As with all Fraggle Rock episodes, the holiday episode that rang in the series' fourth season, "The Bells of Fraggle Rock," celebrates using an alternative approach, leaning into the naturalistic with a meditation on the winter solstice. And as Fraggle Rock is celebrating its 35th anniversary, it seems fitting that the holiday special is getting a big screen celebration via Fathom Events. Paired with Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, "The Bells of Fraggle Rock" will play on December 10th and 16th in theaters across the country.
Written by Jerry and Susan Juhl and Jocelyn Stevenson, "The Bells of Fraggle Rock" was the series' 70th episode and aired in the U.S. on December 24, 1985, but actually first premiered in the UK on December 22, 1984.
In the episode, Gobo Fraggle (Jerry Nelson) is having a bit of a malaise about the season, forgetting the true meaning of the annual Festival of the Bells happening in the Rock. Featuring Cantus the Minstrel, a character voiced and performed by Jim Henson, the episode was the only official holiday special of the entire series, though there was a Fraggle cameo appearance in The Muppet Family Christmas.
"We did a number of holiday pieces over the years," Muppeeter Dave Goelz told SYFY WIRE of his career working on Henson projects. "We did a bunch of Christmas specials and The Muppet Christmas Carol movie. It wasn't an unusual thing, but it was always a chance to celebrate the values of decency. I remember going in as a Californian and being very aware that there was an East Coast sensibility about the Muppets. The people I worked with were more aware of fairy tales than I was. So, I always had the feeling that, especially in our Christmas pieces, I was entering an idealized world that happened in the East Coast. Actual white Christmases and so on. Those things really felt good."
Goelz played Boober Fraggle in the series and remembers, "The Bells of Fraggle Rock" was meant to be a winter solstice piece. It was not about a specific religion, it was just a sense that it's winter, and we're celebrating.
The episode was produced later in the series' run, and Red Fraggle Muppeteer Karen Prell told SYFY WIRE that she was glad the episode was written deeper into their existence. "It would've been different if we had done it earlier in the run of the show when the characters, and certainly the younger performers, like me, hadn't fully evolved," she says. "Just what [the episode] is saying, and how it's saying its message is really quite sophisticated. So, I think it came at a good time in the life of the series, so that not only the making the show, but the people watching the show were at a good point where they could embrace something like it.
"At the time, Jim Henson wasn't day-to-day on Fraggle Rock but he helped design the Weeba Weeba monster and voice and perform the episode's guest character, Cantus the Minstrel. It was always fun having Jim around, either when he was directing or performing because he loved performing. Obviously, he would be very, very interested in the bigger aspects of the story and the show, but when it was time to put on a puppet, he would just get into it a 100 percent and just play and laugh and find all these funny little quirks that he could play with... We'd all just be trying to not break up during the take because it would be so entertaining. And the atmosphere he set up when he started this project was to find a lot of creative, compatible people and then trust them, just let them loose and know that they would do what he chose them to do.
"That spirit of trust and joy in the art, which was always there when we were doing the show, would be heightened because Jim was there, just confirming that's an awesome way to work and create magical stories."
"The Bells of Fraggle Rock" featured three brand new songs: "Weeba Weeba" and "The Festival of the Bells" written by Phil Balsam and Steve Whitmire, and "The Promise" written by Balsam and Dennis Lee.
As with all Fraggle episodes, Prell says they would sing onset to their pre-recorded tracks. Each episode was shot over the course of a week, with the beginning of each week belonging to prep and in-studio recording. The final three days were spent shooting.
"The puppet builders and the set dressers and the set builders, they would have their own breakdown of what they would be doing for the week until we all had the great conjunction to make it all work on camera," Prell says. "And if you've ever seen any live puppet production, below the camera there's a whole traffic jam happening, just moving around performers and moving around the set for which camera you have to go be in front of, and what monitor you're looking at. So, not having to do the live singing on top of that would take one plate away that we wouldn't have to juggle in the middle of that, and it just helped the singing and the performing be as good as it could be."
Prell remembers loving Red's pragmatic take and her character's signature sass. "I loved all the scenes where she's kind of bossing Gobo around," she says with a laugh. "Gobo's kind of in his funk and doubting things, and she's saying, 'Come on, Gobo. We're gonna do this. What are you doing? Let's get into the great hall. Come on.' She gets to stand out and show some fire. It's always fun showing her being not nice, happy Fraggle and having fun with that. It's something the writers would do a lot in scripts, where Red was a good cut-to-the-chase character... She would kick some Fraggle tail and get things to happen. So, even though her part in the show was small, it was fun being able to do those things, and especially when Cantus shows up and everybody's singing the happy song, and she's in the back wrestling Gobo and trying to keep him from leaving, and throwing him some stink eye to add some contrast to the happy song thing that was going on."
With all of the Fraggle Rock team reflecting on its 35-year legacy, Prell says she's been able to attend some events this year that have reminded her of the series' continuing impact. "I love seeing how much it continues to touch people that saw the show when they were kids, and how they were able to appreciate it in one way when they were kids, and then seeing it again as adults, especially if they're in the entertainment industry. And even though technology has advanced since we originally did the show, people see what we did with the stories we were trying to tell, and the characters that participated in those stories, and how we were trying to present things in a very responsible way. It not just there's good guys and bad guys, and that's it. There's a lot of gray in there, and sometimes the people with the best intentions don't have the best insight and maybe don't make the best decisions, but there's a chance for them to learn from that.
"'The Bells of Fraggle Rock' is a good example of that, with Gobo, who's normally the voice of reason character, but this is a show where he had passion and good intentions, but he was missing the big picture. He had to learn something from making some decisions that almost had some serious consequences. But then he was able to figure it out. And that just so encapsulates what we tried to do with the whole series."
She continues, "People, I think, still enjoy the show because they see that kind of mature storytelling that was happening with it. When kids are watching the show, it gives it this extra depth that isn't always there in some kids' entertainment. I think that's helped keep it going and be appreciated, and hopefully inspiring people who are grown now to apply some of those lessons, not just as entertainment, but just to how they approach life."
Cheryl Henson, President of the Jim Henson Foundation and a member of the Board of Directors for The Jim Henson Company, as well as Jim's daughter, agrees telling SYFY WIRE, "I feel like the way that the Fraggles are aware of their environment and that they're both aware of and not aware of [the] importance of the symbiotic relationships with the other species and with the world around them, there are so many messages in Fraggle Rock that are really pertinent for today."