Closing in on the holiday season, I find myself again realizing how hard it is to find a good Hanukkah (or Chanukah) movie.
Growing up, teachers would show us the puppet musical "Chanukah at Bubbe's" in school, and it has always left an impression. So this year, I decided to revisit the show, and figure out where Bubbe came from and who was behind it — and as it turns out, influential Hollywood puppeteers and a chief Simpsons animator got their start in this obscure '80s gem.
First, let's break down “Chanukah at Bubbe’s”
The special is an installment (there’s also a Passover version) of “Bubbe’s Boarding House,” an educational program that was released on VHS in 1989 (today, you can buy it as a DVD or on iTunes). The 42-minute-long musical features a Sesame Street-style puppet cast of animals and people-like creatures, many of whom live together in the boarding house. In the Chanukah episode, siblings Zack and Muffin and their friend Chester come to visit their bubbe (grandmother in Yiddish) for the holiday.
Bubbe, checking up on her Hanukkah goods delivery.
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Chester, Zack and Muffin in Bubbe’s kitchen.
There’s a lot of shenanigans as the group gets ready for dinner, but eventually they settle in to light the candles, play dreidel and hear Bubbe tell the Hanukkah story.
Zack and Muffin sing about Hanukkah during a break from dreidel.
During her rendition the boarders, Bubbe, Zack, Muffin and Chester appear as characters in the story. Anton, who spent the earlier part of the program trying to convince everyone that tomato, not potato, latkes are the traditional Hanukkah food, plays evil Greek leader Antiochus. Zack and Muffin play Maccabees. The others provide some ancient color.
Bubbe’s characters in Ancient Greece.
Revisiting the show, I was impressed by the quality of production. The puppets are strange and beautiful, the songs catchy and the jokes plentiful and generally amusing. The scenes in Ancient Greece are especially entertaining — Antiochus' proclamation that Greece's Jews will be barred from their culture is played for laughs. Antiochus says: "Thank you, thank you, you're beautiful! You know, I love you Jews, I really do! And that's why I want you to be Greek. Greeks have more money, more land, more fun! Whaddaya say?"
And the list of "no-nos" for Jews rhymes. Antiochus reads:
"A is for ark, which never was floatin'. A is for atonement, that day's verboten. A is for Abraham, forget his kin. A is for Antiochus, hooray for him! B is for Bar Mitzvah, that is forbidden, and B is for bible, forget that was written. C is for candles you can no longer light, D is for daven, no praying, all right?"
From Muffin to Lisa Simpson
Clearly, “Chanukah at Bubbe’s” emerged from fertile minds. David Silverman, the show's puppet designer, became one of the early Simpsons animators, and went on to direct several episodes of “The Simpsons” and the 2007 Simpsons movie. There’s a strong resemblance between Bubbe’s puppets and Simpsons characters: Muffin looks like Lisa, Chester’s head is shaped like Bart’s and this delivery guy:
Looks like a young, cleaner bus driver Otto.
Others who worked on “Bubbe’s” also went on to creative careers. Greg Ballora, one of the puppeteers, worked on “Team America,” “Men in Black II,” and “The Flintstones,” among other films. He also was a puppet constructor and puppeteer for a mid-90s company called Punch & Brodie Puppet productions, which has possibly the most delightful art of any website I’ve come across:
Phil Baron, writer, musician, music producer and lyricist, is now a cantor at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He was the voice of “Teddy Ruxpin” and Piglet in Disney’s “Welcome to Pooh Corner.”Jean Doumanian, the show's producer, was briefly a "Saturday Night Live" producer in the early 1980s. And Len Levitt, writer, lyricist, puppeteer and associate producer, continues to work in the Jewish/puppet sphere.
Screenshot via Levitt's website.
High school troupe "The Puppet Conspiracy" turns into a profession
In an interview, Levitt said that he had been putting on puppet shows with two friends, artist John Seed and Sean Cassidy, while in high school in the '70s. They were known as "The Puppet Conspiracy."
Image courtesy of Sean Cassidy.
Levitt graduated earned an MFA from UCLA, and started working on “The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin,” where he met and became friends with Phil Baron and his wife Michelle. “All during the 1980s I was thinking, ‘It would be great if I could somehow create a television show about Hanukkah, because in those days there was nothing on the air about Hanukkah.” That's not entirely surprising — Hanukkah wasn't popularized in the U.S. until the 1970s. In 1987, Levitt and the Barons began working on a script for “Chanukah at Bubbe’s,” and Levitt began reaching out to old friends.
“I talked to my old partner Sean about it, Sean and I were still good friends. By then his mother had gotten into children’s producing… He told her about what we were doing and she was interested.” Cassidy’s mother, Jesse Kant, became the show’s executive producer and chief financier. Cassidy himself became a writer on the show, and voiced and operated Anton/Antiochus.
Cassidy holds and operates Anton. Image courtesy of Sean Cassidy.
David Silverman was a friend from graduate school. “He was in the MFA program in animation. He used to stop by the puppetry shop, so we got to be friends. I called him up and asked if he would design some puppets, and he said sure.”
Levitt describes Bubbe’s as a labor of love — and it was indeed a labor. Cassidy says that the hardest part of making the show “was contorting to remain below the scenery, and to hold the puppets in place (above our heads) as the crew prepared for the scene.” He adds, however, that the most satisfying was the filming. It was an arduous process… but so fun to see all the work come together on film.” The joy is apparent to the viewer, and it's contagious.
After "Chanukah at Bubbe's," Baron and Levitt worked on a series called "Alef… Bet… Blast-off!" which didn't enjoy the same amount of success. Levitt says, "I found out over the years that different people have told me that in NY it was a pretty big deal. It was quite a well-loved show, I'm told, especially in the Modern Orthodox community." The show, which was meant to appeal to Jews across the religious gamut, is more than a Hanukkah story; it tells young viewers to be themselves (that message is clear: the chorus of one song literally includes the phrase "be yourself,") putting an idealistic spin on the holiday, as others have done before. And it's a sweet one, especially for a child sitting on the floor of her music room, surrounded by friends and waiting for early holiday dismissal, and hearing it from the maws of merry band of friendly muppets.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.