CBS All Star Rock n’ Wrestling Saturday Spectacular (1985)

The Prime-Time Saturday Morning preview specials of the 1970s and ’80s have a bespoke magic to them, self-serving events created from scratch for the sole purpose of promoting other things elsewhere on that same network and using big star power to do it. It’s never a simple roundup, never a straight “hey, here are our new shows,” and it’s that complicated presentation that makes each special shine in its own way. The ridiculous lengths to which the Saturday Morning properties are contorted to create the narrative of a prime-time special make for some fascinating television. Fascinating, but not always good.

These specials are almost always a mash-up of different brands and properties, the implication being that the network’s destination is a real place where all of these brands co-exist with each other. Much cheaper than doing an actual cross-over of shows, the specials allowed kids to see characters from a variety of shows interacting with each other – in most cases, these would be kids’ only chances to do so. I’ve talked about a few of these before, but want to look at a particularly weird one today, 1985’s “All Star Rock n’ Wrestling Saturday Spectacular”.

CBS had a medium-okay Saturday Morning lineup in 1985, a lot of fodder but a few standouts. Most notable was the launch of a new show, Hulk Hogan’s Rock n’ Wrestling, a lucrative extension of the insanely popular WWF franchise that explored what the world would be like if professional wrestlers focused their effort on fixing or furthering the bad things that happened in it. It was a big deal, and it’s no surprise that the WWF layer would be the narrative thread through which CBS’s Saturday Morning lineup would be promoted.



The special gets weird right out of the gate as we’re brought into a disruptive scene: Hervé Villechaize’s news program(?) has been hijacked by Rowdy Roddy Piper, who spends a few minutes strutting around on his new platform bad-guying it up, yanking a few jeers out of his audience.

He settles into a throne – that was somehow already waiting for him on the set even though he had just stormed it out of nowhere – and starts a talk show that features some pretty big talent and the highlights of the new lineup.

I could go beat-by-beat in illustrating the weirdness but it’s probably easiest to just say that none of this makes sense. Piper’s guests are Patti Labelle, New Edition, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, and Pee Wee Herman. Pee Wee makes his appearance in the middle of a punched-up scene from King Lear, on a full Shakespearean set with Piper and Lou Albano in full Shakespearean garb. Because punched-up scenes from King Lear are what kids are thirsty for .

The one thing that does make sense in this special is Rowdy Roddy Piper’s villainy, and he does an amazing job throughout. He’s at his best and the show is at its most coherent when Piper’s slamming the guests, the audience, and Hulk Hogan himself even though he’s not there. Piper’s amazing in this special and his character is completely on-brand.

Every now and then we see Villechaize’s efforts to get control of his show back, alluding to a big star that’s going to help him do it. You think it’s going to be Hulk, right? Well, said big star is actually Cyndi Lauper who comes in, does a little trash talk of her own, and pied-pipers the guests and the audience alike out of the studio and presumably onto another set designated for Herve’s show.

It’s fun! It makes no sense, but it’s fun! There are a few good looks at the new Saturday Morning product, but most of those clips feel like ‘gotta do’ fodder. The trailer for “Hulk Hogan’s Rock n’ Wrestling” is the only real exception. Here’s the special. They don’t make them like this anymore. They couldn’t.

-ds

It’s For Everyone – Today’s Special (1981)

The department store of the 1970s and 1980s was a labyrinth of wonders, a never-ending series of corners opening up into new lands – most of which were pretty dull to a kid. Until you got to the children’s department, that is. Push past the shoes and the pants and the dress clothes and more often than not a kid would find a toy section, or at least a play area, made just for them. It’s a pretty special place in a world that didn’t have a ton of special places for kids, and TV Ontario’s “Today’s Special” program hooked into that magic and made something really unique.

Image Courtesy TVOntario.org

“Today’s Special” took the mystery of the department store and combined it with another kids’ mystery – what do grownups do at night – to create a magical scenario. Jodie works the night shift at a department store along with Sam, the night watchman. A mouse named Muffy also lives at the store, presumably with permission as she has her own apartment with her name on it. Then there’s Jeff, the mannequin who wears an enchanted hat that turns him into a human when a magic spell is spoken.

The foursome spend each episode digging into a particular topic, that day’s “special”. Jeff and Muffy, with their limited real-world perspective, serve as the eyes and ears of the child as they learn and explore each topic. Said exploration usually involves songs and skits, some with pretty elaborate costumes and set pieces.

Sam’s computer, the TLX, performs a very HAL-9000 role for the store. While maintaining lights, weather, and security, the TLX also narrates interstitial segments throughout the episode. These could be a vignette with a mime, a Mother Goose nursery rhyme, or a quiz that kids can participate in. Sam and the TLX often get into interactions about the value of humanity and the impending robot takeover – I’m not kidding – that provide a gentle yet sobering slap.

It’s not all fun and games; the show took opportunities to educate kids on harder aspects of life as well. One episode focused on alcoholism in a way that doesn’t offer any false tidy solutions, instead focusing on making sure kids knew that a grown-up’s alcoholic behavior wasn’t their fault.

While TV Ontario produced the show, it aired in the US on Nickelodeon in the early 1980s – an era where Nick was relying heavily and Canadian and other international programming to fill their lineup. The shopping malls and Amazons and Wal-marts of the modern era may have put “Today’s Special” in a “relic” category, something kids don’t get to tangibly experience in today’s real world, but that doesn’t make the show any less unique. And judging from my five-year-old’s obsession with it, it holds up.

TV Ontario’s got a few episodes up on their site. Here’s hoping for more someday.

-ds

Cut. It. Out. – Out of Control (1984)

Before Dave Coulier warmed America’s hearts as Uncle Joey Gladstone, he hosted a low budget talk show for kids that spent most of its time off of the rails. Have mercy!

Out of Control was conceived as a parody news magazine show for kids or, more accurately, a show about putting on a news magazine show for kids. Coulier was the show’s host and each week’s episode centered around his attempts to wrangle his staff and guests to make the show make sense without getting….out of control. Get it?

As comedy goes, Coulier plays the straight man while his staff does the heavy lifting. There’s a real Muppet Show vibe to the craziness. Bumbling reporter Angela “Scoop” Quickly and brash report Hern Burford handle the remote shoots, Waldo’s an in-house inventor, and Diz is the wacky sauce between it all. Throw in some guests like Dennis Miller, Bill Bixby, Fred Newman and Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s Joel Hodgson and things quickly get…out of control. Get it?

I’ll restate that this is a low-budget production. The studio bits have a very ‘one-take’ feel to them which lends itself well to the concept of the show. The remote bits are slightly more polished, resembling segments of SCTV and other sketch comedy offerings of the time. Dave throws to these segments throughout the show, and they typically fall under a handful of recurring categories. “Hurry Up”, for instance, takes a boring chore that kids submit and speeds the tape up so that the chore doesn’t take as long. “Let’s Eat” is a food/cooking segment that falls apart more often than not. The animations connecting the studio and remote bits are the most impressive pieces of the show.

Out of Control lasted all of eight episodes before being cancelled, but that didn’t stop Nickelodeon from airing it generously between 1984 and 1985. You can see Coulier working out a lot of his bits and voices here, including his signature “Cut It Out” that he’d bring to Full House a couple of years later.

It’s rough, it’s sloppy, but it’s also one of a kind and they definitely don’t make them like this any more. Here’s an episode.

-ds

Christmas Day in Rainbowland – 1985 Holiday Toys

1985!

The world got some good stuff in 1985 like Cherry Coke, Classic Coke, “We Are The World”, and Back to the Future.

1985 also found society in the middle of a huge media shift to the home video market.  VCR players were finally somewhat affordable to the average Joe and this would cause the VHS rental and retail market to explode. No longer were you chained to a TV station’s decisions to run (or not run) your favorite show – you could record and playback to your heart’s content. It’s difficult to overstate what a game changer this was.  Plus, retailers could now get away with charging an arm and a leg for VHS copies of Hollywood hits…for a while, at least.

Our robot toy fever had somewhat subsided, although the bigger robot brands like Transformers still had a hold on kids’ imaginations.  Other hit properties of the past few years, like G.I. Joe and Cabbage Patch Kids had new lines and iterations for the 1985 season, but let’s take a look at some new breakouts.

Rambo

Rambo was a huge box-office and cultural hit in 1985, but I don’t know how popular this toy line actually was. I do know that this is the most violent toy commercial I’ve ever seen. The animation at the top of the ad is just brutal!

Rainbow Brite

Rainbow Brite and the Color Kids weren’t a new property in 1985 – the show and toys had debuted a year earlier – but this year the franchise was really rolling along with some additions to the toy lineup like Starlite and Lurky…

…and a 10 song Christmas album!

Madballs

These foam baseball-sized toys came in a variety of grotesque personas.  The ’80s was a case study in how to make toys “politely” gross – repulsive enough to be attractive to the boy market but benign enough that parents would pay for it.  I think Madballs hit that balance well.

He-Man Fright Zone

First there was the epic Castle Grayskull playset. Then there was the even-more-epic Snake Mountain playset. Then, in 1985, there was the… Fright Zone.  A cool playset, but nothing on the scale of the two lairs. This release reflects a point where He-Man started to drift away from the core offering, iterating into more niche products.  Still, a cool playset with an integrated puppet component!

Nintendo Entertainment System

The system that changed everything. As you can see in the ad the game line up isn’t quite there yet, but it was already clear that this was head and shoulders above any home video game offering up to that point. Nintendo knew what they had on their hands, and things only went up from here.

Teddy Ruxpin

1985’s riot-maker and secondary-market-darling was an animatronic teddy bear that could talk. Worlds of Wonder’s Teddy Ruxpin shook things up with a competent articulation and a deep bench of content. Kids would insert story cassette tapes into Teddy’s back containing stories that Teddy would tell.  Further down the line Teddy’s friends could be connected to Teddy to tell the stories together.

This show-and-tell has the toughest crowd I have ever seen. These kids are like Hollywood agents who have seen it all.

Teddy had a pretty high price point, and the individual story cassettes weren’t cheap either. The product didn’t have the longevity that Worlds of Wonder probably wanted, but it was an impressive piece of technology that deserved the heads it turned. And yeah, it was pretty creepy too.

-ds

Thanksgiving Is Tomorrow – The Facts of Life Reunion (2001)

I don’t normally push into the 2000’s here, but I guess it was just a matter of time.  And technically you could argue that this movie’s a reunion of a show from the ’80s so that makes it an ’80s thing. Also it’s almost Thanksgiving here in the US and Thanksgiving happens in this movie, so that makes it make sense, too. It makes more sense than the bulk of The Facts of Life Reunion. If this movie were a project at the Eastland Academy, it’d be a solid D.

Going into this I assumed it would follow a traditional ‘reunion’ format – the separated gang  has lost their happiness in their separate lives and their reunion helps them find their happiness that they then take to fix their separate lives. I guess it kind of tries to do that but it gets lost in even more cliche’ sitcom tropes along the way and the whole thing just turns into a mess.

The movie starts with the gang scattered across the world, the most exotic of them all being the intrepid Mrs. Garrett. She’s on a cruise ship, flirting hard with the captain himself, and really the whole reunion is worth it for her dramatic 180-degree reveal. This had to make Charlotte Rae feel good.

Spoiler alert: we’re about 45 seconds in and this quick dramatic take is the highlight of the entire thing. It’s all downhill from here.

The gang all has their own things going on: Tootie’s got a talk show, Natalie’s a high-powered news segment producer, and Blaire’s…still rich. They’re all getting their affairs in order to head back to Peekskill for a Thanksgiving reunion.

Once reunited, the tropes start piling on. Before we get into them, it’s worth noting that Jo couldn’t make it. Her husband brings their daughter to Peekskill, then quickly leaves to “do a couple tracks on the new Backstreet Boys album”, leaving Samantha alone with these women who all smile and nod as if this is a normal thing to thrust upon people. So Samantha’s kind of our Jo, but not really because she’s a kid and does kid stuff the entire time…which is one of the tropes.

So let’s get into it – these are out of order, sort of, but who cares because this movie is a mess anyway.

Love Triangle

Natalie’s got two boyfriends, straight-laced rich man Robert and slightly-less-straight-laced rich man Harper. For whatever reason they both show up to Mrs. Garrett’s inn for Thanksgiving and so instead of spending time together over the holidays the girls divide and conquer so that the boyfriends never see each other.  It’s not a stretch to say that this is the bulk of the movie; it goes on and on, feeling like an extended Three’s Company episode.

Eventually the secret’s out and the two men are aware of each other. Rather than Natalie and her suitors having a grown-up discussion taking everyone’s feelings into consideration, the gang pitches in to slap together a pageant in which the men try to outdo each other in various categories: a footrace, poetry, “listening”, and a swimsuit competition where the men dance for all the women – including the young girls. All of the females are making cat-calls.  The men start a fist fight.  At this point the train isn’t just off the rails, it’s crashed into the Walmart in the middle of town.

The movie tries to get its act together as Natalie finally has the grown-up talk, but it’s too late. She picks Harper, and Robert immediately starts to move in on Tootie? Gross.

Dream Marriage With A Secret

When Blaire’s not running interference on Natalie’s love triangle, she’s talking about her perfect rich marriage to her perfect rich man. As the movie progresses she gets a little more suspicious of what her husband – who couldn’t make the trip to Peekskill – is up to. She tries calling him and a mysterious woman picks up the phone, so Blaire decides to go to the city to confront him.

Turns out his big secret is that he’s volunteering with children at a hospital because he always wanted kids, something Blaire didn’t know about. Big drama, right? Easily resolved: they decide to have kids.  Seriously, that’s how thin Blaire’s story is.  It’s also worth pointing out the bad costuming on the kids. This guy’s got a bleeding headwound, just playing in the rec room!

Kids Acting Out

Jo’s daughter Sam and Tootie’s daughter Tisha are stuck hanging out with each other all week. They also meet a certainly-underage bellboy who I guess both of them have a crush on? It never really goes anywhere in either direction, but keeps getting hinted.

Anyway, they steal Blaire’s car, as you do, and drive into town where they get busted sneaking into Eastland Academy. As you do. This weird aside serves to remind the girls of what’s truly important in life.  The viewer’s not really looped in on what that is, though.

 

Mistaken Identity

The newest addition to the Facts of Life gang is Chef Gauguin, the head of the kitchen at Mrs. Garrett’s inn.  We spend more time with the Chef than necessary, as the tension of the main storylines are punctuated with his kitchen woes. Most notably he eavesdrops on Robert’s phone call and incorrectly deduces that Robert is a food critic that the Chef has been expecting.  He spends most of the movie trying to impress him, which rewards the viewer with a thin payoff in the final scene.

Also he and Mrs. Garrett start flirting? What?

For a reunion that’s supposedly a long time coming, the gang sure doesn’t spend a lot of time together. Instead they divide and conquer with Natalie, Tootie and Blaire constantly splitting up the love triangle and Mrs. Garrett trapped in her perpetual B-story. The kids are off in their own silo, and everyone comes together in the final ten minutes of the movie for Thanksgiving. Remember Thanksgiving? It’s the whole reason for the movie, the television event, and the reunion.  For 80 solid minutes there’s been hardly a peep about Thanksgiving, but it’s here and so are we.

Mrs. Garrett’s son dresses up like a pilgrim. This new costume is presented without comment, and nobody else dresses up.

There’s a touching toast from Mrs. Garrett that highlights the virtues of Natalie, Blaire, Tootie, and nobody else – not even her son.

There’s the traditional Thanksgiving  dance party featuring “Jump” by the Pointer Sisters.

The food critic finally shows up, for some reason. Was this necessary?

And so does the cruise captain from the beginning.

And we’re out. Guys, this movie is garbage. I know this isn’t meant to be a prestige production – it’s The Facts of Life, after all – but it could have been much better than this. I can’t imagine this scratching anyone’s itch for more Facts in their lives. The movie of their trip to Australia with the jewel thieves was much more satisfying than this. Here it is, though, if you really need that fix. Happy Thanksgiving.