A Decade Before the Mall of America Did, Children’s Television Had a Black Santa Claus, and the World Didn’t End


Watch enough Star Wars in the lead up to the franchise’s recent resurgence, and you get to know the menace of James Earl Jones’s voice. His deep timbre and stentorian tones bring authority and fear when he gives orders to underlings or threatens a band of rebels. But that same big baritone, the same pitch that gives Jones gravitas when voicing the heavy, gives him a certain mirth and a tone of loving paternal authority when voicing Santa Claus.

This is the revelation that Recess, an animated show for kids, uncovered when casting Jones as the jolly old elf himself in the show’s 1998 Christmas special. Recess ran from 1997-2001 and was produced under the Disney umbrella (just as Jones’s Vader eventually would be). Part of ABC’s One Saturday Morning block, the show was an embryonic version of Community, centered on six distinct but close-knit friends, navigating the colorful and outsized ecosystem of their elementary school, where character stories and genre pastiches abound.

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