Saturday, December 4, 2004

Dino the Sinclair Oil Dinosaur

I don't know what was the first advertising icon to which I was exposed, but it could well have been Dino, the Sinclair Dinosaur. For those of you not familiar with Dino, he is the green apatosaurus (formerly "brontosaurus") that is prominently displayed on Sinclair Oil signs and absolutely tons of merchandise. For whatever reason, the green dinosaur struck a chord with me.

Dino grew out of an advertising campaign created by Sinclair advertising men in 1930 for Wellesville oils. The advertising men wanted to emphasise the idea that oldest crude oils make the best lubricants. They struck upon the idea of a series of advertisements, to be published in magazines and newspapers, featuring dinosaurs. The ads featured several different species of dinosaur, from the tricertops to the tyrannosaurus rex to the brontosaurus (as he was called then). For whatever reason, it was the brontosaurus that captured the public's imagination. The public soon named the critter Dino and Sinclair adopted him as their company mascot. Sinclair Oil Corporation registered the brontosaurus as a trademark in 1932. He appeared as part of the Sinclair logo, as he still does today. Sinclair gas stations, then as now, sometimes had figures of Dino on display (the station in Salisbury still does). The Sinclair exhibit at the 1934 Chicago World's Fair featured life sized replicas of dinosaurs, with Dino the star attraction.

The popularity of Sinclair's trademark resulted in the creation of tons of merchandise over the years. Among the earliest was a dinosaur stamp album distributed in 1935, with the stamps being filled once a week at gas stations. The image of Dino also adorned magnets, clocks, t-shirts, caps, and various other sundry things over the years. Naturally there were many toys. Over the years there have been plastic Dino figures, inflatable Dino toys, plush Dino toys, and many others. I remember having a tiny, green, plastic Dino as a child. Among the stranger bits of merchandise was Dino Soap--soap in the shape of the lovable apatosaurus.

Television brought a new era of advertising for Sinclair, and Dino was featured prominently in their commercials. I can remember them from a child. In fact, it may explain why I am fascinated with Sinclair's advertising mascot. I have only vague memories of the commercials, although I have read of one in which Dino curled up, died, and became crude oil...

The Sixties may well have been Dino's hey day. Sinclair had an exhibit at the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair. The exhibit once more featured a display of life sized replicas of dinosaurs. Featured were a brontosaurus (naturally), an ankylosaurus, a corythosaurus, an ornitholestes, a struthiomimus, a stegosaurus, a trachodon, triceratops, and a tyrannosaurus rex. At least three of the models were animated. Dino greeted people from the top of Sinclair's pavillion. To promote the World Fair, Dino even received a balloon in the 1963 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Dino remained a part of the parade until the late Seventies. I am not sure, but he may have been the first advertising icon to be turned into a Macy's Day balloon...

While I still see Sinclair signs all over the place and there is still a model of Dino in front of Salisbury's Sinclair station, I do not think I have seen an ad for Sinclair Oil on television for a long time. Maybe it is because I remember the commercials from the Sixties, but in some ways I do miss them. It is odd, but there is something comforting about Dino, the big green apatosaurus. I suppose it could be just that it is a fond memory from my childhood.

Friday, December 3, 2004

The 40th Anniversary of the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Special

Wednesday CBS broadcast the 40th anniversary airing of the classic TV special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I imagine there are a few who think Rudolph originated with the TV special. Still more might think that he originated with the classic song written by Johnny Marks. In truth, his origins go back to a Montgomery Ward advertising campaign.

In 1939 Montgomery Ward asked copywriter Robert L. May to develop a a holiday tale that they could give away to shoppers. May came up with the idea of a reindeer named Rudolph who was an outcast because of his red nose. May's story differed considerably from both Johnny Marks's song and the Rankin Bass TV special. Rudolph was not one of Santa's reindeer and did not grow up at the north pole. Since Rudolph was not one of Santa's reindeer, he did not pick Rudolph out from his herd on that foggy Christmas Eve. Instead Santa found Rudolph when he was delivering presents at Rudolph's home. Santa thought that the nose could help him finish his deliveries in the thickening fog and adopted the reindeer.

Regardless, Rudolph the Reindeer was a hit. Unfortunately, May saw none of the money from the merchandising of the character, whose copyright belonged to Montgomery Ward. Eventually, in 1947, Montgomery Ward's president Sewell Avery gave May the copyright to his creation. May had copies of the original story printed in 1947 and 1948 saw a 9 minute theatrical cartoon based on the tale, produced by the great Max Fleischer. It was 1949 that really brought the Red Nosed Reindeer to fame. May's brother in law, songwriter Johnny Marks wrote the famous song based on the story, changing it considerably in the process. After being turned down by a number of artists, the song was finally recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. It became Autry's biggest hit and the 2nd best selling song of all time (only to "White Christmas").

This brings us to the Sixties and the TV special. In 1955 Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass founded Videocraft International, later renamed Rankin/Bass. Initially they produced television commercials, although they wanted to expand into both feature films and TV shows. In 1960 they did exactly that, producing a series of 130 stop motion cartoon shorts under the title The New Adventures of Pinocchio. They followed this in 1961 with a series of limited animation shorts entitled Tales of the Wizard of Oz, based on the works of L. Frank Baum. As it so happened, Arthur Rankin Jr. was neighbour to Johnny Marks. It was Rankin who suggested to Marks that the song could be adapted as a TV special produced using stop motion animation. Marks was reluctant, fearing that the special could endanger the success of his biggest hit song, but eventually Rankin won him over. In fact, Marks even wrote new songs for the special, including the now classic "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold." The script, written by Romeo Muller, drew upon Marks's song for inspiration, expanding on the story considerably.

The hour long Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer special took a year to make, with many hours devoted even to the shortest of sequences. While still in production, Rankin pitched the special to sponsor General Electric. General Electric bought time on NBC. It debuted on NBC in 1964 under the title The General Electric Fantasy Hour: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The special was an immediate hit and aired on NBC every year until 1972, when it moved to CBS. It has been there ever since. Over the years the special has changed somewhat from when it was originally aired. In the original plot, Santa did not rescue the Misfit Toys from their island. A writing campaign convinced Rankin-Bass to change the ending and it was altered so that Santa did indeed save them. The songs "We Are Santa's Elves" and "We're a Couple of Misfits" were cut in the late Sixties, presumably to make way for commercials. They were restored in 1998.

I don't know when I first saw Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but I must have been very young. I remember it was still on NBC and GE was still its sponsor. I am guessing it could have been as early as 1967. I do know that I watched it loyally for most all of my childhood. A few years ago I saw it again for the first time in many years and I was impressed. It was one of the few Yuletide specials that an adult can actually enjoy. It has a keen sense of humour (I swear some of the jokes would probably go over a child's head). The story still seems very good to me, supporting the individual's right not to conform to others' expectations. Rudolph gets to pull Santa's sleigh even though his nose makes him different from everyone else. And Hermey the Elf finally gets to be a dentitst instead of having to make toys like other elves. Of course, one of the special's greatest assets is the music. The songs are very good. Indeed, I cannot believe they cut We Are Santa's Elves" and "We're a Couple of Misfits" from the special, even if they wanted to make room for more commercials. Both songs are among my favourites.

At any rate, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is perhaps my favourite holiday special of all time (A Charlie Brown Christmas might come close) of all time. It seems that it must be other people's favourite as well or else it would not have lasted 40 years. I rather suspect it will last another 40 years and more.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Christmas at Thanksgiving?

This was Thankgiving weekend, yet the television screen was filled with Christmas movies. NBC aired It's a Wonderful Life the first time this year Saturday and tonight they aired a musical version of A Christmas Carol. On Thanksgiving day itself, TNT showed A Christmas Story. That night ABC showed How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Hallmark Channel showed nothing but Yuletide films this weekend.

Now don't get me wrong. I love Yuletide movies. Both It's a Wondeful Life and the original Miracle on 34th Street are among my favourite movies. And I have always loved both A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim as old Ebeneezer and the musical Scrooge. But it seems to me that Thanksgiving weekend is a bit too early for such movies. What is worse is that it seems to me that the various TV outlets show all these holiday movies at Thanksgiving and, then, when the Yuletide itself is upong us, they stop showing them. Oh, one can still expect NBC to show It's a Wonderful Life and TNT to show A Christmas Story. And, of course, TCM will show Christmas movies up through December 25. But those many other TV outlets will simply stop showing Yuletide movies entirely. It seems to me that they are showing the movies at the wrong time.

What is worse to me is that in showing Yuletide movies on the weekend of Thanksgiving, it effectively denies Thanksgiving a character of its own. It seems to me that Thanksgiving is becoming more and more simply an extension of the Yuletide. If it contnues, I rather suspect people will forget about the autumn imagery previously associated with the holiday (corn stalks, pumpkins, fallen leaves) and opt for Yule decorations instead. Further, I have to wonder that Thanksgiving will become less about giving thanks. than it will preparing for Christmas (especially buying presents).

I suppose a lot of this is due to retailers. Sometime in the late 19th century, America's retailers (particularly the big department stores) decided that the day after Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the Chritsmas shopping season. Indeed, the Macy's Thankgiving Day Parade was originally named the Macy's Christmas Parade. And, with the exception of the year that he led the parade, the end of the parade has always marked the arrival of Santa Claus. It seems to me that in modern American society the Chritsmas shopping season has become conflated with the Christmas season itself. Is it any wonder that Americans don't celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas (the evening of December 24 to the night of January 6) any more?

Anyhow, I suppose that there is little I can do about it, but I wish the various TV outlets would hold off on the Yuletide cheer until at least December 1. Let Thanksgiving be celebrated as Thanksgiving and not as an extension of Christmas. And let the Yuletide remain merry and bright by keeping it in its proper time.