Friday, 21 October 2016

The cast of Star Wars on TV: the Donny & Marie show, 1977

The bizarre finale of the Donny & Marie Star Wars skit

The Star Wars Holiday Special was not the first time the blockbuster of the century crossed paths with television’s light entertainment industry. Today, Episode Nothing goes back to September 23, 1977, when characters from Star Wars appeared on Donny & Marie.

The night Donny & Marie Osmond spoofed Star Wars

Chewbacca and Darth Vader in friendly mood
in the Donny & Marie Star Wars show

I’ve been readying myself to write about the strangest, and perhaps most painful, episode in the history of Star Wars fandom – The Star Wars Special. But while researching it, I was reminded that the Holiday Special was not the first time multiple characters from Star Wars had appeared on a prime time US television variety show. For that, we have to go back a year earlier – to season three, episode one of Donny & Marie.

Everybody reading this understands how big Star Wars was in 1977, but to appreciate the significance of this particular moment in Star Wars history, it helps if you also know how big Donny and Marie Osmond – and the rest of the Osmond clan – were too.

The Osmonds, a cheerful pop act consisting principally of five brothers, had been so big around 1972-73 that they had a mania named after them. Osmandmania looked, for a little while, very much like Beatlemania. The news footage of screaming girls was very similar to that which the Fab Four had inspired a decade earlier – except that this time, hysterical teenagers welcome an American band to British airports, rather the other way around. The other difference was that these boys were a lot less threatening than the Beatles.

The space age title sequence of Donny & Marie in 1977

Donny Osmond had been in the Osmonds line up for a while, while Marie had not. She had made solo records and sung duets with Donny – and it was the brother and sister act that ABC liked enough to them up for their own show n 1976.

Donny was still nineteen and Marie not quite eighteen on September 23 1977, when they produced their skit on Star Wars.

Star Wars had been on release for four months when Donny and Marie aired their tribute. It had, of course, done huge business, but 20th Century-Fox must surely have been expecting the fuss to die down.

Yet George Lucas and his publicity and merchandising man, Charles Lippincott, were still being canny about promoting the film, and television was a key part of their strategy. That September, two things happened on ABC that boosted the film’s profile. The first was the transmission of The Making of Star Wars on September 16. A week later, Donny & Marie was the second.

Watching the Donny & Marie Star Wars episode, nearly 40 years later

The Star Wars portion of the Donny & Marie show can be found on its own on YouTube, but to get a sense of what it was like to see it in the 1970s, I think you have to watch the full episode above. Ideally, you’d also see the commercials, and before it even started, you’d wait several anxious days before tuning in hours before it started. That was what it was like to be a young Star Wars fan in the 1970s. (However, if you really want to see just the Star Wars portion, skip ahead to the 37 minute mark.)

Donnie & Mary as Luke and Leia

I’ve mentioned before that the Osmonds were not exactly dangerous. The nearest Donny and Marie got to being rebellious was in the regular spot where she would sing “I’m a little bit country” and he would sing “I’m a little bit rock and roll”, before they went into a medley which would include Donny singing and playing some rock and roll classics. 

The title sequence with Marie's newly short hair

However, this episode does start with perhaps the most shocking thing Marie ever did in the 1970s. She cut her hair. The long locks that had inspired many a young crush earlier in the decade were gone. 

Since the release of Star Wars, it seemed practically all popular entertainment had to have a space element. You can see it in the show’s opening titles, in which still images of Donny and Marie appear to the accompaniment of glittery effects and Space Invaders-style sounds, like a rejected title sequence from Britain’s science fiction show The Tomorrow People.

Marie Osmond spoofs Farrah Fawcett earlier
in the Star Wars episode of Donny & Mary
The early parts of the episode reminded me that, cheesy as the show might have been, Donny and Marie were impressive professionals, especially given their tender years. Donny plays several instruments, Marie has a sweet voice, and she’s also quite a sharp comedy performer in the show’s sketches. There’s one sketch which actually does have a bit of an edge, when Marie plays a version of Farrah Fawcett-Majors (as she was then known), who had recently left Charlie’s Angels. In the sketch, Farrah – rendered as Farrah Lost It Minors – reports to the unemployment office, where she demonstrates that her main skill is flicking her hair. Marie's very funny in this, I think.

Donny & Mary get to dance with R2-D2

The rest of the show includes a skit with Redd Foxx, a song by Kris Kristofferson, and a few reminders of some other fashionable trends from the time. We’ve already mentioned Farrah, the biggest pin-up of the era, and the show also features, inevitably, plenty of disco influences, and even a few moments of skateboarding – thereby covering all the cultural phenomena that came anywhere near to the ubiquity of Star Wars in 1977.

If you’re reading this wondering “Yeah yeah, but when’s he going to get to the Star Wars material?”, you might have some inkling what it would have been like waiting for that moment in 1977. 
The introduction shows us a glimpse of R2-D2 and C-3PO, and the unlikely image of Chewbacca with an arm around Darth Vader. After that, at every commercial break, the show teases us with the prospect of more Star Wars coming up. 

When it finally happens, the Star Wars skit begins with a spoof of the film’s opening crawl. You can easily imagine a young fan squirming with excitement at this reminder of the movie. Then Donny & Marie come on dressed as Luke and Leia and sing the first of several short pop numbers. 

Disco-dancing storm troopers in the
Donny & Marie Star Wars

The moment that would really have thrilled a young fan is when C3PO and R2-D2 come on. In the 1970s, fans’ bedrooms may have been full of Star Wars magazines and comics, but to see those characters move and speak again on the small screen would have been hugely exciting.

It has to be said that the extended Star Wars sequence is pretty rambling and, let’s face it, just plain strange. If it had gone for a little satire, like the Farrah sketch earlier, it might have been memorable for the right reasons. As it is, we’re given a pretty formless series of moments, with Redd Foxx as the Kenobi figure, Kris Kristofferson as Han Solo, and Thurl Ravenscroft – the voice of Tony the Tiger in the Kellogg’s Frosties commercials – substituting for James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader. 

Kris Kristofferson as Han Solo in Donny & Marie

Our heroes run about escaping from the Empire while singing songs based on such pop standards as 'Get Ready' and 'Leaving On a Jet Plane'. Donny and Marie dance with R2. Some female Stormtroopers come on. Some male Stormtroopers, with the voices of the Osmond brothers, do a disco dance. And when hey sing “We’re Darth Vader’s raiders and we can’t believe the things that you do,” we see R2 shaking his domed head, as though experiencing the same disbelief as the viewer. The whole thing ends with a lavish dance number and fireworks.

The gags are pretty weak. There are a couple of in-jokes referencing Redd Foxx’s most famous TV role (“Sandford has no sun,” he says). Paul Lynde – mainly familiar to kids then as the voice of the Hooded Claw and other Hanna-Barbera characters – is amusing as he intones “Don’t you know you’ll never escape from the Farce?” But it’s no comedy classic.

Although I don’t remember seeing the show at the time, I’m pretty sure I would have enjoyed it a lot, however weak the jokes. Here were characters and costumes from Star Wars on the TV screen, and if the effect was a bit bizarre when they were letting their hair down like this, what did it matter?

One thing that might possibly have raised eyebrows is the fact that a brother and sister team were playing Luke and Leia. Luke and the princess as siblings? That idea’s just weird.

The Star Wars Holiday Special: Was it Donny and Mary’s fault?

The end of the Donny & Marie Star Wars skit

The Wikipedia entry on Donny & Mary points out that this variety show – complete with sketches, skits, guest stars and even ice skaters – was already something of an anachronism when it went out. The only other variety series on network television had disappeared within a year of this episode being broadcast.

But that didn’t stop CBS applying something like the variety format to Star Wars the following year, with George Lucas’s initial approval. This oral history of the Star Wars Holiday Special says Star Wars’ box office performance picked up again after the transmission of the Osmonds’ show, which may have encouraged Lucasfilm to think the Holiday Special concept was a good one. On the other hand, that spike in receipts may also have been due to The Making of Star Wars going out the week before.

There’s a postscript to the Osmonds’ Star Wars skit. In December 2015, while on tour, Donny and Marie hired a cinema in Gainesville, Texas, to show Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, with 18 lucky fans joining them. They said they were inspired to run the competition because the Star Wars characters had made their TV debut on that 1977 show.

“George Lucas asked us to introduce these characters," Donny said in this ABC News article. "Little did I know, these characters that I'm singing and dancing next to were going to change the world."

Marie said, "We were there in the beginning! Who knew that it would be so incredibly huge?"

Except that if you were a young viewer at the time, Star Wars was already pretty huge.


Rory Cobb said...

I never missed Donny and Marie- what 10 year old in 77 didn't have a crush on one of them? And- with the show doing Star Wars? Well, I can't tell you how thrilled I was! Back then, I had seen the movie once, about three months prior, and was thrilled about anything that remotely referenced Star Wars. I do remember being a little less than impressed with Kristofferson playing Han, but thought that Donny and Marie as Luke and Leila was spot on!

steve said...

Yeah I was maybe 7 or so when Star Wars came out that year and I also remember how popular that Donnie & Marie show was. I know our family watched it. And since I had seen Star Wars at least once at that point if not a 2nd time anything related to Star Wars was OK in my book. I have memories of this, specifically Kristofferson and Foxx, but only very vague memories. Right now as I type this I'm debating whether to watch the clip above..... Great write up.

Unknown said...

These things serve to remind me that US variety was even worse than UK variety. So cheap it's like being slightly degraded.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks very much for the comments.

Rory: Great to have it confirmed that every 10-year-old was smitten with Marie or Donny as well as Star Wars. Kristofferson really seems oddly out of it as Han. Maybe he was trying to emulate Harrison Ford's laid-back air, or maybe he found the whole thing embarrassing.

Steve: Thanks for the kind comment. Watch it! You know you want to.

Dec: Well, it certainly is a bit cheap (although hiring those guest stars, dancers and skaters must have run into money), but not without a cheesy charm.

It would be interesting to know whether this ran on UK television. I think it must have done, since Donny & Mary was shown in Britain, but I've been unable to find out when.

Disco Spinach said...

And Mark Hamill didn't make an appearance? DAMN IT!