Watch Ringo Starr and Sammy Davis Jr. in 1985's Bonkers 'Alice in Wonderland'

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Sammy Davis Jr. as the Caterpillar, and Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle in 1985's 'Alice in Wonderland.' (CBS)

TV musicals have never been the most dignified way for stars to stay in touch with their fans. Consider Carrie Underwood’s stiff-as-a-board acting in 2013’s Sound of Music Live! Or perhaps Abigail Breslin’s choreographed nightmare in ABC’s Dirty Dancing remake. And lest we forget poor Allison Williams having to crazy-eye her way through the unintentionally hilarious Peter Pan Live in 2014.

This is in no way a recent phenomena, with regrettable TV musicals stretching back through the decades across many networks. One of the most notable—and oft forgotten—is a 34-year-old production of Alice in Wonderland that still stands as a shining example of how weird things can get when you shove a bunch of famous people into stupid costumes and make them sing and dance for the nation’s amusement.

Aired on CBS just in time for Christmas 1985, this two-part, three-hour movie—ostensibly aimed at kids—had a cast designed to appeal almost exclusively to parents and grandparents. Telly Savalas was the Cheshire Cat, Shelley Winters was the Dodo Bird, Patrick Duffy was the Goat and Carol Channing was the White Queen. The closest thing to a young hottie in the cast was a fresh-from-Happy Days Scott Baio as Pat the Pig. (A pre-fame John Stamos also showed up as Haigha the Messenger, but let’s leave that in the accident category.)


No one suffered more in this thing, though, than Beatles drummer Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle, and Rat Pack boundary-breaker Sammy Davis Jr. as the Caterpillar. It’s hard to imagine the bounty these legends were offered to make this endeavor seem worthwhile, but the passage of time has made it abundantly clear that, whatever it was, it wasn’t enough.

Nothing can quite prepare you for Ringo as the Mock Turtle, wearing yellow tights, fluffy ears (one of which is pierced because: reptilian rock star?) and a giant shell. At the time, this might not have seemed terribly far from Paul McCartney releasing novelty children’s song “We All Stand Together” (a 1984 collaboration with cartoon frogs), but there can be no question that this literal ode to nonsense is worse. Much, much worse.

Then there’s poor Sammy—a star that survived segregation, mob threats, military service and a near-fatal car crash, just to end up, well, here. Watch on in horror now as “Mr. Show Business” himself dresses up like a caterpillar, then suffers through the indignity of 1980s old-man rapping—a stylistic choice that can’t possibly have been his.

Reviews about this particular production of Alice remain mixed. One IMDB reviewer says: “Children of all ages will delight in this fun-filled adventure, from the crying baby that turns into a pig, to Sally Struthers playing a loud mouthed flower.”

Another cautions: “If you watch this expecting great acting performances and great cinematic moments with inspiring music then you are a fool… [It] got some of the most recognizable faces of Hollywood to put on stupid costumes and act crazy.”

“The costumes, location and choreography made an unsettling combination,” one YouTube reviewer noted a couple of months ago. “An odd blend of twisted and overly sentimental.”

In the end, 1985’s Alice is a reminder of that bygone age when families typically watched TV together, the challenge for networks to appeal to multiple generations at once, and the truly bizarre programming that sometimes followed.

If you think this is something your family might wish to get into this holiday, Part 1 is below. Approach with caution.