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Las Vegas native brings childhood memories to Netflix Christmas movie

If you look closely, you’ll notice a tribute to Dr. Lonnie Sisson, Nevada’s first African American optometrist, in

“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey,” the holiday musical debuting Nov. 13 on Netflix.

In the Victorian-era town of Cobbleton, there’s a pub in the square — just to the left of Jangles and Things, home of ingenious toymaker Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker) — named The Sisson Arms.

Las Vegas native Lyn Sisson-Talbert, who produced the film with her husband, writer-director David E. Talbert, knew about the nod to her father, who died in 2017. She was surprised, though, when she was called to the production offices one day when her mother, Sandra, was visiting. Artists had taken a photograph of Sisson, turned it into a period-style painting and incorporated it into the pub’s signage.

“It’s really, really special to be able to honor him like that,” Sisson-Talbert says, the emotions of that day coming through in her voice.

That sign now hangs in her home.

Roots in Las Vegas

Las Vegas’ Historic Westside holds an important place in Sisson-Talbert’s heart. Her family still lives there, and in 1998, she mounted a national tour of Talbert’s play “Mr. Right Now!” at the West Las Vegas Library.

It was a whirlwind year. She married Talbert, whom she’d met the year before, graduated from UNLV and set out on that 35-city tour — hitting the road to bring Black stories to the underserved Black audiences along the urban theater circuit — even though she was still too young to rent a car.

Sisson-Talbert had that production filmed, and it was the first show of its kind that was made available on video — VHS tapes she and her mother stuffed into envelopes — for viewers who couldn’t make it to the theater. It’s a practice that would later turn Talbert’s contemporary, Tyler Perry, into a household name.

Also in 1998, the couple began working on what would become “Jingle Jangle.”

A two-decade journey

“Initially, it was going to be a Broadway musical,” Sisson-Talbert says. “We wanted to create this perennial piece that could come out holiday after holiday.”

After a long run of Talbert writing plays and Sisson-Talbert producing them, the couple transitioned into making movies in 2013 with “Baggage Claim,” a romantic comedy starring Paula Patton. Talbert wrote and directed the film, based on his novel, and Sisson-Talbert served as executive producer.

They filled the same roles three years later with “Almost Christmas,” starring Danny Glover, Gabrielle Union and Mo’Nique.

But it was a film Talbert directed but didn’t write, 2017’s “El Camino Christmas,” starring Vincent D’Onofrio, Dax Shepard and Tim Allen, that opened a door at Netflix. During a follow-up meeting with executives at the streaming giant, Talbert mentioned “Jingle Jangle,” and the pitch was purchased in the room.

Netflix plans an international rollout for the movie, a far cry from the couple’s city-to-city treks along what was once known as the Chitlin’ Circuit, a collection of performance venues that provided an outlet for Black entertainers during racial segregation in the U.S.

“They’re translating this into 32 languages. I didn’t even know there were 32 languages,” Sisson-Talbert jokes.

Musical inspirations

“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” is framed as a holiday tale, read by a grandmother (Phylicia Rashad), from a magical storybook.

After having his prized invention — a lifelike matador toy (voiced by Ricky Martin) — and plans for other toys stolen by his jealous protege (Keegan-Michael Key), Mr. Jangle has lost the desire to bring joy to the masses. His once colorful toy shop has become a dim pawn brokerage, and his despair has cost him his wife and daughter (Tony winner Anika Noni Rose).

Facing eviction by his longtime friend (“Downton Abbey’s” Hugh Bonneville) if he can’t come up with back rent — or a revolutionary invention — by Christmas, which is only a few days away, Jangle receives a visit from the precocious granddaughter (newcomer Madalen Mills) he’s never met.

As a producer, Sisson-Talbert had a hand in virtually every aspect of the movie, from the costumes to the production design to the many video calls with the special effects teams around the world who were working to finish their jobs from home during the pandemic.

The film’s tone, she says, came from some of the musicals, including “Annie” and “Willy Wonka &The Chocolate Factory,” she adored as a child.

“I was jumping off buildings with an umbrella — almost broke my neck — wanting to be Mary Poppins,” Sisson-Talbert says with a laugh.

Timely messages

As much as she loved those musicals, there was a glaring problem.

“There was nothing that looked like me and my family, and that’s really what it’s about,” she says of one of the driving forces behind the making of her latest film. “It’s about having that diversity and that representation that shows all of us.”

She and her husband made “Jingle Jangle” as much for their 7-year-old son, Elias, as they did for that little girl jumping off the roof in Las Vegas.

It’s a sentiment that’s especially timely this holiday season.

“With everything that’s gone on, with Black Lives Matter and politics and all this stuff we’re doing within the world,” Sisson-Talbert says, “to bring some joy right now, and also to show us in this amazing light — that it can be done, that it’s valued, that it’s gorgeous — it’s incredible.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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