BOOTLEG FILES 564: “John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas” (1975 TV special).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Music and performance rights clearance issues.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is no great tragedy if Santa keeps this in his sled.

In 1975, John Denver was at the top of the music charts with his loose-limbed pop-folk music. Buoyed by his recording success, he ventured into television through a number of guest shots and specials, and his happy, non-threatening persona appealed to audiences. ABC executives believed that Denver’s jolly presence would fit perfectly into the network’s Christmas season programming, and he was signed to create a one-shot holiday special.

Viewed from the jaded perspective of a contemporary vantage point, “John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas Special” is a wildly uneven effort, with the star offering a strange mix of emotions that seesaw between grinning self-confidence and visible uneasiness.

The show begins with a fairly imaginative style: the first thing on camera is a butterfly, which is something you rarely see in a Christmas show. We then see Denver singing “Aspenglow” behind the butterfly, and it looks like he is standing in a studio with a painted winter backdrop behind his stage. But, then, the viewer is shown the actual setting is a clear, climate controlled dome in the middle of a snowy Colorado meadow – the painted backdrop is the actual snowy ground and snow-kissed trees of the Rockies, while the butterfly and the plants in the studio are thriving in the artificially controlled climate. It is a startling way to launch the show, but Denver’s mechanical musical performance throws the smart effect off balance.

Almost immediately, Denver recovers when his song stops and the butterfly lands on him. “Far out!” the singer exclaims, looking down at his winged co-star. “How are you doing, little guy?” Denver then tells the audience in his dome-enclosed audience that he will be joined on the show by Valerie Harper, Olivia Newton-John and Steve Martin – the latter is identified by Denver as “weird ol’ Steve!”

From here, Denver goes outside of his dome and into the snowy Rocky Mountains, where he gets to hang out with “my friend, the sun” (yes, he actually says that!) while he goes skiing without a helmet. And the rest of the special finds him pinballing back and forth, from the white expanses of the great outdoors to the artificially green lushness of the engineered indoors.

But, strangely, Denver is much more relaxed away from the studio. Whether he is riding a horse in the snow, goofing about with the kids of a “free-from school” on handmade snow scooters or observing the flora and fauna of the Rockies, Denver looks like a man at peace with his world. But inside the studio, Denver seems stiff and a bit nervous – the relaxed outdoorsman is nowhere to be seen when he is on the stage.

Denver’s uncomfortable behavior seems to have rubbed off on his guests. Despite being heralded as a zany funnyman, Steve Martin is remarkably subdued – and even a bit boring – in his time with Denver. Although he tries to goof things up by wearing a butterfly on his nose while singing a warped tune about supposedly good behavior, Martin is a pale shadow of the wild and crazy guy that steamrolled his way through that era’s comedy scene. It is uncertain whether Denver had Martin tone down his wacky humor for the show or whether his excessive shtick was edited from the program.

Also at a disadvantage was Olivia Newton-John. She looks gorgeous, of course, but she is lacking the warmth and charisma that secured her stardom at that time. She lip-syncs “Let it Shine” while riding a horse in the outdoors, but she maintains a plastic-happy expression that makes her seem more like a musical mannequin. When she comes indoors to perform the duet “Fly Away” with Denver, the singers are positioned very far from each other – one could dismiss this as an artsy bit of direction, but Newton-John doesn’t give the impression that she is eager to be with Denver in the same space. (Newton-John was not credited on “Fly Away” when it was released as a single, so this was the first time that many people realized her voice was the melodic counterpart on the tune.)

As for Valerie Harper, she doesn’t appear to have any connection to Denver and the Colorado surroundings, either within the studio (where Denver drowns out her singing voice) or in a sour comedy sketch on a ski slope where she and Denver play a pair who eyeball each other in the distance and fantasize about a potential relationship that goes horribly wrong. With all of the possible ABC sitcom stars of the time, it is hard to fathom why ABC would approve having one of the biggest attractions from CBS on this show.

“John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas” ends with the star wearing a tuxedo (and looking unhappy about it), surrounded by his guests (with Martin playing the banjo) for a melody of holiday songs. Denver then speaks about the recent birth of his son Zachary and the child’s special meaning to his world. And with that inspirational insight, the show is over.

Despite the show’s significant flaws, audiences went wild for the idea of spending Christmas with Denver. The special was ratings blockbuster for the network, bringing in more than 60 million viewers for its broadcast on December 10, 1975, and it would later earn three Emmy Award nominations. Its success would secure Denver a place in television variety programming for the remainder of his life.

But, almost immediately, there were problems. The accompanying soundtrack album carefully removed any of the songs involving Denver’s guest stars – and while the album was fine on its own terms, the deletion of Martin, Newton-John and Harper was more than a little curious. With the arrival of the home video market, “John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas” was conspicuously absent from the VHS video years, and even at this late date there has never been a DVD offering. Most likely, music and performance clearance issues are too expensive to justify a re-release.

Fortunately, the special was videotaped by Denver’s fans during its initial presentation, and unauthorized postings of that broadcast (complete with the cheesy old 70s commercials) can be found on YouTube. Bootlegged DVDs are also easy to find and purchase online. And if “John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas” doesn’t present the singer/songwriter at his best, it nonetheless gives today’s viewers a reminder of what used to pass as holiday entertainment during a period known as the Decade That Good Taste Forgot.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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  1. Linda Wyly says:

    I need a dvd if Ricky mountain Christmas!!

  2. says:

    2/8/15 Wrote:
    I remembered watching “The John Denver Rocky Mountain Christmas Special” when it originally appeared on ABC TV on December 10,1975. I was about 8 years old at the time, and I told my 2nd grade teacher (a certain Ms. Christie at Mark Twain Elementary School in Pontiac, Michigan)about watching the special the next day, and she told me she watched it too, and thought it was wonderful. I never forgot that moment. It’ been at least 34 years since I’ve seen the special, but I remember two things about it: The scene where John goes skiing without a helmet (he must have thought he was some brave and foolish daredevil or something)to the music of “The Eagle & The Hawk” from his 1971 album “Poems, Prayers, And Promises”, and falling flat on his rear end. “Show-off!” yells John as the narrator who’s criticizing his own amateurish performance. The other moment has been unfortunately been removed from the clip available on You-Tube: a rather colorful, but crazy opening bumper from ABC-TV announcing that “Baretta” was pre-empted for the hour that night to present John’s special, with animation proclaiming the up-coming Bicentennial celebration of 1976 which was a couple of weeks away at the time. Sadly, I have been unable to re-locate this bumper on You-Tube; I have found many TV bumpers and advertisements for ABC-TV on the web, but not this 1975-76 one. The ABC bumper I like the best is the old 1962 Color Presentation bumper designed by Paul Rand and shown as an opening for ABC color broadcasts from 1962-74. Other than that, it was a nice trip down memory lane for me to see this special again. Thanks for bringing this long-forgotten treasure for me. As for John looking uncomfortable in some of the more serious scenes, I don’t know why he was so stoic; maybe he felt he had to be serious & professional in front of the camera in opposition to his goofing-off, happy-go-lucky scenes outdoors. As for why Olivia Newton John didn’t get credit on “Fly Away” to me seems to be thinking by record company executives at the time; John recorded for RCA Victor at the time, Olivia for MCA Records; maybe there was no compromise reached between the two major labels out of reasons for contractual obligations. I think the same reason was reached for the release of the said Christmas album; RCA must have wanted it to be a John Denver release alone as it was.

  3. R says:

    The fun commercials show that this is a 1977 rerun not the original broadcast.

    Most people didn’t have a VCR in 1975.

  4. Ari says:

    Some clarification — Valerie Harper was on the show because she and John had both taken est and were friends. Valerie was also active in The Hunger Project with JD. As for the album, it was not a soundtrack of the show but a Denver release, hence the absence of the guest stars.

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