Think that the Star Wars Holiday Special is as low as George Lucas and company have gone when it comes to sanctioned use of their characters?
Well, I see your Bea Arthur and Jefferson Starship and raise you … Donny and Marie Osmond. And let’s sweeten the pot even more with Redd Foxx, Kris Kristofferson and center square Paul Lynde.
Well, let’s travel back to 1977, a time before streaming services. A time when VCRs had yet to become a household fixture. A time when you circled programs in your TV Guide magazine lest you miss them and have to wait for a possible rerun months later.
It was a time when people thought the Fonz was funny and that Charlie’s Angels were progressive. Need escape? The Love Boat was available weekly for you to set a course for romantic adventure.
Want song and dance? Well, just tune into Donny & Marie, the oh-so-wholesome song-and-sketch show entering its third year.
Inexplicable, I know.
I don’t need to tell you, but I will, that 1977 was also the year that a movie called Star Wars launched.
Now, I’m not going to pretend to know the ins and outs of how the Star Wars universe collided with the world of Donny & Marie. I can speculate, though. that Lucas and company knew pretty quickly that had something in their space adventure but didn’t know how big it would be. To extend its life, they pushed their product on TV, including a making-of special that aired on ABC.
And, well, this.
So what did the first crop of Star Wars fans witness? What did the vast TV audience, that never bothered to go to the movies, see as their first exposure to this universe? How did this jaw-dropping 10 minutes or so of outrageousness come to be?
Again, I’m only speculating here.
But, then and now, it seems like a junior-high student who had seen the movie once but dozed off in the middle got an assignment to write a 10-minute script. That student then read aloud his script to an exchange student who could barely speak English — who then typed it up on a typewriter with missing keys, had it translated into another language, and then translated back into English.
That script was handed to a producer who cut out every fifth line and every third scene and handed it off to a songwriter given 10 minutes to craft music and lyrics with permission to crib from any song available at that moment on an AM radio. It was then rehearsed in the dark once before airtime. Guest stars weren’t notified what was happening until they walked on the set. And serious, serious drugs were involved.
Okay, it’s Donny & Marie. Maybe there weren’t drugs.
But, again, the above is speculation.
The following is not.
The segment starts with the familiar “A long time ago…” text crawl, narrated by a James Earl Jones-ish voice.
We are told “an evil force is at work to destroy the values by which decent people lived.” Those include patriotism, cleanliness, and good dental hygiene.
(A laugh track indicates that these are jokes.)
A brief graphic of what looks like the cross-section of a grapefruit interred in a crisping drawer for way too long is followed by Donny rushing onstage in costuming that looks vaguely like Luke Skywalker. Marie quickly follows, sporting head-side buns and Leia trappings. They sort of dance and sing about how “our goose is cooked / unless we lift off of this star” in order to get “lost in space.”
Moments later: “Oh, look!” says Donny as C-3PO and R2-D2 enter. Marie expresses her wish that “Obibenokifenokee was there to help them.” Comedian Redd Foxx appears in a projection over their heads. Next, Kris Kristofferson shows up as maybe Han and must witness another song snippet from Donny & . Marie, accompanied by R2 beeping. Kristofferson whistles and Chewie shows up.
Side note: This is the same Kristofferson who wrote “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” He is a great songwriter. Krisofferson sings about wanting “to take you higher” as he offers Donny & Marie a flight to whereverthehell it is they’re trying to go. Redd Foxx makes a joke about how the planet Sanford has no sun.
Cut to Paul Lynde, known to a generation as the center square on the Hollywood Squares game show and now in Grand Moff mode. Lynde sports a uniform that includes what is supposed to be a military insignia but that I believe may actually be a child’s watercolor paint set. He watches stock footage of a NASA rocket launch as semi-Stormtroopers march past him. He croons “Come Back to Me” to a beat that’s less John Williams and more “third-rate casino lounge act.”
Darth Vader makes an entrance, threatening Lynde and showing him, through the power of the Force (and reverse video) that he can pull the rocket — and our ersatz heroes — back to the planet.
Of course, that means it’s time for a dance number by this-time-fully-costumed Stormtropers (aka “Darth Vader’s raiders.” See? It rhymes!) set to the Temptations’ “Get Ready.” Donny & Marie cower because, you know, dancers are scary, especially when they all say “gotcha” and point at you.
It’s not clear why, but Darth Vader wanders away. The good guys now sing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” as Grand Moff Lynde is taken onto the ship and the crowd cheers.
Marie claims she is safe at last (we’ll have to take her word for it) and everyone still on stage sings “Off we go / into the wild blue yonder.”
Happy ending? Perhaps not. Darth Vader promises to return.
Why he left in the first place, I’m still not sure.
Of course, even the lowest-grade Star Wars fans will leave this 10-minute hellscape with questions.
But all of them can be boiled down to one: WTF?