king of the kiddie matinee

Christmas has just passed, and I’ve been high off the fumes of plastic blow-mold Santas and canned-snow on tinsel trees. One of my favorite cinematic masters of the holiday is producer K. Gordon Murray, and I’ve been meaning to write about him for some time. In my obsession with his camp treatises on Santa Claus and his mismatched band of “helpers” (the titular misfits of 1964’s short film Santa Claus and His Helpers inexplicably include Stinky the Skunk and Puss N’ Boots) I’ve never really understood the “King of the Kiddie Matinee.”
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A short biography of Murray may shed some light on his eccentric aesthetics and tastes (big thanks to the research of fellow odd blogger The Uranium Cafe.) Murray was born in 1922, the son of a funeral home director, in Bloomington, Illinois. Bloomington happened to be the home-base for many wintering carnival workers. Murray, who hung around the carnival as a kid, later toured with West’s World Wonder Shows Carnival as a game operator, and eventually rose to the position of manager. He slipped into showbiz by aiding fellow carnival workers find work as extras in such Hollywood flagships as The Wizard of Oz and by helping to promote Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Finding his calling, Murray and his wife moved to Miami to set up a film production company, K. Gordon Murray Productions.

Easily parlaying his carnival barking roots into the promotion of exploitation flicks, Murray released 60 titles in 15 years. IMDB gives K. Gordon Murray 23 credits as a producer, 8 as an actor (usually as the dubbed over voice of perennial nightmare-fuel character Stinky the Skunk,) 6 as writer, and another 8 as “miscellaneous crew.” Murray is known best for plucking foreign B-movies and dubbing them in English for an American audience. Beyond the live action/puppet character films that earned him his monarchic title, Murray also dabbled in explicit horror films of the 1950s and 60s, as well as an odd assortment of Mexploitation Luchador films. The titles on his IMDB page read like a schizophrenic grab-bag of the subversive and bizarre. (Bring Me the Vampires of 1963, appears right below Santa Claus and His Helpers of 1964.) He might be the most important curator that camp has ever seen, but producers are rarely lionized as auteurs in the same way that Murray has been.

Pitch, from Santa Claus of 1959
Pitch, from Santa Claus of 1959
Murray’s Christmas oeuvre includes Santa Claus and His Helpers, Santa Claus, Santa’s Enchanted Village, Santa’s Magic Kingdom, Santa’s Giant Film Festival of the Brothers Grimm, and Santa’s Fantasy Fair. The first in the series, Santa Claus of 1959 was released in theaters every few years for several decades. Although originially produced in Mexico, directed by René Cardona and co-written with Adolfo Torres Portillo, Murray’s english dubbing of the film is the version most remember, and can never forget. It is the oddball, live-action precursor to the stop-motion camp Christmas classics of Rankin/Bass (The Year Without A Santa Claus, Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer) But K. Gordon Murray’s production of a seemingly benign holiday plot pushes the limits of subversion at a time that we typically relate with an obsession with normalcy. These films exploit the notion of Santa Claus as the purveyor of good and evil, literally pitting him against the Devil’s best henchman, “Pitch”, in Santa Claus.

Pitch is sent to Earth to convince children to lie and steal and engage in general juvenile delinquency. (As he says, “The devil loves rude little boys.”) Sometime after Christmas moved from the dark reign of the Krampus and into the world of Coca-Cola, it lost its glaze of religiosity and alternatively, I argue, some of its base pleasures. Santa Claus, for a time, was a simpler, psuedo-secular version of God, a seer of sinners, a punisher of evils. Now a figurehead of the capitalist state, Santa stands less as a symbol of discipline and punishment, and more as an emblem of the rewards of capital. All children of means receive gifts, only the poor are punished. (And just imagine the disappointment in the dedicated suburban bully’s eye when he woke not to lumpen coal but to a bounty of gifts! Try harder next year, asshole!) But I digress..

The Magic TeleTalker, Santa Claus, 1959
Santa Claus, meanwhile, polices the children from above in his panopticon. “Santa’s Laboratory” hovers above the North Pole… in space! A tour of the lab reveals the tools of Santa’s police state: “The Magic Teletalker”– a set of plush velvet lips undulating from within a riveted brass frame set with jewel-tone buttons and toggles. The Magic Teletalker is connected (somehow) to the “Hear-All Ear”, which floats, disembodied, in the dark of space and the “See-it-All Telescope.” These sensorial appendages are ultimately controlled by the “Behavior Tracker Computer”. Anthropomorphic and obviously sexualized, these components all aid Santa in his quest to delineate naughtiness. Although I still don’t know what the Magic Teletalker does, other than talk nasty to Santa about the baddies…

1964’s Santa Claus and his Helpers regurgitates some choice scenes of Santa Claus but mixes it with a few of K. Gordon Murray’s favorite characters and places them within the context of a promotional film for a franchise of Christmas-themed amusement parks. Joy! After an establishing shot of Santa’s space Laboratory, SC&H then pans, via the See-it-All Telescope to look down upon Earth from the heavens and focuses on the whimsical painted mushrooms that line the entrance to Santa’s Village.

The view of Santa’s Village is indeed magical and mysterious, reinforced by the narrator’s insistence that by “using the 5th dimension, Santa can be seen everywhere.” An engineering Easter Bunny motors us through the outside of the village by conducting a small train.

Stinky the Skunk, Duke the Dog, and Puss N' Boots, Santa and His Helpers, 1964
Stinky the Skunk, Duke the Dog, and Puss N’ Boots, Santa and His Helpers, 1964
Inexplicably, we change course to an ensuing argument between the horrifying fur-suited Stinky the Skunk and Duke the Dog (recylced characters from Murray’s english-dubbing of Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters of 1962.) Stinky the Skunk is voiced by Murray himself, recorded like the Chipmunks at 45RPM and played at 75RPM. The argument, of course, is about Stinky the Skunk’s offensive odor and lasts for FOUR of the twelve minutes that make up this short film. As Duke condemns Stinky, he carries a huge assault rifle, adding some immediacy and menace to the otherwise prolonged and benign quarrel. Puss N’ Boots then appears to break up the fight, but is forced to side with Duke, as Stinky apparently lives up to his moniker.

Good Witch, Easter Bunny, Alice, Jack the Pumpkin Head and Santa at Santa's Village in Scotts Valley, Santa Cruz
Good Witch, Jack the Pumpkin Head and Santa at Santa’s Village in Scotts Valley, Santa Cruz
The Stinky the Skunk scenes of Santa Claus and His Helpers were filmed on location at three different “Santa’s Village” parks across the country. These Santa’s Village parks influenced some of the oddball circus of characters featured in the short film (the Easter Bunny Engineer was a Santa’s Village original.) In addition to a sleigh pulled by imported Arctic reindeer, Santa’s Village in Santa Cruz featured such odd characters as a good witch and “Jack the Pumpkin Head” (Tim Burton, I’m looking right at you, man.) Opened first in Santa Cruz in 1957 by H. Glenn Holland, with franchises later in Southern California and Dundee, Illinois, Santa’s Village was the first franchised theme park in the world. It’s rides are kind of lame, although the Santa Cruz park featured a small roller coaster and a snowman and snowball themed version of the Disneyland teacups ride. What a perfect storm that brought Christmas camp masterminds H. Glenn Holland and K. Gordon Murray together. I’d love to be a fly on the wall of this meeting.
Peppermint Slide at Santa's Village in Dundee Illinois
Peppermint Slide at Santa’s Village in Dundee Illinois

Back in the twisted world of Santa Claus and his Helpers, the plot ends with Santa breaking up Stinky, Puss N’ Boots and Duke’s fight before the rifle has to be used. Santa then forces the three creeps to go make toys, because he underestimated the number of good children this year. (Distracted, perhaps, by the Magic Teletalker?) A final (ish) shot cuts between a tight focus of human hands assembling toy guns and Stinky operating a spark-firing band saw for 2 of the 12 minutes that make up this Christmas classic before abruptly, and without closure, sending up a “The End” title card.

Stinky the Skunk at the end of Santa Claus and His Helpers, 1964
Stinky the Skunk at the end of Santa Claus and His Helpers, 1964

Although Santa Claus of 1959 is undoubtedly a better film in the twisted cult sense, K. Gordon Murray’s involvement was only in Americanizing the film– dubbing it in English, giving it his name and a sensationalist pitch. Santa Claus and his Helpers was a direct product of Murray’s astounding filmic ineptitude. Splicing scenes from his appropriation of Santa Claus with out-of-context original scenes featuring recycled characters and costumes from Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters and promotional video from Santa’s Village theme parks, Santa Claus and his Helpers is a perfect Frankenstein’s monster featuring the highlights of K. Gordon Murray’s eccentricities. I believe the film was also used to promote Santa’s Village theme parks…

Well, the one in Dundee, Illinois still exists. Let’s go!

You can watch Santa Claus and His Helpers here, and Santa Claus here.

Screen shot 2015-01-10 at 7.03.56 PM

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One thought on “king of the kiddie matinee

  1. miss az this is my favorite post yet. your description of k.g.m’s santa films stand on their own as entertainment – but also capture the tone of his films perfectly. i can hear your distinctive voice in this article. im dying that we’ve lost our easy chance to see santa’s village in dundee [right down the street from miki and ed’s old place.] in my youth i must have driven past it many times. pee wee herman and tim burton owe much to k. gordon murray. really well done!

    love you,

    auntie l.

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