Saturday, December 20, 2008

Frosty the Snowman

Frosty the Snowman is one of the more memorable characters associated with the holiday season. He is as much a part of the Yuletide as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. While Rudolph can trace his origins back to 1939, Frosty is of more recent vintage. In fact, Frosty largely owes his existence to Rudolph.

It was in 1939 Montgomery Ward asked copywriter Robert L. May to develop a Christmas story that they could give away as a promotional item to their customers. The story that May developed was that of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The Christmas giveaway would prove to be a hit and would continue for literal years. Rudolph was even merchandised. It was around 1948 that May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks wrote the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Gene Autry recorded the song in 1949 and it became his biggest hit.

This was not lost on songwriters Walter "Jack" Rollins and Steve Nelson. The two had already written the song "Here Comes Peter Cottontail," now an Easter standard. The two then set their mind to writing their own Christmas song which would appeal to children and adults alike. After several months of tossing around various ideas, they finally settled upon one in which a snowman comes to life thanks to a magic hat. Rollins wrote the lyrics to "Frosty the Snowman," while Nelson then provided the music. The two then sent the song to Gene Autry, hoping he could repeat the success he had with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Autry loved the song and recorded it with The Cass County Boys Orchestra on June 12, 1950. Released in time for the holiday season of that year, "Frosty the Snowman" went to #7 on the Billboard pop charts and #4 on the country charts.

Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty then became a pop culture phenomenon. In 1951 Western Printing and Publishing published a Little Golden Book adapting the song. That same year Frosty the Snowman was featured in Dell Comics' Four Color Comics #359. Frosty would appear annually in Four Color Comics, just in time for the holiday season, until the winter of 1961 and 1962. It was in 1954 that UPA issued an animated short titled "Frosty the Snowman," adapting the song. It was directed by Robert Cannon, who also directed the classics "Gerald McBoing-Boing" and "Madeline" for UPA.

In the meantime the song "Frosty the Snowman" would be covered several times over. Among the remakes were ones by The Ronettes (on the classic album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector), Nat King Cole, The Beach Boys, Leon Redbone, and many others. To this day "Frosty the Snowman" remains on ASCAP's list of the Top 25 most performed holiday songs.

While Frosty continued to be adapted to other media and the song remained popular, arguably it would be Rankin/Bass who would guarantee his immortality. Having had huge success with their adaptation of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," it was perhaps inevitable that they would also adapt "Frosty the Snowman." While Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was made using the stop motion animation technique called Animagic, Frosty the Snowman would be done using cel animation. Arthur Rankin Jr. wanted the Christmas special to have the look of an old time Christmas card, so he hired greeting card artist Paul Coker Jr. as the project's character designer. Robert Muller, who had written the teleplay for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, provided the script for the special. It was narrated by Jimmy Durante. The special Frosty the Snowman proved to be a hit, so much so that it has aired every year ever since.

Indeed, the special would result in three sequels. The first, Frosty's Winter Wonderland, debuted in 1976. Robert Muller again wrote the teleplay, while Andy Griffith assumed the role of narrator. The next sequel was a theatrical film which featured both Rudolph and Frosty. Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July was released to theatres on July 1, 1979. Featuring characters associated with Christmastime and released in the middle of the summer, it swiftly failed at the box office. It would find a new life on television, where it has aired during the holiday season. Regardless, the movie was historic in being the first and only time Frosty was animated using Rankin/Bass' animagic technique. The last sequel, The Legend of Frosty, was a straight to DVD release. In fact, it was not actually made by Rankin/Bass, but by Classic Media, who now own the rights to the Rankin/Bass library. Released in 2005, it has aired on both the CBC and the Cartoon Network.

Another animated special, Frosty Returns, had no connection with the Rankin/Bass specials beyond sharing the same source material. Frosty Returns debuted in 1992 and was made by Broadway Video, who then owned the rights to Rankin/Bass's original holiday special. It was directed by Bill Melendez, best known for the many Charlie Brown specials. Not only does the Frosty of Frosty Returns look different from the Frosty of the Rankin/Bass specials, but it clearly has no continuity with the Rankin/Bass specials either. A prime example of this is that Frosty continues to be alive even if he removes his hat, whereas in the Rankin/Bass specials he became an ordinary snowman any time his hat was removed. Unlike the Rankin/Bass specials, it has not been aired regularly come the holiday season.

Arguably the Rankin/Bass specials did for Frosty the Snowman what Johnny Marks' song did for "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." They not only insured that Frosty would become a permanent fixture in Anglo-American pop culture, but a part of holiday folklore. Today it is perhaps as unimaginable having a Yuletide without Frosty as it once was having one without Rudolph and still earlier one without Santa Claus. Quite simply, Frosty has gone from being a character in a song inspired by "Rudloph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to a holiday tradition.

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