An abducted St. Nick spreads holiday cheer all over the Red Planet in this weird sci-fi comedy from 1964. Here’s an earthling’s guide to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
1. Santa Claus Conquers the Martianshas an odd connection to Charles Lindbergh.
Everything started out innocently enough. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was the brainchild of producer Paul L. Jacobson. Incidentally, this was the first—and only—movie that he ever produced. In the 1950s, Jacobson had worked as a unit manager on NBC’s iconic puppet show Howdy Doody. This experience gave him an insider’s look at the children’s entertainment industry. Confident that he could make a hit kiddie film, Jacobson started developing what he referred to as an original “Yuletide science fiction fantasy.”
Once he raised $200,000, production on the movie began in earnest. Shooting took place at Michael Myerberg Studios on Long Island—an abandoned aircraft hangar that had been repurposed as a film studio in 1964. Thirty-seven years earlier, Charles Lindbergh stored The Spirit of St. Louis here on the night before his epic, transatlantic flight.
2. Santa Claus Conquers the Martianswas the film debut of Pia Zadora.
Long before making it big as a professional singer, Pia Zadora entered the world of film in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Here, her character is Girmar, a typical red planet girl who likes watching “Earth programs” with her brother on the family television set. This was just the beginning of Zadora’s cult movie career, as she’d also turn up in John Waters's Hairspray (1988) and Naked Gun 33 1/3 (1994). In 1982, she starred in Butterfly, an R-rated incest drama. Though critics trashed the flick, Zadora’s performance did win her a Golden Globe—albeit, an extremely controversial one.
3. The alien stun guns in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians were name brand toys.
Halfway through the movie, a troop of unitard-wearing spacemen break into Santa’s workshop. Once there, the invaders freeze some innocent elves (and poor Mrs. Claus) in their tracks with special guns. Any kid growing up in the 1960s would have easily recognized these weapons as plastic “ray guns” that Marx Toy Co. mass produced throughout the decade.
4. A Tonight Show band leader wrote Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’s catchy theme song.
It’s tough to get the very catchy “Hooray for Santy Claus!” out of your head within four hours of watching this movie. A joyous, jazzy number, it was penned by the late composer Milton Delugg. In 1963, NBC hired him as the music director for their annual telecasts of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Delugg would retain this high-profile gig until he stepped down in 2013. On the same network, Delugg led The Tonight Show orchestra for a year and a half during Johnny Carson’s early tenure. The musician passed away in his Los Angeles home last year at the age of 96.
5. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’s Santa was plucked from a hit Broadway musical.
During the original 1963 to 1964 run of Oliver!, John Call played the eccentric Dr. Grimwig. Born in 1908, he enjoyed a long career on "The Great White Way," joining such productions as Bloomer Girl (1944-1947) and Pickwick (1965). Immediately after leaving Oliver!, Call took on the role that he’s best remembered for today—namely, Kris Kringle in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
By the way, he isn’t the only Broadway veteran in the cast of this sci-fi comedy. Earth kids Betty and Billy are portrayed by Donna Conforti and Victor Stiles, respectively. Both might’ve looked a little familiar to theatergoers at the time: Stiles had previously acted in Oliver! as a pickpocket, while Conforti was a bit player in 1963’s Here’s Love—a musical adaptation of Miracle on 34th Street (1947).
6. That guy in the polar bear suit later appeared in All The President’s Men.
“We weren’t about to get a real bear!” director Nicholas Webster said in retrospect. En route to warning Santa about the Martians, Billy and Betty encounter a huge polar bear, who briefly corners them. You needn’t be a genius to deduce that the beast is really a man in a cheap costume. Watch this clip closely and you may also notice that the person inside is crawling around on his knees—hardly ursine behavior. Anyway, the Arctic predator was played by stage actor Gene Lindsey. Years later, Lindsey joined the cast of All the President’s Men as Alfred D. Baldwin, a participant in the Watergate Scandal.
7. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was the first motion picture to ever depict Mrs. Claus.
The Mrs. Claus character has been around for a while: James Rees’s 1849 story A Christmas Legend features the earliest known reference to St. Nick’s wife. Mrs. Claus would go on to become a household name after the poem Goody Santa on a Sleigh Ride came along in 1889. But despite this newfound publicity, her husband beat her to the silver screen by more than six decades. Old Kris Kringle has been starring in films and shorts since the late 1890s, whereas the missus wouldn’t make her cinematic debut until Doris Rich played her in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
8. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians shares a bit of footage with Dr. Strangelove.
As the opening credits roll in Stanley Kubrick’s biting cold war comedy, we’re treated to some military stock footage of a plane refueling in midair. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians incorporates this exact same snippet at the 24:40 mark.
9. There’s a spelling error in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’s opening credits.
Ramsey Mostoller is listed as the picture’s “Custume Designer.” Naturally, this little typo did not go unnoticed when Santa Claus Conquers the Martians got the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment in 1991.
10. Mystery Science Theater 3000 wasn’t the first TB show to lampoon Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians will always be associated with MST3K thanks to a 1991 Christmas special in which Joel Hodgson and his puppet pals used it as heckling fodder. But before Mystery Science Theater 3000, there was The Canned Film Festival. A one-season wonder, it takes place at a run-down cinema that tries to draw in new customers by screening some of the strangest films ever made. Our leading lady is Laraine, an usherette played by SNL alumnus Laraine Newman. Along with a handful of regular patrons, she watches and pokes fun at such masterpieces as Robot Monster (1953) and They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968). The show ran on CBS for just 13 episodes in the summer of 1986 before it was ultimately replaced with M*A*S*H reruns. Still, at least it managed to feature/make fun of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians before going under.