Ok. That 4 hours of sleep did me good! I finally discovered that be creating my own custom variables called "LeftSidebarbgcolor" and "RightSidebarbgcolor" and then inserting the variable into the correct place in the xml, I could force the template to conform to the idea I had. Issue 1 successfully struck down. Now I still need to address the issues of custom tweaking the float-margin so the text doesnt' run right up to the border though.
The other sucessful hack was completely by accident! While coding something else, I accidentally stuck something above the header bar, so now I know I can tweak this template to allow me a header graphic.. now I've got to work on that still.
Other issues to correct:
---See if I can figure out how to make the xml driven by it's columns, not slaved to the table architecture it has now.
I may forego the christmas colors in the effort of just trying to get it all working under a new master theme. We'll see on that one.