“Punky Brewster: Christmas Shoplifting” (1985)

Perhaps predicting that a lot of people born in the 70s would grow up to have complicated relationships with their families, there was a puzzling trend in 80s TV shows and movies in which children were, through largely implausible circumstances, raised by individuals other than their birth parents. In most cases, the surrogate parent had virtually no experience raising children, but together, with love and patience, they learn what it means to be a family, often with the adult learning just as much, if not more, from the child.

No “I hate my real parents and wish I could live with someone else” fantasy fulfillment show tugged the heartstrings with more brutal efficiency than Punky Brewster. The titular character, an adorable hobo clown abandoned by her mother at a shopping mall, squats in an apartment building managed by Henry Warnimont, a grouchy old man who, as illustrated in the opening credits, literally steps over homeless people laying in the street. He takes Punky in, and quickly warms to this human Raggedy Ann doll, who seems to voice no other wants or needs than to be loved, and exhibits an angelic selflessness not usually found in eight year-olds.

I watched Punky Brewster. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about a single episode (luckily, someone wrote an exhaustively detailed episode guide on Wikipedia), but I remember watching it, every Sunday evening, usually at my grandparents’ house. While this isn’t quite a Berenstain/Berenstein situation, I do recall being younger than I actually was when this show premiered. It was very much geared towards the ten and under set, when kids are still guileless enough to believe that there’s no problem that can’t be solved by either opening a lemonade stand or having a heart to heart conversation. I wasn’t under ten, though. I was twelve, and I didn’t stop watching it until it moved into syndication, when I was nearly in high school. I have no reasonable explanation for it, except perhaps because my parents’ marriage was imploding, and I was drawn to warm, gooey sitcoms where families always hashed out their differences in twenty-five minutes or less, and were always better and stronger for it. I probably knew then than the average family sitcom was in no way a reflection of reality, but a little fantasy never hurt anyone.

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Season two’s “Christmas Shoplifting” opens with Punky (Soleil-Moon Frye) writing out her Christmas gift list, which appears to be several pages long. However, the saintly street urchin explains to Henry (George Gaynes) that it’s not a list of things that she wants, but a list of people for whom she wants to purchase gifts, including the garbage man and the bagger at the local grocery store, all of whom are her “friends.” Henry talks her down to buying gifts for just a few people, giving her the princely sum of $5 for each gift. While shopping at the local mall, Punky runs out of money before she gets a chance to buy Henry’s gift. She spots Henry admiring a cashmere scarf, and overhears him saying that he can’t afford to buy the scarf for himself, as he’s planning on buying a “special present” for Punky.

With crack timing, Punky’s weaselly classmate, Richmond (played by Peter Billingsley, who two years earlier nearly shot his eye out in A Christmas Story), appears, and explains that he can afford to buy expensive gifts for his family thanks to the ol’ five finger discount. His shoplifting technique is hilariously clumsy–it seems to consist mostly of exclaiming out loud  how much he wishes he could buy an item, then dropping that item into a shopping bag in full view of everyone around him–but it seems to be working so far.

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The virtuous Punky proves surprisingly easy to talk into stealing, though her frantic flailing as she tries to shove the scarf Henry wants into a bag is proof that she’s not a born criminal. Nevertheless, she almost manages to get away with it, until she runs into her favorite teacher, Mike, because apparently everybody Punky knows goes Christmas shopping on the exact same day, at the exact same time, and at the exact same shopping center (in Chicago!) as her. Though Punky carries on like Billy Hayes at the airport in Midnight Express, Mike (played by T.K. Carter) doesn’t seem to notice that anything is amiss. In her haste to flee the scene of the crime, however, Punky accidentally switches bags with Mike, leaving him with the stolen scarf. Mike is soon caught, and hauled away by the police.

Sadly lacking family or friends, Mike calls Henry to bail him out of jail. Luckily, it’s the kind of laidback jail that lets little girls enter the holding cell area by themselves. Punky, all big puppy dog eyes, biting her bottom lip and emoting like a character in a Charlie Chaplin movie, explains to Mike what happened. Mike, still imprisoned, mind you (and with Al Molinaro wearing a Santa suit as a cellmate), takes the time to patiently explain to Punky why shoplifting is bad. He’s only momentarily put out–after all, what teacher doesn’t find himself wrongfully arrested for a crime one of his students committed? He encourages Henry to go easy on Punky, which he does, grounding her for just a month and banning her from television for two weeks. That’s a pretty softball punishment for stealing–I once shoplifted some magazines from a 7-11, and my mother still brought it up more than a decade later.

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Everything you need to know about Punky Brewster can be summed up in the fact that, in lieu of a punchline, often the camera cuts to a reaction shot from Punky’s dog, Brandon. Like in my review of the “Bicycle Man” episode of Diff’rent Strokes, it’s a bit unfair to review with jaded adult eyes a TV show that was clearly meant for young children. But man, watching this is like being beaten over the head with a sack full of teddy bears. I applaud any parent who slogged through it week after week because their kids wanted to watch it, and hope that they’re rewarded with flowers and fully loaded Applebee’s gift cards every Mother and Father’s Day.

Punky and her pals come off as sort of modern day Little Rascals, scampering around largely unattended in what’s supposed to be inner city Chicago, and all the villains have Dickensian character names, like “Simon Chillings”  and “Garth Goobler.” Both common tropes in children’s media, combined with Punky’s Godspell wardrobe they add a welcome bit of quirk to what’s really just a flipside of Diff’rent Strokes. This too mostly involves an impossibly cute child actor hamboning her way through one “important message” after another, all of which impact her life just enough to, in true sitcom fashion, never be mentioned again. In addition to shoplifting, Punky learned about adoption, the importance of booster shots, teen runaways, bullying, cheating, the mentally handicapped, missing children, serial killers (!!!!), feminism, the Challenger disaster, obesity, divorce, elder rights, CPR, painkiller addiction, illiteracy, child abuse, and, of course, the boogeyman that lurked around all 80s kids, drugs. If only she had learned about what to do when an adult slips into a diabetic coma.

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“The Osmond Family Christmas Special” (1977 & 1980)

I have a confession to make: after watching and reviewing an episode of Donny and Marie, I think I’ve developed a grudging affection for the Osmonds. I watched a few more clips from different episodes (not too many, there’s only so much saccharine my old bones can take), and I realized that their brand of vintage corniness might have been a bit more genuine than I originally thought. Presented as a balm to the soul to viewers who were  overwhelmed by the seemingly sudden uptick in sex and violence on primetime television, it’s not surprising that it was among the last successful variety shows before the genre disappeared entirely. Hating Donny and Marie would be like hating a kid’s backyard magic show–it’s just too earnest to deserve that sort of hostility.

Also, I owe Donny Osmond an apology. In my review, I implied that Donny describing himself as “a little bit rock and roll” was a dubious claim at best. A friend later pointed out to me that it was actually true, if you take into account some of the earlier music Donny performed with his brothers, particularly 1972’s “Crazy Horses” a song that was most definitely a little bit rock and roll, and remarkable mostly because it’s not at all what you’d expect an Osmonds song to sound like. Seriously, check it out, particularly that thunderous guitar. It ain’t “War Pigs,” but it ain’t bad either. If you don’t believe me, read this article, which further explores the Osmonds’ brief foray into hard rock, and even prog rock, with their next album, the Mormon concept album The Plan.

Though “Crazy Horses” was a hit, The Plan most definitely was not, and eventually the Osmonds not only settled back into the bland, family friendly pop that made them famous, but also retreated out of the spotlight so it could be turned on the three youngest members of the family, Donny, Marie, and barely formed fetus Jimmy. If the Osmond brothers had any hard feelings towards their siblings, they’re not present in 1977’s Christmas episode of Donny and Marie, which features the entire Osmond Family, and I do mean the entire family. It’s a veritable infestation of Osmonds, with spouses, seemingly dozens of children, and even Mother and Father Osmond present for the festivities.

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While retaining some of the usual aspects of Donny and Marie (the good natured sibling banter, a performance of “A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock ‘n’ Roll”), the Christmas episode focuses more on the family dynamic, as the audience is treated to a “typical” holiday celebration, in what appears to be an enormous ski lodge. It is, of course, the perfect Christmas that virtually no one watching at home would ever experience, with ice skating, snowmobile excursions, horse drawn sleigh rides into the snow covered Utah countryside to chop down their own tree, and the whole family gathered together to make popcorn strings before a roaring fire. Plus, there’s singing. Lots and lots of singing.

Recurring guest star Paul Lynde shows up at one point (as if Mormons would welcome a flamboyantly gay man into their home, even at Christmas) and recites a poem. It’s a weird moment that doesn’t really work with the rest of the show, not just because his poem isn’t about Christmas (it’s about himself growing up), but because Lynde is literally the only person in the episode, other than a handful of backup dancers and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, who isn’t an Osmond. Lynde appears later in a sketch playing a doctor who treats a sick reindeer, with the typical Paul Lynde edge of meanness, and again, it’s a weird, discomfiting fit for a show in which, just two minutes earlier, Donny entertains small children with a hand puppet.

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Given the puppet show, the homey quilts used as a stage curtain, and the cutaways to various Osmond kids playing, oblivious to the cameras, the episode was clearly designed to look like a home movie, and, like watching actual home movies, it’s cute but eventually starts to feel like a chore, especially once you get to the interminable musical number that focuses on all the different instruments each family member can play (Wayne plays the clarinet, Jimmy plays the trumpet, Merrill plays the banjo, it goes on and on). Still, like everything associated with the Osmonds, it has an inexplicable charm.

The “you’re invited to spend an old fashioned country Christmas with the Osmonds” feeling of the 1977 special was dropped for the penultimate special in 1980. Keenly aware that the success of all the Osmonds was now on the wane, this special is unquestionably for the audience, filmed at the studio named for Osmond patriarch George, and incorporating more sets, more costumes, more singing, more dancing, more guest stars, more everything. All but two of the brothers, including Donny, were married by then (youngest Jimmy was just 17, while 25 year-old Jay, surely to the great shame of his family, didn’t marry until 1987), meaning there are more Osmonds than ever. There are so many children present at this point that most of them are just wandering around in the background, seemingly unaware that there’s a television show happening.

Curiously absent, however, are the Osmond wives, who don’t appear until the last five minutes, and the Osmond parents, who briefly show up during the first fifteen minutes (along with the Osmonds’ ancient grandmother). Also MIA: Paul Lynde, who, after being arrested outside of a Salt Lake City gay bar in 1978, lost his recurring guest spot on Donny and Marie. Instead, we get guest appearances by a visibly uncomfortable Peggy Fleming, magician Doug Henning, and Greg Evigan of B.J. and the Bear, who shows up for the festivities with exposed chest hair and wearing a gold chain, and sings an original composition that has nothing to do with Christmas.

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After that, he duets with Marie on “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” stroking her hair and eyeing her like a starving man looking in the window of a Golden Corral (he even licks his lips at one point). Their body language implies that they’re dating, which is curious considering that, as per Wikipedia, Evigan was married by this point. Much like when she was paired up with the married (and old enough to be her father) Kris Kristofferson in this episode, the show, hopefully unintentionally, seems to suggest that older men are irresistibly drawn to the sweet, virtuous, undoubtedly oblivious to her own beauty Marie.

Doug Henning appears to do some party level magic tricks for the Osmond children, whose reactions range from mildly interested to yawning on camera. During a medley of holiday songs, Marie, wearing what looks like a blanket taken from someone’s couch, solos on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” While singing, she comes out into the audience to lightly flirt with some of the men, as illustrated here, in my favorite screen shot since starting this blog:

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Donny and his brothers cover Electric Light Orchestra’s “All Over the World,” a hit single from the soundtrack to Xanadu, and the closest the show gets to being cool (because, yes, for one brief, shining moment things associated with Xanadu were considered cool). Bringing the mood down a notch, Peggy Fleming performs an interpretive dance on ice skates, and her banter with Donny afterward is so stiff it elicits the same kind of discomfort as watching two people on a bad blind date. Thankfully that mood is quickly lifted thanks to an elaborate musical number set in a department store, with the original Osmond brothers dressed as dancing Santa Clauses. It’s pretty entertaining, until you realize that it goes on for more than five minutes, and you miss Donny poorly doing ventriloquism for a bunch of little kids in the 1977 special.

And speaking of elaborate, overly long musical numbers, the Osmond wives finally join their husbands and their combined 157 children for the last sequence, which Marie explains is a recreation of Christmas in Victorian England. There are no syphilitic whores, child laborers, or human waste running in the streets to be seen, but they all have really great costumes–Marie wears a hat that’s so big you expect there to be more Osmond children hidden inside it. Through some miracle (a Christmas miracle, perhaps?), the show doesn’t end with one of the many offspring saying “And God bless us, everyone.”

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So, there’s your two sides of an Osmond Family Christmas–cozy and relatively low-key (well, as low-key as anything featuring Paul Lynde could possibly be), and flashy spectacle. It’s difficult to say which I prefer, as both have their charms and their drawbacks. Despite the drawbacks, though, it’s all done with complete sincerity. There’s something undeniably sweet about Jimmy Osmond’s reedy adolescent pipes accompanying the majestic tones of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on “The Christmas Song,” or Mama Osmond rocking out on the saxophone with her sons. Never again would a variety show exist without that sly “We know this is as lame as you do” wink at the audience. Forays into funk and concept albums aside, the Osmonds embraced their corniness, and presented it as a warm little Christmas gift to television audiences. I sort of miss them.

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Not as much as this guy, but still.

An Artistic Consideration of Benny Mardones’ “Into the Night”

When you get to a certain age (say, 30), it becomes time to make a difficult decision: you can either continue to embrace the new and trendy in pop culture, or you can firmly dig your feet in and grumpily insist that what “the kids today,” some of whom might be a whole decade or so younger, are into isn’t nearly as good as what you enjoyed in your youth.

Once we were rendered a casualty in the war for relevance between the Baby Boomers and Millennials, members of Generation X became especially skilled in kidding ourselves into believing that our pre-smartphones and Wikipedia childhoods were somehow better, more pure than today. This is true. It was an innocent time where kids could ride their bicycles without helmets, and only occasionally die of massive head injuries after an accident (social Darwinism, amirite?), when gay teens would suffer in silence until they got old enough to run away from their shitty small towns, never to be heard from again, and when men could be abusive drunks to their families, and as long as he was supporting them financially it was no one else’s business.

It was also a time when men could still extol the romantic and sexual virtues of teenage girls without anyone looking at them askance.

While the peak era for singing about the ups and downs of chasing underage tail was the 50s and 60s (such as when Gary Puckett menacingly warned the object of his desire “you better run, girl”), there were still some humdingers celebrating ephebophilia in later years, like KISS’s “Christine Sixteen” (with a spoken word interlude by Gene “Mr. Class” Simmons in which he says “When I saw you coming out of the school that day, I knew I’ve gotta have ya”), and, of course, everybody’s favorite ode to teen groupie bangin’, “My Sharona.” By the 80s, thankfully, it became less socially acceptable to openly admit such desires

Now, that doesn’t mean that pop culture no longer pushes the idea that once a woman reaches 25 her best, most desirable years are behind her, it’s just somewhat less overt about it. It’s still a trope that Woody Allen, now 81 years old, returns to every now and then. Everyone still knows that one guy on the internet who rattles off a bunch of supposed “science” about how men are biologically predisposed to be attracted to younger women and their ripe, luscious jugs, while women over 30 might as well be cast off into the woods to be eaten by bears.

Nevertheless, nowadays such men are usually portrayed as gross and a little sad. The last time a mainstream song presented one as a lovelorn romantic hero was Benny Mardones’s “Into the Night,” a radio hit in 1980 that was re-recorded, released again in 1989, and somehow, implausibly, almost as successful the second time around. If you don’t remember if you’ve ever heard it, the infamous opening line should remind you: “She’s just sixteen years old, leave her alone, they say…” Mardones himself was 33 at the time of the song’s release.

Supposedly, Mardones was inspired to write the song after chiding a friend for remarking upon a young girl’s attractiveness. That may be true, but the lyrics seem to lean heavily in favor of it. Skin crawling opening line aside, it’s pretty standard “forbidden romance” fare, with the usual blathering about having the kind of love that the rest of the world just doesn’t understand, and that’s why it must be torn asunder. It’s the rarely seen video that really makes it something special.

It opens with Mardones, sporting Journey tribute band hair, being greeted at a door by a man who looks like a cross between an Amish farmer and Al from Home Improvement. Surprisingly calm given the situation, the man mouths the line everyone knows this song for and waves Mardones off. Mardones turns to the camera and rolls his eyes, as if saying to the viewer “Can you believe this guy, not wanting me to fuck his teenage daughter? Christ, what an asshole!”  It’s such a puzzling creative decision for a song that’s supposed to put you on the side of the singer that I had to commemorate it in gif form:

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Unswayed, our hero ignores Farmer Dad, and goes around the side of the house to sing into the bedroom window of his high school age girlfriend, who sits impassively staring at the floor, not acknowledging his promise to show her a love like she’s never seen, ever seen.

Mardones tries to profess his feelings via telephone instead, to which his girlfriend responds with an expression that suggests she’s on hold waiting to speak with her bank. It’s a tough call which is weirder in this scene, the stone faced actress (Mardones emotes enough for both of them, but still), or the fact that no one noticed this glaring “continuity error,” if you will.

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Now, unless this is a mirrored image, that’s Mardones’s left hand. And, unless I’m counting wrong, that’s his ring finger, sporting some rather large jewelry. It’s noticeable the second he puts his hand up, and it leaves one wondering: is this supposed to add a level of mystery to the “plot” of a three and a half minute long video, or is it simply a massive blunder that someone might have caught in post-production and just thought “Eh, this is fine, no one will think anything of it”? Between that, and the eye rolling, it quickly becomes difficult to pity this poor man who can’t be free to engage in a passionate relationship with a girl very nearly young enough to be his daughter. And then the carpet comes out…

One thing I really love about 80s music videos is how many of them seemed to be literal interpretations of the lyrics. The video for “Whip It” featured Mark Mothersbaugh attacking things with a bullwhip, even though that’s not really what the song is about. Accept’s “Balls to the Wall” ends with the lead singer riding a wrecking ball into a wall. The chorus of “Into the Night” is “If I could fly, I’d pick you up, I’d take you into the night…”, so why not have a scene in the video where Mardones returns to his girlfriend’s house now bearing a magic carpet, which he uses to take her on a journey over grainy footage of the East River, complete with the Statue of Liberty in the background?

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Despite this wildly romantic gesture on a par with Aladdin wooing Princess Jasmine, Mardones’ girlfriend continues to stare blankly into the middle distance. Possibly deaf, mute, and blind, she never speaks, changes the expression on her face, or even looks at Mardones until the very end when they lay down on the carpet and start making out (ewwwwwwww!), presumably before crashing into Liberty Island, because who’s driving that thing anyway? The video fades out over Mardones’s amorous wails.

And that’s “Into the Night,” a song that without the squirmy intro and baffling video, would probably be just another adult contemporary love song lost to the sands of time. Instead, it’s lodged in the subconscious of 80s kids forever, as hard to shake off as a creepy dude sniffing around women who are much too young for him.

“Rubik, the Amazing Cube: Rubik’s First Christmas” (1983)

Following up on last week’s review of Deck the Halls With Wacky Walls, let’s talk about another cartoon based on a worthless piece of plastic: 1983’s Rubik, the Amazing Cube. Rubik’s Cube, a three dimensional puzzle with a deceptively easy concept that few people could manage, was one of the biggest toys of the 80s, with a multi-generational appeal that still exists today. Like Wacky Wall Walkers, most Rubik’s Cubes ended up either at the bottom of a toy box or collecting dust on a shelf after a few frustrating weeks of trying to get it to work.

Unlike Wacky Wall Walkers, however, a whole cartoon series managed to be mined from Rubik’s Cube. Granted, it barely lasted a season, but let’s give dubious credit where dubious credit is due. The hero of the show is a magic cube named Rubik, who, when his (its?) colors are matched up, becomes sentient, growing a head and legs. You’d think that would be terrifying to his child owner, but it’s okay, because Rubik is a benevolent creature, existing only to do good deeds for humanity, usually while chortling with delight at his own antics.

The two most interesting things that can be said about Rubik, the Amazing Cube, is that Rubik’s childlike voice was provided by Ron “Horshack” Palillo, and it was the first Saturday morning cartoon to prominently feature Latino characters. Those would be Rubik’s owner, Reynaldo, and his siblings, Carlos and Lisa, and their being Latino had virtually no impact on the plot of the show, save for some well-intentioned but incredibly clumsy “cultural references” by the all-Caucasian writing team. On the other hand, it also resulted in this amazing line from the Wikipedia page for the show: “In keeping with the Hispanic flavor of the show, the theme song was done by Puerto Rican boy band Menudo.”

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The Christmas episode, “Rubik’s First Christmas,” lays on the “Hispanic flavor” thicker than guacamole, when it opens with the kids singing “Feliz Navidad” as they’re on their way to Mexico to visit their abuelita, who lives in a house that looks like a strip mall Chi Chi’s, and where neighborhood children play with a piñata in the back yard. Abuelita seems to be in charge of Christmas for her entire town, but her plans are put into jeopardy when thieves steal a truck piled high with toys.

She and the kids, with Rubik in tow, hop on some conveniently placed burros (!!!!) and go after them. For some undoubtedly arbitrary reason, the kids can’t tell Abuelita about Rubik (though Reynaldo leaves him, face and all, hanging out of his pants pocket for everyone to see) until the very last minute, to which she conveniently responds that she knew about him all along. Rubik uses his magic to capture the thieves, who took the truck so they could fill it with treasure found in some nearby ruins (or, in their broad, Speedy Gonzales-like accents, “thee ru-eens“). When Rubik traps them by making their feet grow to enormous proportions, one of them exclaims “Eets thee curse of thee pyrameeds!”

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Naturally, the truck and the toys are saved just in time for the holiday. Rubik turns the truck into a sleigh, and, at the kids’ command, makes snow fall from the sky. That’s right, in a fit of white savior pique (the white saviors being the writers of the show) on a par with Band Aid, Rubik destroys the desert climate so that Mexican children can experience what a “real Christmas” is like. He then momentarily grows a Santa beard and winks at the camera. Feliz navidad, everyone!

Well, at least the episode isn’t dedicated to Rubik learning the meaning of Christmas, which in this case, given how loaded up both Abuelita’s truck and the kids’ parents’ car is, seems to be “presents, lots of presents.” It follows the pattern of every other episode, in that the kids get into a jam, and Rubik gets them out of it with his magical powers, with someone saying “ay caramba,” in keeping with the Hispanic flavor of the show.

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There are three stages a person goes through when they watch a show like Rubik, the Amazing Cube, or anything else in which clueless honkies try to appeal to different races–frowning, wincing, and cringing. The Christmas episode in particular seems to consist mostly of a bunch of stereotypical touchstones of Mexican culture–piñatas, burros, banditos looking to pilfer Aztec treasure–that are familiar and comfortable for white viewers. It’s surprising that there isn’t a scene of Rubik wearing a sombrero and tearing into a nice big burrito (with a hard inflection on “rito” so you know it’s authentic).

On a technical level, it’s typical sub-par Saturday morning fare. Save for their hairstyles and heights, Reynaldo and his siblings are interchangeable, and the desert landscape (because there are no cities in Mexico, you see) makes it convenient to keep recycling the same backgrounds over and over. Rubik himself looks like the end result of someone putting a Rubik’s Cube, a Smurf, and a Troll doll into a telepod, not quite as horrifying as a Brundlefly, but still oddly unsettling. If I possessed drawing abilities, I’d bring back Rubik as a graphic novel character, doing battle with his malevolent relative, the puzzle box from Hellraiser. Where’s my $700,000?

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25 Teen Idols From 1972 Say “I Love You”

I’ve amassed a small collection of teenage fan/fashion magazines from the 60s through the very early 80s (I’d love to have some from “my” era of 1984 through 1988, but for whatever reason they’re hard to find and/or absurdly overpriced). As pop culture time capsules they just can’t be beat, and reading them from an adult perspective provides both an amusing and slightly unsettling experience.

The gimmick of “celebrity lifestyle” magazines is focusing on how accessible most celebrities are, how much they’re just normal people, even though they make more money per month than most people will see in a lifetime, often just for doing little more than standing around and looking attractive. This is how you end up with people like Gwyneth Paltrow “writing” cookbooks, when in reality the closest she probably gets to entering her kitchen is when she’s directing the maid which way to leave the house.

Even the kid celebrities are portrayed as just regular folks, who still have to do their homework and listen to their parents, whose salaries they often pay. One of the magazines in my collection, an issue of Tiger Beat from 1979, features a two page photo spread of Scott Baio and his family moving into a new house, with a picture of Baio holding a cardboard box captioned “Moving into a new house is a really big job and he had to lift some very heavy boxes!” What the article doesn’t mention is that the house was likely paid for by the money a then-barely out of high school Baio earned from being a child actor. Stars: they’re just like us!

Teen magazines also encouraged their young, predominantly female readers to believe that, after getting tired of dating beautiful but vapid Hollywood girls, what their favorite stars really want is a regular girl who they can just kick back and be themselves with, maybe someone like…you? Perhaps Shaun Cassidy’s soulmate would be found in an eighth grade homeroom somewhere in a suburb of Omaha, and it was only a matter of time before they’d be together. That resulted in articles with headlines like “Leif: What it Takes to Be His Girlfriend–Or His Wife!”, ignoring the fact that Leif Garrett was 17 at the time, and had no business even pondering what he wanted in a wife (in case you were wondering, the article recommended that the future Mrs. Garrett should enjoy celebrating holidays and receiving flowers).

An October 1972 issue of Tiger Beat ran an article purportedly to be a list of 25 young male stars, and the ways they’d tell that special girl how they feel. Quotes are used, as if to suggest that they’re direct from the source, but the corny, stilted tone of all of them reads more like some hapless intern got stuck having to come up with things a teenage girl might want to hear a boy say, rather than what he would actually say. Also, the fact that some of the stars listed aren’t exactly boys puts a vaguely creepy edge on the whole thing. Nevertheless, don thine heart eyes, and read forth…

  • Wayne Osmond (age 21, member of the Osmond Family): “A little something picked out especially for you. And a great big kiss to go with it!”
  • Alan Osmond (age 23, member of the Osmond Family): “A gentle squeeze upon your fragile hand, as we walk together under the moonlight!”
  • Randolph Mantooth (age 27, star of TV’s Emergency!): “Sweet nothings. The kind I’d whisper softly in your cute little ear!”
  • Jackie Jackson (age 21, member of the Jackson Family): “A song I’d sing only to you! One that describes my love for you. I could be singing forever!”

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  • Marlon Jackson (age 15, member of the Jackson Family): “A phone call, bright and early to tell you good morning and wish you a happy day!”
  • Jermaine Jackson (age 17, member of the Jackson Family): “A bouquet of flowers. Those I picked myself in an open meadow with you on my mind!”
  • Michael Gray (age 21, star of TV’s Shazam!, also recently played himself in two episodes of Archer): “Lots of love notes, cards and things, so every day you’ll be sure to know how much I love you!”
  • Butch Patrick (age 19, Eddie Munster himself): “Just one look at you! Being near you is the best place to be. It’s wonderful!”

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  • Donny Osmond (age 14, the only Osmond that matters): “A card I made just for you, that tells you what’s inside my heart!”
  • David Cassidy (age 22, David fucking Cassidy): “Lots of gentle kisses on your sweet and tender lips, morning, noon and night!” (NOTE: this was some six months after Rolling Stone ran this infamous cover story on Cassidy, in which he expresses his strong distaste for being a teen idol, and cops to banging groupies on a regular basis)
  • Mitch Vogel (age 16, co-star of TV’s Bonanza): “A gentle touch upon your cheeks and tender kiss upon your lips!”
  • Benny DeFranco (age 19, member of the DeFranco Family, the white, Italian, less successful answer to the Jacksons and the Osmonds): “Red roses, because they’re the color of your sweet lips, and lemon drops, because they remind me of sunshine and so do you!”

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  • Merrill Osmond (age 19, member of the Osmond Family): “Flowers by the dozen–especially roses. Or, just one rose. Did you know that means love?”
  • Danny Bonaduce (age 13, future reality show scumbag): “A message I’ve written in the sand that says it clearly–I love you!”
  • Bobby Sherman (age 29(!!!!), actor and singer): “Intimate moments. All the beautiful ones we’d share together!”
  • Sam Hyman (age unknown, evidently famous just for being David Cassidy’s best friend): “A basket of bread, cheese and wine, for a Sunday picnic in the park!”
  • Mark Hamill (age 21, at this point he was known mostly for guest appearances on The Partridge Family and Night Gallery): “A romantic dinner by candlelight, a walk along the beach and a sweet, soft goodnight kiss at your door!”
  • Michael Jackson (age 14, Michael Jackson): “Laughter! The beautiful kind we share when we’re together just being happy!”
  • Nino DeFranco (age 17, member of the DeFranco Family): “Incense, peppermints, flowers and candy! All the sweet things that remind me of you!”
  • Jay Osmond (age 17, member of the Osmond Family): “Hugs and kisses as we’te cuddling together in front of a roaring fire!”

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  • Ben Murphy (age 30(!!!!), star of TV’s Alias Smith and Jones): “An evening shared over a romantic dinner with soft music, and later, an embrace in my arms that you’ll never forget!”
  • Tony DeFranco (age 13, member of the DeFranco Family): “A poem I’ve written especially for you, to keep in your heart forever!”
  • Wayne Osmond (age 19, member of the Osmond Family: “A little something I picked out especially for you. And a great big kiss to go with it!”
  • Christopher Knight (age 15, Peter Brady): “A happy smile! Cause you’d be there smiling back at me.”
  • Barry Williams (age 18, Greg Brady): “Tender words. The kind that say how much I love you. What do you think of that?”

Gosh, Barry, I think that sounds positively dreamy!

Now, for the most part, imagining 13 year-old Tony DeFranco awkwardly presenting a girl with a poem he’s written especially for her (to keep in her heart forever), is kind of cute. 29 year-old Bobby Sherman talking about “intimate moments” in a magazine meant for girls half his age? Significantly less cute. But if the whole idea is that this is harmless fantasy, then I suppose “intimate moments” could involve drinking hot cocoa and watching a sunset together. As long as he’s with his special girl, and that special girl is you, Dawn Wiener lookalike from Altoona, Pennsylvania, that’s all that matters. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see if it’s not too late to be Leif Garrett’s girlfriend.

“Deck the Halls With Wacky Walls” (1983)

Earlier this summer, with a marketing budget more than three times the cost that went into actually making it, The Angry Birds Movie, a kids’ movie based on a phone app (that arguably peaked in popularity five years ago), was released. A modest hit, it generated the usual fretting that cynical cash grabs made for children usually do–why can’t there be more original stories for family movies? Why must modern children’s entertainment always be about product tie-ins?

Counterpoint: in 1983, NBC aired a holiday cartoon based on a cereal box toy.

Reiterating that there is no rhyme or reason, no discernible trigger point to how something becomes a “fad,” among the most popular toys in the early 80s were Wacky Wall Walkers. A small, octopus-like rubber creature covered in a sticky residue, Wacky Wall Walkers did exactly one thing: they adhered to other objects. Ostensibly, though only a few kids seemed to possess the ability to throw it in just the right way, a Wacky Wall Walker, as per the name, was supposed to stick to a wall, then “walk” down it. Mostly it would just hang there for a moment, take one wobbly step, then fall to the ground, where it would pick up every bit of dirt, cat hair, and crumbs hidden in the living room carpet.

Supposedly you could wash them with dish soap and water and they’d be good as new, but that never worked. As a comedian I once heard years ago said, you could get the same result from a chunk of cheese, and yet, we lost our fucking minds over these things. Cheap and easy to get, they were the great equalizer on the playground, especially since almost no one could figure out how to get them to work right.

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Naturally, as has always happened since television and movies existed, no matter what deluded Baby Boomers and Gen Xers like to think, someone had to come up with a way to capitalize on the craze, and in this case it was Deck the Halls With Wacky Walls, a prime time Christmas special that, shockingly, neither became a beloved holiday classic, nor was parlayed into a regular Saturday morning cartoon. Like virtually all rote, lazy holiday specials, the plot can be summed up with “[CHARACTER] discovers the meaning of Christmas,” which is, inevitably, “being nice.”

Not that anyone was wondering, but apparently Wacky Wall Walkers are aliens from the faraway planet Kling-Kling. Kling-Kling’s king, also named Kling-Kling (what an ego on that guy!), after spotting a star atop a Christmas tree, sends a research team to Earth to discover what Christmas means. The team consists of Wacky (the ostensible leader), Big Blue (the mopey realist), Springette (the girl), Crazy Legs (who’s always hungry), Stick’um (who’s…extra sticky, I guess?), and Baby Boo, who only speaks gibberish (voiced by–surprise–Frank Welker). Everything is helpfully explained in the opening song, except why it takes the team 2,000 years to reach Earth, and yet nobody has aged a day once they get there. I guess it’s Wacky Wall Walker biology at work.

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Wacky and the gang set about their mission at a shopping mall. For whatever reason, everyone they encounter, including a mall Santa and a cafeteria worker, seems miserable, but none so much as Darryl, a spoiled little turd who, even at age 12, still throws a tantrum when his father refuses to buy him a $1,000 electric car for Christmas. After threatening to have the Air Force shoot down their rocket if they don’t comply, Darryl puts the Walkers to work as slave labor, pocketing the money they earn doing odd jobs around the neighborhood so he can buy the electric car himself. This leads to a cheerful song about teamwork, as the Walkers cut down tree tops and put up Christmas decorations so some shitty kid can buy his stupid car.

Of course, it’s not the Walkers who need to learn the meaning of Christmas, but Darryl, and he does, eventually, during the last three minutes of the show, after a visit to the town orphanage (helpfully labeled ORPHANAGE). Because the poor serve no other purpose but to act as saintly reminders to the rich about how good they have it, Darryl is inspired to not only donate the money the Walkers earned to the orphanage, but to also give away some of the massive collection of toys under his Christmas tree. Mission completed, the Walkers return in their rocket to planet Kling-Kling, eager to spread the word about a holiday to a distant alien world that for thousands of years seemed to function just fine without knowing about Christmas trees, Santa Claus, or material gestures as the preferred method of showing kindness.

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Like the previously reviewed He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special and Christmas Comes to Pac-Land, the message in Deck the Halls With Wacky Walls is a bit muddled at best. “Go ahead and be a putz the other 364 days out of the year, if you must, but put on a good game face for Christmas” is not exactly what a kid should be getting out of these shows, as if the spirit of kindness and compassion is something you take off at the end of the holiday season, like a novelty Santa hat. There’s also, of course, the hypocrisy of a TV show based on a toy pushing an anti-consumerism agenda, but an entirely separate blog could be created about the mixed messages children’s programming sends.

As one would expect from a cartoon that was probably thrown together in about a month, it’s cheap looking, with ugly backgrounds that look like they were hastily drawn in as an afterthought. Neither Wacky or his pals really look like the toy they’re supposed to represent–if the show had been named Squiddy and the Squid Gang Save Christmas, no one would have been the wiser, and it would have come off as less of a cheesy gimmick. Deck the Halls With Wacky Walls has been all but forgotten, but you can still buy original era Wacky Wall Walkers on eBay–if you’re willing to pony up $25.00. How there hasn’t been a resurgence of them, perhaps tied to an app, I have no idea.

Unrelated, anybody know how to design an app?

 

 

 

 

 

10 Creepy Barbie Dads

Both as research for this website, and because of the pleasant background drone it provides while I perform other tasks, I often put on long blocks of vintage TV commercials, which seem to be in endless supply on YouTube. Watch enough of these blocks and you start to notice patterns, like how virtually every commercial for a cleaning product starts with some nosey old bag criticizing a woman’s housekeeping abilities, or how the great “fluoride vs. gel for fresh breath” debate nearly tore families asunder.

You also notice the curious lack of mothers in Barbie commercials. I watched nearly one hundred 80s era Barbie commercials (yes, in a row, don’t tell me I don’t work hard to bring you the quality content you’ve come to expect from this blog), and while the  majority of them featured no parental figures at all, only one, a commercial for the legendary Barbie Dream Home, featured a mother. Ten, however, featured a father. It would seem that Mattel feels about mothers the way Steven Spielberg feels about dads–they’re just gone, out of the picture without explanation.

Perhaps they’re dead. Or, perhaps they ran off with Derek, their 22 year-old tennis instructor, never to be seen or heard from again, and Barbie dolls are the only way their ex-husbands can make it up to the daughters they left behind. That scenario better explains the unsettling way the dads in these commercials behave, taking entirely too much interest in whatever it is Barbie is wearing or doing.

I had a substantial Barbie collection as a child. I even had the Dream Home (it was a Christmas for the ages the year Great Aunt Marguerite died). Never once did my father ask about Barbie, compliment Barbie, or, God forbid, ask if he could be invited to a pool party at Barbie’s house. He wasn’t a neglectful father, he just, like most grown men presumably, had not the slightest interest in Barbie. Most parents are content to let their preteen daughters play without butting in and saying something goofy, particularly if there’s another girl present. Not these dads, though, they’re eager to jump into the fun, laying on the admiration thick and even “playfully” ogling Barbie. Their daughters, of course, just laugh, as if this isn’t the most mortifying thing imaginable. I now offer you a carefully curated list of every creepy Barbie dad:

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Barbie Bubble Bath

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Angel Face Barbie

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Barbie Dream Pool

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Barbie Dream Cottage

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Barbie Loves McDonald’s Playset

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Barbie Star Traveller Motor Home

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Western Barbie

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Golden Dream Barbie

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Barbie Cosmetics Case

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Beauty Secrets Barbie

One can only hope that these bored, lonely dads eventually started dating a nice woman, someone named Diane or Linda who worked as a dental assistant, leaving their little girls to play with their toys in peace. Please feel free to use #creepybarbiedad on the social media outlet of your choice, if you can find a reasonable excuse for it.