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The making of the worst Christmas special of all time

Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa was supposed to start an animation revolution, but...

A terrifying little girl smiles wide at the Christmas tree in Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa Image: Wolf Tracer Studios/J. Rose Productions

On Dec. 2, 2002, My_Fault-1, a user on the 3D animation forum CGTalk, sat down with his family to watch a football game. During one commercial break, he flipped channels to The WB, where instead of the usual fare of teen dramas was Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa, an animated Christmas movie unlike anything he had ever seen.

The heartwarming story, festive music, and cute animation were nowhere to be found. This was a surreal vision of the Christmas special on par with Plan 9 from Outer Space or The Room. In Rapsittie Street Kids, characters’ bodies had the blocky stature of an upright juice box. Their faces barely registered as human, in a queasy contrast with their realistically flesh-colored lips. The soulless world around them was made of muddy, repeating textures painted onto 3D objects, like the Matrix by way of a GeoCities page.

By his own account, My_Fault-1 and his family quickly forgot about the big game. They were now transfixed on the story of a budding rapper named Ricky teaching his snooty classmate and crush Nicole a lesson about holiday spirit. From the many rap interludes to excessively long shots of characters walking to the staler-than-stale jokes, one thing was clear: They were now witnessing history. This was the Worst Christmas Special Ever Made.

Rapsittie Street Kids was destined for a cult following. The cast included Paige O’Hara, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, as Nicole; Walter Emanuel Jones, best known as the Black Ranger on Power Rangers, as Ricky; Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, as the bully Todd; Jodi Benson, Ariel from The Little Mermaid, as Lenee, a young girl who is questioning her belief in Santa; and none other than Mark Hamill as the father that convinces her of Santa’s powers. The music was even more phenomenal. Not only did the two Disney princesses lend their voices to the original soundtrack, but the credits theme paired O’Hara with the legendary Peabo Bryson, who sang the title theme of Beauty and the Beast with Celine Dion and “A Whole New World” with Regina Belle.

Rapsittie Street Kids was never broadcast again after that holiday season, and it has never received a home video or streaming release. The few traces that proved it wasn’t a terrifying mass hallucination were some TV listings, an IMDb cast list, and promotional material. The film was destined to become yet another Z-movie consigned to the trash heap of history. But like so many compelling and mysterious failures, it took on a second life on the internet. Thirteen years after its broadcast on The WB, Dycaite, founder of The Lost Media Wiki, tracked down Rapsittie Street Kids director Colin Slater, who demanded several payments of increasing amounts for a copy of the special, then ghosted the internet archivist partway through negotiations. Though Dycaite labeled the protracted and acrimonious process a “scam,” he successfully brokered a deal to obtain Slater’s copy of the film, and uploaded Rapsittie Street Kids to both Lost Media Wiki and Vimeo in full in 2015.

Dycaite’s discovery marked a new chapter in the special’s memetic afterlife, starting new rumors linking the film to conspiracies and scamming. There were theories — Slater had referenced Xenu in some of his old tweets, leading some to believe there was a Scientology connection — but as I discovered investigating the movie and speaking to eight cast and crew members, the real story behind Rapsittie Street Kids is something so convoluted that not even the internet could think it up. It’s the tale of two Long Island guys watching their dream turn into a nightmare, a software company’s bid to revolutionize the animation industry, and a bunch of talented artists stuck with a director looking to strike gold — and it’s all tied up with a Christmas bow.

a clip of a boy lifting his head and handing a toy to a woman in Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa Image: Wolf Tracer Studios/J. Rose Productions

There is an internet gossip-fueled mythos that has grown around Colin Slater. His IMDb page claims that he produced almost “2,000 hours of television and film” and worked on almost “4,000 hours of film and television scores.” We may never know the truth from the man himself, as Slater died in 2019 of a stroke, but his collaborators have filled in some blanks. Slater’s Rapsittie Street Kids crew remembers him as a Hollywood power player and workhorse, and a man of incredible tenacity and charisma. He came to America from his native England in the ’60s, during the British Invasion, and managed British bands as they toured in the States. In the decades after that boom petered out, he dabbled in every facet of Los Angeles’ creative industry, from music publishing to film production to, of course, animation.

Two projects Slater worked on planted the seeds for what would become Rapsittie Street Kids. In the ’80s and early ’90s, Slater helped out with the production of direct-to-video animation films like Friends Are Forever: Tales of The Little Princess, Denver: The Last Dinosaur, and the Troll doll-inspired Norfin Adventures series. The expensive process of working with outsourced, overseas animation studios on the films frustrated him, and his hustler senses told him that there must be a way to do this faster, and cheaper, with at-home talent. Slater, possibly thanks to his time as a math major in college, had bought a personal computer very early, in 1978, and he began to wonder if the power of the computer held the key to his dilemma. He dreamed of opening his own computer animation studio, where he could gamble on his hunch. All he needed was a team.

In the early 1990s, J.R. Horsting was a stage actor at Universal Studios’ Beetlejuice’s Rock and Roll Graveyard Revue who freelanced on the side as a commercial illustrator. During one performance, Slater bumped into him backstage and discussed his other ambitions. “He asked me to come do some artwork at his place,” Horsting recalls. He started off drawing pen-and-paper illustrations and logos for Slater. Eventually, Slater inquired if he could draw on “this computer stuff and internet.” Horsting said he could learn.

Horsting became Slater’s right-hand man and witness to the project that would later evolve into Wolf Tracer Studios, the production house behind Rapsittie Street Kids. As Horsting tells it, Slater’s vision was to make animation “centrally located” again, so he could put “the greatest art, the greatest musicians, and the greatest story ideas together into one place to create a story that everyone can enjoy” — and at an affordable price. Wolf Tracer Studios just needed the right software to make that dream a reality.

In Slater’s mind, the solution to his problem was a program called 3D Choreographer. Launched in 1994 for Windows 3.1 as an “animation program designed for non-artists,” the software was lauded by outlets like Windows Magazine, which wrote at the time, “Animation of the Walt Disney kind takes artistic skill and painstaking effort, but 3D Choreographer lets you create eye-catching animations without breaking a sweat.”

With 3D Choreographer, full of preset animations and point-and-click design features, the numbers finally added up for Slater. The software’s low barrier of entry could drastically cut the cost of skilled labor, and it was lightning-fast — five seconds of screen time took 20 minutes to render, at a time when traditional 3D animation software would take hours to do the same.

Horsting was no fan of 3D Choreographer, complaining to Slater that it made for ugly animations and lacked a true 3D engine. But Slater could not be convinced. “It was such a Moby Dick thing for Colin,” Horsting says. “It was definitely his white whale.”

And like Captain Ahab, Slater wasn’t going to give up anytime soon. He just had to wait for the right opportunity.

Character art for Rapsittie Street Kids
Character art for Rapsittie Street Kids
Image: Wolf Tracer Studios/J. Rose Productions

In the early 2000s, dyed-in-the-wool Long Islander James DeLuca worked at his family’s air conditioning company by day, but at night pursued his real passion: gigging as a lyricist, a band manager, and a drummer for his own band. On the clock during one house visit, DeLuca struck up a conversation with his songwriter client and wound up jamming in an at-home recording studio. DeLuca emerged with two songs that would eventually become Rapsittie Street Kids’ “Best Kid in the World” and “Believe in Santa.” The air conditioning man thought the songs were brilliant, but at the time, he set them aside to focus on work and his family.

Listening to them again, DeLuca decided to find a home for what he thought were the best songs of his career. “I’m sitting down looking at these songs and go: Why the hell did I do this?” he says. “What was the purpose of this? This can’t be the end of the story. And so I’m looking at the lyrics of all the stories and going, ‘God damn, it’s a story.’ This is sort of like a transcript just needing to be professionally put together.”

DeLuca called up a writer friend (who would go unnamed in our interviews and in the credits of the finished film) to pen a vehicle for his songs. His original vision was a gentle, low-stakes story “about how parents were ruining Christmas by buying all these things for the kids, and there were kids that didn’t have anything, and so at the end of the story all the kids [that had presents] helped the kids that didn’t, and the parents learned a lesson.” This was the avenue for his long-held creative ambitions that he’d been looking for. DeLuca christened the movie Believe in Santa, after one of his tracks. All he needed was an animation studio to bring it to life.

James Abner, another Hollywood hopeful taken under Slater’s wing, and the credited music supervisor on Rapsittie Street Kids, says DeLuca called the Wolf Tracer Studios office in the spring of 2002 hoping to produce a Christmas special. Abner remembers him being frustrated: He wanted to produce the movie on a low budget, and everyone in animation told him it would cost millions to realize his vision.

Slater called DeLuca back with a number he wanted to hear: $650,000. DeLuca flew out to Los Angeles’ Studio City neighborhood to seal the deal with Slater and tour the Wolf Tracer office, which was an orderly two-story bungalow stuffed with humming computers. DeLuca was a little wary about Slater’s approach; he had imagined his movie with the cutesy hand-drawn art of a Charlie Brown cartoon, not computer animation. But Slater claimed that only 3D animation could deliver Rapsittie Street Kids on budget and, on top of that, animate the entire movie in time for the 2002 holiday season.

DeLuca was satisfied with the deal, but needed the money. Confiding his money troubles to a close family friend, Chris Rose, ended up being a fortunate decision. Rose was in his late 20s at the time, around half DeLuca’s age, but the two had a kinship as born-and-bred Long Islanders working for their family businesses who dreamed of making a name for themselves outside their clans. Rose was going through a tough time, as he had just divorced, and was feeling a little lost in life. He wanted to do something big outside of his family’s successful beer distribution business. When DeLuca explained his situation, his friend jumped at the chance to help out. Rose asked his father, who loved animation, for the money to fund the production, and got the green light. DeLuca says that only a half hour elapsed between his proposal and Rose calling back with the good news. They formed a production company with parts of their names, J. Rose Productions. Two ordinary Long Island guys were going Hollywood.

three children and an old woman in Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa Image: Wolf Tracer Studios/J. Rose Productions

With cash in hand, Slater began assembling Rapsittie Street Kids’ incredible cast. He had nothing but a script and concept art, and yet he easily convinced the biggest names in the business to lend their voices to his small animated film. There was nothing sinister about it, as the internet has imagined — Slater was really just that good.

Horsting describes his former boss’ star-schmoozing philosophy as “treating them right.” The artist says Slater sent a limo to shuttle Mark Hamill to and from the voice-over studio. “That’s why I think everyone ever worked for him,” Horsting says, “because he treats the talent like: ‘There’s got to be a spread, there’s got to be people picking them up. They’ve got to be picked up and dropped off when they want. If they want to take a break, they can do anything they want. They’re in charge of their time when they’re with us.’” Slater had also spent years working with Warner Bros. as a producer. If he wanted to reach specific talent, he had many levers to pull.

Mad TV star Debra Wilson was one of the names Slater managed to rope in. She doesn’t remember any unusually sycophantic behavior during her work on Rapsittie Street Kids; in fact, she barely remembers the film at all. On the internet, though, her bizarre, glitchy performance as Ricky’s great-grandma has become the most notorious feature of the entire film. Some people speculate that her audio files were corrupted, but Wilson recalls that she was asked to produce that voice. “They were like, ‘Great-grandma is disheveled; she can’t get her words together,’” says Wilson. “So that had to be in the script. That’s not audio. That’s me. I can tell the difference. That’s me.”

As Slater worked his connections, DeLuca made the move from New York to Los Angeles, while Rose remained in Long Island, where he could raise his six children. DeLuca was the money faucet, earning him a place at the table in creative decisions, but he also proved to be Slater’s match in the smooth-talking department. DeLuca says it was he who convinced The WB to give Rapsittie Street Kids an airdate. His pitch was, “Look at all these great Disney artists that are appearing on this. It can’t suck!” And it worked: The WB agreed to air the film on 181 of its local affiliates that winter.

DeLuca and Slater wanted their film to become a new Christmas classic, and they warred over the script in the boardroom of the Wolf Tracer bungalow. Slater took DeLuca’s gentle vision and punched it up, according to DeLuca, who recalls that Slater told him there was “no tension” in his original script. “And he said that you couldn’t have a successful animation unless you had this horror type of tension, where kids were chasing each other and trying to beat each other up and do all this stuff.”

Slater also gave the film a new, snappier title, “Bash Street Kids: Believe in Santa.” Unfortunately, that shared a name with the popular British comic Bash Street Kids, and when the strip’s rights holders got wind of the American project, they threatened legal action. Someone on the team proposed switching out “Bash” for “Rhapsody,” but that was taken, too. Finally, someone rearranged the letters and came up with the title that got them out of legal limbo: Rapsittie Street Kids.

Meanwhile, the animators quickly realized what they had signed up for. The core of the animation team was composed of Horsting, lead animator Damon Knight, and editor Dave Edison. All three of them had been working in professional animation for several years by then, but they had never faced the challenge of pumping out a 40-minute animated special in four months. The deadline was so tight that there was no time for storyboarding; they got to the studio, installed 3D Choreographer, and got to work as best as they could with the unfamiliar program. “Colin gave us some quick instructions,” Edison says. “But he wasn’t an expert, and he didn’t really completely know how to operate it. And there was no one else to ask.”

Images: Wolf Tracer Studios/J. Rose Productions

The first sign of trouble came when the animators discovered that they couldn’t actually model anything inside the program, the technique being too advanced for the software’s target layperson audience. So Horsting sent his concept art to the developers of 3D Choreographer, who would then model the requested characters and send them back over, for a fee.

Edison recalls the shock of seeing the Rapsittie Street Kids character models: “They looked at best like ’80s or ’70s computer-generated images: blocky, hideous.” Horsting agreed, although he was more optimistic about their prospects. “None of them were gonna look good,” says Horsting. “But if we could dress them up enough, we still had something we could work with.”

Unfortunately, 3D Choreographer lacked a whole host of features that professional animators needed to produce a decent film. The software limited the team to “one design for each character,” Edison recalls, “so the kids walk through the snow or skate in short sleeves without skates. They go through garbage and they couldn’t ever get dirty.”

Other details like scenery, props, and backgrounds were difficult to create in the software as well. 3D Choreographer came packaged with a few dozen stock models, which, along with the custom ones sent over by the company, were the only 3D shapes the team could use to assemble the movie. Anything else — trees, toys, snowflakes — were mocked up in Photoshop, and then Frankensteined together with the 3D Choreographer models in After Effects. 3D Choreographer’s pre-programmed animations were also limiting, as there was no way to truncate or change the trajectory of character movement. All the strange cuts and continuity errors in the film were intentional: Edison had no choice but to cut around the inappropriate bits of each animation cycle.

Though Slater was the credited director, Edison says that “there was no real direction.” Usually, “Slater would be out on the walkway on the top of the stairs having a smoke while we were working,” says Edison. For stretches, he would disappear. The most Slater would do, according to Edison, was “just look over our shoulder every now and again and say, ‘Good work, keep going.’” As an in-joke, the animation team made a snowman in the background wink in the credits when “Directed by Colin Slater” appears on screen.

Knight eventually reached his boiling point with the chaos. “He was extraordinarily good with a pencil,” Edison says, “but this wasn’t that; this was clunky animation software. [...] Damon’s a good guy, but he was frustrated.” In Horsting’s opinion, Knight “was temperamental and knew that software was crap.” He was fuming, and soon he would blow the whistle.

Slater assured his money men that the animation they were seeing was transitional. The director was so confident that he even got Rose to put down another $200,000 to jump-start the production of a planned Easter-themed sequel, subtitled A Bunny’s Tale. But as the airdate neared, and the animation didn’t improve, DeLuca asked Rose to pay a visit in order to put pressure on Slater. They demanded to see a clip of the finished animation to reassure themselves that their investment was paying off. The two left the meeting without seeing any of the film.

Right after that, Rose and DeLuca met Knight, and the animator spilled the beans. “He tried to walk right up to me out in the parking lot,” Rose remembers. “He said, ‘Oh, I hear you’re one of the investors.’ And I laughed. So he was like, ‘Yeah, you’re getting ripped off. You should get out of here and get out of this project as soon as you can.’”

Image: Wolf Tracer Studios/J. Rose Productions

Knight told Rose about the animation software’s issues, the pre-made models, and how the movie was surely going to be a disaster. Both DeLuca and Rose were dumbstruck. They believed Knight. Rose called his father to tell him the news: Their investment was in danger, and even with the broadcast deal with The WB, they might end up with a loss of nearly $1 million. When the concerns came to Slater’s attention, the director “put two and two together and realized Damon was the only one who could have said these things,” DeLuca says. Soon afterward, Knight was fired.

Rapsittie Street Kids now had only two full-time animators and just days left to go until the completed film had to be turned over to The WB. Edison and Horsting went sleepless for three days to get the movie done. Incredibly, they managed to complete and deliver the film on time — and under budget, too. Horsting likened the experience of their improbable, come-from-behind victory to “the weird numbness you get after the big game where you win and you’re like, I can’t believe I won.”

Their victory was also the triumph of Slater and 3D Choreographer. “Frankly,” Edison admits, “if we had crafted this properly in Lightwave, or Maya, or whatever was available at the time, it would have taken too long; we could have never gotten it done. At least 3D Choreographer was able to crank it out, as rough as it was.”

“Slater was sure that Rapsittie would be a success,” Horsting recalls. And Horsting started believing it too. “I thought people would like it, like they like watching a puppet show,” he says. “Even though that’s not the greatest technology ever.”

Slater paid everyone at Wolf Tracer a modest bonus for getting the movie done, and no crew member I spoke to felt shorted on the work they did for the project. Soon afterward, he asked Horsting and Edison to write up a screenplay for the Rapsittie Street Kids Easter sequel, to be made in 3D Choreographer. Slater saw the dawn of his animation revolution coming.

a cream-colored mug saying “I survived Believe in Santa”
A mug owned by Dave Edison.
Photo courtesy of Dave Edison

The week after Thanksgiving, Rose hosted a get-together at his home to watch the debut broadcast of his special. In attendance was his father, whom Rose says he always had a difficult relationship with. This was only the second time his father had ever visited his house. Rose knew he had a dud on his hands, but what was shown on the television that night exceeded his worst nightmare.

The whole family gathered around the TV as two-dimensional snowflakes fell over a squat, ugly-looking town. Everyone’s smiles faded. They started trying hard not to look at each other. Rose lasted about 15 minutes, turned red, and retreated to his bedroom. The family shut off the TV after half an hour. From his bedroom window, he watched the headlights of his father’s car as it sung out of his driveway and screeched into the night.

DeLuca had been invited to the party, too, but chose not to attend — Slater had delivered a VHS copy of Rapsittie Street Kids to him the night before, and that was enough. “I saw my parents die, and I’m not sure this wasn’t as emotionally devastating as that,” he says. That night, he promised himself that he would spend the next few years of his life finding some way to pay the Rose family back.

DeLuca and Rose ended up earning $40,000 in revenue from the film’s broadcast on The WB. They entertained suing Wolf Tracer for breach of contract, but neither DeLuca nor Rose wanted to spend even more money fighting an uphill legal battle. Still, though, both of the men feel like they were on the losing end of a scam operation. DeLuca says that Slater paid himself handsomely while minimizing the film’s budget, and alleges that Slater vacuumed up enough of their money to buy a vintage Mercedes-Benz during production.

The crew members I spoke with said that they were paid fairly but not extravagantly, and maintain that Slater sincerely believed that Rapsittie Street Kids would be successful. Horsting doesn’t dispute that Slater tried to cut costs, but has a different theory about where all the money saved on the budget went: to Slater’s next film, Dinosaur Island. That one, too, was made in 3D Choreographer, and Horsting says that it is the software’s magnum opus, full of slightly less ugly polygons and slightly more complex animation. ”I would be surprised if anybody made anything better,” Edison agrees. Dinosaur Island was also the software’s swan song — 3D Choreographer’s maker folded and the software is considered lost, with no trace of its existence besides Slater’s two films.

Image: Wolf Tracer Studios/J. Rose Productions

As with any Christmas saga, the moral of the story of Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa is that things shouldn’t be valued for their commercial or aesthetic merits. Real value is about sentimental meaning, the attachments and experiences that the thing only represents. Rapsittie Street Kids is the worst Christmas special ever made, hands down, but everyone who worked on it has been touched by it, in a small way.

Slater technically made good on the promise of 3D Choreographer. Horsting and Edison became close friends after their time in the trenches, and they still keep in touch to this day. Rose is happy that his biggest embarrassment is now a cult hit, and he and his grown-up daughters now watch Rapsittie Street Kids YouTube reaction videos together. DeLuca never made enough dough to assuage his feelings of guilt regarding the Rose family, but still thinks the songs that he wrote for the movie are beautiful, and believes that “Through a Child’s Eyes,” the special’s main track, “may be one of the top 10 best Christmas songs ever recorded.”

And the internet, of course, loves the absurdity of Rapsittie Street Kids. Despite the backstory, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.