically, his son Brian. 

Brian Henson was named the new president of the company, and ambitiously sought out new deals with studios to make more puppet and muppet content. One of these deals was with Walt Disney Pictures, to produce a movie based on one of the most famous stories of all time: A Christmas Carol. 

Although the 28-year-old Brian Henson was an experienced puppeteer, he felt he wasn’t ready to direct the first Muppet movie after his father’s death. He begged others to direct the film, but ultimately the task landed on his young shoulders. Not only did he have huge shoes to fill, Brian  understood the gravity of The Muppet Christmas Carol. This film was a test, and its success or failure would determine if The Muppets would continue. It was also Jim Henson Productions’ opportunity to show Disney the value of The Muppets. 

So, this week we are taking you to a different kind of Dickensian London, where Bob Crachit is a frog, and Charles Dickens himself is a blue alien from outer space. Yes, it’s time to don our nightcaps and visit the past, present, and future of Ebenezer Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol! 


  • Just before publishing A Christmas Carol in 1843, Charles Dickens’ publisher had lost faith in the marketability of the author. Dickens’ most recent book, Martin Chuzzlewit, had not sold well, and the book publisher felt that his next work should debut in an inexpensive collection or in a magazine. 
    • Dickens believed in his work, and was adamant that it be a stand-alone book. So, he agreed to pay the publishing costs himself.
    • After its December release, A Christmas Carol sold 6,000 copies by Christmas. It wasn’t the sales Dickens had wanted, but it was still a success.
  • Summary
    • In case you have somehow avoided this story, it follows Ebenezer Scrooge, a rich money-lender. Scrooge lives alone, dines in darkness, and saves every penny he has like a miser. When those that lend from Scrooge cannot pay, he puts them out in the cold. He does not listen to the cries of the poor, and he does not pay his clerk a fair wage.
    • Scrooge hates Christmas, writing it off as a silly holiday of frivolous spending. All this changes when Scrooge gets a Christmas eve visit from his old partner, Jacob Marley. This is strange, since Marley has been dead for several years. 
      • Marley appears in chains, telling Scrooge that he is doomed for eternal damnation if he does not change his ways. After this, Scrooge is then visited by three more ghosts, that show him the visions of Christmas past, present, and future.
      • The ghosts hold up a mirror to Scrooge’s soul, and the reflection is not flattering. He sees the man he was before, the childhood that formed him into a bitter adult, and a lost love that left him heartbroken. The final ghost leads Scrooge to his own grave, showing him that he will die alone with no love from anyone. But, it isn’t eternal damnation or the fear of being unloved that truly convinces Scrooge to change–though those were definitely factors. Most of all, it’s the fate of Tiny Tim, the innocent sickly child of Scrooge’s clerk. 
  • Cultural impact
    • Throughout his career, Charles Dickens was often concerned with impoverished children, and even helped charities that supported education for the poor. He devised the story of Ebenezer Scrooge to illustrate the dangers of apathy toward our fellow man. 
    • Charles Dickens is one of the most well-known authors of the 19th century, and A Christmas Carol is possibly his most-famous work. 
      • A Christmas Carol is a tradition so intertwined with Christmas, it would be hard to imagine the holiday without it. Dickens appealed to audiences with lovable innocent characters, like Tiny Tim, and showed how dangerous it can be to stop caring for those who are in need–and how those with the ability to help, should. He paired this message with elements of horror, hoping to shock the audience, and adding excitement to the story.
      • The story has lasted for so long, because the message will always be relevant, and Scrooge’s redemption is one of the most inspiring in literature.
  • Other notable versions
    • When producer Bill Haber first suggested the Muppets adapt the famous story, Brian Henson was hesitant because the story had been done so many times before. He was unsure how to make the muppet version stand-out.
    • As we talked about in our very first episode of our show, this story has been adapted to film possibly more than any other piece of literature. This version is among our favorites, which includes: Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol, and George C Scott’s A Christmas Carol.
  • Why they chose this for the muppets
    • It’s always fun to see the muppets in a place where they seemingly don’t belong. This was only the fourth muppet film, and it was the first time the muppets adapted classic literature! Since the film needed to be a success, both The Jim Henson Company and Walt Disney Pictures decided that adapting a well-known story was the way to pull in more movie-goers. 


  • The environment at The Jim Henson Company was certainly fragile when production began on The Muppet Christmas Carol. Not only had the team lost their leader, but they were also shaken by the sudden death of Richard Hunt, another beloved Muppet Performer. Hunt had provided the voices of Scooter and Statler during his time on The Muppet Show, and tragically passed away in 1992 at the age of 40 from AIDS. 
    • As we said before, this was Brian’s directorial debut. Jeffrey Katzenberg of Walt Disney Pictures, recognized the sensitive nature of the project, and stepped back to allow the team to work on their production as they saw fit.
    • Michael Caine, who was chosen to play Scrooge, was actually surprised to learn that it was Brian’s first time directing, as he felt he was doing an incredible job.
  • Jerry Juhl
    • At the heart of almost every classic muppet moment, is writer Jerry Juhl. Juhl, if you recall from our Muppet Show episode, was one of the head writers for the muppets from the beginning, and he returned to pen this script as well.
    • The screenplay went through many changes. For example, the original plans were to make an uproarious telling of the Charles Dickens classic with well known Muppets playing all of the largest parts. Robin the Frog was meant to be the ghost of Christmas past, Miss Piggy Christmas present, and Animal as the ghost of Christmas that has yet to come. 
    • After entertaining this idea and beginning the script, Brian Henson began to feel that his father would have wanted a truer adaptation. Both he and Juhl decided to focus on not only being true to the original story, but on the wonderful narration that Dickens used, making this adaptation one of the most faithful ever created.
      • Ultimately, they decided that a human lead for Scrooge was best, as it grounded the muppets in a sense of reality. Juhl decided that for the first time, the muppets wouldn’t get introductions, and would instead appear organically in the story.
      • And, the most effective touch, was to have Charles Dickens himself be in the movie, reciting his own prose to the audience.
        • Because the muppets were known for flipping the script, the men chose the least likely muppet as their victorian narrator: a blue daredevil alien named Gonzo.
          • Once the team had Charles Dickens in the film, they were able to have 95% of Gonzo’s lines be taken directly from the original story.
    • Juhl balanced the film’s tone from scary to light-hearted, with the inclusion of witty dialog and signature muppet slapstick.
      • Juhl and the others working on the movie were always coming up with ways to make Rizzo the Rat “suffer” in comedic ways. Rizzo gets frozen, chased by a cat, and even lands on a burning hot turkey in a fireplace! 
      • Rizzo also voices some of the concerns that the filmmakers themselves had–for example, he asks Gonzo if this is “too scary for the kids.” Gonzo replies, “Nah, this is culture.” 
      • One of the most memorable scenes includes Rizzo, climbing a giant fence and jumping from it, only for the audience to find that he was able to slip through the bars of the fence the entire time. Gonzo shakes his head and says, “You are such an idiot,” which was something that Dave Goelz (Gonzo’s puppeteer) often said to Steve Whitmire (Rizzo’s puppeteer.)
  • Production
    • Production Design
      • The production designer was Val Strazovec, who would also work on Muppet Treasure Island!
        • The Muppets pose an interesting challenge in terms of production design. If you don’t understand how to set up a scene with muppets, they will all end up in the bottom of the frame and you can’t see the bottom half of the character, because often the characters don’t have bottoms at all.
        • Every set was built four feet off the ground, and Michael Caine had to walk on planks among the puppets, without looking at his feet. The floor was often added in post for most scenes.
      • Miniatures
        • In the opening credits we are given a view of the London rooftops. These rooftops however are miniatures, about 3 feet in height. As the camera pans backwards the crew would move buildings into the frame in order to have an illusion of passing through them.
        • The street shots had a tricky illusion to them as well. Although the set itself was pretty large, the buildings toward the back were much shorter in comparison in order to achieve a bigger looking space with forced perspective.
        • In order to shoot forced perspective, you have to move the camera parallel, and be careful not to turn toward or away from the models, or you will shatter the illusion. 
    • Special Effects
      • Often in movies with relatively low budgets, you will see the “rule of one” applied. This means, when an expensive affect is used, it will only appear once, even if the audience is meant to believe that it happens several times. Filmmakers will use the effect the one time, accompanied by a noise, and when they need the effect again, they just play that same noise without the visual, and the audience then uses the context clues to assume the effect happened again. 
      • There were many scenes shot in front of green screens, especially with the more magical muppets, so they could be composited in later.
    • Logistics
      • Most muppets are left-handed, because their puppeteers are right-handed! 
      • Most small full-body muppets are remote controlled, like the rats and mice! Any time a muppet is shot from above, the puppeteer’s arm is being hidden by the puppet’s body–these are the easiest shots to film.
      • There is one scene with rain, and puppets in the rain are always hard to shoot. Puppeteers are watching monitors, so it’s risky to use them with water–but they still did it because they wanted it to be the least romantic weather for Christmas.
      • A Christmas Carol can be a grim story, and Brian didn’t want to take away from its serious nature. But, he and the rest of the crew understood that they needed to balance levity with the darker imagery. Because of this, there are many scenes that were shot with two crews. One crew would focus on the main action of the scene, with the Scrooge narrative. The other crew followed the actions in the background, with muppet characters like Gonzo and Rizzo, which happened simultaneously. Scrooge’s story never stopped when Gonzo and Rizzo had the audience’s attention, which was effective in pulling the younger viewers out of the story and reminding them it was just a movie.
    • Location
      • In order to accommodate both people and muppets the film was shot at the Shepperton Studios in the UK.


  • The songs were written by Paul Williams, the man who also penned the songs for the original muppet movie! Brian Henson has said that he believes that Williams is the “most successful” muppet songwriter, being able to capture both the silly nature of the Muppets and their heartfelt moments as well. His lyrics are very sincere, and match the characters perfectly
    • The first song of the film, “Scrooge” sung by the muppet chorus, establishes the main character through every other characters’ opinion of him.
      • It was important for the audience not to see Scrooge’s face until the end of the song, after each character has painted a picture of him for the audience, “…there’s nothing in nature that freezes your heart like years of being alone. It paints you with indifference like a lady paints with rouge, and the worst of the worst, the most hated and cursed, is the one that we call Scrooge…”
      • The line, “Please sir, I want some cheese” was a favorite among children, and a reference to another Dickens work, Oliver Twist.
    • “Room in Your Heart” was a song performed by Honeydew and Beaker, that was ultimately cut from the movie as well, but can be found on the soundtrack.
    • “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas,” had a lot of technically difficult shots in it, like Kermit’s hand locking the door, and Penguins sliding on ice. But the most memorable shot is of a full-body Kermit standing beneath the night sky as a shooting star passes. This moment was a tribute to Jim Henson, who had used a shooting star in the first Muppet Movie. Ever since, a shooting star has been a signature for Kermit, and one has appeared in Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets in Space.
      • The star happens to pass as one of the rats yells, “Merry Christmas!” and audiences often think the star is saying it instead! 
    • When Roger Ebert saw the film, his favorite song was, “Marley and Marley,” the tune performed by Statler and Waldorf as the two Marleys. The book of course only has one Marley, but having both characters added a special comedic dynamic to an otherwise spooky scene.
      • The muppets were covered in white powder, and filmed in front of a black sheet with their operators wearing black as well. They were then superimposed on the film to make them look transparent.
      • These were the only ghosts played by well-known muppets.
      • One notable line: “As freedom comes from giving love; So, prison comes with hate.”
    • “Bless us All” is Tiny Tim’s song, sung by the muppet Robin. This song is one of the emotional anchors of the movie, and when it is later revealed that Tiny Tim has died, you can hear its melody being played in the score.
    • “The Love is Gone,” the song sung by Belle when her and Ebenezer go their separate ways, was cut from the theatrical release and added back in for VHS and TV versions.
      • Henson said this when discussing the lost footage of When Love is Gone to the online site The Big Issue, “When we tried cutting it into the Blu-ray movie it looked terrible because you could tell we’d cut from high resolution to the original video release,” Henson added. “I’m still pressuring them to find it. They keep swearing to me that there is no way it has been lost forever, and I keep saying, ‘but it’s been 20 years!’
      • “They’re still searching. I call them like every month to ask if they’re still looking. One of these days they’ll find it.”
      • Katzenberg pushed to remove the song, because the runtime of the movie was a little long, and he felt the scene might bore the children watching, as there were no muppets. It truly was a shame, however, because Paul Williams brought the melody of the song back at the end of the film with different lyrics, showing the contrast of Scrooge’s change of heart. The ending song is, “When Love is Found.” 
    • “It Feels Like Christmas” was originally meant to show Christmas all around the world, but it became clear that they just didn’t have the budget for that. 
      • The song ends with a shot that reveals the forced perspective, and reveals the true size of the buildings. But Brian Henson liked the shot, so he kept it in anyway.
      • This is the last song until the finale, leaving the audience with a lot of happiness and heart just before the darkest part of the film.
    • “A Thankful Heart”
      • Shortly before Jim Henson’s death, songwriter Paul Williams started recovering from his drug and alcohol addiction. He was the oscar nominated musician who had written the iconic song, “Rainbow Connection” for the first muppet movie, and now felt that this career was over. That was until Brian Henson called him to write the songs for The Muppet Christmas Carol. Williams felt a special connection to Scrooge’s story of redemption, especially with the song, “A Thankful Heart.”
      • Williams was so grateful for his recovery, and opportunity to further his songwriting career. Later on, Williams told Vulture about the song, “There was a connectedness to the world around me, and a level of gratitude that, to this day, is probably one of the most powerful emotions I’ve ever experienced.”
      • Michael Caine’s imperfect vocals matched the now-humble Scrooge, and the song was a wonderfully sweet conclusion to the classic story.
  • The Score
    • The score was composed by Miles Goodman, who has composed for movies like Sister Act 2, Larger Than Life, and Teen Wolf.


  • The Ghost of Christmas past
    • The Puppet for Christmas past was actually shot in oil and water. After a while, the puppet began to deteriorate because she was made of foam and other softer material. So, in some shots she looks much better than in others.
    • Jessica Fox, the young girl that voiced the ghost, did all of her lines in about one day. Brain Henson said that she was a natural, and read her lines perfectly almost every time.
  • The Ghost of Christmas Present
    • The book describes this ghost as gigantic, so he first appears to be massive next to Scrooge. The puppet itself was only about 6 ft tall, so they composited the character into the frame to look bigger in his first scene. For the rest of his screen time, puppeteers used the 6ft puppet.
    • One puppeteer walked around in the ghost suit, while the eyes and mouth were remote controlled.
      • Jerry Nelson operated the face while Don Austin did the body movement.
      • Nelson was one of the first puppeteers to join The Jim Henson Company back before The Muppet Show even began!
    • The Ghost of Christmas present only lives on Christmas day, which is why he grows old and gray before leaving–”Over 1800 of my brothers came before me” show many years of Christmas.
    • This ghost is where the movie differs in tone from the book. Originally, his scenes are much darker, and the ghost does not let up when Scrooge finally realizes that he cared for the fate of Crachit’s son. This is the famous scene where the ghost uses Scrooge’s earlier words against him, “well if he is to die, then he better do it and decrease the surplus population…” 
      • In the George C Scott version, which is more tonally like the novel, the ghost of Christmas present says, “…perhaps, in the future, you will hold your tongue until you have discovered where the surplus population is, and WHO it is. It may well be that, in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than MILLIONS like this poor man’s child.”
  • The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
    • For his entrance, they filled the stage with smoke. They could only do one take, because the smoke was so thick, it would take hours for it to clear so they could shoot again.
    • With this ghost, Scrooge visits the Crachits once again. This time, the scene was written and filmed to be identical to when Scrooge saw this with the ghost of Christmas present–to further drive home the fact that Tiny Tim is gone.
    • The ghost is moving on a train track with the actor standing on a platform, and he was performed by Don Austin and Rob Tygner.


  • Michael Caine as Ebeneezer Scrooge
    • Brian Henson said that Caine is one of those great actors that can lock into emotion in a scene.
    • He was their first choice for the role.
    • Michael Caine insisted when playing the role to act as though he was in the Royal Shakespeare Company working with real actors and not Muppets. His dramatic portrayal, while intimidating at first, brought Scrooge to life.
    • In an interview with Entertainment Tonight Caine said “I mean, people say: ‘Never make pictures with animals or children.’ They ought to try Muppets. They are the biggest scene stealers of all.”
  • The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens
    • Both Gonzo and Rizzo are not meant to be part of the story, but at the end when Scrooge taps them on the head, it’s meant to signal to the audience that they are now part of the story, which brings closure to the characters.
  • Kermit the Frog as Bob Crachit
    • Rizzo the Rat as himself.
    • When we see full-body Kermit, 10 puppeteers would operate him.
    • This film is the first one where Steve Whitmire steps in to fill Jim Henson’s shoes after his sudden death. When talking about the movie Steve recalls being scared to take on such an important role, that means so much to everyone. He also described to The Guardian a dream he had before filming began, where he tells Jim Henson that he is nervous about taking over Kermit. In the dream Jim thinks for a minute and then simply says “It’ll pass.” 
  • Miss Piggy as Emily Crachit
    • They were worried that Miss Piggy wouldn’t really be able to pull off the role of Emily Crachit because she was supposed to be this perfect housewife, so the character does some very “piggy” things like sneaking some chestnuts and mixing up the names of her children. 
    • Frank Oz performed Piggy, as he had for years, and the other puppeteers like to make fun of Oz for the way he performs the character, which is why Belinda and Betina, the young pigs, shame Piggy for sneaking chestnuts
  • Fozzi Bear as Fozziwig, played by Frank Oz
    • Fezziwig is the name of the original character.
  • Statler and Waldorf as Marley and Marley, played by Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz.
  • Robin as Tiny Tim
    • Jerry Nelson voiced Robin, who is Kermit’s nephew in the muppet-verse.
  • Bean Bunny as caroler, played by Steve Whitmire
    • When Bean Bunny was created he was meant to be so sickeningly sweet that the cast and crew loved to hate on him. He would be so cute and almost pathetic seeming that he would become a fan favorite. Muppet Christmas Carol is Bean Bunnies most well known appearance but has been in several Muppet shows and movies.
  • Rowlf the Dog as himself
    • Rowlf was Jim Henson’s character, and this was his first appearance after his death, so they didn’t re-cast. They just had Rowlf play piano in the Fozziwig scene instead, as a little nod to Henson.
  • Meredith Braun As Belle
  • Kristopher Milnes As the Young Boy Ebeneezer
  • Ray Coulthard As the Young Man Ebeneezer


  • A Muppet Christmas Carol was a moderate success at the box office, despite being against Home Alone 2 and Disney’s Aladdin
  • The film’s earnings weren’t spectacular, but better than expected, and it was enough of a success to keep the Muppets alive! Many consider its seamless blend of humor and darkness to be the absolute perfect adaptation of the story, with just the right amount of Muppet Magic.

In the winter of 1843, author Charles Dickens paid his own publishing costs to prove to a disbelieving publisher the marketability of his work. One-hundred-and-forty-nine years later, a young Brian Henson used that same story to prove to audiences everywhere the enduring appeal of The Muppets. For Dickens, the sales were fine, but not spectacular. The same went for Henson. But, luckily for both men, success is not defined by money alone. 

Brian Henson and the rest of the muppet crew (Jerry Juhl, Steve Whitmire, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz and others) were able to carry on the dream of their late friend; a dream that almost certainly would have fizzled out, if not for their dedication and ambition. A Muppet Christmas Carol is a classic, filling homes with laughter and light every holiday season, while carrying on the same important message that Charles Dickens put to paper 177 years ago. 


The Case of Psych!

When the Santa Barbara Police Department has trouble solving their strangest mysteries, they call in Shawn Spencer and Burton (Gus) Guster. Following Shawn’s special psychic ability, he and Gus lead the team of detectives to clues, solving murders and closing cases on a regular basis. Despite the non-believers in the department, Shawn consistently proves himself. The only problem? Shawn isn’t Psychic at all. 

In the summer of 2006, 6.1 million people tuned into the pilot episode of Psych, a comedy mystery show about a man who uses his incredible observational skills to fool detectives into thinking he’s psychic. In a time when TV was swarmed with various versions of CSI and other crime dramas, Psych dared to be different. Although the show followed the basic formula of a detective show, it centered on the chemistry between its two leads, and the comedic situations they often found themselves in. 

For eight seasons, Psych focused on the relationships of the characters, from the strong life-long friendship of Shawn and Gus, to the bond between Shawn and his (often) disapproving father. The show was packed with clever references and parodies of other shows and films, with witty dialog and hilarious running gags, making it the absolute perfect show for a movie and TV podcast to cover. 

So Cassettes, for our finale, we’ve decided to cover this hilarious show and Psych you out in the end!


  • Henry Spencer always dreamed that his son Shawn would one day be a police detective just like him. So, he trained his son to be hyper-observant of his surroundings. However, Shawn was different from his father in almost every way, and he did not follow in his footsteps.
  • Fast-forward to 2006, and Shawn is 30 years old. He still seems to lack direction in his life, until the day that the Santa Barbara Police Department mistakes him for a criminal, when he reveals details about a case. In order to prove his innocence, Shawn claims that he is psychic. He impresses the chief of the department enough that she decides to hire him to consult on cases. 
  • Shawn sets up a detective agency with his life-long friend Gus, a foil to Shawn’s silly antics. Gus is a nerdy, kind-natured friend who begrudgingly helps Shawn solve cases.


  • As a young boy, Steve Franks would invent television shows and then draw up a schedule where they would be pitted against each other. He would then try to predict the ratings that these “shows” would receive. Then finally, he would extend or cancel them. Eventually his passion for TV would lead him to create the TV show Psych!
  • When Franks developed Shawn Spencer, he based aspects of the character on himself. 
    • Franks’ father was an officer that worked for the LAPD for 20 years and was what he liked to call, a “trained observer.” 
    • Much like Shawn’s father in the show, he would quiz Franks about the details in his surroundings. 
    • This often happened when the two of them would go out to eat. Franks even wrote this into the very first episode when Henry and young Shawn Spencer are in a diner. In order to receive dessert, Shawn must close his eyes and recall how many hats are in the room.
      • The relationship between Steve Franks and his father was a clear influence for the relationship between Shawn and Henry. Franks’ father wanted Steve to be a police officer, but he instead became a screenwriter. Shawn’s father Henry illustrates the disappointment that Steve’s father showed toward this decision.
      • Steve Franks later said that his dad came to terms with his son’s career, and is even a fan of the show! 
        • Franks said of his father after the show premiered, “He loved the pilot and is now calling me every other day with story pitches.”
    • In 1999, Steve Franks successfully sold the script for the film “Big Daddy” to Columbia. The Adam Sandler comedy was a big hit, and Columbia wanted Franks to pitch more ideas. 
    • Among the ones that he gave was the idea for Psych. When they turned it down, he kept the idea and a few years later pitched it to producer Kelly Kulchak. She thought it was brilliant and helped him pitch it to ABC, CBS, and NBC. They all turned it down. Finally, their last pitch was to the USA Network who thought it would be perfect for their programming where they boast, “Characters Welcome.”
    • Steve Franks is also part of a band called The Friendly Indians that has released three albums; Tiny Badness, Greetings…From Lake Dolores, and Pure Genius. The other members are Tim Meltreger, Jason Barrett, and Gizzy Jackson. They are most known however for the Psych Theme Song! 
      • The song was called, “The Best Man Lies,” and was actually a song from one of their previous albums, shortened by two verses
        • One of the best parts about this theme song is that for special episodes there is a themed version of the song. For example Boyz II Men recorded a version that was used for the episodes High Top Fade-Out and Let’s Doo-Wop it Again. In Lights, Camera…Homicidio and No Country for Two Old Men the theme was sung in Spanish. 
      • Steve Franks was a huge fan of Moonlighting (1985) and Remington Steele (1982) and they heavily influenced the idea and tone of Psych
        • He was even able to score one of the actresses from Moonlighting, Cybill Shepherd, to play Shawn’s mother. They named her Madeleine as a tribute to her Moonlighting character Madeleine ‘Maddie’ Hayes.
          • When Franks was 16, his father had another job as security and ended up taking Steve to the set of Moonlighting. This was pivotal for Franks, because it showed him that it would be possible to have a career in movies and television



  • When Franks was on his honeymoon in Santa Barbara, he was already thinking of the idea for Psych. He liked that the beachy town didn’t have the feeling of a huge city, and he thought its beautiful setting would be perfect for Psych
    • Originally Franks thought that production would happen in Santa Barbara, but this proved to be a problem because not a lot of crewmembers work in that area, and many of them would have to stay in hotels for the entire length of filming
    • So, the show settled on filming on stages in Vancouver, where there were many more available crewmembers to work. The outside shots were done in the town of White Rock, which was close to Santa Barbara, but still very different
      • In order to make the sets look like Santa Barbara, they were filled with warm colors and extras wearing shorts and holding beach towels. The prop department also contacted The Santa Barbara Sun, an actual local newspaper, so characters could be reading a real newspaper in the show
        • Production would often use designs that had a distinct California style, especially for sets like the police department
        • There was an entire greenery department that would insert trees and flowers to make the set look as warm and tropical as possible
      • One of the challenges of filming in Canada is buying American props and food. For example, all the food products in Canada have different measurements and American audiences would likely notice. One food the characters are always looking for is Churros, something that is very difficult to find in Canada and the show had to order in advance
  • Writers
    • Although Steve Franks had originally wanted to write the show alone, a team was hired to help him. This team included: 
      • Carlos Jacott
        • He was a producer, writer, and executive storyboard editor for the show. He also made the occasional appearance as an actor as well.
      • Andy Berman
        • He was a writer and producer for the show. He helped to co-write 24 episodes and the second Psych movie. You may also know him as the voice of Dib in Invader Zim.
      • Anupam Nigam
        • He came on as producer, writer, and storyboard editor. He helped write 10 episodes. 
      • Saladin K. Patterson
        • He was a producer, writer, and director of the show. He helped write 17 episodes.
      • Tim Meltreger
        • You may remember we mentioned Tim earlier in the episode as he is a member of the band The Friendly Indians, he is their guitar player. He is also a major player as one of the lead story editors. He wrote 9 episodes.
      • Bill Callahan
        • He was a writer and co-producer of the show, writing 10 episodes. He has also written for Scrubs, 8 SImple Rules, and Spin City.
      • James Roday Rodriguez
        • He is of course one of the main stars but has also co-wrote many of the episodes and directed as well.


  • James Roday Rodriguez as Shawn Spencer
    • When he was starting his acting career, the actor who portrayed Shawn changed his name from James Rodriguez to James Roday. He recently added his true last name in honor of his family, and to speak out against type-casting based on race
    • When he auditioned for the role, it was clear that he was the only actor that truly understood Steve Franks’ comedic vision for the show
    • In the Psych All-Night event he revealed that his favorite episode was “Dual Spires.”
    • He currently stars in “A Million Little Things” as Gary Mendez
  • Dulé Hill as Burton Guster (Gus)
    • Dulé appeared in The West Wing, Suits, Black Monday, and the movie Holes.
    • He said that working on Psych was very different than when he worked on The West Wing. In The West Wing they would shoot only about three days a week and would record their lines exactly as written. While working on Psych he would work about every day and the atmosphere was more relaxed, as he had the ability to improvise his lines
    • He and James recounted the first times that they met. The first time was a read in front of creator Franks. The second time was amusing because since James already had the role he wanted to extend a nice gesture to Dulé Hill and offer to read over lines at his house. James did not expect him to live outside the city and ended up driving 45 minutes in order to form their friendship and practice lines.
  • Maggie Lawson as Juliet O’Hara
    • Juliet is a Detective for the Santa Barbara Police Department.  She is also the main love interest to Shawn Spencer.
    • Maggie Lawson made appearances in Party of 5, Two and a Half Men, The Ranch, and Santa Clarita Diet.
  • Timothy Omundson as Carlton Lassiter (Lassie)
    • Detective Lassiter is Juliet’s partner and is constantly doubting Shawn’s abilities and trying to have him and Gus removed from cases. 
    • We all know him of course from the awesome Disney Channel Original Luck of the Irish, as Seamus McTiernen! He has also been on Judging Amy, Galavant, and Supernatural. 
  • Kirsten Nelson as Chief Karen Vick
    • Chief Vick is the head of the Santa Barbara Police Department and the main reason that Shawn is allowed to work on any cases.
    • She has had small roles in a lot of different shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ally McBeal, Malcolm in the Middle, Ghost Whisperer, and Just Shoot Me!
  • Corbin Bernsen as Henry Spencer 
    • Henry Spencer, even though he wanted his son Shawn to follow in his footsteps, arrested him at 18. This gave Shawn the record that prohibits him from being a police officer. Shawn then becomes the two things that Henry hates, a Psychic and a Private Investigator. 
      • For the first five seasons of the show, the audience sees a flashback from Shawn’s life. This flashback usually involves Shawn’s father Henry or his best friend, Gus.
        • “It’s become my favorite part of writing the show,”  show creator Steve Franks said. “Now I realize I can tie it thematically, or tonally, or take a specific incident and re-create something in the past and see how it plays out in the future. Something I was using as a pitch is now a frame.” Besides, “it’s a chance to see Corbin Bernsen in a wig, which is always fun.”
    • Corbin Bernsen has been in a lot of different things but some of them are General Hospital, JAG, The Young and the Restless, and the movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
  • Sage Brocklebank as Buzz McNab
    • Buzz McNab is the lovable cop that often will help get Shawn into crime scenes that normally would be difficult. 
    • He is known for the 2018 Predator movie, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, and Alien Trespass.
  • Kurt Fuller as Woody the Coroner
    • Woody shows up first in Season 4 as the goofy and quirky Coroner for the SBPD. He often agrees to the crazy antics that Shawn and Gus come up with.
    • He has been in a lot of well known things such as Wayne’s World, Anger Management, and Scary Movie.
  • Young Shawn Spencer 
    • Liam James
      • He played young Shawn from 2006-2010
      • As he got older they needed to replace him because they were not ready for a teenage Shawn Spencer.
      • Liam James went on to be in The Killing and the movies 2012 and The Way Way Back.
    • Skyler Gisondo
      • He replaced Liam James but was only one month younger. He did appear younger however which is what matters. He would play young Shawn until Season 6 when they abandoned the beginning flashbacks. 
      • He has done several small parts by now but most notably Santa Clarita Diet and the movie Booksmart. 


  • The show’s reception and influence
    • As we said before, 6.1 million viewers watched the first episode that aired in the summer of 2006. It was the best basic cable numbers for the network USA since 2004 when their show “The 4400” aired. It has since stayed in everyone’s hearts because even though the show ended in 2014, it has since had 2 made for television movies!
  • The characters Shawn and Gus are pop culture gurus, constantly making references to movies and shows. The show itself even makes these references, by having many parody episodes throughout its 8 season run! Here are a few of them: 
    • “Scary Sherry: Bianca’s Toast”- their first season finale was the first of many parodies. It was co-written by Steve Franks and James Roday
    • Dual Spires parody of Twin Peaks
      • Ray Wise guest stars
      • Julee Cruise who sings the Twin Peaks Theme also sang the Psych song for the beginning of this episode
    • High Noonish was a parody of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
    • Lassie Jerky was a parody of The Blair Witch Project
    • The Devil’s in the Details and the Upstairs Bedroom was a parody of The Exorcist
    • Last Night Gus parody of The Hangover
    • Tuesday the 17th parody of Friday the 13th
    • Let’s Get Hairy parody of An American Werewolf in London
      • David Naughton (who plays the lead in An American Werewolf in London) guest stars as Dr. Ken Tucker!
    • Heeeeere’s Lassie! parody of The Shining
      • Lassie is driven mad in his new condo and goes after Gus, just as Jack went after Wendy and Danny in The Shining.
    • The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Episode parody of Jaws
    • Mr. Yin Presents parody of the collection of Alfred Hitchcock movies
    • 100 Clues parody of Clue 
  • Notable guest stars
    • In the series every Breakfast Club member made an appearance except for Emilio Estevez who ended up being an alias that Shawn uses. Ally Sheedy is in the Yin-Yang episodes, Judd Nelson was in Death is in the Air, Molly Ringwald in Shawn Interrupted, and Anthony Michael Hall in No Trout About It.
    • Phylicia Rashad guested as Winnifred Guster (Gus’s mom.) This is especially funny because a running gag for the show, was that Gus played Bud on The Cosby Show
    • Curt Smith who is a part of Tears for Fears appears a few times within the show and even serenades the characters a few times.
    • Jimmi Simpson plays Mary Lightly who helps to crack the cases about Yang. His character is odd and yet entirely endearing whenever he shows up. You may know him now as William on Westworld or as Liam McPoyle in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. 
    • Tim Curry guest stars as Nigel St. Nigel in the episode “American Duos” which parodies the lovely American Idol format with Tim Curry being the equivalent to a Simon Cowell.
    • Cary Elwes (star of The Princess Bride!) brings the star power as the elusive Pierre Despereux, a famous art thief that Lassie despises. He appears in several episodes, and even though he is a thief, finds friendship with Shawn and Gus each time that he emerges. 


  • Pineapples
    • One of the most famous and prominent visual gags of the show, is that a pineapple appears in some form in every episode. Steve Franks said: “So, there was just a prop pineapple on top of the fridge and it was just tickling James to pick up the pineapple and say, “You want me to cut this up for the road?” He loved it so much that I, off of his enthusiasm, grew to love it as well because we’d done this scene 15 times in all of the different pieces of coverage and every time he got to that pineapple part, he sold it in such a way that it was the most acting he did the entire day. So, I felt the need to really put it in and it was so funny.”
    • Dulé Hill added to this by saying: “The simple thing of the pineapple, ‘You want me to cut this up for the road?’ started from the brilliance of Roday where he would just take what’s around him and go with it and having the freedom to do that, because that line wasn’t in the script. From there, we had this whole runner about pineapples. It was little things like that and getting happy when we thought that we solved the case. They stayed throughout the show and we were able to grow from there.”
    • The Prop department mostly takes care of this. It has taken on a life of its own. Sometimes Steve Franks has something to do with it, but most times after a while they did not even know where it was until they saw the episode.
    • There is a website dedicated to where all these pineapples are in each episode. Sometimes the pineapple was not even physical, the word Pineapple could just be said. 
    • It was also a contest to get fans involved. During commercial breaks, USA would remind the audience to keep an eye out for the hidden pineapple! 
  • Phrases
    • C’mon Son
      • This phrase that Gus and Shawn use often was actually coined by Ed Lover, an American Rapper.
    • “You know that’s right,” and “I’ve heard it both ways,” are both common phrases said by the characters, almost like catchphrases
  • Gus’s nicknames
    • One of Psych’s most popular gags came from James’s amazing ability to improvise. It began all the way back in Season 1 Episode 5 “Nine Lives” when James was introducing the characters Shawn and Gus. He introduced himself as Shawn Spencer and Gus as Gus ‘Sillypants’ Jackson. Dulé luckily did not break character, and the rest is history! Shawn Spencer introduces himself and then his partner with an insane pseudonym throughout the rest of the show
      • The reactions from Gus vary. There are times when he is surprised by the nickname, or disappointed, but a lot of the times he rolls with it and does something to confirm his nickname.
      • Some examples of these nicknames are… Peter Panic, Chocolate Columbo, Magic Head, Fearless Guster, Hollabackatcha, Jazz Hands, and Brutal Hustler.
      • Dulé has revealed however that his favorite was the first one Gus ‘Sillypants’ Jackson.

Psych started as a simple vision, and earned its place in pop culture history. After 8 seasons and two movies (and another on the way), it’s clear that this show is beloved by millions of fans. Its combination of relatable characters, funny gags, and clever (and sometimes self-aware) storytelling, made Psych stand-out among other crime shows of the time. Psych focused on its characters more than anything, portraying a strong friendship between its two leads that would make anyone want to go find their best friend and solve a crime. It was wholesome in that way. 

Psych also had major roles for women, with Juliet O’Hara as the young detective trying to prove herself next to the seasoned Detective Lasseter; and of course Karen, the no-nonsense Chief of the department. For a time, Dule Hill was the only black lead on USA’s network, which made the show important for more representation of black people in TV. 

Psych is a show you can watch again and again. Sure, there are moments where the show is dated, but overall the charm of it is timeless; and for a show about a man who is lying to almost everyone he knows, it’s oddly authentic. Psych is a classic, and I know that you know that I AM telling the truth. 


The Case that is Extra-Terrestrial

This week we are wrapping-up our spooky season with a movie that isn’t necessarily a Halloween movie, but does have elements of the holiday, and takes place in the fall. 

In June of 1982, seven years after Steven Spielberg made waves with the first summer blockbuster, Jaws, the director brought audiences a new kind of film. At first, Universal Studios was hesitant to make this new movie, as it was for children, and children’s movies weren’t very lucrative at the time. 

But, soon after its release, ET: The Extra Terrestrial proved the nay-sayers wrong. Not only was the film successful, but it was even credited for bringing adults back to movie theatres! After three months of packed showings and outrageous box office numbers, it was clear that this movie wasn’t for kids, it was for everyone that had ever been a kid. 

ET is a story about friendship, and the fear of losing the ones that we love. It celebrates the magic of childhood, and takes place during Halloween, when childhood magic is in major abundance. 

So Cassettes, let’s don our costumes and bust out our Reese’s Pieces! It’s time to phone home and talk about ET. 


  • They say to write what you know, and ET was Spielberg’s most personal film.
    • The idea of a man from outer space, coming to fill a void left in a family, was something that Steven Spielberg had thought about even since he was a child.
    • He incorporated the pain of his parents’ divorce, and used that with the family dynamic. 
  • When he was told that the movie had little chance of financial success, he didn’t care. Steven Spielberg even thought that if only mothers and children saw the film, that was good enough for him. It was simply a story he wanted to tell. 
  • While filming Raiders of the Lost Ark, he dictated the story to screenwriter Melissa Matheson.
    • She had never felt such a responsibility in terms of writing, and the story was so clear, she didn’t have to make major edits to it–Spielberg really knew what he wanted, a great characteristic in any director
    • She asked children, while she was working on the screenplay, what kind of superpower should an alien like ET have, and they often said healing, “to take care of hurts.” So, this was a major part of his character.
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  • It’s a truth that we have witnessed again and again throughout human existence: we fear the unfamiliar. This basic idea is the driving force behind many horror stories, and the reason we tell scary stories about aliens from outer space. 
  • If we looked into the catalog of early science fiction films, we would find a common theme surrounding the depiction of extraterrestrials– their eyes are dark, their skin slimy, and often they are hostile toward humans.
  • One of the most famous depictions of aliens occurs in Ridley Scott’s Alien from 1979, a straight-up horror film.
  • So, when it was time to create an alien that audiences would fall in love with, Spielberg turned to special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, someone he worked with on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Rambaldi set out to design a creature unlike any that audiences had ever seen. 
    • Ed Verreaux, the production Illustrator, said that many different looks were tried, especially for the head and face features. Designers settled on a character with a long neck, and bright human-like eyes.
    • ET’s squishy exterior is reminiscent of dirt, since ET is a botanist and was working with plants when he was left behind.
    • ET had to look different from any former alien design, and yet he could not look too familiar–if he was too cute, it would negate a major message of the film, about love and acceptance of something totally unfamiliar. 
  • When Henry Thomas, who played Elliot in the movie, first saw the ET animatronic, what stood out to him was the eyes, and how kind and expressive they were.
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  • In order for the film to work, audiences had to believe that ET was real, even for just a couple hours. So, a lot of painstaking work went into his design and mechanics. 
    • ET was a combination of animatronics and people in a suit. 
    • The face was controlled remotely, sometimes by as many as 12 people at once, working in unison. The scenes where ET speaks, were done in many takes. They wanted his facial and mouth movements to perfectly match the dialog.
    • ET’s hands and arms were often performed by a mime artist Caprice Rothe. She said she was hired because she had really long fingers, which was her father’s fault.
    • Set designers built the set in such a way, that all the cables that controlled ET would run underneath, out of view. Just as the puppeteers for Return to Oz would do a couple years later, they used TV monitors to track movement! (The Muppet Show was also done this way.) 
      • For the full-body-view shots (for example when ET was boozy in the kitchen) they had two Little People, Pat Bilon and Tamara De Treaux, as well as a young boy, Matthew DeMerritt (who was born with no legs) inside an ET suit.
  • Allen Daviau was the director of photography for the film.
    • He used one technique to make ET seem more lifelike, which was to backlight him with very little fill light.
    • ET was also purposely not shown very much in the beginning to build the suspense of the character, which is often done in “creature” movies–for example, Brad Silberling did this for Casper.
  • But, what was special about not showing ET until later in the movie, was that the actors didn’t see him until later as well. Even though films are generally shot out of order, Steven Spielberg insisted on filming in continuity! So, when characters see ET in the movie for the first time, the actors are actually seeing him for the first time as well!
    • This also really brought out the emotion of the film, as the scenes where the house is taken over by government agents happened late in filming, and the actors really felt like they were losing another member of their on-set family when they said goodbye to ET.
    • Drew Barrymore later said that having the house covered in plastic really upset her, because this warm and inviting place that she had grown to love and feel comfortable in, was now scary and full of strange people.
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While dealing with the trauma of his parents’ recent divorce, nine-year-old Elliot, discovers an alien creature, separated from its family. Elliot and his siblings fall in love with the extraterrestrial, ET, and decide to do whatever it takes to make sure he returns home safely.

While filming ET, the actors and crew started to feel like a family. Steven Spielberg talked with the actors and found out how to best direct them. He felt a strong connection to the children on set, especially six-year-old Drew Barrymore who played Gertie. He later said that the interactions between him and the kids convinced him to become a parent.

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  • Dee Wallace as Mary- The kids’ Mother
    • She appreciated that Steven Spielberg took the time to get to know how all the actors worked best. It seemed as though the way everyone worked best was to not rehearse a lot, be fed lines, and just react.
  • Henry Thomas as Elliott
    • He met Spielberg when he was 9. In the audition Spielberg gave him an improvisational situation where he was told a government agent knocks on the door to take away his best creature friend, and he has to do whatever he can to stop him. Henry Thomas instantly got emotional saying “you can’t take him. He’s my best friend.” He had tears in his eyes and it was just like the movie. They told he got the part right there. Henry said it was the fastest casting he had ever gotten. 
    • Spielberg would have to often talk Henry through the scenes so that he would know what he would be reacting to. In the 2002 reunion Henry said that when watching the movie he could hear Spielberg’s voice still.
  • Peter Coyote as Keys (you know the one that said he had been waiting his whole life for ET to arrive.)
    • In most of the movie he is only seen from the waist down. He is listed as Keys because this is mostly what you see and hear of him.
    • When talking about being cast he said “When great directors call you you just gamble with them. If they jump off a cliff, you jump off the cliff, and I felt that way about this movie.”
    • When talking about the impact of the movie he said “I always thought that one of the things that made people love this film was if two people or three people as far apart as ET and those children, could bridge a gap and fall in love with one another and communicate, then there were no two people on earth that were that far apart or there are no two cultures that were that far apart.”
  • Robert McNaughton as Michael
    • Spielberg said he put himself in all the characters but especially into this character. He would tease his sisters just as Michael teases his siblings in the movie.
    • Robert was very protective of Henry Thomas and would play Dungeons and Dragons with him off of set.
  • Drew Barrymore as Gertie
    • She was 6 years old at the time but says she could remember everything like it was yesterday.
    • In her audition she told Steven that she was a Punk Rock and Roll band leader, of the band The Purple People Eaters. She was 6, and according to her, the drummer in the band.  This is why she was the first one hired for the role by Steven. He thought she was remarkable.
    • ET was absolutely real to her, and the scene where the doctors used defibrillators to attempt to revive ET, she really cried.
    • She said it was the most perfect experience and that Steven Spielberg was a father figure to her that believed in all the kids a lot.
  • K.C. Martel as Greg
    • He has been in things like The Amityville Horror from 1979 and he was Eddie in Growing Pains.
  • Sean Frye as Steve
    • Sean was a child actor most known for his role in ET.
  • C. Thomas Howell as Tyler
    • He has been in several things since ET, most notably Soul Man, Red Dawn, and The Outsiders.
  • Pat Welsh as the voice of ET
    • She did not have many credits besides her ET voice for the movie and the game. Her one other notable was an uncredited voice role as the Bounty Hunter Boushh from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
    • She was only paid $380 for her nine and a half hours of recording the audio. She did not mind the low pay and reportedly bought a vanity license that read “I love ET.”


  • In 2002 Steven Spielberg released a remastered version. He did graciously release both the theatrical version and the remastered on dvd and blu-ray. Unlike some other well known directors *cough, cough, George Lucas, cough, cough.* 
    • He said that it gave him the chance to correct the 50 or so pet peeve shots that he had.
  • There were a few things changed with this remastering. Not only did they remaster the work digitally but they added a few scenes and things. One specific change however came because of 9/11. In a scene when Elliot and his sister Gertie are in the bathroom you can hear their mom telling Michael that he cannot be a terrorist for Halloween. In the 2002 remaster they switched this word out for hippie.
  • The scene where ET is being chased in the beginning of the original is just a light on a rail. For 2002 they were able to put in a CGI ET running.
  • Some scenes that were added Steven Spielberg felt strengthened the bond between Elliott and ET because they lengthened the time that Elliott spent with him while being home from school and “sick.”
  • In the film, government agents come to take ET away. Spielberg had wanted a real threat in the original movie and so a lot of the adults had guns. Even though it was to build tension for the scene, he never felt comfortable about guns being near the kids, so he decided in 2002 to have walkie talkies digitally replace them. This was done specifically to the scene where the kids start flying above the police cars.
  • One cool scene included in the remaster was that of Harrison Ford as the school principal! 


  • Spielberg says that ET is the movie he gets asked the most about in terms of sequels.
  • He never wanted to do a sequel, and he likely never will. 
  • But, he did end up giving permission for a small short film titled “A Holiday Reunion.” A two minute version aired during the Macy’s day parade in 2019. In this cute reunion Elliot is all grown up and has kids of his own when ET comes for a visit. A lot of consideration was put into this film to keep the integrity of the original story. They even used similar techniques, like lighting ET from behind to make him seem more life-like. It also has a lot of nods to the original movie with things like Elliot’s first drawing of ET in school, a framed picture of Harvey the original dog, and so much more. 
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  • After working with John Williams in Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg asked John Williams to write the music for ET
  • John Williams worked his magic, creating an iconic theme that audiences would not easily forget–the actor that played Michael said that he was humming the theme for weeks before mainstream audiences got to see the movie!
    • This theme is most prominent in the scene where Elliot glides across the moon on Halloween night.
      • Though the scene is iconic, Henry Thomas said it wasn’t nearly as exciting to film. He was on a bike that was attached to a camera crane, and lifted and dipped in front of a blue screen in the studio.
      • There is a behind the scenes clip where Steven is sitting next to John Williams while he watches the test footage for the score–it’s pretty funny and cute because they’re watching a model.
  • We mentioned this in our John Williams episode, but the scene on Halloween night in the street when a child with a yoda costume walks by Williams put yoda’s theme into the composition.
    • Spielberg also allowed Williams to compose the final chase score and they edited what was filmed for it around the music.
  • Since its original release, a version has been edited so that orchestras can perform along with the movie live to enhance the viewing experience.
  • The clip above and to the right shows John Williams and Steven Spielberg in early works of the films theme song. It’s a super cute clip!


  • When talking about the financial success of ET, The New York Times said, “Predicting the success of movies has always been a gamble. Much has been made of the fact that Columbia, which had an opportunity to make ”E.T.,” turned down the project. But studios are always putting into ”turnaround” scripts that later become successful movies for someone else. As a hedge, Columbia kept 5 percent of the profits from ”E.T.,” a practice that is becoming common. (1982)
  • Opening Weekend: ET made 11.8 million
  • Worldwide Gross was 663 million
    • Partially because of ET, the summer of 1982 was the most lucrative in Hollywood history at the time.
  • ET won four Oscars in 1983 and was nominated for 5 others. It won for
    • Oscar for Best Visual Effects
    • Oscar for Best Original Score
    • Oscar for Best Sound Mixing
    • Oscar for Best Sound Editing
  • ET won several other awards such as The Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film in 1983 which traditionally honors science fiction, fantasy, and horror film.

In the making-of documentary, Steven Spielberg said, “It’s a cliche now to say that this movie is for the child in all of us. No; this movie is for the people we are, and the people we have been, and wanna be again. I think it’s for everybody.”

Audiences absolutely agreed. The praise was unanimous, and by the time Christmas came around, ET toys were flying off shelves. Steven Spielberg recognized the iconic nature of the film, and even later used the image of the bike over the moon as his logo for Amblin. 

ET resonated with children and adults. It was about love, and the capacity that children have for it. It showed us the story of a child, willing to do anything for his friend–a defenseless being lost in a strange world. ET is a story that enriched the lives of its audiences, and ran them through the various emotions of childhood. It’s filled with images that we all relate to: staying home from school, dressing up for Halloween, and saying goodbye to someone we love. Sure, maybe we all haven’t been chased by government agents in order to rescue an alien life-form, but watching the kids in this movie trust each other and drop everything to make sure that ET makes it home, somehow reminds us all of our own capacity for good. 

ET is pure movie magic. 


The Case That Returns to Oz

In the summer of 1985, Walt Disney studios released a sequel to one of Hollywood’s most iconic films. Except–it wasn’t really a sequel. There were some characters with the same names, and it was based on the same source material, but the setting and tone were completely different. The director of this new movie, Walter Murch, called it “dark” and “bleak,” and audiences would agree. Disney itself didn’t know how to market the movie, with a dreaded PG rating that was sure to keep parents from taking their children. Their biggest challenge was to shatter the expectations set by the original film, the brightly-colored musical, “The Wizard of Oz.” 

Return to Oz takes place after Dorothy has already visited Oz once before. Concerned for her well-being, Auntie Em takes Dorothy to a mental institution where she will undergo electro-shock therapy. But, during a terrible storm, a mysterious girl appears to help Dorothy escape, and leads her back to the land of Oz. 

Alone with only her chicken, Billina, Dorothy must navigate unfamiliar terrain, like the “Deadly Desert,” and a now-shattered yellow brick road. She discovers that Oz has lost all its emeralds, and its residents have been turned to stone. Much like the original, Dorothy picks up friends along the way–friends like a mechanical man that needs to be wound, a stick-figure man with a pumpkin head, and a flying couch with the head of a moose-like creature called a “Gump.” 

Infamous for horrifying villains, such as: Princess Mombi, an evil witch that stole the heads of beautiful women and keeps them in glass cases; Return to Oz may not be a Halloween movie per se, but it’s definitely scary enough to be considered one!

Packed with horrors from the real world and the land of Oz, this film has enthralled generations of children with its imaginative design and memorable characters. This dark fantasy introduced children to an Oz much closer to the one of the books, and bravely trudged through swampy territory that children’s films of today would likely avoid. 

So friends, mechanical and mythical alike, it’s time to Return to Oz!


  • In 1900, a failed actor and journalist published a children’s book that is now considered to be the first truly American fairytale. It was called, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” 
  • L. Frank Baum named the location of his story after the last drawer in his filing cabinet. He gave his main protagonist the name Dorothy, after his infant niece who had just passed away. 
  • It was his mother in law, a notable feminist, who convinced Baum to write for children, and he had published a book of nursery rhymes a couple years before.
  • Baum wrote of a utopia called, “The Emerald City,” and used influences from his own life to create the story of Dorothy Gale, a young girl living a plain life on a farm, who gets transported to a strange fantasy land, filled with witches, talking animals, and metal men.
    • One of the most notable facets of the story is the fact that Dorothy is an ordinary girl, not a witch or a princess, and she becomes her own hero with very little help from her companions (though they do protect her in some dangerous situations.)
    • Baum acted as if the stories were true, and he was the historian of Oz–young readers were meant to believe that Dorothy and Ozma were real people, recounting their stories to him. This technique is similar to Lemony Snicket, another children’s author of a dark fiction.
  • The book has never been out of print, and its fame places it among the ranks of other prominent fairytales.
    • American children know the story of Dorothy as much as they might know about Sleeping Beauty or Little Red Riding Hood.
  • Baum continued to write the story of Dorothy and her adventures in Oz, until his death in 1919. His final Oz book, Glinda of Oz, was published a year later. Other authors continued the series, and there are 40 official Oz books in total, not including unofficial adaptations and sequels! 
  • In the 1930’s, when Walt Disney was working on his first full-length animated movie, he wanted to make “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” next. But, when his brother Roy called the Baum estate, they found that another film studio, MGM, had beat them to the rights! 
    • This resulted in “The Wizard of Oz,” a technicolor marvel that turned Judy Garland into a megastar. This Oz was bright, filled with happy songs, and had notable changes from the book–for example, Dorothy’s magical silver slippers were now ruby!
    • This movie is now one of the most classic films in cinema. This has become the most well-known version of Oz, despite the fact that it is just one drop in the ocean of Oz lore.
  • In 1985, Disney finally produced its take on the Oz universe. This new movie swapped joyful songs for a somber and foreboding film score, and introduced audiences to an Oz filled with dark horrors. 


  • Director Walter Murch based Return to Oz on the second and third books in the Oz series: The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz
  • After Dorothy has returned to her normal life in Kansas, she can’t stop thinking about the friends she left behind. One day she finds a key from Oz, and takes it as a message that her friends need her to return. Upset that Dorothy hasn’t moved on from her delusions, Auntie Em takes her to see Dr. Worley, a Psychiatrist. He admits Dorothy to his hospital, and prescribes electro-shock therapy. Dorothy endures the horrors of being locked in a room, strapped to a bed, and hearing the screams of other patients. 
  • While Dorothy undergoes her first session, a storm knocks out the power, and a mysterious girl appears to help Dorothy escape. Dorothy runs from the institution, and climbs into a cage that is soon washed away down the river. When Dorothy wakes, she discovers that she has landed in the Deadly Desert, on the outskirts of Oz, and her chicken Billina has arrived with her, too. 
  • While making her way into Oz, Dorothy discovers a destroyed yellow brick road, and follows it to a bleak and empty Emerald City, where all the residents have been turned to stone, courtesy of the evil Nome King.
  • With the help of Billina and some new friends, Dorothy must escape Princess Mombi and her horrible henchmen, the wheelers (men with wheels for hands and feet), as she confronts the Nome King and demands that he restore Oz to its former glory!


  • Director Walter Murch spent 3 years planning and researching for Return to Oz
    • His goal was to present it in the style of early 20th century fantasy, the dark tone and twisted characters were more akin to the original books than the movie of the 1930’s.
    • Murch understood the story for what it was–a fairytale. And if you know anything about fairytales, they aren’t necessarily happy or colorful. He intended to continue the tradition of Oz by celebrating its strangeness. 
  • The scenes set in Dorothy’s Kansas were filmed in Salisbury, England, but the rest of the film was shot on Elstree stages and a studio lot.
  • Production designer Norman Reynolds (who served the same role for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Empire Strikes Back) built a new kind of Oz, with lunch pail trees and a crumbling emerald city, with set decoration by Michael Ford (who also has the same role for the original Star Wars trilogy!)

But, Murch’s biggest focus and concern with regards to Oz, were the fantastic creatures and odd new friends that audiences had never seen on screen.

  • In order to create the many faces in the land of Oz, a huge team was assembled of animators, puppeteers, and sculptors. 
  • They didn’t want to simply make suits for actors to walk in, but to create full-fledged fantasy creatures that the audience would whole-heartedly believe in.
    • The original Wizard of Oz is great, but it was easy to see that the cowardly lion was a man with whiskers. The creative forces behind Return to Oz wanted to avoid this, helping the audience suspend their belief.
  • The characters’ designs were taken directly from the Oz books, with technicians and animators employing similar techniques as they did for The Dark Crystal! Their movements took months of study to create seamless performances between actors and puppeteers alike! 
    • Billina lives on the Kansas farm with Dorothy, and makes her first appearance as the chicken that finds the key sent from Oz to alert Dorothy that her friends are in need of help.
      • Once she has arrived in Oz, Billina can now talk! 
      • Bilina was handcrafted by Val Jones with woven elastic fabric interlaced with wool to which real chicken feathers were then glued to. It was an arduous process but the result was very realistic. 
      • Lyle Conway, the creature design supervisor, said that Billina the chicken was the hardest to create. The puppeteers and technicians practiced for weeks to try to make sure that her movements were familiar and lifelike. They practiced with a closed circuit television to see the movements and make sure they were perfect for filming.
      • Different versions of Billina were used, with the operator’s hand entering from either the back or underside of the puppet. The operator’s fingers would extend through the neck and into two cups at the base of her skull for head movements, while a tiny cable system was responsible for her eye and mouth movement! For the longer, faraway shots, a real chicken took Billina’s place.
  • Tik-Tok 
    • After Dorothy first arrives at the Emerald City, she meets a mechanical man named Tik-Tok, the royal army of Oz! 
      • In order to work, Tik-Tok needs to be wound. He has dials for thought, speech, and action.
    • Michael Sundin was the actor that had to fit himself inside the round suit, placing his head between his legs and operating the controls of the body.
    • Sean Barret provided the mechanical man’s voice, while Tim Rose used remote control to move his head and eyes.
  • Jack Pumpkin Head is a creature made of sticks with a jack-o-lantern head. He was created by Queen Ozma, and brought to life to scare the evil Princess Mombi! Dorothy meets Jack after she has been captured and imprisoned by Mombi, and he helps her escape.
    • Jack was brought to life by actor Stewart Harvey-Wilson in the suit, with Brian Henson controlling the puppet version of the character! Brian Henson was also the voice of Jack! 
    • The character was difficult because of the difference between the human version and the puppet version. The human was much more stiff and rigid in movement, whereas the puppet was looser and had to have his arms up because of the control levers in them. When he moved his head, his entire torso would move with it. Pons Maar, the lead performance coordinator, taught Stewart-Wilson to be looser and to give little “pops” of movement. 
  • The Gump was a favorite of Walter Murch, a mis-match of items with the head of a green, moose-like creature. Dorothy builds the character out of couches and palm leaves, and uses him to escape Mombi’s castle.
    • Gump was fully mechanical, and cable operated *approximately 20 ft of cable. Those that operated it were just out of view behind scenery or just off camera.
    • Creature design supervisor Lyle Conway was also the voice of the Gump, while Steve Norrington operated his controls.
  • The Wheelers
    • Return to Oz has quite the group of villains. But, some of the most nightmarish scenes in the film include The Wheelers, a nasty gang of humanoids that have wheels for hands and feet. They also wear terrifying masks atop their heads!
    • The head Wheeler was actually played by the lead performance coordinator, Pons Maar! He was responsible for coordinating movement for The Cowardly Lion, The Tin Man, Jack Pumpkinhead, and sometimes, Tik-Tok! 
      • The Cowardly Lion had a fully mechanized head with a human being in the body.
    • The actors playing The Wheelers began movement training on and off the wheels, which then evolved into just being on the wheels most the day. 
    • The process was grueling, because the performers had to use muscles that they were not used to. Pons Maar said that there was nothing like being on the wheels! Operating these new rigs took 17 actors several weeks to perfect.
    • The Rear wheels were fixed to tennis shoes and leg reinforcements, while the front wheels were built with elbow supports, hand grips and brake mechanisms. 
  • The Nome King is the main villain of the film, who has turned all the inhabitants of Oz into stone and stolen the Emeralds from the Emerald CIty. 
    • Played by seasoned stage actor, Nicol Williamson, the only part of the actor that the audience could see, was his eyes. The rest of him was covered in make-up and prosthetics.
      • The process to make him the Nome King took 5 hours!
    • As the Nome King succeeds in turning Dorothy’s friends into ornaments, he slowly seems more and more human! That is, until the end when he angrily attempts to eat Dorothy and her friends.
    • The Nome King also has minions, other nomes that surround him constantly and spy on Dorothy as she makes her way through Oz. These creatures were stop-motion creations by non-other than Will Vinton! He was one of the people nominated for an Oscar when Return to Oz was recognized for its groundbreaking special and visual effects.


  • Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale
    • Early on in the movie process, Walter Murch knew it was important to find the perfect Dorothy. Murch took 10 months to search in 8 different cities, auditioning 1500 young girls. He eventually found Fairuza, a 9-year-old from Vancouver.
      • Fairuza was not only a great actress, but she was the same age as the Dorothy character in the books. They dressed her in drab farm clothes to drive home her plainness, this was an every-day girl, lost in an extraordinary land
      • Fairuza did her own stunts, really only being afraid of the scene where the Gump jumps off the balcony, because it was similar to a roller coaster.
    • She is also known for The Craft, American History X, The Waterboy, and Almost Famous!
    • Fun fact: Disney had to pay a large licensing fee in order to use the image of ruby slippers for Dorothy, since the red shoes were unique to the 1939 movie!
  • Piper Laurie as Aunt Em
    • Known for The Hustler, Carrie, and Twin Peaks from 1990-1991.
  • Justin Case as the Scarecrow
    • He has very few credits, but he was also in Superman 3 and Hamlet (1990). Through he is best known for Return to Oz.
  • Nicol Williamson as Dr. J.B. Worley and the Nome King
    • He was the leading role of a different version of Hamlet from 1969. He was also in six episodes of Masterpiece Theatre: Lord Mountbatten.
    • He described the Nome King as being an English Pantomime with an over the top performance.
  • Matt Clark as Uncle Henry
    • He can be found in a few westerns from the 1970’s such as Jeremiah Johnson and The Outlaw Josey Wales. But we know him as Chester the Bartender in Back to the Future 3 which is very fitting!
  • Jean Marsh as Nurse Wilson and the main head, of the multi-faced Princess Mombi
    • Like we said before, there were quite a lot of terrifying villains in Return to Oz, but one that continues to stay burned on our retinas is Princess Mombi and her glass cases filled with human heads.
      • Mombi stole the heads from the beautiful women of Oz, and switches them based on her mood, and sleeps headless.
      • There was apparently a deleted scene, where Princess Mombi chased Dorothy while headless, that was omitted from many versions! 
    • Other heads were portrayed by Sophie Ward and Fiona Victory. The latter being the one that says to Dorothy, “I believe I’ll lock you in the tower for a few years till your head is ready. Then I’ll take it!”
    • Jean plays a similarly evil role as Queen Bavmorda in 1988’s Willow, a less successful George Lucas film.


  • Since the original Oz books were published, there have been many theories about hidden meanings within the stories, and their connection to American politics of the late 19th century.
    • Cue all the history teachers talking about the gold and silver standard AKA the Yellow-Brick Road and Silver Slippers.
  • But, these theories have never been confirmed or proven, and they remain to be speculation. However, there is no denying that Return to Oz (and possibly the Oz books themselves) contained complex themes involving mental illness.
  • In the 1939 Wizard of Oz AND in Return to Oz, the films made a very distinct creative choice: They had actors play roles in both “Kansas” and “Oz.” 
    • This is interesting, because it hints at the idea that Dorothy has used the influences of her world to create the fantastic people and creatures in the land of Oz. BUT, Dorothy doesn’t think that Oz is a dream, at least not in the 1985 version of the story. 
      • Auntie Em sees Dorothy’s delusions as a problem, and she seeks out a popular solution for the time period. Watching the movie now, it can be really easy to criticize her for bringing a young child to a mental institution. But Auntie Em seems to think that Dorothy’s visions and beliefs are causing her to be depressed. 
      • Depression is serious, and Dorothy does seem to be incredibly lonesome without the friends she met (or thought up) from Oz.
  • One prominent theory about Return to Oz, is that Dorothy may suffer from multiple personality disorder, which would explain the reason that she often sees another girl in the mirror. In her mind, this young girl is Ozma, the queen of Oz, but some think she could be the alternate version of Dorothy created in her mind.
  • Some believe it’s possible that Dorothy created Oz to deal with the loss of her home in the tornado. When she undergoes therapy in Return to Oz, a storm comes and gives her a chance to escape. But, what if Dorothy created the delusion of Oz to distract her from her treatment, and she really did undergo the electric shock? 
    • And this begs the question, what really happened that night? Auntie Em says that the institution burned to the ground, but the head nurse is being carted away in a prison, similar to the one Mombi was stuck in. What really happened that night? 
  • When Dorothy wakes up, Auntie Em seems remorseful for putting her in a dangerous situation. But in the end, when Dorothy sees Ozma in the mirror, she doesn’t tell Auntie Em, she knows to keep her “delusions” to herself. Is this the case of a child stifling her active imagination? Or is Dorothy in need of help that she may never receive? Or, of course, the third option, is that Oz does exist! 
  • After Dorothy is found safe and returns home, there’s a noticeable change with her Aunt and Uncle–As Uncle Henry seems to find the motivation to finally fix the house, and Auntie Em seems warmer toward Dorothy.


  • Some similarities and differences between the books and movie
    • The Marvelous Land of Oz
      • Dorothy is not in this book, and it instead focuses on a boy named Tip who serves an old self-proclaimed witch named Mombi. This is where the movie gets the name for the villain but it is not the same character. 
      • Tip is the character that creates a scarecrow looking character with a pumpkin head to play a joke on Mombi. Mombi ends up bringing the creature to life and he becomes Jack Pumpkinhead. Tip becomes friends with this creature made of sticks and they escape with the magic powder that brought him to life.
      • The Emerald City is taken over by a woman army led by General Ginger and the characters must flee the city where they find the Tin Man in the Land of the Winkies. 
        • Each of the original characters like the Tin Man and Lion became leaders of the different sections of Oz. Tin Man is leader in the Land of the Winkies and with his help they are able to run off General Ginger and her army from the Emerald City. Soon after though they are planning another escape away for fear that General Ginger will return. This is where they create “The Thing with a Gump’s head.” The palm leaves used to create him were venerated and if taken is punishable by death 7 times and then put in prison. The Gump helps the group but is embarrassed to be a mixture of items. 
        • Other things happen but they return to the Emerald City to defeat General Ginger and capture Mombi who knows the secret of where Ozma (the true heir to the Emerald City Throne) is. It is revealed that Mombi had changed Ozma into the boy Tip. So she had in fact been there the whole time. Near  the end of the book The Gump implores Ozma to take him apart as a reward, and so she does.
    • Ozma of Oz
      • The movie plot was mostly taken from this book where Dorothy has returned. Just as in the movie, the characters of the Nome King, The Wheelers, and Tik-Tok are introduced.
      • The second half of the movie character of Mombi comes from this book’s character Princess Langwidere. Her physical attributes are similar because she is also able to switch heads.. The difference however, is that Princess Langwidere’s personality changes with each head, meaning that with certain heads she can be good. The book is more preoccupied with the true villain of the Nome King who does not transform into rock like in the movie. 
      • The rest of the book is basically what the movie was but with a few other big differences. One is that Tik-Tok is given a bigger origin story. The next is that the story takes place in The Land of Ev which is next to Oz. And there is a tiger character that is always hungry, specifically for a baby but he knows that it is terrible. The final big difference was that the ending dragged out longer in the book because they must establish the new royalty and piece Oz back together.


  • Upon release, Return to Oz was not a critical darling. Many praised the movie for its faithful adaptation to the books, while others wondered about the seriousness of the material and whether it was suitable for children. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin said in her review “Children are sure to be startled by the film’s bleakness,” and others would say Dorothy’s friends are as strange as her enemies. This is faithful to the original Oz books, but it didn’t seem to translate to screen the way Murch intended 
    • The film debuted, earning almost $3 million opening weekend, finishing in seventh place. It grossed just over $11 million in North America, but today is considered to be a cult classic
    • Return to Oz received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects, but lost to Cocoon. It additionally received two Saturn Award nominations for Best Fantasy Film.
    • However, it was quite popular in Japan! 
    • When it was released, Return to Oz made it into the Guiness Book of Records for the longest time between a sequel and its prequel, as it was released 46 years after The Wizard of Oz!

Return to Oz is one of those films you can often find on internet lists about movies that scarred us all for life. It was filled with menacing villains and grotesque imagery, with sometimes-creepy characters. Return to Oz was a special effects marvel, combining talent with ingenuity to create a completely believable complex world, that until 1985, only truly existed between the pages of L Frank Baum’s books. 

This movie shouldn’t be solely defined by its scary characteristics alone. It featured a lead character believed to be suffering from mental illness, a child no less, something that many children’s films would shudder to mention. Sure, Dorothy’s friends seem as strange as the villains, but that just teaches us not to judge people on looks alone. Dorothy loves her friends, no matter how odd they may seem. 

Return to Oz is dark and twisted, but uniquely enchanting. It spoke to a lot of children in a way that no other film had before, with complex themes and dark imagery–with a lovable group of misfits too odd for more mainstream audiences. Return to Oz is strange, but in the most wonderful way.