Saturday, 20 December 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.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Paul Benedict and Majel Barrett

Two actors I remember fondly from television of my childhood have passed. The first was Paul Benedict, perhaps best remembered as Harry Bentley from The Jeffersons. The second was Majel Barrett, remembered as both Nurse Chapel from Star Trek and the wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

Paul Benedict passed on December 1 at the age of 70.

Benedict was born in Silver City, New Mexico, but grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. He decided he wanted to be an actor after the first time he went to the movies, when he was all of five years old. He attended Suffolk University there and started acting in the Theatre Company of Boston, along with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman.

Benedict made his film debut in 1965 in the movie The Double-Barrelled Detective Story. He would continue with small parts in Cold Turkey, They Might Be Giants, and Jeremiah Johnson. In 1972 he appeared as The Mad Painter on Sesame Street. Although he would only make ten segments for the show, they have been repeated ever since. He also made guest appearances on Harry O and Kojak. It was in 1975 that he was cast as the Jefferson's British neighbour Harry Bentley on The Jeffersons. He played the role for ten years.

Even while playing Bentley, Benedict continued to appear in movies. He appeared in The Goodbye Girl, This is Spinal Tap, The Freshman, The Addams Family, and A Mighty Wind. He would also appear on the shows Seinfeld and The Drew Carey Show. On Broadway he appeared in Bad Habits, Any Given Day, Hughie, and a revival of The Music Man.

Paul Benedict was one of the funniest actors I remember from television in the Seventies. Overly talkative, George Jefferson would often shut the door on him in mid-sentence. He played other roles that were equally funny, often quite different from that of Bentley. He was great as the director in The Goodbye Girl who wanted to portray Richard III in the Shakespeare play of the same name as openly gay. He was also quite funny as the unfortunate desk clerk who must check Spinal Tap into a hotel in This is Spinal Tap Although best known as Harry Bentley, he was one of the best character actors in television of his time.

Majel Barrett Roddenberry died Thursday at the age of 76. She had long been fighting leukaemia.

Majel Barrett Roddenberry was born Majel Leigh Hudec on February 23, 1932 in Columbus, Ohio. As a child she took acting classes. She studied drama at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. She appeared in a number of roles on stage before breaking into television in a small guest shot on the syndicated series Whirlybirds. She made small appearances in various movies, including Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter (in the hair spray ad in the film), As Young as We Are, and The Buccaneer. Her future was in television, however, as she guest starred in The Untouchables, Leave It to Beaver, Pete and Gladys, Cain's Hundred, The Lucy Show, and Bonanza. It was on one of these guest appearances, on The Lieutenant, that she met the man who would be her future employer and her future husband, Gene Roddenberry. The two soon started having an affair.

It was because of her ties to Gene Roddenberry that Majel Barrett was cast in the original Star Trek pilot "The Cage." Barrett played Number One, Captain Christopher Pike's first officer on the starship Enterprise. Unfortunately, the idea of a woman in such a position of authority did not go over well in 1964, and as a result the character of Number One was cut from the show. Majel Barrett would still have a role on Star Trek, but it would be that of the subordinate Nurse Chapel (best known for her love for Mr. Spock) and often as the voice of the ship's computer. While still appearing on Star Trek she would guest star on such shows as Please Don't Eat the Daisies and Here Come the Brides. After Star Trek was cancelled Barrett and Roddenberry married in 1969.

Barrett would go onto appear in the movie Westworld, the television movie Genesis II, the Star Trek animated series (as the voice of Nurse Chapel), The Domino Principle, and the TV movie Spectre. She would continue to be a part of the Star Trek universe, playing Nurse Chapel in Star Trek: the Motion Picture and Star Trek IV; the Voyage Home. On Star Trek: the Next Generation she not only provided the voice of the ship's computer, but played the mother of Deanna Troi, Lwaxana Troi. Lwaxana Troi proved to be a popular character, appearing on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as well. She continued to provide the voice of the computer in Star Trek: Voyager.

Majel Barrett was often not given her due as an actress. This was perhaps largely because of her relationship with Gene Roddenberry and because the role of Nurse Chapel was none too demanding. That having been said, Majel Barrett was actually quite talented. Ambassador Lwaxana Troi was one of the things that made Star Trek: the Next Generation enjoyable. Lwaxana Troi was flamboyant, iconoclastic, and strong willed. She was easily one of my favourite characters on the show. Barrett would display such talents in other appearances as well, such as the housekeeper/witch Lilith in Spectre and as Lady Morella on Babylon 5. Barrett was very good at what she did, and should be remembered for more than playing Nurse Chapel and marrying Gene Roddenberry.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Elves

Everyone knows that Santa's helpers are elves. Given the different perceptions of elves, however, that is not saying a whole lot. Elves have ranged from tall, god like beings to short, sprite like creatures. Legolas from The lord of the Rings is an elf, but then so is Hermey from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. As to how two such different characters can both be considered elves, one must look at the history of elves themselves.

Elves were originally a part of the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples. In the days before Christianity arrived in Northern Europe, the elves were actually worshipped. In Heimskringla King Olaf's skald Sigvatr Þóðarson is turned away from a farm house because the people there were preoccupied with the Álfablót, the sacrifice to the elves. In Kormáks Saga a wise woman told a wounded man to go to a mound in which elves lived and to offer a bull's blood and flesh to them in order to be healed. Sadly, while sacrifices to the elves are mentioned, their precise nature in the ancient Germanic religion is never clear.

What we do know for certain about beliefs among the ancient Germanic peoples is actually very little. As mentioned above, we know sacrifices are made to them and, from Kormáks Saga and other sources, they appear to have been associated with hills or mounds. We also know that they were believed to cause diseases as borne out by an Old English charm against elves and beliefs found among the Germanic peoples in elfshot (an arrow or bolt from the elves believed to cause illness). They were apparently believed to be very beautiful, as the Old English word ælfsciene, "beautiful as an elf," bears out. In Old Norse sources they are often named alongside the gods, the phrase Æsir ok Álfar occurring in the Poetic Edda and elsewhere. They are also mentioned in the Old English charm in close proximity to the gods--"if hit wære esa gescot/oððe hit wære ylfa gescot...," "if it was shot from the gods/or it was elfshot." In Old Norse sources we are told that the god Freyr of the Vanir is the ruler of Álfheimr, the realm of the elves.

Beyond these things we know next to nothing of how the ancient Germanic peoples regarded the elves. A common theory expressed has been that the elves were the spirits of the dead, an example being from Beowulf & Grendel: The Truth Behind England's Oldest Myth by John Grigsby. This could be born out by the fact that the elves were regarded as living in mounds and at least one dead king bore the title of "elf"--Olaf Geístaða´lfr. That having been said, it seems possible that the elves were regarded as something more powerful than ancestral spirits. In Old Norse sources the elves are constantly named together with the gods--"Æsir ok Álfar." And we are told that Freyr, a god generally identified as one of the Vanir (one of the two tribes of gods--the other was the Æsir, a term also used of the gods in general). This has led some to believe that the Vanir and the elves are one and the same. This is the view expressed by Alaric Timothy Peter Hall in his thesis ]The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England.

Here it must be pointed out that it would not be unusual for entities regarded as gods in ancient times to now be reduced to characters such as Hermey the Misfit Elf. A similar phenomenon can be seen in Ireland with regards to the Tuatha D&eaucte; Danann. Appearing in euhemerised form in early Irish texts, the Tuatha Dé Danann are quite clearly the old Irish gods. And yet they would be identified with the people of the sidhe (mounds or hills), "The Fair Folk," "The Gentry"--quite simply, fairies.

Regardless, looking at Middle English sources, the elves may well have been gods rather than the spirits of the dead, for it is in those sources that they maintain part of their former glory. Indeed, they seem to be regarded as a powerful, human sized people living in a paradise like otherworld. In the medieval ballad "True Thomas," Thomas the Rhymer gets to visit Elfland and still return to Scotland. Thomas the Rhymer, also called Thomas of Erceldoune, was a legendary, 13th century Scottish figure known for his gift of prophecy. He was often found under the Eildon Tree, from where he would deliver people his wisdom. In "True Thomas," he meets the queen of Elfland, who wants him to serve her there for seven years. Thomas consents and travels with her to Elfland. There she tries to give him an apple from one of the trees from Elfland; however, Thomas knows that if a mortal eats anything from Elfland, then he or she won't be able to return to the mortal world. Thomas refuses the apple and returns to Scotland after his seven years of service are over. In other ballads the elves outright abduct human beings. In "The Queen of Elfland's Nourice," in which a mortal woman is tricked into going to Elfland to be the wet nurse for the Queen of Elfland's child. Childe Rowland and Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knigh are even more sinister. In both a woman is abducted by an elf (the King of Elfland in the former, the Elf-Knight of the latter) for presumably nefarious purposes.

While many medieval ballads preserve memories of the elves in their former glory, as time went by they came to be regarded as mere fairy folk. William Shakespeare used the terms "fairy" and "elf" interchangeably, to the point that in A Midsummer Night's Dream he regards them as only a little bigger than the common insect. English poet Michael Drayton followed Shakespeare's lead in making elves diminutive. Still, memories of the elves are something more survived, as can be seen in Edmund Spencer's Faerie Queene. For centuries, the idea that elves were equivalent to fairies and rather small at that would be the most common one.

It was then with the view of elves as short creatures in place that they became associated with Santa Claus in the 19th century. Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, was the first person to refer to elves as Santa's helpers, in the unpublished story "Christmas Elves" from 1856. Another reference to elves as Santa's helpers occurs in an anonymous poem titled "The Wonders of Santa Claus," first published in 1857 in Harper's Weekly. By the late 19th century, elves were firmly established as Santa's work force. While elves, once worshipped and given sacrifices, were reduced to menial labour by the 19th century, the 20th century would see them regain their former glory with a vengeance.

It would be Lord Dunsany who would take the first tentative steps in this process. In The King of Elfland's Daughter, elves are human sized and immensely powerful--powerful enough to wield magic over entire kingdoms. J. R. R. Tolkien would complete the process started by Dunsany in his novel The Hobbit. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings the elves are immortal and god like. And like Dunsany's elves, they are immensely powerful. Tolkien's influence has been so great that there are many people who tend to think of the god like Galdriel and Elrond rather than Hermey when they think of elves. This is not to say that Tolkien did not regard elves as helpers of Father Christmas. In The Father Christmas Letters it is the Snow Elves who assist Father Christmas at the North Pole. Even then, however, it is doubtful Tolkien regarded them as diminutive little sprites--in fact, it is in The Father Christmas Letters that Tengwar, a script of the elves appearing in The Lord of the Rings, makes its first appearances. Dunsany and Tolkien's ideas on elves have been extremely influential, so much so that the elves of most fantasy novels written since owe them tribute.

Today the idea of elves as diminutive, magical beings and the idea of elves as god-like beings co-exist. This holiday season many will watch the movie Elf, in which Santa's helpers are once more portrayed as rather small. At the same time, however, others will watch Hellboy II: The Golden Army on DVD, in which elves are not only human sized, but some of them aren't even particularly nice (Prince Nuada would probably slaughter Santa rather than help him build toys....). Elves have gone from being gods to fairies back to being god like beings in the past thousand years. Regardless of how they are viewed, it is safe to say they will be around for a long time to come.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Holiday Greetings

More greetings probably exist for the Yuletide than any other holiday. One can say, "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" or any number of other ways. The variety of greetings for Christmas most likely exist because of the antiquity of the holiday and its importance to Northern Europe and later North America as well.

Sources from the era do not preserve the holiday greetings which may have existed in Old English. In fact, the word Christmas is not even preserved in Old English as we know it. It occurs only as a compound, Cristes mæsse "Christ's mass." More often than not, Christmas was simply referred to as Geol, our modern word Yule. Of course, Geol was originally the name of the pre-Christian, midwinter celebration observed by the ancient Germanic peoples, from which Christmas may take many of its trappings (the Yule log, holly, eating ham for the holiday, et. al.). It was called in Old Norse by essentially the same name--Jól. If we are to look for what Christmas greetings were in Old English, then perhaps we should look to the other Germanic languages for a clue. Looking at Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic, the greeting is very nearly the same. It is Glædelig Jul in Danish, Gledelig Jul in Norwegian, and Gleðileg Jól in Old Icelandic. In Old Norse, then, the typical Yuletide greeting may have been Glaðligr Jól. Glaðligr was an Old Norse word meaning, "happy, cheerful, bright;" it is a cognate to our modern English word glad. In Old English, then, the typical Yuletide greeting may have simply been Glæd Geol--literally, "Glad Yule."

Of course, "Merry Christmas" is the most common holiday greeting in the United States and Canada, and is still heard frequently in the United Kingdom as well. Despite this, the phrase "Merry Christmas" is not terribly old. Although the word merry goes all the way back to Old English, the words merry and Christmas do not appear to have been used in combination until the 16th century, when it appears in the traditional carol "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Its first use in prose would not be until 1699, in an informal letter written by Admiral Francis Hosier of Deptford, England. The phrase would not catch on until the 19th century, however, when it became very popular. It was used in the very first Christmas card in 1843 and also appears in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, first published that same year. Late in the 19th century the phrase "Happy Christmas," which appears in "A Visit from St. Nicholas" from 1923, would make a bit of comeback in the United Kingdom. It is for this reason that while "Merry Christmas" seems to be the dominant phrase in the United States, in the United Kingdom one will hear "Happy Christmas" nearly as often, if not more so.

In person English speakers might wish each other "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Christmas," but if they send a card it might well say, "Season's Greetings." Perhaps to avoid repetition, Victorian Christmas cards bore a variety of greetings, among them "Christmas Greetings," "Yuletide Greetings," and "Compliments of the Season." Eventually the phrase "Seasons greetings" developed late in the 19th century as a typical holiday greeting on Christmas cards.

While "Seasons Greetings" is typically reserved to Christmas cards, the phrase "Happy Holidays" is one with which people might greet each other. Contrary to what some might think, "Happy Holidays" is not a phrase which developed recently. I am not sure when the phrase "Happy Holidays" originated, but it was in common usage by the 20th century. By 1940 the phrase was common enough that it was used for the title of a Yuletide themed Columbia animated short. And, of course, "Happy Holiday" is an Irving Berlin song from the classic Holiday Inn. Indeed, at least by the mid-20th century the phrase "Happy Holidays" was being used on Christmas cards. I am not sure why or how the phrase "Happy Holidays" developed, but it may well have been due to a desire for a greeting that would include both Christmas and New Year's Day. Of course, today it has become a common greeting in various stores and other services, who might not always know the religious persuasion of their customers. This has led to controversy in some quarters, with certain individuals concocting a whole "War on Christmas."

While holiday greetings have changed over the years and have been the source of controversy among some, they will always exist in some form as long as the holiday does. In fact, holiday greetings would appear to be an important part of the season. They are a means of individuals, even total strangers, sharing the holiday with each other.