A look back at the "Star Wars Holiday Special" twenty years later

by hiphats@aol.com

Yes, it is that time of year again when our television screens are saturated with Rudolf, Frosty, the Drummer Boy, Santa Claus, "Christmas In Washington", "The Kennedy Center Honors", the parades, the bowl games, Dick Clark...but then again, there have been many great holiday specials that stand out as television classics. Sometimes some of the greatest holiday specials are shown once, and never shown again. These rare specials are now the most sought after shows in the bootleg market. I personally can think of two such shows...the Bob Hope Christmas Specials, and then there's that little known show that aired 20 years ago this month on CBS..."The Star Wars Holiday Special".

Broadcast the day after Thanksgiving in 1978, the "SWHS" aired just at the peak of the original Star Wars craze that started a year before. Reuniting most of the original film cast, SWHS was the first time outside of the movie viewers got to see worlds beyond that of Tatooine, Yavin, and the Death Star. The plot, such as it was, concerned the Wookie Chewbacca's efforts to reach his home planet of Kaszyyk in time for "Life Day", the intergalactic equivelent of our own Christmas Day. We got to meet new characters, such as Chewbacca's family (Itchy, Lumpy, etc.), as well as the first ever appearance of that loathesome bounty hunter, Boba Fett (by way of an 8-minute animated segment produced by Nelvana). If one were to watch the special closely, you would have seen outtakes from the original film to beef up the plot (for instance, Darth Vader appears via a redubbed scene aboard the Death Star cut from the first movie).

Most of the film's cast appeared in brief appearances (Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, etc.), but SWHS was propelled by guest performances by Harvey Korman (who played no more than three roles!), Art Carney (as Saun Dann, a local trader), Beatrice Arthur (as a Mos Eisley bar keeper), the lovely Diahann Carroll (as Itchy's "Dream Lady"), and the Jefferson Starship (without Grace Slick). Producers Smith/Hemion gave the SWHS the look and feel of a musical variety special, with the obvious musical numbers (the Starship performed "Light The Sky On Fire (Vanished Without A Trace)", Miss Carroll did "This Minute Now", and Bea Arthur did a corny number set to the "Cantina Band" music from the original film). Even Carrie Fisher actually sang the finale number set to the "Star Wars" theme.

While the special effects were lifted from stock footage from the original film, the sets and matte paintings were elaborate, considering the budget alloted for a television special.

When I first viewed the special 20 years ago, I thought it was well produced and executed, knowing that this special was really done for the already millions of "Star Wars" fans. In fact, I made an audio cassette of this (since VCRs as we know it didn't exist at the time) upon its debut. For many years, I'd listen to it at every opportunity. When VCRs did make its first wave, I hoped upon hope that the SWHS would be repeated. But, alas, in the years that have passed I figured out for myself this was just "another one of those specials that air only once and that's it".

Looking at the SWHS 20 years later, I think it's because of the special being aired only once that it has become the holiday television special that it is...a rare classic that stands on its own as one of television's finest holiday moments. I personally would place this on my Top Ten Christmas Specials list, along with "A Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert" (the Frederica Von Stade/PBS special), some (if not all) of the Bob Hope Christmas Specials, and of course, Rudolf.

The spirit of the SWHS is kept alive by those video collectors, bootleggers, sci-fi convention sellers, and the like...those people who want to get their hands on this rare piece of television. It has been said that George Lucas (the creator of "Star Wars", and who was busy making "The Empire Strikes Back" at the time of SWHS' original airing) hates it, wishes it had never been made, and would like to see every print of the SWHS destroyed.

But I don't think Lucas will see his wish granted anytime soon...not so long as there are "Star Wars" fans who fully appreciate every aspect of the saga.

Twenty years later, the "Star Wars Holiday Special" remains the kind of rare television classic that may just well represent excellence in Christmas programming. Let's hope SWHS resurfaces someday soon.

hiphats@aol.com is the webmaster of several sites devoted to films and television, among them "SUPERMAN 60/20 Celebration" (http://members.aol.com/hiphats/superman.html), "DUNE: The Arrakis File" (http://members.aol.com/hiphats/arrakis.html), and "The Little House On The Prairie Encyclopedia" (http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Theater/3359/index.html).