BOOTLEG FILES 511: “The Carpenters at Christmas” (1977 TV special starring Karen and Richard Carpenter).
LAST SEEN: The program can be seen in an unauthorized YouTube posting.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Music clearance rights are probably keeping this out of circulation.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not for this Christmas season.
For every “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” that is guaranteed a spot on the TV line-up every December, there have been scores of holiday season specials that disappeared into the video ether following their only broadcast. With luck, some of these rarities find a second life via bootleg videos or unauthorized postings on YouTube and other sites.
One of these lost Christmas endeavors is a 1977 special featuring The Carpenters. By this period, Karen and Richard Carpenter were beginning to see slippage in their careers. Their ambitious 1977 album “Passage” failed to achieve the sales of their previous work, and radio stations were turning away from their easy listening sound in favor of the vibrant disco beat.
Nonetheless, the musical siblings were hardly washed up. In December 1976, they scored a ratings success for ABC with “The Carpenters’ Very First Television Special.” Despite its year-end placement, that special was not designed as a Christmas production. Thus, the network felt The Carpenters should be brought back for a 1977 special that would plumb the musical traditions of the Christmas season.
The resulting effort, dubbed “The Carpenters at Christmas,” was a bizarre creation. Every now and then, the genuine charm of Karen Carpenter shined with an effervescence that reaffirmed the depth and scope of her talents. But for the most part, the show was a typical tacky 1970s mishmash that tried please too many people without actually pleasing anyone.
“The Carpenters at Christmas” opens with an elaborate studio number featuring Karen in a white fur coat, Richard and his bandmates in white tuxedos, and a small army of dancers twirling around to a rendition of “Sleigh Ride.” Karen trades in her fur for a white pantsuit (hey, it was 1977!) and announces that she needs to do some last-minute shopping before she hosts her annual Christmas party. She then drives a convertible through the studio before an off-screen announcer tells the audience that Kodak and Timex are sponsoring this special.
Karen’s party is the slender thread that holds the special together. For no clear reason, Richard initially balks at having to attend his sister’s party. After this mild bit of conflict is a Currier and Ives-inspired number with a medley of “Winter Wonderland,” “Silver Bells” and “White Christmas.” In a silly attempt at levity, The Carpenters’ back-up musicians perform “Silver Bells” in exaggerated air-instrument pantomime. Fortunately, Karen saves the day with a graceful interpretation of “White Christmas.”
We then switch back to the party dilemma, with an agitated Richard trying to clear his mind. He goes to a local bowling alley for a cup of coffee (huh?) and runs into Harvey Korman, who launches into a horrible song-and-dance version of the non-Christmas Fred Astaire classic “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.” Korman struts and vamps around a set of pool tables and then dances with Richard down a bowling alley. Oddly, Korman is billed as a “special guest star” for this production, though how he earned that designation is not clear.
Karen then has a monologue with the camera, in which she shows off family photos of her childhood before singing “It’s Christmas Time” while Richard accompanies her on the piano.
Korman and Richard leave the bowling alley and run into young Kristy McNichol, who claims that she is alone for the holidays because her parents went out of town without her. Richard invites her to Karen’s party. McNichol is elated about rubbing shoulders with Karen and exclaims, “Boy, what I would give to sing a song with her some day!” Well, she must have given something, because McNichol and Karen dress up like Our Gang-inspired tykes for a novelty tune called “Christmas Alphabet.”
Karen then gives a warm rendition of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” before Korman and Richard encounter Burr Tillstrom’s puppets Kukla and Ollie in a park. The puppets do a vaudeville-style song that earns them an invitation by Richard to Karen’s party. Richard then gets a solo without his sister, offering a piano instrumental of “O Holy Night” backed by a full orchestra.
Next up is the show’s low point: a truncated version of “A Christmas Carol” with Korman playing all of the major roles – and doing it so poorly that you have to wonder why Carol Burnett and Mel Brooks wanted him as their second banana. Karen turns up briefly as Scrooge’s new secretary, but she can’t salvage this unfunny mess.
Karen’s much talked-about party finally happens, and Richard agrees to show up. Tillstrom’s puppets offer a holiday medley and The Carpenters offer mildly funny self-deprecating humor in a song about New Year’s resolutions before the show ends on a jolting note: an artistic interpretation of “Christ is Born,” with a chorus of candle-bearing singers backing Karen in a stunning rendition of the religious hymn.
Throughout this show, The Carpenters were at extremes in terms of on-screen chemistry. While Karen delivers her lines with confidence (she did deadpan comedy quite well) and sings with a vocal richness that few women could rival, Richard goes through the show like an automaton – and his behavior throughout the show is so mechanical that one can easily assume there is a giant wind-up key positioned between his shoulder blades. Even during his piano numbers, he seems weirdly indifferent to his surroundings.
Despite its very obvious problems, “The Carpenters at Christmas” earned a mostly positive response from the broadcast on December 9, 1977. Rather than schedule it for a repeat the next year, ABC asked the siblings to do another Christmas special in 1978. Karen and Richard recorded an album, “Christmas Portrait,” to accompany their second holiday show. The album and the special, called “The Carpenters: A Christmas Portrait,” turned out to be their last major hit. A 1980 TV program called “Music, Music, Music” fared poorly and ABC no longer sought out The Carpenters for specials. As their music careers began to slow, both Richard and Karen battled personal demons – Richard overcame his problems, but Karen fell victim to hers and passed away in February 1983, a month shy of her 33rd birthday.
“The Carpenters at Christmas” has yet to be made available for commercial home entertainment release. The program, without the Kodak and Timex commercials, can be seen on YouTube in a decent bootleg video copy; one DVD bootlegger is selling this and the 1978 Carpenters’ Christmas special (also not in commercial release) on a two-in-one DVD. While it is certainly no classic, by any stretch, it has some winning Karen Carpenter moments that deserve to be seen and cherished. And why shouldn’t you try watching a different TV show for the holidays? After all, how many times can you sit through “It’s a Wonderful Life”?
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!