I’m sitting in the garage with my feet up. The temperature outside is 26 degrees. Inside, thanks to my trusty kerosene heater, it’s a balmy 63 degrees. It is starting to snow. Christmas is in the air. I’ve got a Captain Morgan and Coke in the cup holder, my laptop is out, and a DVD is playing in the 20-inch TV/DVD-Player combo, which sits on a shelf next to a red can of gasoline for my lawnmower.
The DVD is not National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and it is not A Christmas Story. It is not Elf. It is not The Polar Express, It’s A Wonderful Life, or Scrooged.
It is Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.
Remember this 1977 gem that aired on a then-new channel called HBO seemingly every day, every December?
Pa Otter has passed away, leaving his son Emmet and Emmet’s loving mother, Ma, alone together. They both miss Pa immensely, but they love each other dearly and would do anything to guarantee the happiness of the other. Which is why for Christmas, both secretly wish to enter a talent contest to win the $50 cash prize to be used towards buying a true Christmas present for the other; the first either has ever given or received.
You see, Emmet wants to buy Ma a piano so she can sing again, and Ma wants to buy Emmet a guitar so he can play with his jug-band.
Trouble is, the Otters are so poor that Ma can’t afford a costume to wear so she can sing in the contest, and Emmet can’t afford a washtub bass so he can play with his band in the same contest. But Ma could sell Pa’s tools and have money to buy that costume, and Emmet could punch a hole in his Ma’s washtub to make that bass, the same washtub she uses to do other people’s laundry as their primary source of income.
The endearing and bittersweet tale of a family’s love during the tragedy of loss and the challenge of adversity is propelled along by an amazing soundtrack of tunes like “Washtub,” “Barbecue,” and “Brothers.” And then, there’s the The River Bottom Nightmare Band, the local gang who also enters the contest, singing their song of the same name.
Jim Henson made this movie on the cheap; you can see the marionette strings above the forest creatures and the puppeteer sticks underneath the ducks as they fly swiftly over the lake. But in interviews, Henson always said he felt very attached to the selflessness and determination of the characters in this Lillian and Russell Hoban story, which compelled Henson to adapt it quickly, but lovingly, in the midst of his rapid rise to fame with The Muppet Show.
Not to sound preachy, but I guess what has always resonated so much with me about this movie (besides the fact that Dad used to show it to us incessantly as kids– he loved it, too) is that, as we tend to wrap ourselves in our own projects, lives, and worlds, especially during the holidays when we become (make ourselves) overwhelmingly busy, the show reminds us of the heartwarming nature of Christmas, and how those selfless acts we commit, particularly around the holidays, serve to not only brighten the sometimes dark worlds of others having trouble with their own miracles, but they also become one more in a string of candles of light in our own windows of Christmas happiness. And that, I reckon, becomes a prize to us worth way more than $50, in ways we might not even expect, as the conclusion of this treat of an overlooked holiday classic teaches us.
Give it a look, why don’t ya’? Not hard to find, and its anniversary edition and accompanying soundtrack are going to be released again in December. Heck, some theaters (including mine, if I get my way) will be showing it “special-event style” in the coming weeks. It truly is a sweet little number about the joy of making others joyful and the unexpected rewards that come with it.