Sidekicks, Servants & the Sinister
The Best Supporting Characters of Christmas
“Nobody comes here for the Elf. Santa’s the attraction. I do Burl Ives songs, does this schmo even play the guitar?” — Harrison (the fired mall Santa) in Bad Santa
We try to promote all the holiday shows happening across The 570 every winter but there are only so many photos of Scrooge in a top hat and great coat we can run in one issue. The abundance of Ebenezers staring us in the face led to an office conversation which turned into a social media dialogue about all the other characters of Christmas, the bit parts, quirky cousins and comic relief roles that make the movies, plays and televisions specials of the holiday season so memorable.
1) The Misfits. Rudolph thought he had problems until alighting on The Island of Misfit Toys. My personal favorite is the red-headed doll — just what is it that’s wrong with her exactly? Surely it’s not just a matter of hair-color! Does she have a mood disorder? Could she really be a serial killer of Ken dolls as our twitter friend @obfusticate teased?
2) The Donkey. Equally outcast and even more underappreciated than Rudolph is Santa’s donkey Spieltoe. “What you never knew Santa had a donkey! Who do you think pulls Santa’s snow plow?” Not to dwell on the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, but if you grew up in the ’70s these stop animation made for television features are the Christmas spirit and the best thing to happen to Christmas kitsch this side of pink artificial trees and felt elves with clamping hands. Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey is one of the hardest to catch and one of my favorite for its narration by Roger Miller as “Spieltoe.” In 1977, I was Roger Miller’s biggest 5-year-old fan … in the Bay Area if not the world. Spieltoe, not to be confused with Lou Monte’s “Domenic the Italian Christmas donkey,” is a descendant of Nestor who was a hero of sorts at the birth of Jesus.
3) The Pets. Some would say The Grinch’s lovable, tolerant dog Max steals the show from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (Thanks, Nezka Pfeifer), and what would Jack Skellington do without his ghost dog Zero? While it’s true that Linus puts the heart and soul in the A Charlie Brown Christmas, we can count on the smugly superior Snoopy to provide the comic relief.
4) The Angels. “Listen to the Angels,” Nestor’s mother urges from the heavens, guiding the little misfit’s way to Bethlehem. Without the interference of these guardians, humankind would be lost. If the unlikely Clarence of It’s a Wonderful Life fails to inspire you, watch The Bishop’s Wife (1947) for the other side of the coin. What crisis of faith can’t be cured by Cary Grant magically appearing and asking, “What can I do for you?” Sure, call him Dudley and give him human emotions — it doesn’t make a dent in the suave. In addition to the big screen version, the story has been dramatized multiple times for radio but not so much for stage.
5) The Help. The 1942 film Holiday Inn is most notable for giving us the Irving Berlin hit “White Christmas.” The focus is clearly on the stars — Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire — but it’s the meddling muse Marjorie Reynolds as flower store clerk Linda Mason that saves the show. “I’ve found the size of a place doesn’t matter if one has sufficient personality,” she tells Crosby at their first meeting. Oooh. And where there’s a Santa, there’s a store manager — the ubiquitous character is surely one of the most fun for an actor to play with. We love John Ritter in Bad Santa and Faizon Love in Elf — “Work is your new favorite” — (although as far as supporting characters in Elf go, Peter Dinklage wins hands down), and Frank Morgan as Hugo Matuschek in The Shop Around the Corner (1940).
6) The Elves. Not to be confused with just any support staff are Santa’s elves. Everyone loves Hermie, aka “the (flamboyant), ginger, dentist-elf who helped Rudolph save Christmas by pulling all of the Abominable Snowman’s teeth,” (Thanks John Pivovarnick). Marcus the elf in Bad Santa is pretty crucial, too. Humorist David Sedaris made a memoir out of his experience as a professional elf that’s fun to listen to as an audio piece read by the author and has been adapted to stage as The Santaland Diaries (running at BTE again this year Dec. 13-16 and starring Richie Cannaday) by Joe Mantello.
7) The Bully. Whether it’s offensive Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) in Christmas Vacation (Thanks, Jer Tobin) or Scott Farkus, the raccoon-hatted bully in A Christmas Story (Thanks, Chris Cornell) the family member or neighbor from hell is one of the newer characters to emerge in Christmas lore. The dark side of Christmas is perhaps the season’s most colorful. In the 1959/1960 Mexican cult film Santa Claus, our protagonist has to defeat the demon Pitch sent by Lucifer to ruin Christmas.
And there wouldn’t be a Home Alone (1990) without vaudevillian burglars Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern). Recent years have seen a resurgence in popularity for Krampus — St. Nick’s cloven-hoofed side kick who punishes bad children and/or eats them for dinner.
8) The Spiritual. “I’m partial to Charlie Brown but Linus is the heart. Without Linus I’d have dry eyes at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas,” our friend Tim McDermott wrote in response to a casual Facebook poll. ’Nuff said.
9) The Repentant. The whole point of A Christmas Carol is that Scrooge is given another chance. Poor Mr. Magoo needs all the help he can get. Even the most dastardly among us can turn over a new leaf and there’s no better time to start as we start a new year. Without the clumsy mistakes of Uncle Billy, the wheels of It’s a Wonderful Life don’t start turning. When this character is forgiven, we are all forgiven — it’s the great cleansing power of the holiday. The Italian myth of La Befana finds an old crone who was couldn’t be bothered to help the wise men on their way to Bethlehem. She later realized she made a mistake but couldn’t find the stable where Jesus lay. According to the myth, she continues to fly around on her broom delivering gifts to all the children in repentance. (P.S. as far as Ebenezers go, I recommend Albert Finney in the 1970 musical adaptation, a tragically under-appreciated performance.)
10) The Porcupine? Even before the Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders forced us to reconsider the significance of the porcupine, Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas gave us a new appreciation for the spiny creature in the form of mellow yellow-capped Wendell. (Thanks, Alysia Scazafabo).
11) The Unwritten. You know that great Hanukkah story — yeah, apparently there is room to make an impact here people. The pressure to be politically correct at Winter Solstice time demands we beef up the lore with a few good stories outside of the Christian paradigm. Get writing.