Miracle on 95th Street – Macy’s Presents a New Holiday Special

In 1897 — in September of 1897 no less — New York Sun editorial writer Francis Pharcellus Church wrote what become arguably the most famous editorial of all time as a response to a letter received by the paper. Under the headline ‘Is there a Santa Claus?,’ Church’s reply is more commonly known and cherished as Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

The letter was written by 8 year old Virginia O’Hanlon who despite believing in the existence of Santa, had doubts cast upon her beliefs by her aging friends, most notably those of lesser privilege who were no doubt seeing less and less of Santa each year. When questioned by Virginia, her father cleverly evaded the topic, leaving Virginia no choice but to ask the New York Sun as her dad’s manta was ‘If you see it in The Sun, it is so.’

You can read the letter and the full contents of the editorial on the Newseum‘s website, but needless to say, Church defended the childhood right to believe and sided with Virginia, answering the question with an emphatic yes. Church’s response resonated so strongly with Virginia that she later credited it with shaping her life as she grew up to earn a master’s degree in education and became a New York City public school teacher.

The editorial has lived on in pop culture ever since then, including a 1974 animated holiday classic based on the story. Inspired by the editorial, Macy’s  initiated its Believe campaign last year in which children could bring letters to Santa to its stores and, for each letter received, Macy’s would donate $1 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, up to one million dollars. Mission accomplished.

This year, Macy’s has brought back the campaign but they are adding a couple of new ingredients to the mix. First is a national Santa tour (whom you could follow on Twitter) and an all new animated television special, Yes, Virginia (Based on a True Story).

This weekend I was invited to attend a magical  screening of the half-hour special hosted by Macy’s. The location of the screening was 117 West 95th Street, which once was geographically the home of the O’Hanlon family. Technically the O’Hanlons lived at 115, but the two homes were subsequently torn down and now, quite fittingly, the not-for-profit Studio School is in their place. Unfortunately I wasn’t quite aware of just how special the screening would be, so I left the camera at home, but take my word for it, it was an incredibly nice setup given the locale. Attending children wrote letters to Santa upstairs while the room slowly filled downstairs with refreshments courtesy of Serendipity 3 and the presence of Make-A-Wish and Gingerhaus (a kit that relies on the use of a corrugated cardboard skeleton to allow folks to build larger gingerbread domiciles more easily), all the while a musical trio performed instrumental Christmas music.

Also in attendance of the event were several of the cast, including Michael Buscemi (Scraggly Santa) and many of the kids: Beatrice Miller (Virginia), Kieran Patrick Campbell (Ollie), Julian Franco (Charlotte) and Taylor Hay (Taylor) who herself is a Wish kid and had a wish granted by being part of the production (the Taylor character is completely modeled after her). If that weren’t enough, several of the O’Hanlon family were invited to attend and a short but gracious address by Virginia’s granddaughter, Mary Blair (yes, same name as the Walt Disney Imagineer), was presented along with a bronze plaque dedicated to Virginia to be placed on the exterior of the school.

Virginia and Ollie from Yes, VirginiaAs for the show itself, I don’t know that it’s destined to be a new perennial classic, but I’m sure it’ll be around for the next few years at least. Whenever something is subtitled ‘based on a true story,’ you know there have to had to been some liberties taken with history and there are undoubtedly are. The show (which takes place closer to Christmas, naturally) kicks off with Virginia and her pest/friend Ollie as Virginia works on a paper sculpture of Santa Claus delivering presents. When Virginia and her friends are taunted by the more ‘mature’ Charlotte (think Nellie from Little House on the Prairie), Virginia begins to have her doubts so she consults with her father on the matter. When not getting the answer she felt she needed, Virginia opts to write to the New York Sun for the real answer despite some indirect discouragement from her father (Neil Patrick Harris) (by the real Virginia’s own account, however, her father appeared to be more supportive of the idea). The letter lands on the desk of Frank Church (Alfred Molina) who is portrayed as a bit of a no-nonsense Scrooge, particularly when we first meet him on screen as he encounters a former employee of the paper (Scraggly Santa) and readily dismisses him and Scraggly Santa’s requests for charity. In Scroogey fashion, Church tosses the letter in the trash where it miraculously ends up in the hands of Charlotte who uses it to taunt Virginia further. Fortunately Virginia has reluctantly found a friend in the Scraggly Santa who is one of the few left who believe in the spirit of the season and when Charlotte finds Virginia, she finds him as well and it’s through Scraggly Santa that Church is convinced to write the famous editorial.

Directed by Pete Circuitt and written by Wayne Best and Chris Plehal who appear to have no prior credits, it’s not remarkable, but historical liberties aside, it’s pretty decent granted they had to stretch five minutes of material into a 22 minute special. There are some funny and charming moments and the messages of hope and belief is pretty evident. Tongue-in-cheek, the show references historical events as the New York City subway and Brooklyn becoming incorporated into New York City as things that many grown-ups would refuse to believe as possible and that actually works here. Fortunately there were no references to ‘man never walking on the Moon.’

On the flip side, one major shortcoming in my eyes (and arguably was done just to keep things less complicated) was the portrayal of Santa Claus’ image. In one scene (and rightfully so), the kids visit the public library to research and discover that a form of Santa exists the world over. The problem is that when pictures of the overseas Santas are shown, they all look like the stereotypical Santa we know and love in the United States. And the problem with that is that the Santa we’ve accepted as his true form is actually the creation of Haddon Sundblom, commissioned by the Coca-Cola company in the 1930s, long after the show takes place. In 1900, the winning image of Santa was that of Thomas Nast who — while some similarities existed between the two — did look remarkably different. Coca-Cola even has a decent history of Santa’s appearance in the United States.

But historical issues aside, aside from the bit of cleverness, the show also serves up its fair share of laughs, cuteness and emotion and the message is clear. The only unfinished business is that Charlotte never learns her lesson.

As for the CG animation, you can get a taste from the previews at the link for the show above, but it is beautifully done in a style that immediately brings paper sculpture to mind, only in a 3D space (except for when Virginia works on her own paper sculpture that is). The roundness of the kids’ faces (and many of the adults) really works. The only character I didn’t particularly care for in terms of his modeling was Church who just seemed as though he’d be more at home in a video game in the late ’90s. The animation was produced by Starz Animation, the folks responsible for Tim Burton’s 9.

Yes, Virginia will air Friday, December 11 at 8 pm ET/PT on CBS.

Macy's National Believe Day All of this leads to the special’s air date of December 11, which is not-so-coincidentally a day that Macy’s has declared National Believe Day. On this day, Macy’s is asking everyone to honor the right to believe in whatever one chooses to believe in, be it Santa Claus, fairies or even five-foot tall mice. To celebrate, Macy’s is deploying ‘newsboy’ street teams in 16 cities who will be randomly awarding $25 gift cards to the store. Additionally, anyone named Virginia (first, middle or last) can go to their local store’s Believe station and claim a $10 gift card from 8 am – 6 pm while supplies last (ID required). As part of the campaign, Macy’s is also offering a contest to win a VIP trip to the 2010 Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City as well as putting Santa on tour and collecting letters for him, making donations to Make-A-Wish for each letter received.

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